How Subscription Software is Changing the Design Process

As Adobe has shifted from releasing shrink-wrapped software to a cloud-hosted subscription model, the Adobe Document Cloud design team had to find new ways to manage workflows, capture user feedback, and stay fresh creatively.

Our challenge was to learn to design smarter and faster. While we used to climb a mountain every eighteen months to meet a big release date, now we continually push design improvements and new functions into users’ hands. Perfecting the little things, like two icons that don’t line up perfectly, is still very important to us but not important enough justify a delay in giving users a feature they want right now.

We prioritize work that will add the most value for users. To find out what’s important to them, we needed to find fast, low-bandwidth ways to capture user feedback.

The yin and yang of user feedback

Our first testers are right here inside the company — core users of our products who are willing to give us feedback. We send quick prototypes to internal teams to get upfront feedback before testing our work with customers. We use Adobe Analytics to capture quantitative data on everything from the terminology we’re using to which functions get the best uptake.

Quantitative data shows us how people are actually using the software, but it doesn’t show their thought processes. We need both types of information to get the whole story. That’s a lesson we learned when we released a new function that looked ready for the world. Our analytics proved that users were able to perform their work in the ways we’d anticipated, so we released the changes… and the feedback poured in. Some users were not happy with the changes.

While the pre-launch numbers showed that users were able to navigate the new feature, we had no way of knowing that they wouldn’t be delighted by it. If we’d coupled more user conversations with the analytic data before releasing the revision, we would have learned in advance there were users who needed the functionality despite what the data showed — and that’s a lesson we took to heart. Now, we have people test prototypes by using them to do real work over a period of time, and we get results that are truer than those a usability lab can produce or an analytics program alone can predict.

After a product change is released to our customers, we continue to seek feedback. Product managers are a rich source because they’re regularly in the field talking to customers and hearing the difficulties they face. We combine the product managers’ input with known problems we’re trying to solve, release a fast improvement, and then interview them again to get a fresh round of feedback. This loop gives us a better understanding of how each iteration affects our product’s performance.

Transparency fosters trust

Producing a constant stream of iterations would create a lot of havoc if we weren’t able to communicate well. That takes some work; the team is distributed between the US and India, so we don’t always have the option of stopping by somebody’s desk to get a question answered or a problem solved.

Short bi-weekly meetings are usually focused on checking the status of everything in progress so team members know what they have to accomplish before the next meeting, and what John has to finish before Joan can move forward. Careful attention to who’s doing what is the only way to keep us all pointing in the same direction. In between meetings, we use Slack as a sort of think tank where we can talk about general design problems as well as specific project issues.

Build in space for the creative process

The continuous design cycle requires a mindset different from our old way of working on desktop software. When software was released on an 18-month cycle, the design team had time to rejuvenate after a big launch. Now, we’re always working toward the next thing.

We find designing on a continuum to be less stressful than the monolithic cycle. We used to ensure everything was buttoned up and perfect before release, but now we’re okay with a few sharp edges. We can polish them next week.

Each team member may work on two or three projects at a time, exploring concepts and visions on one while rolling out features on another. The constant challenges keep us fresh and give everyone a chance to grow. We also encourage people to take TTBC — Time To Be Creative. That might include watching a movie, exploring a new software package, or doing anything else that inspires us.

Seeking problem-solvers

The role of design has changed over the past ten years, and having a strong portfolio is no longer enough for a designer who hopes to land a good job. Design is a problem-solving activity.

The best designers are willing and passionate about solving any problem that’s thrown at them, whether it’s how to streamline software workflows or imbue a digital document with the feeling of paper. And passion for solving a problem isn’t enough. Designers also need strong communication and social skills to explain the reasoning behind the solution and to be comfortable with incorporating feedback back into their designs.

Designers in a continuous design environment need to be especially comfortable seeking and accepting feedback from end users. In the past, we had one chance to get it right. If we designed and shipped an experience that users didn’t like we had to wait eighteen months to fix it, but an iterative design process relies on a constant feedback-response loop that places every designer in the role of end-user champion.

Overhauling the design process in many challenging steps

The first step in switching to a continuous design cycle is a big one: design teams need to revise their idea of perfection. “Perfect” is a driver that motivates everyone; conversely, settling for something less is discouraging. The trick is to weigh the good things that can be accomplished today against the perfect things that can be accomplished in the future. That balance is a necessary foundation for the steps that follow.

· Set up effective communications practices

· Design methods to gather qualitative user feedback

· Deploy tools to gather quantitative user feedback

· Support the creative process of the team, individually and collectively

· Hire problem-solvers

Will these steps be easy? No. But the effort comes with corollary rewards, and as the cloud-based subscription software model continues its ascent, the shift isn’t optional. Design leaders who move in this direction now will be ready to lead a smooth transition when the time is right.

Author: Jamie Myrold

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