Michael Ninness Answers InDesign CS5 Critics
Michael Ninness has held a number of different jobs since I met him fresh out of college in the early 90s — UI design at Adobe (he designed much of the current Creative Suite look and feel), product manager at Microsoft (on what later turned into a key app in the Microsoft Expression family), and a popular presenter/trainer at conferences globally. But it was as senior product manager on Adobe InDesign that he has influenced the largest number of designers around the world. He arrived on the InDesign team as CS4 was being completed, but quickly shifted to helping shape and build InDesign CS5.
Ninness very recently left Adobe to work as vice president of content at Lynda.com. However, he has so much time, energy, and sweat invested in CS5, he has taken time to respond personally to people’s concerns about this upgrade. I sent him a few questions, indicative of the type I’ve been hearing and reading since Adobe announced CS5 last week. His (rather extensive) answers are below.
David Blatner: I think many InDesign users are surprised about how many interactive features there are in CS5. Why did you head down that road?
Michael Ninness: The answer to that question is quite simple actually: Our customers told us to. Let me explain, in three parts I’ll call “The Process,” “The Customers,” and “The Pitch.”
Part 1: The Process
When we started planning the feature set for the CS5 release, the InDesign team adopted a research process called Sync Dev. It is called Sync Dev because key members of the product team all travel together as a “core team” on an intense round of customer visits over a very short period of time. The core team consists of a representative from product management, engineering, quality engineering, user experience, and product marketing. By traveling together as a core team, everyone hears the same feedback from customers at the same time. This ensures that all throughout the development cycle, the entire team is aligned and knows what it is we are adding to the release and why.
Rather than going on somewhat arbitrary customer visits and asking them what they want us to add to the product, we instead present to them what we plan on building upfront, before we’ve written a single line of code. We show them mock-ups and prototypes and explain what the features do. We then ask them a very simple but important question: If the product we just showed them were available tomorrow, would they buy it (or upgrade)? If their answer is no, we ask them what we would need to remove or add to the feature list to change their minds.
The point of the exercise is to end up with a list of features that add up to a balanced product release that provides value to all the key stakeholders that make up the purchase decision.
No one on the team likes cutting features during a development cycle, especially if we’ve been working on a given feature for several months or longer. But how can we know in advance that we are making the right feature decisions? After all, we only have a certain amount of Engineering and QE resources, so we have to prioritize so that our customers will get the best return on our and their investment.
Sync Dev makes it so much more efficient because we end up cutting features our customers don’t really care about before we make any development and testing investments. Trust me, there is no shortage of new feature ideas. The team maintains a long running list of requests we hear directly from our users, from attending conferences and participating in online communities such as InDesignSecrets.com. And just about everyone on the team has their own “pet feature” they’d love to see added to the product. Sync Dev makes sure that we don’t make decisions randomly, or blindly. It forces us to pre-validate the feature ideas so that when the product ships, we already know our customers are going to love the release, find it valuable and that it solves their business problems.
Here is an analogy I shared often with the team to help them understand the benefits of adopting this approach to product development. Before Sync Dev, imagine the team had twenty darts to throw at a dartboard. (In this analogy, the darts are features and the dartboard is the product release.) Now, some of the darts thrown would hit the bull’s-eye. However, some wouldn’t quite hit the center and in fact, some darts wouldn’t even hit the board at all! (Those darts would be called feature cuts.) But, as long as ten of those twenty darts hit the mark or pretty close to it by the time we had to ship, we hoped we’d end up with a compelling release. With Sync Dev, you don’t start with twenty darts – you only start with ten. And you want to know before you even throw the darts that all ten of them are going to hit the bull’s-eye.
Sync Dev allows our customers to tell us what darts to throw, before we throw them. At the end of the process, we have what we refer to as “the MVP”, Minimal Viable Product. Meaning, what must be in the release to ensure that our customers will be willing to pay for the upgrade. The best part about getting to the MVP is that it unites the team and provides them clarity about what we are chasing. During any product development cycle, there is always a risk that “feature creep” or “noise” will distract the team and our darts will miss their target. Whether it comes from a well-intentioned senior vice president, or a developer who’s come up with some interesting technology looking for a problem, all we had to do anytime these distractions came up was to ask this simple question – “Is it part of the MVP?” If the answer was “no”, we would decide with confidence that we didn’t need to be distracted and move on.
I am extremely proud of the fact that for InDesign CS5, we didn’t cut a single MVP feature from the final shipping product. Every “dart” our Sync Dev customers told us to throw made it “in the box”, or, er, onto the dartboard. And along the way — because we didn’t waste resources by spending time on features that then had to get cut — we had time make a lot of those little tweaks that every user can appreciate. (Like “sticky” preview checkboxes!)
Part 2: The Customers
Something that is both a privilege and a challenge for the team is the fact that InDesign has a very broad set of users, each with their own particular workflows, needs, and wants. It was important that when we planned our Sync Dev customer visits that we made sure we met with the entire range of our user base instead of just focusing on one particular type of customer.
To that end, we met with ad agencies, large magazine publishers, regional magazine publishers, digital magazine publishers, book publishers, newspapers, design studios, corporate design groups, prepress & production service providers, media companies, interactive agencies, government agencies, and freelance designers. In total, we visited over 30 companies in Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, London, Hamburg, as well as customers in Eastern Europe and India.
One key aspect of the customer visits is that whenever possible, when we visited a particular customer site that all the key decision makers were in the room. For those of you who don’t work for yourselves, you can probably relate to the fact that you as the end-user of InDesign are not always the one that gets to decide if you will be able to upgrade.
Often times, that decision is impacted by the opinions of owners, managers, art directors, IT staff, trainers, etc.
These visits were completed within a six-week period, making it a very grueling (but invigorating) schedule. We met with two customers a day, for three hours each. The first hour we did as little talking as possible. That was the customers’ opportunity to talk freely about their business challenges, what they liked and didn’t like about Adobe and the products they used, show us the types of projects they worked on, etc. It was our job to simply listen, take lots of notes, and see if they talked about any of the issues we would be addressing with the features we were there to pitch them about.
During the second hour, we would walk them through the feature explanations and mock-ups. We avoided explaining why we were pitching the features, allowing them to form there own opinions about whether or not what we were pitching was relevant and meaningful to them.
The third hour was probably the most fun. That is when we asked them what features we had just showed them stood out, and then asked them why. After that, we asked them to prioritize the list of features we had just walked them through. We did this via the “$100 Test”. Each attendee was told they had (an imaginary) $100 to spend on the features that matterend most to them. There were only three rules:
- They were not allowed to spend the same amount on every feature, as that doesn’t tell us anything.
- They didn’t have to spend any money on any features they didn’t care about.
- They could add any other feature that we didn’t pitch but that they wanted to add to the list. However, if they did so, they still only had the $100 to spend.
We captured how every individual spent their $100, and noted their role (Designer, Art Director, Production Artist, Account Manager, etc.). After all of our customer visits were completed, we had a rich set of data that allowed us to see how each different stakeholder valued the features. Finally, the last exercise was to show them a list of features we said we were not going to be working on. We then gave them one more opportunity to move features from the “not doing” list. If they chose to do that though, they had to take something off the list they’d already prioritized.
For InDesign CS5, the results of all this customer engagement and direct feedback were fascinating, in some cases very surprising, and, most of all, inspiring.
Part 3: The Pitch
In no particular order, here is the list of features we pitched during all of the customer visits:
- Simplified Transformations
- The Gap Tool
- Live Corner Effects
- A Layers panel like Illustrator’s
- Paragraphs that Span Columns
- Multiple Page Sizes
- Interactive Documents & Presentations
- Handoff to Flash Professional
- HTML authoring
- CS Review
- Track text changes
- Synchronized settings
- Table improvements
In no particular order, here is the list of features we indicated we were not proposing to be part of CS5, giving them the opportunity to tell us we had our priorities wrong:
- Kern Pair Editor
- Camera Raw Import
- Footnote improvements
- Non-destructive image enhancement (Curves, Levels, Hue/Sat, etc.)
- Content aware scaling of placed images
- Layer groups
- Paragraph shading
- Linked (external) style sheets
- Soft-Bottom text frames
- Color swatch groups
A side benefit of the Sync Dev process is that because you perform so many visits in such a condensed timeframe, you start seeing patterns emerge and commonalities across user types that you might normally miss. For us, the most surprising thing we learned during the visits was how InDesign was being used to create presentations by every customer/company we visited. Right away, in the very first two visits, within the first ten minutes of the meetings, someone would mention how they wished InDesign would export a PowerPoint file. At first, we just kind of laughed it off and dismissed the comment. But it came up every time, and after a while, it became clear what they were actually asking about.
They weren’t talking about the standard bullet-point type presentations that first come to mind when you think of PowerPoint. In many cases, they were using InDesign to layout their project proposals and mood boards. Of course, they were actually creating their content in Photoshop and Illustrator, and then laying out the presentation in InDesign to present to their clients. At the last stage, they wanted their presentations to be more engaging. They wanted to incorporate animation, slide transitions as well as audio and video content. The problem was that they had no elegant way to go from InDesign to PowerPoint. They certainly didn’t want to begin in PowerPoint because then they would be giving up the most critical aspect of why they wanted to use InDesign – typographical control. Quality type and layout was so important that they were exporting their spreads as JPEGs and importing them into PowerPoint to complete the presentation.
It became clear very quickly how little InDesign users know about the capabilities of interactive PDFs, and using full screen PDFs as a presentation format. But even if they were aware of interactive PDFs, that format wouldn’t support the additional capabilities they were hoping to take advantage of.
And as you might imagine, it isn’t that big of a leap to go from authoring interactive presentations with InDesign to full-on rich interactive documents. Given the pressures and competition facing traditional print media, almost every customer we visited told us how difficult it was for their designers to learn how to use tools like Flash for authoring interactive content. Over and over again they told us that they wished they could use their favorite design and layout application (InDesign) to create interactive documents in addition to print documents.
When all customer visits were completed and the dust settled, here is how the individual features we pitched (and those we didn’t) ended up being prioritized by the participants:
- Interactive Documents & Presentations
- CS Review
- Multiple Page Sizes
- Simplified Transformations
- Live Corner Effects
- Handoff to Flash Professional
- The Gap Tool
- Layers Panel like Illustrator
- Track Text Changes
- Paragraphs that Span Columns
What was even more amazing to us was that the interactive feature set was ranked in the top 3 by eight of the nine roles we collected data from – Freelance Designers, Art Directors, Designers, Production, Editorial, IT, Training and Support and Management. The only group that didn’t include the interactive features in their top 3 was the Interactive Designers — in other words, the people in the room who were already using Flash Professional. But even for them, it was still ranked number 5.
So, what did this whole experience tell us? Our customers not only gave us permission to evolve InDesign into a layout and design tool for more media than just Print, they outright pleaded for us to do so.
DB: There are some InDesign users who say that InDesign should only focus on being a tool for Print, that adding features for authoring Flash content is just a bunch of hype and is a sign that Adobe doesn’t care much about Print anymore. How do you respond to those thoughts?
MN: Yes, it is true that Adobe did a lot of work to enhance the interactive design capabilities of InDesign CS5. That said though, we also made sure (via the Sync Dev process I described above) that InDesign CS5 would turn out to be a balanced release, with something of value to all our user types, including those users who do not yet have a need to author content for any medium other than Print. Long requested features such as Multiple Page Sizes and Paragraphs that Span (and Split!) Columns are two great examples of that. And then there are the new innovative features such as the Gap Tool, Live Captions, Live Corner Effects, Live Distribute, Auto-Fit, Mini Bridge, Document Installed Fonts, and many more. Quite frankly, the interactive feature set was the minority investment for this release, not the majority.
But, now that I have your attention, I’d like to take this opportunity to ask you this provocative question in return—What is a document? I ask this and write the following in response to your original question, which is basically a variant of “I know other people like it, but I hate the idea of InDesign becoming a production tool for anything other than Print. There are other products out there for that…”
Hmm… Let’s talk about this a bit. I spend a lot of time surveying the publishing landscape. Here are some recent entries to the running list I’ve keep of how the “Print” industry is evolving.
US News & Weekly Report is now selling a subscription to a digital version. This is unique content, separate from their Print version, and Print subscribers get it as part of their paid subscription. This digital version is delivered as a PDF. That pretty much rules out Flash as their authoring tool.
Christian Science Monitor does not offer a print version any more! Their publication is digital only, and delivered as PDF. Again, what product do you think they are creating this publication in? Or put another way, what product do you think their staff (who would love to stay employed) know how to use? Here’s a hint: it isn’t Flash.
My point is we should be talking about what the word “document” means today. Does it always explicitly mean that a document isn’t a “document” unless it is printed? If the answer to the above question is no, than what implications should that have on a product like InDesign?
Is the message the medium, or is the medium the message?
The two examples I listed above chose to deliver their message as a PDF document. While these could be printed by the reader, it is likely that they won’t be.
Does PDF offer publishers a chance to extend the value of their content? Does it provide an opportunity to enhance the experience the reader has when consuming their content?
Now, from this perspective, is it much of a leap to consider delivering the message as a SWF instead of a PDF, or in addition to a PDF? Or how about this — a hybrid PDF? What’s a hybrid PDF you ask? A single “document” that has both a high quality “interactive” experience AND a high quality “print” experience?
Regardless of file format choice, or even choice of medium, what do all of these scenarios have in common? They all need to be well designed. Layout matters. Typography matters. They all need to be differentiated from their competition. They all need to engage the reader.
Which community already understands the nuances of typography, composition, and effective communication design? The “print” designers. Which tool do they already know how to use? InDesign. Which tool has the best feature set for layout and typography? InDesign.
My job as the InDesign product manager was to ensure that InDesign continues to be the best tool on the market for print design. But if that is all Adobe optimizes it for, it won’t be enough to stay relevant in the long term. Publishers and consumers now have a wide spectrum of media choices to deliver their content. Print will always continue to be one of those choices. But it isn’t the only choice.
What about the emergence of publications that never had a print version? Take a look at iMotor, FLYP or VIVmag. These are digital publications that do not have a print version. When you look at them, squint a bit so that you don’t see the edges of the web browser chrome the “document” is housed in. These publications look every bit as compelling and well designed as the best print magazines. And guess what? Every spread you see started life in InDesign.
Humor me for a few more minutes and take a look at these URLs:
What do you see? Do you see a web site? Do you see a Flash application? I see an interactive document that happens to be deployed in a browser running the Flash Player. I see pages with buttons that you can click on to jump to other pages. I see beautiful typography and pleasing layout. I see a compelling presentation that tells an effective story in an engaging manner — which should be the end goal of any document.
This could easily have been deployed as an interactive PDF. Or perhaps in HTML5. Or as some other file format yet to be developed in the future. My point is that available file formats should enhance and extend our understanding of what a “document” can be, not limit it.
So, do you think a designer should be able to create “documents” like this with InDesign, without having to write a single line of code?
DB: Long-document publishers are bemoaning the fact that InDesign’s footnotes are still somewhat limited (some would say crippled). In fact, there don’t seem to be many new long-doc improvements in CS5 at all. Why not?
MN: With the exception of Paragraphs that Span or Split Columns (which is very relevant and useful for long-document publishers), no other long-document feature was ranked high enough during the Sync Dev customer visits. Now that CS5 has been announced and is almost available, now is a good time for long-document publishers to let the InDesign team know what feature investments should be made for the next version of InDesign. You can submit your feature requests here (and yes, the team does actually receive and read the submissions!):
What do you think? Write back to Michael (and the folks at Adobe) below.