Helping people collaborate effectively to design experiences is a higher priority than ever. It would be high even if COVID-19 hadn’t hit us, simply because it’s increasingly clear that better experiences drive higher engagement, enrichment, retention, and recommendation. But the pandemic kicked remote work into high gear and, with it, the importance of being able to collaborate virtually via digital channels.

So it’s no surprise that Adobe, at its just-concluded MAX 2021 conference held virtually last week, is itself shining a bright light on its efforts to make collaborating virtually on designing experiences easier, more effective, and more enjoyable.

Adobe also announced advances in other areas, mainly 1) more image recognition and manipulation based on machine learning and other types of AI and 2) new features for cryptographically verifying the provenance of content to help combat disinformation and intellectual property theft (in partnership with the Content Authenticity Initiative).

But from my perspective, Adobe’s steps toward enabling more and better virtual collaboration are the most significant ones. Specifically, the company announced:

  • Spaces — a high-level way to group digital assets for teams to access and collaborate on in one place, similar to a folder-based file system. The assets it contains can be files (from Adobe apps such as Photoshop but also other apps like Microsoft Word), libraries, canvases, or other content types.
  • Canvas — a more project-specific way to group assets for collaboration, with more visual-layout freedom and the ability to attach digital sticky notes, comments, etc., similar to tools such as Miro and MURAL.
  • Browser-based, basic versions of Illustrator and Photoshop — a way to view, comment on, and do light editing of Illustrator and Photoshop assets without requiring the native apps.

It’s worth noting that Adobe is introducing these as beta capabilities. In the past, the company has typically introduced new capabilities when it felt they were ready for general availability. But Scott Belsky (chief product officer and executive vice president for Creative Cloud) and David Wadhwani (executive vice president and chief business officer of digital media) told us that Adobe wants to change its relationship with customers to become more of an “always-on discussion” by releasing products like these earlier in their maturity and then evolving them based on users’ responses and feedback.

I’m glad to see Adobe moving in this direction. But the two most significant open questions I see hovering over these announcements are:

  • Will the precision and granularity of these collaboration features be deep enough? Adobe rightly boasts about the fact that (which it just acquired) lets people provide feedback about videos at the level of individual frames in the video, not just at the level of the video file overall, using only a browser: no app required. But the just-announced browser-based versions of Photoshop and Illustrator don’t let people comment on a specific object — only on a location (x/y coordinates). So if an object gets moved to a new location, it may no longer be clear what the comment applies to. That does not make the feature useless — but it does make it far less useful than the way this is handled in canvases, which do link comments to objects, and in tools from other providers such as Filestage, which incorporates the semantic structure of assets from many vendors into its review and approval workflow capabilities. This may seem like an in-the-weeds distinction, but it makes all the difference in terms of the velocity and effectiveness of collaboration.
  • Will users respond to “beta” quality with excitement? Or with disappointment? If they find these new features shallow or half-baked, the risk is that people will turn away based on that poor first impression. On the other hand, if enough users deem the beta features good enough to start using, Adobe’s move is smart, since design professionals tend to have — and express — passionately held and clearly articulated convictions about how to improve the design of the tools they themselves use.

I predict that Adobe’s new virtual collaboration features will ultimately help the company, its users, and even specialized technology providers that are part of the broader experience design ecosystem but only if Adobe goes much deeper — and fast.