Adobe’s recent MAX conference featured the usual (impressive) lineup of creative celebrities and new features, many of which are powered by Adobe’s AI engine Sensei — but the event also touched on some larger points that demonstrate companies should:

No. 1) Enable a design team to help AI efforts. AI has amazing potential to improve how customers interact with a product. Unfortunately, it often falls short because few companies use the power of design to create a future vision for these interactions, bring vision to life with prototypes, or do real design research to understand customer response. Adobe’s steady drumbeat of AI features shows it’s an exception — especially in the realms of applying AI to images and video. Features announced at MAX combine agentive and assistive approaches — for example, transforming complex landscape-format video shots by deciding what part of the frame matters most and cropping out the left and right sides around that part to convert to portrait-format shots on users’ behalf (agentive) while also letting users adjust this reframing (assistive).

One of the secrets to the company’s success is its machine intelligence design group, which builds on concepts from its R&D efforts — prototyping them to enable product-level exploration. As Adobe’s Patrick Hebron, head of machine intelligence design, told attendees at Forrester’s CX SF 2019 Forum last month, “Designers fear it when you say AI will help them design but get really excited when you say you can save them time by helping to remove backgrounds.” Unfortunately, as Forrester pointed out in our “Predictions 2020: Artificial Intelligence” report, only enterprise software giants like Adobe will make the investment to bring design and AI together in 2020 — and we think that’s a shame.

No. 2) Celebrate experimentation. One of my favorite parts of MAX is Adobe’s tradition of closing the conference with “MAX Sneaks” — few companies put so much thought into what’s essentially a glorified demo day. The demos let individual contributors at the company show unfinished potential features in front of thousands of beer-drinking attendees in a casual atmosphere complete with lighthearted hosts. The hosts showed actual Python code, and the demos had occasional glitches that add to the charm of the event. Audience members are asked to “clap for what you like” and to “cheer louder” if something breaks. The company uses audience response as an input for the features they design and as a way to build excitement around the company’s R&D efforts. Employees love how Sneaks highlight individual engineers and their projects. We’ve chronicled similar (though often less public) practices in the report, “Why And How To Iterate: Deliver Value And Quality To Reveal And Meet User Needs.”

No. 3) Channel the value of creativity in business with the help of effective design practices. One of Adobe’s major conference themes was the importance of creativity in business — a cynic might say that’s a smart stance if you sell software to support “creatives.” Either way, we agree that creativity is key — but the challenge is how to channel it. Filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan told the audience, “Make what you want to make.” But that works only when the goal is purely art — it’s not a good practice when the goal is to make experiences better for customers. Creativity helps when trying to find and solve a problem, but which problem? And whose problem? And how do you know you’ve solved it? Those are all questions that effective design practices can help with. To get business value from creativity you must connect it to design, as I wrote in a post about the intersection between creativity and human-centered design.

To be fair, Adobe is actively working on these problems by trying to free up designers who use its software to channel creativity into new directions. Right before MAX, Adobe released its design system, Spectrum, to the public, and MAX included demos of new features like live coediting and states in experience design (XD) that support design teams in creating their own system. As Forrester wrote in You Need A Design System — Here’s Why, by creating reusable components, design teams spend less time reinventing best practices and can channel their creativity to the right, new, challenges.

Following Adobe’s announcements at this event, the features I believe are most worth paying attention to are:

1) Use of Sensei-powered visual search in Adobe Stock — a useful application of vision algorithms.

2) Component states — which collapse design systems into files that are easier to navigate around and edit.

3) Coediting — something designers like about Figma, an Adobe XD competitor.

There’s more to come from Forrester’s customer experience research team on experience design in 2020 — stay tuned.