Digital Transformation: User Experience and Design

What are the basic principles of user experience and how are they changing with digital transformation? Scott Belsky, executive vice president and chief product officer at Adobe, tells CXOTalk how the company keeps its creative tools simple and modernized at the same time, making them more accessible to more people.


Nov 01, 2018

What are the basic principles of user experience and how are they changing with digital transformation? Scott Belsky, executive vice president and chief product officer at Adobe, tells CXOTalk how the company keeps its creative tools simple and modernized at the same time, making them more accessible to more people.

“When you think about a product like Photoshop, sometimes it looks like a cockpit when you open the product for the first time. How do we help people navigate and have both a basic and an advanced experience in a product as powerful as Photoshop?” Belsky says. “You don’t show everyone every option at once. You progressively disclose the functionality of a product as the customer is ready for it, which leads to a lot of challenges around personalization, how to use artificial intelligence to make the product know who the customer is and when they’re ready for what.”

Belsky first joined Adobe after it acquired his company Behance, the leading online platform for the creative industry to showcase and discover creative worlds, in 2012. Since 2017, his primary focus as EVP and chief product officer is making Creative Cloud a creative platform for all. He’s also an author, a seed-stage investor, and has been an advisor on design and product management for companies like Adidas, Pentagram, Pinterest, Facebook, Proctor & Gamble and the U.S. government.


Michael Krigsman: User experience is one of the most important aspects of business today. It's very difficult. It's very, very misunderstood. Right now, on CXOTalk, we are speaking with one of the world's experts on this topic. I'm Michael Krigsman. I'm an industry analyst and the host of CXOTalk.

Before we go on, I want to say a huge thank you to IPsoft. We are in their AI Experience Lab in New York City, and I'm grateful to IPsoft for making CXOTalk possible.

Now, I want you to tell your friends, tell your family, tell everybody you know to watch this episode and be sure to subscribe on YouTube.

I'm so very thrilled to welcome Scott Belsky, who is the executive vice president and chief product officer at Adobe. Hey, Scott. How are you?

Scott Belsky: Great. Thanks for having me.

Michael Krigsman: I have to tell you, here at CXOTalk, we create videos, and we live in your products.

Scott Belsky: [Laughter]

Michael Krigsman: Thanks a lot! Thanks for making them. [Laughter]

Scott Belsky: Oh, no. Thank you. We're always making them better, so good stuff to come.

About Adobe

Michael Krigsman: Scott, tell us about Adobe.

Scott Belsky: Sure. Most folks probably know that Adobe has been at the forefront of creative tools for a few decades now. Many people know Premiere Pro in the video space, Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign, and there's another part of our business that's all about digital transformation for companies in the marketing side as well.

If you think about it, you have people who are marketers trying to work with creatives. You have creatives who are trying to work with marketers. We also have a business called Document Cloud, the PDF, which is quite a global format at this point.

All these things come together really around an epicenter of creativity, and it's fun. In some ways, we have some products that really have great legacies that we always want to protect. We also always want to modernize them and welcome in new types of customers and make our products more accessible while making them more powerful, which bring all sorts of challenges on the customer experience side for us to tackle.

Michael Krigsman: Good. We're definitely going to speak about that. You're EVP and Chief Product Officer.

Scott Belsky: A mouthful. [Laughter]

Michael Krigsman: It is, and so what do you actually do there? [Laughter]

Scott Belsky: Yeah, sure. A little bit, just from a history perspective, Adobe acquired my business, Behance, in late 2012. Behance, think of it as a LinkedIn for the creative professional community. It's over 15 million creatives sharing their work online from all different verticals: motion graphics, fashion, all of the designs you can think of - architecture, illustration. Folks are sharing their work to build their own following to get opportunities.

When Adobe transitioned from software to services and launched Creative Cloud as a new way of getting products that didn't update every 18 months if you bought it, but actually updated every month, hopefully, they realized that a community needed to be at the center of the offering. That's when Behance became part of Adobe. Then coming in and not only leading Behance, but also our mobile efforts and building some of the Creative Cloud services, taking over our fonts service that streams fonts into all of our products, that's been quite a journey.

Then, more recently, I've had the opportunity to serve in this new role, Chief Product Officer, which really just oversees the customer experience of our products, the development of our products in new mediums like voice, augmented reality, how you publish to specific social platforms where we consume a lot of the content these days that fills out lives and thinking about how the digital marketing and creative experience all come together.

Michael Krigsman: It's a very forward-looking role in that sense.

Scott Belsky: It is. It is. I think that the two parts of my job that get me most excited, one is that really forward-thinking, what are the future mediums, and how are we going to help people just like we had to help the creative world go from print to Web and then Web to mobile? Now, what's next? Is it augmented reality? Is it voice interfaces? That's one part that's really exciting.

But, I'll tell you; the other part of the job that's interesting is making products simpler, making it more accessible to more people. When you think about a product like Photoshop, sometimes it looks like a cockpit when you open the product for the first time. How do we help people navigate and have both a basic and an advanced experience in a product as powerful as Photoshop?

User Experience

Michael Krigsman: Is that really a crucial or core element of user experience: simplification?

Scott Belsky: It is simplification in a few different ways. One concept around simplification is, of course, the onboarding, the first-mile experience. One part of it is what I like to call progressive disclosure. You don't show everyone every option at once. You progressively disclose the functionality of a product as the customer is ready for it, which leads to a lot of challenges around personalization, how to use artificial intelligence to make the product know who the customer is and when they're ready for what.

Then there's another concept I like to call "graceful failure." When you're in a product, you're just stumped, and you just don't know what to do next, or you opened up Photoshop because you wanted to edit a photo and you realize, "Whoa, this is not the right product for me," how do we actually gracefully fail you into the right product for you? We have a lot of products in our arsenal.

At Adobe, we also have a whole suite of products called Spark. K-12 students use them, as well as social marketing teams that have no design background. We have to make sure customers find their right product.

The Messy Middle

Michael Krigsman: You just wrote a book called The Messy Middle. What is The Messy Middle?

Scott Belsky: Yeah, and it's kind of meta because, when you write a book, first of all, it is a very arduous process, and you go through tons of ups and downs where you feel like it's never going to happen. Then you get super excited, and then you feel like it's never going to happen. Then you get super excited.

The same thing goes when you're building products. The same thing goes when you're transforming a company or a team. You have this extraordinarily volatile journey.

I think the myth is that you have this incredible idea or something you want to change within the company, your product, or whatever it is. Then you realize how hard it is. Then you have this progressively linear way towards a finish line that is momentous. I think the best case scenario is you have extraordinarily volatile experiences getting to that finish line but, net/net, you have a positive slope. In essence, every low is a little less low than the one before it and every high is a little higher.

I went through that in writing this book. I feel like I'm going through that with every one of my product teams as we transform the product and modernize it for the future. I also think [about this], as I changed the product organization and our culture, how we think about end-to-end experiences. This is not just specific to Adobe. I believe every company kind of goes through their own "messy middle."

It's something we have to talk about, and it really boils down to two things. It's how you endure that volatility, how you keep the team engaged and rewarded even though there's no end in sight sometimes, and how you optimize everything that's working, whether it's in the products, how your team is working together, or how you're managing.

Michael Krigsman: Why do we need to talk about this? What are the misconceptions about this middle project stage after the beginning and before the end?

Scott Belsky: I think there are a lot of misconceptions about the middle. I'll give you a few examples. On the aspect of enduring that volatility and those questions, the self-doubt, the ambiguity, and working in anonymity when no one knows what you're doing yet, which is very, very difficult, I think there is this misconception that having a great vision and knowing where you want to be years from now is actually enough to keep you and your team engaged with the pursuit when in fact that's not true. We are all hard-wired with a short-term reward system.

Organizational Structure and Customer Experience

Michael Krigsman: How does organizational structure militate against an end-to-end customer experience?

Scott Belsky: It's a great question because, again, everyone knows they want to have a great customer experience. Everyone's intentions are generally pretty good. Yet, you have a lot of different functions in an organization that are ultimately responsible for their deliverable.

If I am the person who sends transactional emails, for example, and I am the one who says, "Okay, every time a customer signs up for the product or service, they get this email. Every time they stop coming back for a period of time, they get this email. Every time they do this, they get this email," those are my deliverables.

It's just human nature in a structure where that team is led by someone independently, sometimes is in another division, reports to somebody different, that they start to think about that part of the customer experience in isolation. Just like a tree, they go in one direction and then another team that's responsible for the in-product experience goes in another direction. The other team is responsible for marketing and retargeting or whatever you do to engage customers or bring new customers in is going in another direction. And so, very, very well-intentioned teams all land in slightly different places.

Then, from a customer experience perspective, it's like, "Well, wait a second. They described the product this way here and this way there, and they used different terminology and different UI. It's slightly off." The customer is just confused.

The answer is not necessarily to make all this one team. The answer, I think, is to have everyone kind of align with a customer journey that's visualized, which is really where design starts to be the ultimate cheat, in a good way, to get there.

What is Customer Experience

Michael Krigsman: What then is customer experience? What are the components?

Scott Belsky: Yeah. I think that the end-to-end journey of a customer experience, if you think about it, it's "discover" at the top of the funnel. It's "try" or test or explore. It's "buy," so when someone decides to actually engage, commit their time, sign up, pay something. Then it's "use," like, what's the usage experience like?

Then, I think there's something at the end also called "retain," which is really about how you retain that customer over time and how you make sure that it's a deeper relationship. In some instances where there are businesses with network effects, retain is also about inviting a friend, actually organically growing the product or service.

If you think about the customer experience in that sense as a linear journey, you realize that there is actually a whole suite of considerations and tactics under each one of these parts of the journey. I think about that a lot, especially from someone who crafts product for a living. There is so much that is either underestimated or just woefully ignored that we need to think about.

Michael Krigsman: Does this apply to business-to-business products as well as business-to-consumer?

Scott Belsky: One hundred percent. In fact, at Adobe, we have a very large enterprise business, and we think about the customer journey quite similarly. There is really no difference, actually. The only real difference is that most of your competitors in the B2B side aren't thinking about this.

To me, it's even more of a competitive advantage, and I think you see this. You see a lot of new, modern companies, whether it be a Zendesk or a bunch of other companies that actually have really been more thoughtful about the end-to-end journey and compete based on that.

Michael Krigsman: If a company wants to revamp or, let's say, improve customer experience, is this the way they need to think about it as that journey?

Scott Belsky: I think it's helpful to break down what the journey is. The next step is empathy. It's really making sure that your team, your executives, and the folks on the frontline are really empathizing with what the customer is suffering from. I think, actually, one of the greatest mistakes that product leaders make is they become passionate for a solution to a problem rather than seeking more empathy with the people suffering the problem.

Another area I talk about in the book, whether it's entrepreneurs or other people leading teams, is that they'll sometimes solve something based on their passion for the solution and then they'll realize, "Wait. It's not being used. What did I miss?" It's oftentimes the empathy.

What does that actually mean? It means going into the customer support centers and actually taking some calls. It means spending time shoulder-to-shoulder with customers going through and navigating your product and realizing, "Oh, my goodness. How could they not know? You just click that. You just click that." But, you're seeing them suffering, and you're realizing that it's not working. It needs to be better.

There's really no shortcuts to that. As big companies, ironically, we tend to outsource that stuff. Customer research, we just say, "Hey, we're going to hire an agency to figure this out for us," when in fact, to me, that's your competitive advantage. How could you have other people do that and become disconnected from the findings? Really, as much as possible, putting people through the motions within your own team is a big, big first step.

The Arrogance of Success

Michael Krigsman: Scott, how do we avoid the arrogance that comes from success? This is applicable both to small companies as well as large companies, the arrogance that says, "We've already made it."

Scott Belsky: It's a great question. Another area that was a theme in some of the interviews I did for the book was the healthy paranoia that you have to feel with success, whereas some of the best product leaders out there would say that they're never fully satisfied with their product. It's almost like an artist. You can say, "Oh, you're such an amazing artist. You're in all these galleries," and yet I'm saying, "I hate my work. I want it to be better. I want it to be different."

There's something kind of healthy about that distaste that keeps us going and innovating. The risk of stock prices and award shows and other kind of accolades is that we start to believe that our stuff can't get any better. What are the kind of mental hacks and cultural tendencies of an organization that can keep you humble and appropriately paranoid?

Fortunately, I think that's getting a little easier these days when you start to see companies that transform industries without having any expertise in those industries. You look at a company like Airbnb. I interviewed Joe, who is one of the co-founders, for my book. He just talks about the fact that he didn't even know what the nomenclature was for the hotel industry. Going into it, there are all these acronyms that people use. He didn't even know them. He talks about how that was daunting but, actually, was an advantage because he didn't feel limited in any way by these traditional metrics that ultimately are the reason why Airbnb wasn't invented by Starwood.

You have to start to realize that the incumbent, the startups are thinking differently. They're doing something right in that instance. Ignorance is, in some ways, an advantage, and you have to stay appropriately paranoid in order to survive.

Michael Krigsman: The problem with this is that to stay appropriately paranoid means you have already adopted this attitude of humility, and the people who haven't are not listening to this advice.

Scott Belsky: Uh-huh.

Michael Krigsman: What should an employee of a company do who recognizes this but doesn't have a strong enough voice to overcome the lack of humility in the organization as a whole or inside the senior leadership?

Scott Belsky: Yep. I think what I have seen work within teams is ultimately crafting a narrative of a potential future that creates some fear. It's another way that storytellers and the creative people within an organization can contribute because I think what you're saying is it's hard for people to even understand a future other than the one that they're in or they're logically going towards.

It's really about, again, those edges that we talked about.

What I see as pretty effective is taking one of those edges and saying, "Wow!" I'll give you an example in our video editing business. We have people all around the world using Premier Pro--Hollywood, everywhere else--and it's a real market leader. Yet, we see some of these gaming engines that are being used to make video games that do real-time rendering. They're starting to be used by some people making commercials saying, "Hey, instead of taking that car and having to shoot it, and all the labor involved with that, we could just take some scenery and then place the car in there. If it's unnoticeable, maybe we should explore that."

That's a fundamental shift if suddenly a lot of video is crafted on what are now gaming engines to make video games. You might say that to some folks in the industry who would say, "Oh, that's never going to happen. There's a whole entrenched industry. This is the way people do things." But, if you take a little edge like that and you build a narrative around why, from a cost perspective, a time perspective, and a creativity perspective, that could become our new norm.

Then you create the appropriate sense of attention and debate. That starts to shift people's mindset. That's what you want to do.

Importance of Design

Michael Krigsman: Now, you mention design and the important role of design in weaving this together. Maybe elaborate on that.

Scott Belsky: Yeah, well, I have always had a real fondness for the design organization in every company. I think it's one of those fascinating things that we talk about the importance of customer experience. We talk about the importance of ease of use and clarity and all these other things that are ultimately in the hands of designers.

Yet, sometimes we outsource design altogether to another company or sometimes we treat design as an internal agency that we kind of throw things over the wall to get polished up before launching, and that's wild to me. I understand why, in the early days of technology with these engineering-driven cultures, the expectations of consumers were just pretty low when it came to experience. Design really was intended just to put a polish on things and make things a little more clear. It's changed now.

In fact, I would argue that the user's experience of the technology is as, if not more, important than the technology itself in determining the success of a product, which is a bit of a controversial thing to say because that suddenly suggests that a lot of the technology stack is being commoditized and that the interface layer, that's where the real competition is happening. That's where a lot of the competitive advantages are playing out. You're finding that even more and more as new interfaces emerge, like voice, where the power is in the default of whatever the customer looks at. It's almost always what you choose. There are a lot of implications for the evolution of interfaces. The point is, designers have a very crucial role in the future.

Michael Krigsman: Would it be fair to say that building that user interface layer is even more challenging today than building the underlying product, in many cases?

Scott Belsky: I think it is because, first of all, it always has to be changing. I think that it also has to be catering to many different types of users. We're also in the era of personalization and artificial intelligence, which has a lot of implications for the design and what a customer actually sees and interacts with. It makes the design process a lot more informed by science, connected to metrics, and analytics-driven. I also think that, again, as tech becomes commoditized, oftentimes what is differentiating for a brand is its design.

Michael Krigsman: Drawing users in through some sense of enjoyment becomes a very serious competitive advantage even in the business-to-business market.

Scott Belsky: It does. It sounds like a soft realization. But, in fact, we're playing upon human psychology. We're playing upon the tendencies, the natural tendencies of people that exist both in their personal lives and in their professional lives. I think it's an important insight, and you see a lot of companies, whether it's Stripe emerging where they appeal to developers with very simple to understand documentation and very flashy design. There are a lot of examples of what you would think would be very core, tech-driven, enterprise type sales that were in fact adopted by individuals based on a superior user experience.

Personalization and AI

Michael Krigsman: Scott, a number of times during this conversation you've alluded to personalization, to AI, AR, and voice. Where does all that fit?

Scott Belsky: Well, this is probably the most exciting part of my job is thinking about these future mediums. Everyone is going to have to take them into consideration. If those terms sounded new to any of your viewers, it's a problem, and for a few reasons.

Michael Krigsman: [Laughter]

Scott Belsky: Let me explain. On the AI side, every company has a lot of data on its customers that they need to use to make the customer experience better. Customers are going to stop being forgiving of presumptuous defaults that don't work for them, of questions that they should know the answer to already.

Customers are going to expect a personalized experience because we're in age of AI. That starts with instrumenting your services and products to start collecting the right data. Then it means hiring a team that can understand and start to extrapolate some lessons from that data. Then it also means designing products to take it into account, which is personalization.

It's a real vector of the future. I think that companies are going to start competing on the data that they have to enable a better customer experience for their customers. I think that every company, especially big ones, if they don't start to leverage their understanding of their customers, they will be trampled by those that can. We can talk more about that.

Augmented reality: This, to me, is the next major medium. I actually would go on the record saying that I think someday AR will be as big, if not bigger, than the Web because it will literally be everywhere. It will be a layer on everything we see. We will walk down the street, and we will know who we know was everywhere and what their ratings were. Yelp will come alive to us, right? Directions will be transformed. There will be LinkedIn bubbles over everyone's heads. You'll have this amazing amount of knowledge and insight about everyone in every room you enter.

Then, if you take those glasses off or whatever you're looking through, you'll feel somewhat dumb. You're like be like, "Oh, my goodness. I don't know my connections to anyone around here. I don't know. There's nothing left for me here. There are no remnants from when I was here last and my old notes." You'll want to put it back on. That is this future world.

At Adobe, we think about the fact that that world will be very dry if it isn't rich with creativity and content. That's why we're very focused on the future of augmented reality from the creative tooling and marketing analytics perspective.

Voice: Let's talk about that for a moment. I think we're going to have an expectation that we can talk to any application or device that is in our lives and ask simple questions and get very, very quick answers. Look no further than anyone who has young kids. They can't necessarily navigate to a song on Spotify on a phone or whatever, but they can ask for the song from Alexa, and they can use that all day. It's very, very, very powerful. [There's] a lot of design implications for voice interfaces as well, and that's why these new mediums are super exciting, ripe with challenges, but everyone has to start thinking about them.

Michael Krigsman: To what extent, at Adobe, have you been tooling up for this future?

Scott Belsky: Quite a bit. We talk about it a lot. We don't think the answer is simply to make all new tools for these new mediums. In fact, we think the answer is to meet creative professionals where they are using the tools that they're already using today because that is what enables creatives to go into a new medium.

We've seen this many times before, before my time at Adobe. But, from a company perspective, this playbook is not new. You had print designers who were illustrators and graphic designers and typographers. This thing called the Web came about that originally didn't even really support graphics very well, but then it kind of became a thing.

Then the question was, ugh, "Am I going to spend the time learning this Web thing or am I just going to keep focusing on print?" Some people made the migration and some people didn't.

What we tried to do with our products is, make it really easy to take those same patterns of how you make stuff and some of the same tools and really help people succeed in the Web era. I think that that is what actually helped enable so much creativity to get into Web so quickly.

It's a similar playbook, and I think it's not only an opportunity for us; it's a responsibility. The world's creatives are using our products. How could we not help them succeed in these new mediums quickly?

How to Balance Competing Objectives

Michael Krigsman: Scott, as we finish up, you're balancing many different competing goals in your role as chief product officer. Balancing features, balancing investment, balancing innovation against the fact that you're a public company and you need to report quarterly results. What are the challenges? What are the key challenges that you face in balancing these competing goals?

Scott Belsky: I think there are two parts to it. One, which I would say, I like to call it "merchandising the narrative," but it's really about driving alignment in the organization. It's one thing for me to sit here and talk to you about these things that are super important, but we have thousands of people around the world that are focused every day on building, designing, engineering, and marketing our tools. They're focused on one specific vertical and specific problems.

A big part of my job is to make sure that all of our teams across product engineering, design, and legal, marketing, and everywhere else are aligned with the vision of where we're going. Then we can actually have the productive arguments internally about how sure this is, and what we know and what we don't know, that we can actually spend the time building the partnerships to help really conquer these opportunities, to keep it top of mind, and to incentivize that progress beyond our quarter-to-quarter mindset of performing and operating as a business. A bit part of my job is driving that alignment.

Then the second part of mine is helping us navigate our own messy middle in all of these transformations that we're trying to do, which is why this new book is so meta for me because it's really about how we keep our product teams engaged with some of these long-term pursuits despite the short-term rewards that we're addicted to. How we do we make sure that we are preserving the right time for the innovation, as well as fixing the things that don't work and keeping the business running. A lot of that comes down to these mechanisms of optimization and endurance. That's why it's fun to go to work every day.

Michael Krigsman: How do you drive this alignment? I'm not asking from an HR perspective but, rather, you're an author. You're a professional communicator, and so how do you drive alignment across these teams with such diversity?

Scott Belsky: A big part of the answer is design. I actually try to partner very early in the process of concepting some of these ideas and these features that we're talking about with designers. My attitude is, before you even think about the engineering implications, the business implications, the go-to-market, all of that stuff, partnering with designers, really battling this out of what it might look like and feel like, and then painting a picture.

I always like to say a mockup is worth a thousand meetings. You can have a thousand meetings about what the future is, or you could just start to show versions of it and have people react to it. The more you do that, the more you're socializing the potential future. That's helping people prioritize the work to figure it out. I really partner very closely with design, and I think that's a big part of it.

That's one thing I would encourage all of your viewers is to reconsider the role of design as not something that paints the polish and finishes something up at the end of what your product is but, at the very, very beginning, helps you visualize this potential future and develop a narrative to drive that alignment around the organization to get the priorities in order.

Michael Krigsman: Okay. Scott Belsky, thank you so much for sharing your insights on design and for explaining the challenges of the messy middle of getting there.

Scott Belsky: Thank you for having me.

Michael Krigsman: You have been watching CXOTalk, and we've been speaking with Scott Belsky, who is the executive vice president and chief product officer of Adobe. He just finished a new book called The Messy Middle.

I want to say a heartfelt thanks to IPsoft. We are in their AI Experience Lab in New York City. IPsoft is making CXOTalk possible.

Now, don't forget to subscribe on YouTube and thanks so much, everybody. Have a great day.

Published Date: Nov 01, 2018

Author: Michael Krigsman

Episode ID: 563