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GLOBAL DIGITAL OUTLOOK

Q&A with Scott Belsky, Chief Product Officer at Adobe

SoDA speaks with creative visionary, entrepreneur, start-up whisperer and author, Scott Belsky, about the growing influence of design leaders, what it means to navigate the messy middle and how the need for speed is placing new demands on creators.

For those of us in the creative community, we’ve always had a keen sense that design directly impacts the success of a product or service. That said, the creative discipline has historically been confined to the marketing function and deployed as an adjunct to the already baked business or product strategy. Today, design is often touted as a central element of business success, and creative leaders increasingly find themselves at the helm of start-ups or in newly minted “C-level” roles at traditional brands. Why do you think, at this particular juncture in the digital era, design has been more widely embraced as a critical, strategic discipline?

 

I definitely think that creativity and design are more important now than they have ever been. Modern companies realize that design is a competitive advantage. In fact, Adobe’s research has found that experience designers are as sought-after now as software engineers.

I think the reason is obvious when you consider how we make decisions on products and services today. When I’m evaluating a new app or browsing the web to find a hotel or restaurant, I consider price and features, of course. But more and more, my decision comes down to design. How intuitive is the interface? How many clicks does it take to accomplish my task? What does the experience make me feel about the brand? Those are the things that get me to push the buy button or make the reservation.

All that means that the role of design has changed tremendously. In some companies, design used to come in at the very end of a product cycle to make things look pretty. Now design has a central place at the table from the start and people throughout the organization are interested in what designers produce.

Ultimately, design isn’t about aesthetics. It’s a way of thinking, it’s about having empathy for customers and making their experience as clear, efficient and pleasant as possible. That way of thinking isn’t helpful just for products, it can be a powerful way of leading a company as well. I think that’s why we’re seeing more design thinkers as founders and important company leaders.

The creative process tends to oscillate between lightening quick flashes of inspiration and careful, deliberative exploration. But the need for speed is intensifying and velocity (for ideas, content and any creative product) is becoming a bigger issue for creators and for businesses. In our study this year, nearly two-thirds of marketers said that producing and publishing personalized digital content, more quickly, is a major priority for their business. Agency leaders agreed that they are also feeling the pressure. How do you view this tension between creativity and speed? What new realities does this “faster” trend mean for business leaders?

You can’t rush creativity. My best ideas often come when I let a creative problem sit and steep for a while. Solutions reveal themselves as you further refine the question and engage the right people and sources of inspiration. But, of course, you’re right that the demands for designers to produce in a hurry have never been higher. There are so many channels, so many formats, so many mediums that it multiplies the work involved in any single design or campaign.

I’m in charge of making tools for creatives, so I approach this conflict between the demand for speed and the need for deliberation by thinking about how the tools can help. And I think they can help in two ways.

One is just a constant effort to keep in touch with customers and identify the bottlenecks and inefficiencies that are getting in their way. We are absolutely focused on making it easier for creatives to learn new techniques and tools and removing the frustrations that slow down their work.

The other effort involves artificial intelligence. AI is not about supplanting your creativity; no algorithm will ever replace the human imagination. But there are so many tasks in every creative project – masking a complicated image or tagging a day’s worth of photos – that take tons of time, but don’t contribute to the overall creativity of the project. We’re applying artificial intelligence to the mundane, repetitive labor that designers find themselves tasked with, so designers have more time to be creative.

You’ve just published a new book that looks closely at how product teams operate in-between the two most publicly celebrated (and scrutinized) milestones of any new venture: the initial idea and the product launch. You’ve aptly called this terrain, The Messy Middle, and pointed out that it’s one of the most woefully underestimated and misunderstood territories in any creative journey. What do you see as the essence of the messy middle and what makes this phase so challenging?

What makes the middle so hard to survive—psychically as much as anything—is that it’s a constant series of ups and downs—successes followed by failures, setbacks followed by breakthroughs. Few people talk about the middle because it’s such a difficult period and so hard to describe. But it’s also vitally important—the line between success and failure is narrow and, in many cases, how you handle the middle determines what side of the line you end up on.

Making it through the middle depends on two things: enduring the lows and optimizing the highs. When things are terrible, you have to find ways to convince your team, and yourself, that you’re making progress. And when things go well, you can’t just celebrate. You have to analyse what worked and apply those lessons to everything you do.

It’s also important to recognize that we are not our best selves at the peaks (when egos grow and we falsely attribute success to the things that we did) or in the valleys (when we make decisions out of fear). So much of navigating volatility comes down to self-awareness.

This Q&A with Scott Belsky from Adobe was informed by several findings from the 2019 Global Digital Outlook Study from SoDA and Forrester Research.


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About the author: As Adobe’s Chief Product Officer, Scott Belsky leads product management and engineering for Creative Cloud products and services. Scott is a co-founder of Behance, an investor in numerous startups, and has been an advisor on design and product management for leading companies and organizations, including Adidas, Pinterest, and Facebook. He is the author of two bestselling books, Making Ideas Happen and The Messy Middle.