Technology Transformation - Adobe Lightroom


One of the most challenging tasks in product management is a major architecture shift of a product. Primarily a software related issue (although there are architecture transitions in hardware that are thorny too), the point when an old architecture is holding you back, and market forces are driving the discussion in your market space, a clean rewrite is what is required.

Especially, if your existing product has a long history, and started in a very different world, with significant “crufty-ness”, or features being added on a creaky underlying foundation, threatening to implode under the strain.
This case study, where I take an outside in look at Adobe’s photo management solution, “Lightroom,” with an eye to the challenges, motivations, and drivers.

[mks_pullquote align=”right” width=”300″ size=”18″ bg_color=”#000000″ txt_color=”#ffffff”]note: I am not associated with Adobe, have never worked for them, or have any official ties with them in any way.[/mks_pullquote]

The Origins

Lightroom (LR), or its official name, “Photoshop Lightroom” began as a public beta of a Mac only software in early 2006, was a response to Apple’s “Aperture” program targeted at professional photographers. Initially, it was a photo organization, categorization, and workflow tool, that when paired with the industry standard application, Photoshop, made for a powerful duo.

It was not the first organizing software, as Photoshop Elements early on had tools for maintenance and wrangling of images in your collection(s), but it was the first foray into the control, and managing of a professional photographers workflow.

It is worthy to spend a few moments discussing the concept of a workflow, and how LR enabled it.

Professional photographers are different than hobbyists. Their philosophy is different, in that a “shoot” is to take lots of photos. Even in the days of film, professionals would burn rolls and rolls of images, on the assumption that it was far more cost effective to process a lot of film than to miss the payday shot.

This workflow translates well to the digital age well, where there is a significantly lower marginal cost of each image. The storage costs are low, SD or CF cards are cheap and high capacity, and a day’s shoot could encompass multiple cameras, multiple lenses, and Iiterally thousands of images.
Clearly, the professional needs an efficient, effective way to import, process (pre process, or post process,) sort, and cull massive amounts of images. And modern pro quality cameras generate RAW images that are 30, to 100 megabytes each (for the Canon 1D, and a medium format image sensor). They need RAW images to give them maximum control over the initial processing, and to avoid the artifacts that camera conversions to JPG apply (i.e. control of the white balance).

Lightroom, while initially a response to Apple’s “Aperture” program, became the go to solution for the professional crowd. Over the years, and revisions up to version 6, a lot of functionality was grafted onto the platform. The ability to convert to Adobe’s Digital Negative format (DNG), a proposed RAW standard format, to do ever increasing photo touchups (spot removal, horizon adjustments, panorama stitching, HDR processing), and in later versions, a ham-fisted attempt to have synchronization of images/albums/collections to the cloud.

As a semi-serious photographer, but not even close to a professional, I had adopted LR to replace Aperture when Apple lost their mind and killed it. While I barely scratched the surface of its capabilities, it was and is a solid solution for my needs, and my workflow worked for my needs.

But, time marches on, technology and demographics change. While the professionals still have their regimented needs, the larger market opportunity is expecting a solution that works in todays reality, with simultaneous access to the library on your portable device (tablet or phone), backed up to the cloud, and have some common image editing and processing capability. Additionally, the quality of the cameras in the latest smartphones is now high enough that even serious photographers are using them in their shoots.

The Problem Statement

The market demands a unified solution, with simple to manage libraries, the ability to grow as your collection expands, access across multiple devices seamlessly, “enough” editing and processing for the bulk of the market, and a streamlined experience from importation, processing, and sharing of images to the usual outlets.

The existing product (Lightroom 6) is beginning to buckle under the strain of trying to be a flexible, powerful, and complete workflow management solution. The later releases with the synchronization to the Adobe cloud, for want of a better term, sucked. In fact, after minimal experimentation with the synchronization capabilities, I abandoned it.

Also, written largely before the cloud phenomenon, it was architected to be the center of the workflow, the engine that enables the processing and completion of a “job”.

The evolution of iPhoto to Photos on the MacOS with the jag to Aperture, is where the world of casual and semi-serious photographers live today.

Monolithic libraries, sync’d in the cloud, with universal access on whatever device you have at hand is now a table stake.

Same with Google Photos, same model, built around their ecosystem and tightly integrated into Android (and unlimited free cloud storage of images, you just agree to let them mine and use your images – no thanks).

What was Adobe to do?

Option 1: Hammer the existing LR into a cloud enabled system

Adobe could have thrown a ton of engineering resources to cobble together a new cloud based model around the existing Lightroom platform. Fix the sync, and streamline the workflow to address these casual to semi-serious photographers. Surely they have enough talent and skill to do this credibly.

However, this is fraught with risk. As Lightroom is an integral part of the professional photographer’s workflow, these changes must leave the current paradigm largely in place. That will mean that these less-than-professional photographers will see a lot of complex, confusing options, and frankly features that they neither care about, nor will ever use. I mean, who needs to automatically convert to DNG format.

And, as reading the support and ideas portal of the Lightroom product, the professionals will bitterly complain about the evolution, that will clutter their interface, and complicate their use of Lightroom.
In the product management world, this is what I call a lose-lose scenario. You piss off your existing golden goose segment (the serious professionals), and you fail to delight the very attractive segment you are chasing (the semi serious, and the rest of the photographers).

Option 2: Bite the bullet and rewrite

Lightroom CC icon
The Lightroom CC Icon

Start with a clean sheet of paper, draft a set of requirements, desired behaviors, and build a roadmap, with the goal of the new target demographic in mind.

There comes a time when starting from scratch is necessary. Perhaps you have a legacy system, originally coded as a 32bit application, and a future OS upgrade drops support for that. Or the needs of the market evolve to the point that you need to divorce yourself from the legacy, and start clean.

Regardless of the motivation, and the difficulty of making the decision (more on this later) when this is the correct decision, as a product manager, you should know it in your heart.
Adobe has chosen this path.
But this path also has downsides.

  • Compared to the existing product – The yardstick of comparison isn’t the competitors (Apple Photos, or Google Photos), but the prior version of Lightroom. All the features, the small, the large, the common, the obscure. Somebody, somewhere will complain.
  • Can’t Please Everyone – If you target the prosumers, you alienate the professionals, if you target the casual users, you alienate the pros and the prosumers. Regardless of what subset or superset of features you include, somebody is going to be upset.
  • Can’t get there from here – as long as you are using the existing product as a yardstick (and your users will always make this comparison) it will be a never ending battle of whac-a-mole trying to add features to quell the uproar.

The balancing act is how to address the different constituencies, and their demands. Do you focus on the professionals and their stringent demands? Or, do you focus on the casual user, and make their lives easier?

Let’s explore how Adobe handled it.

The major changes

For the new version of Lightroom, the break is pretty stark. Released in the fall of 2017 (as I am writing this), the new Lightroom CC (or LRCC) requires the use of Adobe’s cloud, priced at about $8/month for 1TB storage. No longer is there the option (or ability at all) to only use local storage. The library is different and monolithic. Where the Classic version of Lightroom used the OS’s native filesystem and a database to store and track images, giving flexibility to use multiple external disks to store and organize images, something that professionals expect (or even demanded), but that flexibility often confused the casual user.

Streamlined editing capabilities. As most people will buy the Photography Bundle, they get both Lightroom and Photoshop together. The older version of Lightroom had subsumed so many capabilities that Photoshop provided, that it blurred the lines between the two products. In fact, for most casual users, you could do almost all the manipulations in Lightroom, and rarely edit in Photoshop. The new version of Lightroom remains well integrated with Photoshop, and many of the add-on editing capabilities are no longer in Lightroom. But the integration with Photoshop is excellent, and the clear delineation of processing done in Lightroom versus the Photoshop is actually a feature.

A lot of the workflow pieces of the classic Lightroom are gone. Professional photographers are used to a lot of flexibility on importation, batch processing, renaming, organization, filtering and sorting, and ultimately rigidly defined features. For the target demographic, users who snap pictures with their phones, or point and shoot cameras, none of this made any sense to them.

The cloud based nature of the new Lightroom opens some additional functionality that is much more difficult in a stand alone, local package. One example is their image processing and recognition that they run. Integrated with machine learning and AI algorithms, the learning set and deep machine learning can provide significant utility to any photographer.

As an example, if you want to find all images with Cacti (the plural of Cactus) in it, you type “cactus” in the search field, and bam, all your images with cacti are found (and a few errors too). Or “mountain” and wham, all images that seem to have mountains are returned. Or a good guess at the “best” images (interesting subject, perfect exposure, etc).

While Professionals will not care about this, as their ruthless culling of their images, and constant filtering, selection/rejection, and clearing the cruft, the amateurs, those without this discipline, will welcome the automation, even if it isn’t perfect.

How to keep both classes satisfied

Knowing that regardless of your choice, and your roadmap, there are going to be strong willed users who will flood the feedback channels, you need to provide some overlap, and support for the old and the new.

You can’t wait until you have a perfect product to begin the launch and transition. While this isn’t “Lean Startup” as it isn’t a new product in a new space and the MVP isn’t explicitly applicable, the proper course is to get a functional product, usable by the larger potential market (in this case the semi-serious amateurs who want something better than Apple or Google’s offer), and start iterating.

All the while keeping the “classic” version alive, albeit with reduced new feature development velocity.

Ultimately, I am confident that Adobe will blend the requirements of their two target market segments, providing a solution that can present itself to the casual or amateur in a simple, intuitive manner, but also providing a platform and a flexible workflow for the professionals (that must include graceful handling of their files offline, as they will view cloud as an anathema to their livelihood.)

Where is Adobe today?

The current status (March, 2018), is that the cloud side, and the amateur usability/features is progressing nicely. There seems to be 2 major updates per month (based on when I get the notification to upgrade) and many of my early annoyances are gradually being addressed.

The traffic and commentary on the support forums remains mixed. It does seem that there are plenty of disgruntled professionals who have tried to make the transition, but are stymied by the lack of expected features.

There are people not entirely satisfied by the amateur feature set either, but clearly from the enhancements, and upgrades, Adobe is focused on their largest potential audience, those individuals who are chafing at the Apple and Google offers.

I remain satisfied, happy to pay my money, and to have the fairly predictable, and reliable Adobe offer. I like having all my images at hand on whatever device I am on (iPhone, iPad, web, or my laptop), and the integration with Photoshop is the great equalizer for my use.


Platform transitions are never easy. You will be playing with lit matches, different demographics and segments who are not aligned. You can’t alienate the original customers while you chase the larger opportunity.

Keeping both marginally satisfied requires intestinal fortitude, and a steady hand, the willingness to compromise, and to prioritize, knowing that regardless of your decision, you will be alienating someone, and that it is OK.

As long as you have a plan, and realistic goals.

Author image
Product Manager, physics educated, avid cyclist, dog rescuer, guitar noodler.
San Jose, Callifornia Website
You've successfully subscribed to The Product Bistro
Great! Next, complete checkout for full access to The Product Bistro
Welcome back! You've successfully signed in.
Unable to sign you in. Please try again.
Success! Your account is fully activated, you now have access to all content.
Error! Stripe checkout failed.
Success! Your billing info is updated.
Error! Billing info update failed.