Adobe has a long history of serving its suite of advanced applications to professionals. But as its flagship photo-editing application Photoshop turns 30, one of the most enduring challenges still remains: How does the software giant make its apps accessible to the rest of us?
It's a question of finding a balance that makes sure it is accessible to new users without being dumbed down so much it infuriates power users.
“It’s a difficult balance," says Adobe Executive Vice President Bryan Lamkin. "Photoshop is our most iconic brand. Because of its broad appeal, we get a lot of non-professional customers who come into the franchise and many of them meet with success. We provide training and built-in tutorials and they're meeting with more and more success.
"They're kind of responding to the siren call of creativity, you know, but they get into Photoshop and it's like an imaging operating system that can be very complex and daunting.
"I think on the desktop side we're always looking for ways to turn complex processes into a simpler process but the last thing we want to do is take the power away in the process. One thing we're not willing to do is compromise the professional impact that product has.”
The challenge, perhaps, is how you take that impact when you have to reinvent the program on a new device, as Adobe did last year with the arrival of Photoshop for iPad.
Suddenly, Photoshop had to work with a touch interface.
“Touch and accessibility mean we have different opportunities and we're not as constrained by the exact user interface metaphors that we have on the desktop,” Lamkin says. “We've tried to strike the balance of keeping many of those themes alive such as layers and layer masks and transfer modes that people know are the heart of Photoshop.
"At the same time, if you just spend five minutes to understand the key gestures in the application, those gestures will apply uniformly across the application. All the power’s there. We've moved the engine but we haven't moved the user interface framework. We’ve made sure to lift the metaphors that we really want to keep alive on the iPad.”
The initial release of Photoshop for iPad was met with mixed reviews, to which Adobe responded with a blog post insisting that the company was listening and detailing some of the changes that were on the way.
To celebrate the thirtieth birthday, Adobe has just announced new features for the desktop version, such as improvements to lens blur effects, performance improvements to discover a “more buttery and seamless mouse experience.”
For the iPad version, the new elements include type settings, which addresses earlier worries users had, and an object selection tool which was only released for the desktop version a few months ago. In other words, the iPad version is adding desktop features, and fast.
Back to Lamkin: what does he mean when he refers to metaphors?
“Well, take something as fundamental to Photoshop as masking," he says. "To mask a layer on the desktop product is something that you can approach in three or four different ways. Do we want to offer three or four different approaches on the iPad? I don't think so.
"The metaphor of layer masks is something that's really critical to compositing. How do we reveal that in a way that is appropriate for that device and appropriate for new classes of customers?”
One way of keeping things simple for newcomers is the way Adobe progressively reveals functionality. “Sure, as opposed to having 12 different options show up in the menu bar, we express things in a way that's more appropriate for the device and the users who are going to come to that for the first time on the iPad.”
Is that Photoshop newbie the customer who is Adobe’s main priority with iPad? Adobe has made a big focus on accessibility and on different programs working together, so is accessibility or integration more important?
Lamkn pauses and says: “I'd say our top two priorities are building a great multi-surface workflow for Photoshop customers and paying close attention to established Photoshop customers who want to add a touch device to their workflow, to be able to work anywhere, regardless of what device they're working on. But we also want to acquire new customers who are really primary to that device. We don’t want to make any horrendous trade-offs in our iPad implementation of the product.”
It’s a journey, then, which is also a useful response to some of those initial reviews. “We've chosen to really focus on enabling the key workflows and use cases that are the most compelling out of the gates and to add additional use cases as we go, as opposed to trying to boil the ocean and deliver everything all at once until we understand how people actually use it.”
With something like Photoshop that’s been going for so long, creating that blank canvas must be quite a daunting part of the design with the new iPad version.
Lamkin nods. “Oh, it’s a heavy lift. We've been at we've been at it for three-and-a-half years. A lot of experimentation with how much risk do we take in delivering a new experience at the risk of not fully satisfying the existing customer base. It's not something we took lightly and it's something that the team worked for a couple years to get to.”
Finally, Lamkin talks about the person coming to Photoshop for the first time on the iPad. What would he want the first big takeaway from trying Photoshop on the iPad to be?
“Approachability and delight,” he says. “It's like I open this up and within 10 minutes I’ve familiarized myself with the application and the language and how I need to approach it to get the most out of it and I'm delighted by what I can do just out of the gate.
"I want users to after 10-15 minutes session have done something that they're proud of. I’m not saying that they're going to learn the whole application, but they’ll say, hey, I understand how layers work and I've been able to do a composite and, boom, I got something magical I just created.
"Creativity should be light, there should be a lightheartedness in this application too. There should be a sense of discovery as you're exploring, and the tools need to facilitate that by getting out of the way. That's our goal, to build tools that get out of the way.”