Design Stretches: How Teams at Adobe Innovate While They Iterate

Going from waterfall design methods to the Agile process used by engineers can be a challenge for many product design teams. In a waterfall environment, product design solutions are created, then passed over to engineers with little customer input or collaboration. The time from design to delivery can be long, and it can be hard to react to customer feedback. Agile, on the other hand, is a more flexible methodology used by engineering and product teams — small changes are made in incremental chunks and are shipped often to get customer feedback. When creating digital products, Agile makes a lot more sense, but there aren’t a lot of tried and true methods for adapting the traditional design process to this larger engineering methodology.

I faced this challenge in my career, too. I felt confident that my team had the product design process under control. I was happy to have the transition to the Agile process behind me and felt that I could now focus on making an impact with my work. Except that — after a few months of smooth operation — I found myself wondering how we were going to innovate for our customers the small, incremental changes our agile design process required.

I soon realized the answer was we simply couldn’t, unless something changed.

Stretching beyond iterative product design

I lead and manage design at Adobe Stock, and, truthfully, we’re doing well at meeting our current goals. We sell stock imagery and video, but we want to continue innovating and inventing new things to help our customers create to their fullest potential. For us, that means creating a future where you can seamlessly buy and sell anything you make with Adobe products, all as part of your natural creative workflow. This is our dream.

Many product design teams face this same daunting task; they must balance short-term goals with a long-term aggressive vision. Rising to the occasion demands unlocking the creativity that designers need to be innovative, while keeping all other balls in the air. Fortunately, this can be done with a “Stretch” — a concept that has helped us considerably at Adobe Stock.

A Stretch Assignment is a common concept in the management world for helping to reinvigorate an employee who is feeling burnt out by their day-to-day job responsibilities. According to Bersin, “A Stretch Assignment is a project or task given to employees that is beyond their current knowledge or skill level in order to ‘stretch’ them developmentally. The Stretch Assignment challenges employees by placing them in uncomfortable situations in order to learn and grow.” It’s a concept that makes a lot of sense for motivating an individual, but I also wondered if it could get an entire product team on board. I wanted us to focus on inventing new products while maintaining the existing ones.

I asked these questions of our leadership team for Adobe Stock, and they were intrigued. We decided to explore this idea of a team Stretch with some of the designs in Stock.

Lexi Hradisky and Rachel Ny join forces across design and research to stretch into the future.

The anatomy of our stretch

We assembled a broad team from across the Adobe ecosystem to come together and workshop for two days with the Adobe Imagination Lab. In the Imagination Lab, researchers and engineers experiment with the most cutting-edge technology at Adobe. The other team members included product managers and designers who represented a diverse set of products and skill sets. By including people who were far less familiar with Adobe Stock, we were hoping to shake things up a bit.

In total, 15 participants joined from three locations across two time zones. This was a two-week stretch in total, with the first two days focused on full group work, and the remaining 1.5 weeks on smaller teams. How participants tackled the task was up to them, but the goal for everyone was the same — To make a prototype that illustrates how insanely effective a Stretch is at fostering creative innovations and demonstrates new ways to extend our products, or launch entirely new platforms for growth.**

Prachi Ramchandra and Mick Storm work together to create a prototype and test their stretch concept with users.

The format

We started with two half-day workshops. The programming of those workshops looked beyond what we could currently achieve with the available resources and technology. We saw demos for AI (Artificial Intelligence) and had discussions about where that AI could go in the future. On the third day, we broke up the full group into two teams — the core team had 11 people from Adobe Stock’s day-to-day design team, and the other group was dubbed the “Tiger Team,” comprising three designers and an engineer who worked on other teams within Adobe Design.

It was important the Tiger Team had a wide range of skill sets that included storytelling, UX, visual design, and the ability to prototype using live APIs. At the end of the stretch, we were hoping to have a ‘technically feasible’ solution and a ‘crazy far-out’ idea, too.

For the next two weeks, the Tiger Team worked on designing a vision that would have an Adobe XD prototype and live code. They had daily check-ins with members of the core team, and there was also an open Slack channel where anyone from Adobe could contribute to the conversation — we wanted to be transparent and inclusive throughout the entire process.

The end deliverable was a demonstration we could present to stakeholders of what Adobe Stock could be in a three-year time span. At the end of the two weeks, the original 15-person team — and anyone who had hitched a ride via the Slack channel — reassembled with Adobe Design and product leadership to watch the demo.

What we learned

I’m proud to report our first Stretch was a success. Not only was the experience a breath of fresh air for our product teams, but it energized everyone involved and snapped us out of our Agile ‘ship it!’ routine. We have now operationalized the Stretch process so that it can happen every couple of months for product teams that need to innovate outside of iterating — other teams like Typekit and Document Cloud have benefited from Stretching.

The Stretch also gave us an opportunity to get to know each other better. People who, days earlier, sat around a conference table as acquaintances became fast friends and are now very invested in the success of each other’s products. The energy has been electric. For my part as a manager and design lead, I developed a new set of leadership skills by having to quickly adapt to a new team. I now have a presentation and demo that I can give at any time, and crucially, the act of putting it together helped me become better at articulating our vision on multiple levels and for multiple audiences. From the elevator pitch to the end-to-end story, I am feeling more passionate than ever about our long-term strategy and how we can get there.

If you’re feeling inspired by what I’ve shared, here are five lessons I learned that you can use to prepare for and successfully implement your first Stretch:

  1. Roar! (aka your Tiger Team): Great designers usually don’t fall out of the sky and make themselves available for 2 weeks, and since I knew timing would be important, I had to be prepared. I started by writing a creative brief that detailed the prompt, project plan, and the skill sets of the designers/developers I was looking to work with_._ This helped me be confident about what we needed and it provided me with a quick link I could use for recruiting. In the end, there were a few cases where it felt like the designer appeared out of nowhere, but I know the preparation was crucial in getting the right people to show up.
  2. Set the stage: Beyond having a prompt, everyone had to be on the same page about key aspects of the vision. Narrowing in on what the future of a product might be often seems like a daunting task. So, the first step in our process was providing creative direction that was actionable but abstract enough that it welcomed new ideas. My method for doing this was to kick off the workshop with a story that served as a parallel for the challenge at hand. Having a north star was a key part of the Stretch exercise and it helped focus the team without being too prescriptive.
  3. Inclusive communication: For a project like this to be successful, lots of people need to buy-in and give their input. There are a lot of touchpoints for the future vision of this product, so it was a high priority to involve as many people as possible without growing the team to an unmanageable size. Adding a lot of people adds a lot of complexity — we needed to schedule across time zones, find space, and prioritize. We used Slack a lot and kept open office hours for the team, and did lots of quick checks with product leadership so that they knew their needs and input were being heard. Frequently, my job was to be a filter and direct the flow of traffic. A Stretch definitely needs a point-person to keep communication flowing smoothly.
  4. Surfacing patterns and new ideas: We went into the sprint hoping for fresh perspectives and ideas, but the patterns that emerged were equally valuable for us — Timebox-sharing and providing frameworks for brainstorms forced progress**.** The second workshop was for idea generation, and with 15 people we could have taken all day. So, we decided to phase the process and started by drawing six, five-minute ideas. However, individuals were only allowed to share their top three ideas, which all had to speak to who, what, where, when, and why.
  5. Build a demo around a real person: One of the most difficult challenges was deciding what not to design and build. We had more ideas than we could showcase.

In the end, all of this was only possible because we have a culture and leadership team willing to support new ideas. Big or small, if your organization is struggling with making progress towards your goals, there are learnings here that you can use and adapt to your own product. Still, no designer is an island, and support from upper management was absolutely crucial to giving us the freedom to try a new way of working.

So, start with the buy-in from your organization, plan your process, and get stretching!