Design Thinking & Lean Startup at Adobe

By Stephen Ellison |  March 28, 2017

At age 35, Adobe is no longer one of Silicon Valley’s young guns. But the software company, which sells primarily to creative professionals, is working hard to stay nimble. One example: the development of a new storytelling tool for “everyday communicators” — among them students, small businesses, and nonprofits — looking for an alternative to Microsoft Office.To get the product, now known as Adobe Spark, into the market quickly, general manager Aubrey Cattell built a cross-functional startup team within the walls of the software giant.

Adobe Spark GM Aubrey Cattell

“We’re organized a little differently – on my team, I’ve got product folks, designers, engineers, community evangelists, growth hackers, people who figure out how to optimize our funnel top to bottom,” Cattell says. “And that really allows us to iterate at a different pace than the rest of the company.”

Part of the success has been applying the lean startup and design thinking methodologies to address customers’ needs, without getting bogged down by process.

Working without a Spec Sheet

Spark consists of three creative applications, each having its own focus and all designed to work on mobile devices, tablets, or desktops:

Video (originally called Voice) – A simple way to make short, compelling videos that tell a person’s or organization’s story. “You can have video clips, transitions, animations, text on top. People are using it for everything from explainer videos for their business to auto-play Facebook ads that appear in your feed,” he says.

Page – A quick way to create a scrolling, one-page website using images and videos. It’s often used “for photographers’ portfolios, for businesses to create brochures, [and] for students to create slide presentations in the classroom,” Cattell says.

Post – A way to design custom social media graphics in seconds to spread the word about businesses or causes. “People are creating images with text on top and filters that they can share across Twitter, Pinterest, Facebook, and other social media, as well as things like creating fliers or posters,” Cattell says.

Voice was the original app, developed by Tom Nguyen, Principal Product Manager, Next Generation Creative Tools at Adobe. It was the first Adobe app that Apple named one of the best apps of the year. And it proved a big hit with users, downloaded by more than 4 million people in about 20 countries in the first year alone.

“When we launched Voice, it was the first product at Adobe built from the ground up using lean startup methodologies and design thinking methodologies in concert,” Nguyen said.

“The framework I was using throughout the development of Voice [involved] three things: one, focus on people’s problems; two, simplify; three, iterate quickly,” Nguyen says. “It’s a really simplified view of the world, but it has been a really powerful lens for building entirely new products like Voice, where we don’t have a spec sheet of what we’re supposed to build. This isn’t version two or three of some existing product — we’re really trying to identify real pressing problems that people have and figure out new ways to solve them.”

Cattell joined Adobe about two years ago to lead the Spark effort as Nguyen moved on to another project. Cattell said he saw a broad market opportunity with people who are overserved by Adobe’s established software tools like Photoshop, Illustrator, or InDesign — but underserved by tools such as Microsoft Office, Google Docs, or even social media applications like Instagram.

“When it comes to really communicating their ideas with impact, people want to tell their stories, but they don’t have the time or the resources or the training of a design professional, so they sort of struggle with the limitations put on them by applications such as PowerPoint, Keynote, or Google Docs to really create something that helps them stand out,” he says. “That’s really the idea behind Spark and why we we’re bringing these disconnected apps into a single solution — one that would work not only on mobile and tablet but also on the web.”

Real-Time User Research

Cattell says the lean startup approach – build, measure, learn, accelerate – is just one of two ways Spark has changed the way Adobe thinks about innovation. It allows the Spark team to constantly be testing new things with its broad user base. They formulate hypotheses quickly, deploy new functionality, test and learn, and then fold those learnings into what they’re doing now, he said. On top of that, the team has an ability to reach out to users and conduct research with them in real-time, providing both qualitative and quantitative feedback about the product.

A second game-changer has been growth hacking, which in Cattell’s case means optimizing “funnel” from top to bottom, from acquiring users to driving repeat use and ultimately to converting them into paying customers.”One of the things we’ve done in Spark is created a growth team, a cross-functional team of product managers, marketers, engineers, and designers that isn’t so much focused on building the product or the tool … but is more focused on getting users to experience that core value as quickly as possible,” Cattell explained.

“Once we launched about three quarters ago, we shifted our efforts to not just developing new product features and functionality and iterating on the format but also thinking more holistically around growth so we can make our users more successful in getting to that core value…”

Strength in Numbers

Spark launched with two partners, one big and one small. The big one was Facebook; the team has been working with the social network’s Blueprint service, which helps small businesses create content for the Facebook platform, including advertising content. The Spark team has produced tutorials for small businesses showing them how Spark can create more polished content that can help them drive business.

“These are oftentimes very small businesses, where the guy or gal running them has to wear a bunch of hats, so they don’t have the time to create stuff in more advanced apps and plus they can’t afford stuff from digital agencies,” Cattell says. “But Spark empowers them to tell the story of their business and share that out on social.”

Another partner is, an online petition platform for social change. had a similar challenge, with lots of people going to the platform not knowing how to present their story in a compelling way and not sure how to get the word out across social media. Spark has worked with these people on content that could be part of their upfront petition creation workflow, Cattell says.

“They could create a video that could be part of their petition, or create a social graphic that they could use to share across their network and link back to their petition so they could get greater support,” he says.

“It’s exciting to have those two partners, because they’re really at opposite ends of the spectrum and speak to the range of things people can create with Spark.”

Adobe Spark overview video: