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Should Adobe have acquired Sketch?

I was asked this question on Quora. Here’s my response.

For nearly a decade, Adobe completely missed the boat on what UI designers were doing, so we made do with Adobe Photoshop (and, for a while, ImageReady and Fireworks—good times!), but it was a less-than-ideal tool for the challenges we faced. It’s to Photoshop’s credit, Swiss Army knife that it is, that it had such a long run as a UI design tool. It wasn’t purpose-built for UI design, however, and with time its shortcomings became untenable.

I remember being surveyed by some smart Adobe researchers back in 2006; I shared my workflow with them, mentioned the kinds of features I was longing for, and explained where their products were falling short. Adobe responded to our needs in fits and starts. Apps like Muse were interesting, but were slow to evolve and ultimately didn’t address our needs sufficiently. Most of us continued to wrangle our way around Photoshop.

Around the same time, Adobe transitioned to an expensive subscription model that lumped all their apps together in a bundle that was unaffordable for many of us. We were paying a hefty monthly fee for apps we’d never use, and still didn’t get the one app we really needed, a purpose-built UI design and prototyping tool. Some of us switched to alternatives like, gasp, Keynote. (Don’t laugh: Keynote is fast, decent for drawing, supports styles, exports to HTML, and comes with every Mac. In fact, its UI seems to be a precursor to several modern UI design apps.) Nonetheless, that silver bullet UI design tool escaped us…and Adobe.

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Keynote, looking like Sketch before Sketch was a thing

Then, in 2010, the lean, mean upstart Bohemian Coding launched Sketch which, in short order, ate Adobe’s lunch. At just $99, Sketch was affordable and did what designers needed. At this point, Adobe probably should have released a comparable product or perhaps tried to acquire Sketch outright. I’m not sure Bohemian would have gone for such an arrangement; they seem like a pretty rebellious band of warriors.

Nonetheless, Adobe must have seen the beauty and power of Sketch and realized it was worth acquiring. Perhaps they underestimated the burgeoning UI design and prototyping market. I find that hard to believe, however, since they were doing a lot of market research; I myself was polled twice, in person, by Adobe researchers. And I took many online surveys for Adobe, too. Maybe Adobe heard us, but management ignored the findings.

Some have suggested that Adobe didn’t consider acquiring Sketch because it was Mac only, but that theory doesn’t hold water. For one thing, Adobe’s often launched products on one platform first. For another, most UI designers were on Macs anyway. And, Adobe has the engineering muscle to have kept the Sketch UI and workflow, but re-built it so that it was compatible with both Mac and Windows. Moreover, when Adobe finally launched their “Sketch killer”—initially as Project Comet, later renamed XD—it was Mac-only, and the eventual Windows version lagged behind the Mac version for some time.

We may never know why Adobe didn’t try to purchase Sketch. What we do know is that Sketch is now the de facto standard for UI design and prototyping while Adobe, the longtime giant of desktop publishing and photo editing, has been sidelined in this arena. Even upstarts like Pixelmator and Affinity are giving Adobe a run for their money in the photo editing and vector design market. Nothing is sacred.

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Adobe XD and Sketch: who’s zooming who?

At this point, XD is a solid tool—but it’s no Sketch killer. Its features aren’t as robust; it lacks the community and third-party plugin support that Sketch enjoys; and it doesn’t integrate with nearly as many apps as Sketch does. It’s like looking at a reflection of Sketch in a slightly blurry mirror.

Meanwhile, the market is shifting again, and even Sketch is facing competition from apps that promise to bring UI design, interaction design, and animation into a single experience. See, for example, Framer, Figma, and the nascent Invision Studio.

So what should Adobe do? Do they continue developing XD, hoping to catch up to and ultimately outpace all the competition? That doesn’t seem like a great bet. Should they scramble a tiger team to develop an entirely new product that’s closer to where the market is headed? Or should they just cede the UI design and prototyping market altogether? It’s a less-than-ideal position for such a venerable company to find itself in. Then again, that’s what can happen when you don’t listen to your users.

There’s an axiom in business that it’s harder to correct course when you’re successful than when you’re struggling. Adobe was flying high and they simply didn’t see the warning signs ahead, or they ignored them altogether, letting a tiny competitor dominate a market they could have—and probably should have—owned.

Then again, hindsight is always 20/20.

Original Quora question here.

Director, Product Design at HBO Max, formerly TED. Writer everywhere. Autism dad always. Better after a nap.

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