Perfection, Good Design, and the Art of Both
“Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away” — Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
When I first saw this quote as a design student — a long time ago during my college years — it resonated with me immediately. I was surprised to learn that the original author was a French writer and poet, aristocrat, journalist, and most notably, a pioneering aviator named Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.
The essence of these words matches the core tenet of “Good Design” perfectly. We don’t achieve good design by adding unlimited elements on top of endless features to reach some ideal. Instead, good design matches user needs by solving unique pain points, all while delivering a pleasant and compelling experience.
For designers, a successful process involves knowing exactly when design iteration has reached the point where users can do what they want, how they want, in a moment of delight. Creating good design — like Antoine’s search for perfection — requires a great deal of user empathy, design intuition, professionalism, and creativity. And good design means recognizing when there’s “nothing left to take away.”
When, more than a year ago, my team designed Adobe Scan, an award-winning mobile app, our aspirations for minimalism and simplicity reminded me of this quote. Adobe Scan is a purpose-built mobile app, with a clear and simple goal: allow users to transform physical content into digital document workflows effortlessly and intelligently.
To achieve perfection in design, we consider a wide range of product requirements and features. Yet we know we can only pick the most important ones. People don’t scan just for fun — and there’s a reason they use mobile devices to scan.
With all the various and robust features in mind, we framed and finalized the feature set to meet user needs in four steps. To us, these are the key features that summarize what a typical scan workflow should be — useful, convenient, efficient, and productive.
Capture is the primary reason the typical scan app was built in the first place. While there are many similar apps available in the market, Adobe Scan leverages Adobe Sensei, an artificial intelligence and machine-learning technology platform, to streamline and simplify the image capture workflow.
Users point at the target image and the app automatically detects the boundaries of the paper document, corrects perspective, auto-captures and auto-crops the image without users having to tap any button, even in low light conditions or when multiple documents need to scan.
Shadows, wrinkles, or visual noise are detected and removed automatically. And the app differentiates document images from photo images for users to import easily. The goal was to provide just enough convenience and functionality to minimize both physical and cognitive efforts, while providing flexibility for people who like maximum control.
Review and quick edit
At first, Review was an area we hesitated to include — if the app does all the magic powered by Adobe Sensei perfectly, there should be no need for users to review and touch up. However, just to be sure, we gave users the option to insert images from the photo library, rearrange orders, crop, rotate, switch to grayscale or edit the file name for easy search or sorting purposes. In the end, research confirmed that this step was necessary — a sanity-check of sorts — before users finish scanning.
Save and store
Users scan because they want to capture something quickly for future use. To leverage one of Adobe’s core competencies, we defined the output of scans to meet the industry standard — PDF format — and saved to Document Cloud. This creates a unique competitive advantage — the app auto-recognizes scanned content via OCR (optical character recognition) enabling users to search, copy, paste and potentially create editable scans.
Hosting the scans in Document Cloud meant users could access the scans via Acrobat or Reader desktop app, mobile app, and a web browser. These backend functionalities are implicit but explicit in providing user values. So we added them (without adding much in the user interface) to maintain its simplicity.
Recent list with contextual actions
The Recent List provides an overview of past and present scans for quick access and easy sharing. In the early phase of the development cycle, we debated whether we should build in commenting and signing tools for users to add annotation or sign scanned documents. We decided instead to navigate users to the Adobe Acrobat Reader mobile app to maintain simplicity and meet the carefully defined user needs for Adobe Scan.
The newest release of Adobe Scan can now scan a business card, adding the card’s major contents to phone contacts. Users can also choose to “Open in Acrobat” to perform document workflows such as comment, fill and sign, export to other document formats, save to other cloud storages, etc. We intended to provide the access points to advanced document tools contextually without adding complexity to what was shaping up to be an agile mobile app.
Lessons learned and future inspiration
Achieving perfection is hard, but that’s exactly what most designers strive for. Many products and services available today provide powerful, yet complicated features and user interfaces. And many of them provide too much, when simplicity and efficient human-computer interactions is enough.
Good designers observe, empathize, ideate, prototype, test, iterate, refine, and learn during the journey. Through this process we identify critical and not-so-critical features — elements users praise and elements they complain about. Eventually, good design evolves into great design, and ends in a simple product that exceeds expectations.