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Workflow-Based UI vs. Feature-Based UI

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Hi, I've been trying out the demo version for a couple of days and wanted to applaud the team for a truly impressive effort in trying to bring the best of both (vector and raster) worlds. At the same time I couldn't help but feel greatly underwhelmed by user experience of Affinity Designer and would like to mention a few points and see both how users and the team feel about that.


In short, I think by trying to so closely copy the UI of Illustrator and Photoshop, Affinity Designer is missing a fantastic opportunity to start fresh and IMPROVE on these programs. Great success of programs like Sketch show that users may not necessarily want *cheap* Adobe products, they want *new* kind of products that better adopt to their particular workflows.


Hence I will use Sketch for example of what I'd call workflow-based UI and Illustrator and Photoshop as feature-based UI.

Photoshop and Illustrator have evolved over decades and over 20 iterations, and with this long history comes a huge baggage of legacy where early GUI decisions need to be carried over from early versions for the sake of consistency (people generally don't like change if they are used to one way of doing things). Also each new version meant bunch of new features that kept piling up and needed to be squeezed into existing UI paradigm of panels and toolbars, and hence the product that is based around features is created, with each iteration being more powerful but also feeling slightly ever more bloated.
By "bloated" I mean that everyone, especially creative people, want as little friction from the tools they use. Obviously one way to remove friction is to repeatedly use the product, but for example, even after using Photoshop for almost 20 years I still often cringe by the way I constantly need to shuffle between different panels, and toolbars: even if I can customize their position and what not, I am still forced to break my workflow in order to rearrange some panel, or click a certain button to open a subpanel with more options.

In order to solve the problem of cramped UI Adobe has introduced, years ago, concept of Workspaces, which is kinda like GUI on top of the GUI, and while it does help ease the problem, Workspaces is a duct-tape patch and not a true solution, which is quite understandable given the size and legacy of a huge program like Photoshop (or Illustrator, or even worse example: Autodesk programs like AutoCAD and Max - compared to Autodesk's miserable efforts of managing feature bloat, Adobe is doing an excellent job!).




On the other hand, a new program has opportunity to approach UI from different angle, and programs like Sketch (or similarly named Sketch Up, to continue analogy to Autodesk competitors) tried to focus on concrete task that user wants to perform and build a flexible dynamically changing UI around these tasks, rather than to simply group buttons into panels based on features.


Now obviously it is ridiculous to compare Sketch to Photoshop, as it is a niche program that caters to specific target market and specific workflows (GUI design only), but there are a lot of lessons to be learned on how friction between the idea and the tool can be organically reduced if you start from clean slate and not by copying software behemots with over 20 years of GUI legacy:


1) Edit everything in-place to give more hands-on control over the effect.
Example is  the way Sketch gradients are edited directly on the object, vs. having to do it in a dedicated UI element separated from object.


2) UI adopts intuitively to users logical next action. You don't need to switch tools or modes if it's obvious what you will do next.

For example:

- one click at the object selects it and automatically turns into Transform mode. Double click will automatically turn into path editing (moving anchors around).

- when you have a line selected and click on an anchor or bezier handle, you will automatically get into edit mode in Sketch because obviously direct click on a handle of a selected object means you want to move it around. Iin Affinity, you will stay in your present tool which means you are likely to start creating another line instead (althout there is a misleading PEN- pointer that leads to think that the following action will be anchor deleting).


3) Don't float feature-based panels around, but use several fixed positions for GUI. If you follow point 2) this means that GUI will adopt to what you do and you always intuitively always need to move your attention to the same part of screen when wanting to perform complex tasks.
Another Sketch example is Inspector (a paradigm widely used by Apple products) which is a sole UI element that always adopts to whatever you are doing at the moment. So I know that whatever I plan to do, I only need to look to the right side of the screen and I will always have a RELEVANT tool set. 


4) Modular and consistent functionality.
By modular I mean the way different types of fills can be stacked one on top of another in Sketch, and controlled via extremely simple but powerful interface. Another excellent example of modular pproach is the concept of Modifiers in 3D Max, where you can basically start from a simple 3D cube and end up with a human figure just by applying a range of non-destructive modifiers (and a bit of skillful positioning of the points) and at any moment you can always go back to any step and modify it in a non destructive manner.
By consistent I mean things like Styles which are common place in software packages to ensure consistency.



Ok, hm... I'm sorry it's getting late here (2:30am) so I am starting to lose focus here.


Back to the core point: I understand Affinity is going after Adobe users, but that really doesn't mean that all we want is cheap Illustrator + Photoshop. You can do much better by trying to approach the functionality from a new fresh perspective and I can assure you will get a faithful user base much easier by doing NEW thing than trying to copy everything 1:1 - because you know, making another Photoshop AND Illustrator in one software piece from scratch  is HUGE amount of work.

And people will ALWAYS keep comparing Affinity to Illustrator and Photoshop and be kinda pissed off because feature XYZ is misssing. By starting fresh, you can focus your efforts and be more effective in solving user problems with less actual work.

Plus, don't underestimate your potential users: if you do things with fresh perspective, it may take us a bit of learning curve to get used to your product, but if early on we figure out that we are seeing a new better way of doing things, most of us will gladly spend some time to learn and adopt.


Case in point: I liked Affinity demo very much, but it doesn't really solve anything that my Photoshop and Illustrator CS4 don't do (except dang retina screen support). Even if it's feature packed, and cheap, there is not very much incentive for me to buy, as it feels just too familiar to these two packages. 


Maybe I am minority here, but really would like to hear what other users thing on this.

Good night :)

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Hi nikokoneko,


Thanks for your post! I do agree with a lot of what you've said, but I also think that maybe you are also missing a few things that are perhaps colouring your opinion of the software, so I'll try to expand on a few things briefly for you:


We intend to be ourselves - not copy someone else. Our older PC applications were consistently praised for their productivity and approachable presentation without over-complicating matters so we obviously tried to evolve this and to be honest, pretty much everyone else who has used Designer has been very happy with what it has enabled them to achieve - much more so than their experiences with other software, so I don't think we went too far off the rails with our evolution. The application itself, again, was not designed to copy others - we don't want to offer feature parity, we want to offer the features you need to achieve the tasks you need to but to make these core tools be better than the ones you may have used before - work better, smarter and offer an enjoyable experience. We aim to be faster and more stable than others. So, you see, we aren't actually aiming to clone anybody... A workflow-based auto-changing UI is great when there is a clearly defined set of things that you are likely to want to do - and if your application aims to target a specific thing like GUI design then you could usually do the right thing, but if you're trying to present limitless possibilities then your application shouldn't be constantly trying to suggest the (possibly wrong) next step. I do things in batches - I go into the Pen Tool, draw something, hold down the Cmd key to edit the nodes, draw the next thing, hold Cmd to modify it, maybe select the last one I created and modify it a bit more to suit, whatever - but I never leave the Pen Tool and if the program was trying to force me from one tool to the next because it had decided that I would want to make one curve, then do something else I would go crazy because it just doesn't suit the way I work.


Of your bullet points...


Number 1) is something we already do - all of our gradient controls are in-place on document, as are our transparency controls, shape node handles and as will be our corner tool node handles. We also offer panels to achieve the task simply so that people who like this methodology have a place to go too.


Number 2) We already do a double-click from the Move tool changes to be the context-based editing tool for that type of object - the thing we don't do is change back again at some point - but I don't want it to change back, I like it to stay in the node tool (for example) because my node tool isn't just a node tool - it allows me to make new selections too so I didn't need to get out of it most of the time and in fact it means I just operate with less clicking - clearly you may not, but that doesn't mean we have done something wrong. Changing to the Move Tool again at any time is as simple as pressing the 'v' key. I personally hate all the clicking and double-clicking I have to do in the other program you mentioned - it does my head in and I get lost trying to select things and entering different modes... but I suppose it's all down to what you're used to - and I am not used to that.


Number 3) We will have an inspector when we get time - in the meantime all of the context-sensitive properties of an object are repeated along the context toolbar in a consistent fashion - it's just getting used to seeing them there rather than in a panel really. We've had a property inspector panel in our PC products for at least the last 5 years, so it's not a new thing for us or something we hadn't thought about - it's just a time and order constraints thing.


Number 4) I would argue that we do have a very consistent behaviour at all times until such behaviour becomes counter-productive, at which point we will favour productivity. That is our approach. Our internal architecture is able to cope with basically anything we could dream of without performance degradation so multiple lines, fills, transparencies, effects, etc are all no issue - our issue (and the reason they are still waiting to go in) is simply that we have been deciding what UI would work nicely for them - and I don't believe that Sketch has it completely right to be brutally honest. We have now decided how we intend to present it and will do so when we get chance.


You mention that you think we are simply trying to be a cheap version of Illustrator and Photoshop - but I think you've missed the point of what we are trying to be: Neither of them. We are trying to be ourselves - Designer is a really damned good, solid and fast vector editor that also lets you be expressive and paint with pixel data in a non-destructive way. We're trying to let people be creative, do their jobs in a different, more effective way, enjoy themselves while they experiment... Our Affinity Photo application may put Designer in more perspective - then you'll see that Designer wasn't meant to be both of Illustrator and Photoshop - it was meant to be an empowering, different vector editor that crossed the streams a little to give you more power. Affinity Photo is our photo editing program and is much more analogous to Photoshop - it also has some vector tools but is also not trying to be Illustrator. We're not trying to be a 'cheap' anything - our price point was simply set because we sat down and said "What is a fair price for software that everyone in the world would want to use to draw things?". Other apps on the AppStore are priced lower than us, and others are priced higher - we just priced ourselves where we could actually imagine being happy spending the money and hoped that we thought along the same lines as our users.


I hope that gives you some more background of what we were actually trying to achieve - and maybe with that comes perspective that lets you see where we are actually aiming. Again, thanks for your comments - I agree with a lot of the points and sentiments, but I just wondered if you'd made assumptions about our intentions or product lineup.


Ask yourself this too - why do you think we're (the developers) so active on the forum? The answer is simply that we're genuinely really excited about what we're doing, we have an attachment to the features that we considered in depth and tried to make the best versions of that we could imagine and we're desperately typing to try to give you better tools - we're not sat copying existing ones (which is boring)


Thanks again - and welcome to the forum :)


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Thanks for such an extensive answer, Matt. I must admit that my post sounded too harsh and unfair describing your effort as an attempt to copy existing software - when I reread my post, I can clearly see my choice of words was affected by the very late hours I was writing it.

My opinions arose from a combination of great excitement that a piece of software like Affinity Designer came to exist, but also slight disappointment with a "deja vu" user experience - but then again, that "deja vu" may be necessary due to the fact that Affinity Designer has a great ambition, and in a way goes against the current trend I notice in software market where new products attempt to carve a niche for themselves trying to cater to one thing and do one thing well only (ie. GUI design, sprite based animation only, iPhone video capture only...). There are not much new software packages with a broad ambition nowadays, and it probably skews user expectations too - we are being increasingly primed into expecting that we can get to try new software piece and learn it in a couple of hours. If the product presents us with any kind of learning curve, we will naturally default to whatever experience we are familiar with, and almost all of your potential users already are used to, and own, at least several Adobe products - which for decade came as only viable option (mostly because Adobe went on buying other companies to kill competitor products).

From about a half a dozen of solid new products in vector/raster editing category I tried this year, this came closest to Adobe feel - probably because it was the only product trying to do as much as Adobe products do, not because there was a conscious decision to copy and underprice.

Your answer certainly addressed my underlining concern (that I didn't express explicitly in my previous post) that your exit strategy might be to be acquired by Adobe, which would be a great disappointment because I didn't want to see Adobe kill another great product. It feels good to hear that you have plans to build a product that will last, and I feel more comfortable investing my time into Designer.


Four points that I raised in my post were a somewhat poor late night attempt to analyze what exactly was that was lacking from my first-time experience with your product - and that analysis was skin deep but came with a disclaimer that I've only been trying it for a couple of days (a few hours at a time). Also that analysis was greatly biased because I am, as a user, primed to a market conditions where new software typically offer much less value than your product, but in a short term may look as more attractive, fresher, solutions due to greatly streamlined workflow (as long as you are doing exactly one particular task that the product was made for).

So it may not be a fair comparison, but I think it's a sincere first-time user impression that you might find useful: Affinity Designer at a first glance seemed a bit clumsy compared to streamlined micro-products, and a bit underpowered compared to Adobe behemots especially given that most of your potential users will already have a version of two of said behemot products.

(another thing: my very first run of Affinity Designer resulted in a lot of bugs like I couldn't delete pixel layers, and refresh rate went very slow with a very simple drawing - although I never managed to reproduce these bugs, that first bad experience certainly contributed to my initial opinion that you were simply trying to do too much too soon).


Thank your for pointing out that there is more to Affinity Designer that what's seen at a first glance, and that -more importantly- you have long term plans with it. As I said, it does convince me to invest more time into it.

In the end, if I didn't think there is a lot of excellent things going on with Affinity Designer, I would never have bothered writing these long posts. 

Thanks and looking forward to see how this project evolve, I'm in for a ride ! :)

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I think you've hit the nail on the head in that some of your 'deja vu' with the user experience is actually a necessity based on our ambitions :) If you only intend to focus on one use-case, you can do it in a focused way, but if you start out with the ambition to be a tool for all creative needs, then focusing a user-experience on one task or workflow will only harm anyone trying to use it for other purposes.


I definitely appreciate you taking time to respond and it's valuable information about the way we may be being perceived by fresh eyes...


Incidentally, if you are running the trial or Mac App Store versions of Affinity Designer on OS X Yosemite, there is a Yosemite bug that affects lots of applications and causes our apparent intermittent slowness. We realised what it was and worked around this OS bug so our beta versions should not exhibit this behaviour if you wanted to give it a try? Basically, whenever you click in our layers panel, brush panel or history panel the application will respond slowly to zoom gestures (and perhaps some other random things!) until you click away from the application and then click back to it. As I said though, we have found a way to work around this which is available in the latest beta version while Apple resolves their issue.


Thanks again, hope you have a great festive season,


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