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Adobe guru to improve Windows interface

Adobe Systems' Mark Hamburg will work on Windows' user experience. His recent Adobe work gives a clue about his design goals: "elegance," "personality."

It looks like Mark Hamburg, an Adobe Systems Photoshop and Lightroom programming guru, will be leading work to give Microsoft Windows a better user interface.

And given the dramatic user interface differences between earlier and later Adobe projects that Hamburg worked on, that raises some very intriguing possibilities.

Adobe Photoshop Lightroom is used to edit and catalog photos, chiefly the raw images that come from higher-end digital cameras. Compare its design, deliberately imbued with 'personality' and 'elegance,' to that of Photoshop below. Adobe Systems

Microsoft and Adobe Systems confirmed Hamburg's move on Monday, but at the time, Microsoft wouldn't share details beyond saying Hamburg would work on "user experience" for the company. However, Chicago photographer and Photoshop consultant Jeff Schewe, who caught a plane to California to attend Hamburg's going-away party, shared a lot more on his blog.

"He was heavily recruited by Microsoft and given an unbeatable opportunity to work outside his normal digital imaging field," Schewe said. "Mark was invited by (Microsoft Chief Technology Officer) David Vaskevitch to come lead a team working on the future of operating system user experience at Microsoft."

Adobe Photoshop's interface has well over a decade's worth of accumulated menus, panels, and dialog boxes.
Adobe Photoshop's interface has well over a decade's worth of accumulated menus, panels, and dialog boxes. James Martin/CNET Networks

Schewe also quoted Hamburg about the change: "Given that I find the current Windows experience really annoying and yet I keep having to deal with it, this opportunity was a little too interesting to turn down. I can't imagine doing serious imaging anywhere other than Adobe, but I needed to do something other than imaging for a while."

Hamburg's baby: Adobe Photoshop Lightroom
So what does Hamburg's move portend? It's way too soon to say Microsoft will be better able to counter the widespread opinion that Apple's Mac OS X is superior, but Hamburg's Adobe work sheds some light on the new possibilities.

Hamburg joined Adobe to work on version 2.0 of Photoshop in 1990. After Photoshop 7 was released, he turned his attention to lead Shadowland, the project that became Photoshop Lightroom. That software, which is used to edit and catalog photos, is a major break from Photoshop when it comes to user interface.

Where Photoshop has a seemingly endless list of menus, submenus, dialog boxes, and configurable panels, Lightroom adapts to the task at hand.

Central is the photo in the middle, as large as possible. Adjustment panes can be pulled out from all four sides based on various tasks. The software shifts appearance according to modes for managing catalogs, developing an individual photo, showing slideshows, printing, and creating photo galleries for the Web.

Overhauling user interfaces can be tough, though. Short-term pain caused by unfamiliarity can challenge the long-term benefits of a clean-slate design.

Adobe is proceeding cautiously with a Photoshop interface overhaul. And Microsoft has had trouble with its "ribbon," which presents a task-based interface across the top of Microsoft Office 2007 programs. It's been tough for many users to adjust to the ribbon, and Microsoft is trying ways to make it easier to find the commands they want to perform.

Hamburg's goals: "elegance," "personality"
Some possibilities can be gleaned from Hamburg himself. He discussed some of his Lightroom design goals in a 2007 blog posting.

"We wanted Lightroom to seem elegant, to exhibit grace, to show an attention to style beyond the utilitarian aspect that dominated Adobe's products up to that time. We wanted a richer UI experience," Hamburg said.

And Adobe wanted to give Lightroom a deliberate personality--even if that means some feathers are ruffled.

"One of the goals in Lightroom was to consciously think about the product personality we were trying to create with the expectation that a less accidental personality would induce a stronger emotional reaction in users. That stronger reaction can be both positive and negative," he said. "The second part of this goal was to have enough passionate users to outweigh the detractors."

Finally, he said Adobe wanted to balance power and complexity, adding the latter only when it significantly increased the former.

Designing a user interface for a product with as limited a range of abilities as Lightroom is a very different task than a user interface for an entire operating system, though. But even if Windows doesn't directly copy Lightroom, for example, by changing its look to suit the task at hand, I for one would welcome a version of Windows with elegance, personality, and power.