Reimagining Acrobat: An Interview with Design Director Jamie Myrold

How do you completely redesign a product that has led an industry for more than two decades and is used by millions of people around the globe to get work done every day? And further still, how do you create a connected ecosystem of products and services — a new cloud — that spans desktop and devices, all the while providing a natural and modern user experience?

Is it possible to improve on paper itself — a medium that has served billions of people adequately for more than two millennia? Is it feasible to design software that takes the place of, and improves upon, paper in all important respects — i.e., naturally touchable, writable, shareable, fileable, and signable — in order to make life just a little bit simpler in a complex, digital-first world?

The answer was a resounding yes. This became even clearer as the XD team labored away in their creative studio for the better part of the past two years, leading to the debut of Adobe Document Cloud today.

We recently sat down with Jamie Myrold — who has served as Director of Experience Design at Adobe for over ten years, innovating across a wide range of product lines — about spearheading the new design of Adobe Document Cloud and Acrobat DC.

Q: Jamie, what inspired you and the Adobe XD team to engage in such a thorough revision of Acrobat for the new Adobe Document Cloud?

Jamie Myrold: The project really started a couple of years ago with a focus on refreshing Acrobat’s visual language, since the UI hadn’t changed much since the major overhaul in Acrobat 10. We wanted to reduce, simplify, and flatten the interface—eliminating bevels, drop shadows, lines, and multicolored and complex icons—to make the product feel more contemporary and touch-friendly.
At the same time, we’d been exploring the future of Acrobat and looking at the success of Adobe Creative Cloud and Marketing Cloud. We knew that PDF-viewing was becoming ubiquitous. We also saw more and more people using touch-enabled devices to get work done, which happens everywhere now—on trains, in airports, on planes, in coffee shops, and so forth. This need to be mobile and work outside the office, using a more natural touch input on a phone or tablet, was changing people’s relationship to software. It was also changing their relationship to paper, which was becoming less practical to carry around and work with. All of this had been on a slow boil for several years, but we saw it all converging and knew it was time to modernize our offerings to meet these needs. So we started brainstorming a new Acrobat user experience.

Q: What were some of the main ideas you decided were most important to focus on?
JM: There were three things we came to in the end. We wanted Acrobat DC to be modern, natural, and mobile. So we knew we had to modernize the design with a visual refresh. We also needed to make it feel natural and easy to use with touchscreens. And it had to be mobile and take full advantage of cloud services, many of which we’d already prototyped with Adobe Reader and its tens of millions of users.

Q: As part of making PDF’s feel “natural,” how did your team approach that and the desire to reduce the amount of paper used by today’s office workers?

JM: That began with us working on a concept for being able to easily fill and sign forms on a mobile device, specifically on iPad. We tried to make that experience feel like writing directly on a virtual piece of paper with your finger or with a stylus and not like you were typing in and filling in a lot of fields. We also really worked on improving Acrobat’s OCR technology to better recognize and understand the different aspects of a form, like a line or a checkbox. The main reason for this, from a user-experience perspective, was for Acrobat DC to do a lot of the heavy lifting for the user by leveraging autofill and similar capabilities. You could say that one of our guiding principles was to make PDF actually better than paper, and I think we’ve come a long way toward achieving that.

Q: What do you feel most distinguishes the user experience of Acrobat DC over previous versions of Acrobat?
JM: The new Acrobat DC is light and concise, with interactions that feel natural with any input method—whether keyboard and mouse, or touch, or a combination of both. By providing integrated toolsets rather than making them choose from single, separate tools, we’re now able to give our users a focused experience for streamlined workflow tasks, such as commenting, editing, and organizing pages. Our goal was to design an experience that grows with users as they move from novice to expert, while also providing an intuitive experience for our longtime users. In fact, we devoted a lot of effort to make sure the redesign wouldn’t interrupt existing users’ familiar workflows— looking at data to understand the most frequently used features and tools so we could make them present by default, and running usability studies with a range of different user levels to create the most appropriate toolset groupings.
It’s often difficult to balance ease of use and product power, especially in a product with such a deep history and longstanding functionality, but we feel that Adobe Acrobat DC really hits that sweet spot. The Acrobat DC interface can be molded and shaped to specific users’ needs through customization. And, with Adobe Document Cloud, features and functionality will be added frequently instead of waiting for the next full release every two years.

Q: Any final thoughts?

JM: What we have done with the user experience of Acrobat DC is much more than a redesign of a single desktop application. It’s really the integration of all of our desktop functionality, cloud-based services, and mobile apps into a much broader solution that ties everything together within the Adobe Document Cloud. And I think people are going to love it.