Back in March, I had the opportunity to participate in a “Tweet Jam” surrounding the issue of employee engagement, organized by CMSWire.com, the influential customer experience management online magazine (you can find a recap of the event here). Another panelist in the event was Scott Date, a Senior Product Manager at Adobe Systems. In the days following the event, I had the opportunity to correspond with Scott, and he was gracious to respond positively to my request to interview him for this blog.
In the interview below Scott shares the details behind Adobe’s Social Communities software, as well as his thoughts on issues ranging from training new users of a software, ease of use, consistency, Adobe’s range of offerings for the social internet and more.
Training Station: Please tell us a bit about your background.
Scott Date: I am a graduate of the University of Notre Dame where I studied Management Information Systems. My first job out of college was as a management consultant with Price Waterhouse Coopers in the US, Australia, and England. It was at PWC that I learned the importance of software usability and how training can both educate the end user and the teacher. I worked on a lot of projects that centered on activity-based management. This is where you analyze the activities that people do to determine the cost of those activities, so I spent a lot of time observing people. We would use these studies to help suggest ways to be more efficient – we even built software to help calculate everything. It was here that I was able to see how a piece of software could succeed at meeting a client’s requirement but raise issues at being truly usable. Later, I did quite a lot of internal teaching on various software solutions and on software development. This proved invaluable as I was able to observe how people interacted with software: both from the development side and the user side.
After PWC I worked at Oracle Corporation developing ERP software with a slant towards analytics, integration, and mobile. Once again, I had the opportunity to work closely with engineering and clients, both as a product manager and a trainer. I continued to help guide software development and user education while working alongside some really smart engineers and usability experts. Once again, just observing how people use software helped me make my products better.
Now, I am at Adobe as the Senior Product Manager for Adobe Experience Manager Social Communities. Where before, the software I worked on was being used by accountants across various industries, the software I work on now is used by brands large and small to enable their customers to manage blogs, product reviews, and forums, etc. Adobe presents me with a wonderful challenge of working on a product that far more people will use to create their own content. I get to apply the skills I developed and honed in previous roles to work alongside some world-class people to develop solutions that small, medium, and large businesses can implement to allow individuals into their sites to form communities and create content.
TS: Can you give us a brief overview of the Social Communities product of the Adobe Experience Manager offering in Adobe Marketing Cloud?
SD: Sure, Social Communities is part of Adobe Experience Manager, – which is designed to help make the lives of digital marketers easier. Experience Manager includes capabilities for web content management, digital asset management, marketing campaign management, and importantly, community management. I often start my elevator pitch with: what is your social strategy? People initially answer with: Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc. which is part of a social strategy, your external social strategy. Social Communities focuses on a brand’s internal social strategy. How do you, as a company, want to cultivate a community of user advocates? If you provide them with tools to write blogs, review products, help support each other through forums on your own sites, and offer the means for like-minded people to get together and share their experiences with your products and/or services, you can drive conversations and build brand advocates.
I like to ask people to think about the last time they planned a trip and the process they followed: decided where they wanted to go, researched what to do and where to stay, read reviews from experts and from regular people, and ultimately provided feedback on where they stayed or what they did. We all do that, so we are all members of some sort of digital community. Adobe Experience Manager Social Communities just provides the ability to manage everything on one site instead of hopping around all over the place.
TS: I’m interested in your experience, as part of the software implementation process, of training new users. How many hours (on average) does it take you to bring a user to an understanding and familiarity of the software? What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve seen? Has training new users changed at all in recent years?
SD: I love training. I enjoy attending training and I really enjoy instructing new users. One thing I have learned over all my years of training is that people learn at different speeds, so you really cannot say: ‘it will take x hours to understand this concept.’ Most people can understand the ‘how’ of something far easier than the ‘why’ of something. I like to start my training with ‘why do you want to do xx?’ As soon as you get people to understand the problem, the learning of how to go about solving the problem sort of just falls into place. For example, the software that my accountants used was quite complex and oftentimes the end users I was teaching were not true accountants so I had to approach things from a use case position, for example, tell them an outrageous story of how the software was actually used. The story needed to be interesting – the more unusual the outcome the better. This got people thinking of real-world examples and had them thinking of different solutions even before they touched the software. Using my ‘activity analysis’ background, I would group the learning not only by what needed to be done first, second, third, etc., but by how it logically fit together.
Software over the years has gone from something that was more top-down and mechanical, to something more free-form and sometimes logically illogical. Usability has become more of a factor. People expect a certain amount of ease and familiarity, the File menu will always be where I go to create a new document or save that document. It is because of this software savviness that it is easier to focus on the ‘why’ and how to make the software do what you want it to do.
TS: Perhaps as a follow-up to the previous question, but maybe in addition to it, after the initial onboarding period, how often are you turned to for questions of operating the software? How many support calls would say you receive in an average week? How do you think software training can and should continue after an initial training period?
SD: This is an interesting question. Interesting because it is a reflection on how well an end-user understood the topic you tried to instruct them on. Back when I was a consultant, I would sometimes get asked the same set of questions over and over again. This made me realize that a) I didn’t do a very good job of getting the concept across and b) perhaps the concept was a little more difficult than I had imagined (sometimes you just don’t see the forest for the trees). This was when I learned to change my training style from, “To create a file, go to File | Create…” to one of more “let’s think of the big picture, we have this problem that we want to solve…” I needed to provide a context for what they were doing so that it stuck in their heads.
Once I moved from mechanical to philosophical, people were able to learn more easily. Sure you still need to know where to go to create something, but once it gets placed into context it becomes less of a challenge to try and remember.
I think software education is an evolution. First, you learn the basic foundation and then you take further classes to peel back the true power of the software to solve complex problems, but always with some sort of context to ground you! It is far easier to tell someone what to do, but it is far more useful to tell them why they need to do. So I would say to approach training from a conceptual use case that fits the target audience.
TS: When designing the software itself, how much does ease of use and the time needed for learning how to use it come into play?
SD: Ease of use should always be first and foremost. Telling yourself that it should never take more than 2-3 clicks to accomplish a task is a good start. Trying to divorce yourself from creating a work of art is more difficult. Sometimes the truly elegant is the most plain and simple. I’ve seen designs that are far too cluttered and complex to be ‘usable’, so just keep it simple. I like to apply Leonardo da Vinci’s idea of: simplicity is the ultimate form of sophistication.
Another thing to think about is consistency. I’ve managed several products that were part of an enterprise suite. Multiple products may share similar or the same components, and one of the more difficult things to do is to make sure that shared components are consistent when you have different teams working on them. I had a situation early on in my career where usability designers came up with multiple ways to accomplish the same task. Each way was an approved method, but they were different thus making the suite look fragmented and cobbled together. We had to step back and develop UI standards and a review process for the entire suite. So I guess what I am saying is that when you are designing the software that you also need to think about the bigger picture as well. Things have really improved in that area, but it is something that you need to be aware of to ensure that the end product is useable and easier to understand.
TS: What about from a larger picture here – I wouldn’t say Adobe previously had a reputation for creating software for the social internet. Was this a new venture for the company? Will we see more such products and features in the future?
SD: I’m still relatively new at Adobe, but just a few years ago, Adobe “doubled-down” on two areas: Digital Media and Digital Marketing and is aligned along the two clouds: Adobe Creative Cloud, which includes products such as Adobe Photoshop, InDesign and other tools used by creatives; and Adobe Marketing Cloud that includes solutions for web content management, personalization, analytics, media optimization, and importantly social management and measurement. What’s really unique is that Adobe has integrated both clouds, bridging content creation and delivery.
When you look at our ‘social’ offerings you will see that one focuses on your external sphere of influence (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) and one that focuses on your internal sphere of influence (social communities, blogs, forums, ratings, etc. on your owned properties). Both deal with content. Adobe saw the value in having the ability to manage both of those internal and external spheres of influence in one platform. When you start to peel back all of the layers of both of those spheres you gain an appreciation for the complexity involved in trying to manage things separately.
I’m excited about the social space – especially my corner of Adobe Experience Manager Social Communities. Like I mentioned earlier, we are all a part of some digital community and the social space is constantly evolving. Remember when it was just static pages of content? Maybe it was a product spec sheet or an address or phone number. We were all spectators. Then came blogs and forums where we became creators and participants. Ratings and reviews have turned us into brand advocates. Companies have taken notice of this and the importance of fostering their own communities to manage their brand equity. The social space will continue to evolve as you and I find new ways to connect and share ideas or help each other out through digital channels. And, I have little doubt the software capabilities will continue growing and adapting to meet the demands of businesses and consumers in this rapidly evolving channel.
TS: Finally, any advice for young software developers (and even other managers) these days? What have you learned would you say from your recent experience at Adobe?
SD: I’ve worn many hats: engineer, implementation consultant, instructor, product manager… and the single most important thing I can say is: ask ‘why’. Why would someone want this feature? Why do you want to do this? Why… The ‘what’ and ‘how’ are normally given to you, but the lesser-understood ‘why’ is often left out. I’ve worked with some really smart people over my career and when you ask them ‘why?’, it normally makes them pause and then start to explain. That is where you start to really understand, to grok the concept, if you will. Trust in the abilities of the people you work with, but always ask them ‘why?’ that way you can both learn from each other.