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How Clark Valberg Accidentally Discovered The Weakness In Adobe’s Empire

The InVision founder’s goal is nothing short of creating the only tool you need as a UX designer–and the only software you need to share your designs with thousands of coworkers.

How Clark Valberg Accidentally Discovered The Weakness In Adobe’s Empire
[Photo: Norbert Levajsics/Unsplash]

If you work in design, or work with designers, you’ve almost certainly used InVision, which has become a standard way to share digital prototypes. The ability to send a link to people, and have them be able to click through a design and comment on it, seems like an utterly obvious piece of software to invent. But, of course, it wasn’t. There’s a bigger idea behind InVision’s beginnings, a founding assumption, which runs totally counter to that behind Adobe’s multibillion dollar empire.

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Before Clark Valberg founded InVision, he was running a small, hyper-specialized design and development shop. His main client at the time was a company that made instructional coursework for schools. The client had never launched a piece of software before, and now it was trying to do a web app that would spread out its course on the web. When the time came to pick a project leader, the company picked its elderly assistant. She’d never been a product manager before, but she happened to know everyone in the organization. “She was the one who was supposed to collect requirements for the app,” Valberg recalls. “But she didn’t know what requirements were.”

[Image: courtesy InVision]
Valberg quickly realized that his firm needed a way to get around the assistant. “But she couldn’t be left out. And that’s when we realized the requirements process was broken,” Valberg says. It’s a giant leap to go from the limitations of one assistant to an indictment of a foundational step in modern software development, but to Valberg, it was obvious. “For anything that requires understanding how other people feel in an organization, a single document isn’t going to work.” As he figured, you needed to give time for people to think at their own leisure; the communication couldn’t be a 15-minute sitdown. It had to be asynchronous. (“Chilling with it for 24 hours, and leaving feedback when you get a chance,” according to Valberg.) So Valberg and his team created the prototype for InVision, which allowed other people to chime in on a wireframe design, so that they could gather needs and feedback over time.

Today, the company has a valuation of around $1 billion, and recently released Studio, a product that combines the ease of Sketch with ability to create UI animations, à la Framer or Principle. Combined with InVision’s original app, the goal is nothing less than to be literally the only tool anyone needs as a UX designer–and the only software you need to share your designs with thousands of coworkers.

Today, there is a battle being waged over which company will own the design process. It wasn’t always obvious that this battle would have been so heated. Just a few years ago, Adobe’s lock on design software seem assured. And then, in the span of just a couple years, Sketch revolutionized the industry, becoming the de facto standard for UX design almost overnight, thanks to a simple piece of software that did away with all the bloat of Photoshop. And yet now, Sketch itself seems threatened as Adobe releases XD, which is just as simple as Sketch but has cloud integration. In the meantime, InVision is wading in, hoping to create software not just for sharing prototypes, but making any prototype you could ever need. The market could be worth billions a year, if Adobe’s current sales are any indication.

InVision Studio. [Image: courtesy InVision]

The Big Idea: Software For A New Ideal For Work

Once it gets into an organization, InVision tends to spread like some ultra-virulent strain of the flu. Valberg, in fact, claims that in the three years after it’s introduced into a company, the service sees a 600% increase in users. It is a software as service offering, charging around $100 a month to allow up to five designers to create and share unlimited prototypes. But where InVision really makes its bones is the fees associated with all the non-designers that use its service–others can always see links, but before they can use the augmented commenting system, they too have to pay a $8 per person, per month.

That is a crucial detail. InVision ultimately makes money based on how widely shared a design is throughout an organization. Put another way, it makes money depending on how highly leveraged a company’s designers are. Thus, its business doesn’t scale to how many designers are in an organization; it scales to how connected those designers are to the organization.

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InVision’s biggest clients are companies such as Uber, Airbnb, and Capital One, which each have less than a couple hundred designers–but also a cast of thousands who actively comment upon and seek to improve the designs the company makes.

In that way, InVision is radically different from Photoshop or Sketch. As Valberg says, the company didn’t start as “a design for designers.” “The real question behind InVision is, ‘How do you turn a screen into a conversation inside the business,” Valberg explains. “Companies such as Adobe aren’t focused on the generational shift in how digital product is made.” (Adobe disagrees, saying that contention is “factually inaccurate,” pointing to their own investments in Creative Cloud and XD.) Slack was another product emblematic of a new mode of working–one that’s relatively flat, where people speak person to person, as opposed to the top-down, delegation model implied by email. Valberg thinks InVision represents a new ideal about innovation–one having to do with “organizational diversity” that allows anyone to contribute to an idea being born. “Being user-centric is about having as much of your company’s intellectual brain power focused on what the customer sees,” says Valberg. “It’s a whole new type of leadership.”

Which brings us back to the price of Studio, the product that InVision believes will decimate Adobe XD, Sketch, and all their affiliated work flows. Where those other companies are trying to make money off of the software itself, InVision will being giving Studio away; the key to the strategy is that Studio integrates with InVision, and so makes designs presumably more shareable. That’s where InVision makes money. Studio, and the designers who might use it, are Trojan horses. So on the one hand, while Adobe and Sketch and InVision seem to be locked in mortal combat for the same users, it can also seem that they’re completely different companies altogether. We shall see if InVision really can own the future that’s already here, one in which ideas have countless parents, where companies live and die by how well they can marshal all their employees toward a single ideal. After all, nothing is easier to copy than an idea.

About the author

Cliff is director of product innovation at Fast Company, founding editor of Co.Design, and former design editor at both Fast Company and Wired.

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