Adobe's Phil Clevenger - the essence of Enterprise UX design is collaboration

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed May 12, 2016
Adobe's Phil Clevenger has seen plenty of changes at Adobe over the last twelve years. Recently, Clevenger gave me his lessons on UX collaboration and customer inclusion. He also weighed in on IoT trends, and whether designers will make the cut in the machine-to-machine age.

Adobe's Phil Clevenger was doing UX design long before it became buzzword-compliant. As Director, User Experience Design at Adobe, Clevenger is part of Adobe's 200 person design team. His particular team is charged with UX design for Adobe's Marketing Cloud organization - about one-fourth of the total design group.

Clevenger's passion for design is tempered with caution for how UX designers can crash into burnout zone, a reality he addressed in a blog post, 4 Ways To Build a Long, Happy Career in UX Design (or really anywhere).

For my Enterprise UX series, I wanted to learn how Clevenger's views on enterprise UX have evolved, and how Adobe's design team incorporates customer feedback - which sounds easy - until you realize that it's anything but easy. And: will design remain relevant as we move to a "post-screen," IoT world?

Breaking the UX design mold in the '90s

Clevenger earned his design chops in the 90s, working at the legendary MetaCreations under his mentor Kai Krause. Krause is credited with overturning conventional notions of the graphical user interface, seizing the possibilities of greater hardware power to add GUI elements like soft shadows, rounded corners and translucency that became industry standards. So what were those heady days like? Clevenger:

When I started doing UX work. it was at a time when most UX work was really done by developers or QA people. We were determined to break the norms... You could blame us for the early emergence of skeumorphism, which has turned into a dirty word of late. Back then, we believed that creating interfaces that had what we called a sense of "placeness" would be an invitation for people whom computers had not yet spoken in a language that appealed to them.

We succeeded in doing that. We brought a lot of people into the world of digital engagement. There's some buzzwords for you right there.

Did Clevenger see a lightbulb moment in enterprise UX? No, it's been more of an evolution:

It's been a slow, gradual raising of consciousness around the importance of design as a differentiating factor and as a value add -regardless of what you're building. Apple made that case for us as they began their winning streak, and it just became more important across the board.

If there's a milestone moment for enterprise UX, it's mobile devices:

What's made the difference is the emergence of mobile... Now all of a sudden, every resume I see is full of a myriad of mobile apps that people have designed, you know, resumes that say, "I've been designing mobile apps for the last 35 years." All of a sudden, there's no more desktop applications in people's portfolios to look at anymore.

Enterprise UX teams - collaboration or bust

As enterprise UX gains steam, companies may be tempted to hire "design rock stars", who fit into my warning category of "rate mercenaries." Clevenger sees a danger there. For enterprise UX, it's collaboration or bust:

Enterprise is absolutely a team sport. There's so many moving parts, so many centers of gravity... You have to be collaborative.

Clevenger used his own background as an example:

Most of my background is from the creative side of the world. But when you join an enterprise UX team, you have that sickening realization you are no longer your own expert.

That forces the question of assembling an effective UX team. For Clevenger, it's about diverse skills converging. And you must have team members that are close to the customer:

Moving into the enterprise, you realize very quickly, "Hey, I've never been a digital marketer. I've never been a digital analyst. I need to partner very tightly with our product people, with our research people, with our developers, and especially the product people, because they're the ones who are most closely in touch with our customer's needs." They can deliver the empathy we need to be designing towards for our actual users who sit in a chair day-to-day, eight to ten hours a day, using our product. We must collaborate. That's live or die.

Adobe's design culture - growing in influence

Phil Clevenger, Adobe

Adobe has been through seismic shifts the last decade, including a slew of acquisitions and a cloud business model transition. No surprises: Clevenger has seen huge design changes since he was hired to design the first version of Lightroom:

Design culture at that point was still an emerging thing. Lightroom, for instance, was the first stem to stern custom interface that Adobe produced. That was driven by the needs of the customers for that particular product. The interface model that we had in place at the time did not serve those users well, and so Adobe had the courage to support a new model for them.

And today? Clevenger:

It's a better time to be a designer at Adobe now than it ever has been before. It was a long time coming. It's slow, it's incremental, but it's very real. Our organization has been growing in influence across the company, and up to the C-level.

So what's next? Clevenger pointed to three things:

  • build a robust design culture
  • standardize the user/visual experience across all three cloud businesses (the Document Cloud, the Marketing Cloud, and the Creative Cloud)
  • don't stand pat - keep improving design worklows. Or, as Clevenger put it, "We're doing pretty well on the marketing side. We're in the upper right corner of all the happy quadrants and we intend to stay there, but we can't stay there by sticking with the offering that we have today."

Clevenger's also working on a project he couldn't share with the likes of me, but he revealed this much: "You wrote a piece that I read on dark data - We're very excited right now about a project we're doing in that space that we hope will make you very happy."

Customer feedback must be part of the design process

One thread in all Clevenger's comments: a ruthless customer focus. But I always hear UX designers say that. What I want to know is: how is that feedback structured into the design process?

We engage with our customers and our users directly. We have what we call a Customer Advisory Board. where we have regular meetings with representatives from our customer's organization, not just when we ship products. In fact, it's not tied to any ship schedule at all.

We also have a separate track where we have meetings with C-level individuals from our customer's organizations. We get the C-level voice, and we get the practitioner's voice. Those things are co-administered between our org and other parts of the business. Within our own org, we manage what we call the User Advisory Board, where we have a parallel process, and we engage with the actual users of our product on an ongoing basis.

Clevenger's team takes the feedback from those sessions, sharing early ideas with customers, in part for design validation, in part to continue the dialogue:

Without that, we would be, quite frankly, shooting in the dark. It's one of the most important parts of our design process.

That sounds effective, but sometimes the best feedback is tough feedback. I asked Clevenger if they've ever faced that crossroads:

or the user advisory board, we'll get very pointed feedback around very specific things. I can think of one time where we got something very, very wrong in terms of a product design that we shipped. They gave us very quick, very loud feedback. We were able to not just rewrite it, but make it far better than it had been before as a result.

And what about the C-level feedback?

They're looking, as you might guess, for help transforming their businesses. They are looking to get a handle on experience management for their customers across multiple generations. They want to be thinking big. Digital transformation is a big deal for these folks, and they want our products to do a better job of supporting that process, and they're rooting for us. They want us to succeed. They're in it with us, but they are unafraid to tell us what they think.

The wrap - will the IoT make designers obsolete?

I wanted to know about the mobile design paradox: does mobile give way to wearables which gives way to machines that do their IoT things without the need for a human interface? Clevenger ruminated and came back to me:

All those cool new connected products need to be defined and scoped, and all that collected data needs to be harnessed and leveraged. UI as we know it onscreen may recede in importance over time and cede some turf to UX, in a form more akin to “product experience.” And human beings will have to make those decisions: what collected datapoints are meaningful, to whom, at what moment, for what reason, and so on. And this of course will have to drape across multiple open ecosystems. This is going to be a long journey, and we are at the very first footstep.

But if you think that spells the death of design, think again:

This is meaningful to me, because we see periodically the occasional clickbait headline referencing an impending death of design… robots and algorithms will make design humans redundant! Oh No!

I disagree heartily. I see a rosy future, if a mutable one, for design and for designers. Our skills will have to evolve - we will need to be more data literate, code literate, more well-rounded as product designers, and so on. And we will grow into all of that. But bottom line, humans who design - who configure experiences with intention - will be needed and valuable for a very long time to come. Robots be damned.

I wish I'd written that myself.

End note: this piece is part of my ongoing series on enterprise UX.

Image credit - Eight businessmen planning a strategy in business advancement © Gajus -

Disclosure - Adobe has no financial ties to diginomica. I was approached by Andrew Cha of Text100 about doing a piece on Adobe as part of my Enterprise UX series. Cha overcame numerous obstacles to make this piece happen, almost all of them on my side. Thanks.

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