In order to truly be creative, you need the right creative tools. Often, for many artists and designers, that means working with Adobe Creative Cloud apps and services — using them together to produce amazing visuals, videos, app and web experiences, and sometimes all of the above. Adobe’s users are nimble, looking at Creative Cloud’s ecosystem and learning new apps to achieve their creative goals. Adobe’s teams, on the other hand, don’t always work this fluidly across products.

“Adobe teams have traditionally been really siloed in the past, but our users are using multiple Adobe tools. The question is, how can we make that experience better for our users? This is what horizontal initiatives allow us to do,” said Rebecca Gordon. Rebecca is a design research manager on Adobe’s Unified Experience Team. Alongside her colleagues Paul Dorian and Troy Church, both senior design leads, she’s worked to create Prism, a horizontal initiative that brings new levels of consistency to the UX and UI of Adobe flagship apps like Photoshop and Illustrator. 

“I have a lot of empathy for our users. My ultimate goal is to help them achieve their goals and be as creative as they want to be without interrupting that, so really enabling them to achieve their goals, whatever those goals may be. A key to that is consistency of experience across these apps,” said Gordon.

Creating a horizontal initiative, while noble, is far from easy at a corporation as large as Adobe. We asked Gordon, Dorian, and Church to share some of their experiences and lessons learned along the way. In the process, they share their Prism framework: key steps to follow to get buy-in and implement a design consistency effort no matter the silos you’re facing.

A visual hierarchy of the various brands and applications available in the Adobe ecosystem.

“We come in peace.” Start with relationship building when you’re taking on a big undertaking at a big organization

If you’ve worked in a large organization, you have no doubt heard the word ‘silo.’ Individual teams tend to work together, bond together, and develop ideas together. While this might be natural, and even beneficial at times, it’s often not ideal when it comes to big, company-wide initiatives — sharing ideas and collaborating is key to innovation in these cases.

Clarity and collaboration are the key factors in breaking down these “silos.” But a horizontal initiative, to create this level of harmony and communication, doesn’t happen overnight. For the Unified Experience Team, it took months of meeting teams, speaking to individual teams about their challenges (as well as the cool things they’re working on), and then getting them into a room with one another to work out next steps to creating more consistency across Adobe’s flagship apps.

“We first had to connect with the leadership behind the teams, to understand the goals of the teams and the goals of Adobe’s overall design strategy. We had to make sure we were all aligned; to make sure we were connected on what we’re trying to accomplish,” said Dorian. Once the goals of Prism were clear — bring a consistent experience to Adobe’s flagship apps, so that users could quickly switch apps to use different features without being hindered by UI or experiences that were very different from one another — the team began gathering product teams together.

“I was a product designer for twelve years,” said Church. “I have a lot of empathy for people outside your product, who come in and say, ‘Hey you should do this.’ Because when those people leave, you shut the door and the whole team just laughs and says, ‘We’re not doing that.’” Church was determined to do things differently with Prism.

Adobe's Unified Experience Team meets to discuss how to foster cohesion across the creative cloud suite.
Adobe product team members working together on Prism.

To make their point extra clear, the Unified Experience Team now starts their product team meetings with a slide they borrowed from illustrator and designer Matt Carlson, which says “We come in peace,” with an image of a dove. After this, Dorian, Church, and Gordon often tell groups, “We are here to work with you to try and make a solution that works great across all our applications.” From this jumping off point, they then spend many hours listening to many designers with many different perspectives, in the hopes of eventually coming to a common solution.

Adobe's Unified experience team strives to encourage collaboration across all levels of the organization, not just application products.

Getting buy-in, and alignment, on a large-scale design strategy

Meetings are well-and-good, and communication between teams can be a great way to identify challenges as well as opportunities to share intel across an organization, but how do you get everyone on-board with a horizontal initiative that involves changing aspects of their individual products? 

“It’s a lot easier when you’re building an app from scratch,” said Church, reflecting on some of the new Adobe apps, like Adobe XD, Adobe Lightroom, and now, Adobe Fresco, which have been built with a consistency effort already in place that means UI and interaction patterns all feel familiar. “With the Flagship apps, that’s a different ball game. They’re 20 or more years old and the teams have a culture that’s been around forever.”

A brush design in Adobe Fresco depicting a man in a sunhat reading the morning newspaper as a squirrel in a nearby tree branch does the same.
Adobe Fresco in action.

We solved for this by making sure, when we’re designing a piece of this framework, that we were all aligned — everybody has a say and we are building things together. Everyone is ‘bought in’ and invested and the design works from their point of view.

Paul Dorian, Senior Designer, Unified Experience Project Lead
Adobe's Prism Framework involves ensuring that organizational goals are aligned across teams and reflected as visual alignment across product categories.
Prism’s framework for organizational alignment.

The Unified Experience Team achieved this harmony by investing large amounts of time working very closely with individual design teams. They have always presented this initiative as a sharing effort — teams share their best practices, get in the same room as other teams, and figure out optimal solutions. There are also executive check-ins; everyone will need to come together to present a deliverable to their bosses, and the Unified Design Team is there to help facilitate that.

Fortunately, Dorian, Church, and Gordon have also been able to point to Adobe’s newer apps as proof points that consistency efforts have already been successful. This made teams on established products like Photoshop and Illustrator, more receptive to suggestions; however, this only goes so far. A key aspect of Prism is that there are no automatic ‘one-size-fits-all’ solutions. Individual product teams retain an individual level of control in ensuring they’re making design decisions that lead to better experiences (without sacrificing any functionality their users depend on). Always, the Unified Experience Team is there to help everyone come to a positive resolution that puts the user first.

Test, share, and follow-up to see maximum results

Working with large numbers of designers across many teams, you can imagine just how much information the Unified Experience Team walks away with when consulting on consistency design decisions. To deal with this, they follow a UX approach for validating their findings: test, share, and follow-up on decisions made.  

The team tests new designs after product teams have aligned on a core vision for what a particular design will look and feel like. From here, they gather feedback, and refine designs further, always sharing back with teams to communicate their thoughts and discoveries during the process. Once a design decision has been validated and approved by all stakeholders, Gordon, Church, and Dorian meet with product designers and stakeholders for regular check-ins, asking what went wrong, what went right, and which direction designers should be heading in next.

As with most new horizontal initiatives, these steps, at the “end” of the process, often launch design teams back to the beginning of the process with changes to UI, product requirements, and organizational priorities.

Adobe's Prism Framework was instrumental in achieving consistency of experience across Adobe's apps, like common or familiar UI elements.

In the end, it’s about better outcomes for the users and happier, more creative design teams

When they were first creating the Unified Experience Team, Gordon interviewed hundreds of users that expressed deep frustration in having their creative workflow disrupted. She said this could even be as simple as having to think too hard about which keyboard command to use, because it differs from other Adobe apps they’ve used. “We did work on auditing the existing Flagship apps and there are many hoops that users had to jump through,” Dorian added. 

What is born out of their efforts is a framework that teams can easily follow (with some help along the way) to achieve modernization and consistency of experience, and that’s very good for users as well as designers themselves.

A timeline graph depicting Adobe's collaborative progress that began as fragmented and ultimately brought teams together to create the more unified experience that we have today.

The payoff from all their efforts to integrate siloed departments, get product team buy-in, and create horizontal design initiatives is self-evident for Gordon, who as a researcher, has a lot of empathy with users.

My ultimate goal is to help (designers) achieve their goals, whatever those goals may be, and be as creative as they want to be without interrupting their flow.

Rebecca Gordon, Manager, User Experience Research

The team admits that at times it’s like a therapy session, but people are getting on board because they realize that working collaboratively is far better for them and their work.

“I hope we’re having an impact on the individual designers at our company, who sometimes do feel siloed, and they feel like they’re much more connected and better able to do their job,” said Church, stressing that the consistency efforts have allowed many designers to turn their attention from creating each individual UI element for their product, to thinking creatively to solve bigger issues for their users.

“And I also hope like crazy that people now look at our flagship apps and feel like they were thought through and helpful.

The value in optimizing the design process across teams can be difficult to quantify, but for Adobe, the future is about collaborative relationships and cohesive interdependent software. Design teams are putting their full trust in one another in this process; an action that has sparked a lot of new creative energy. This means better software and user experiences that scale better, and ultimately a better culture of collaboration. A win for all.