Moving from “Quick-Fix Usability” to “Product-Shaping Usability” at Dropbox
If you want to be really thorough with your evaluative research—run your usability tests over weeks, not hours.
Words by Tony Ho Tran, Visuals by Nicole Antonuccio
For more than a decade, Dropbox has provided users with the ability to store, share, and collaborate on their files. However, it wasn’t until fall 2019 that they released a desktop app.
With it, they hoped to bring their platform from a background experience to a foreground experience, which required a lot of coordination, and a fundamental shift in how their users navigated the product.
We talked with Design Researcher Meghan Earley about how Dropbox met user needs by going beyond standard usability testing—leveraging video and diary studies to look longitudinally. As a result, they gained more confidence in their issue reports and saw increased investment from their stakeholders.
...a design researcher on Dropbox's newest desktop app. Having previously worked in research at Slack, she’s well versed in shaping user-centric B2B products.
User research at Dropbox is…
...made up of 30 UXRs embedded in cross-functional teams. Due to Dropbox’s emphasis on innovation and product ideation, there are enough product teams for UXRs to “own their own areas.” This gives their researchers a lot of agency.
People use Dropbox in browser to host and share files—relegating it to more passive, background usage. So when the company began development of their new desktop app, they strived to create a single workspace for users to organize their content, connect their tools, and bring their teammates together.
“We hoped desktop app would, as a foreground service, provide more value and flexibility,” says Meghan.
But when you build a product for more flexible and frequent usage—you have to be sure that it’ll work as intended. And to be confident that it’ll work as intended, the insights that you need are often more extensive than what you could gleam from a typical usability test.
As the only UXR on the product team spearheading the project, Meghan sought out a way to manage the demands of the project without having to scale her research team.
On top of that, since usability testing limited the scope of insights and data she could gain, she needed a way to look longitudinally at other issues that might arise with the product.
And so, she turned to dscout.
“I looked at dscout because we wanted to do a longitudinal study,” she says. “It was the first time we had people using the product outside of interviewing and concept testing. So we really wanted to get a sense for their day-to-day: How are they interacting with this app, and what are their attitudes towards it?”
“We were hoping to get some in-context feedback; we needed participants to submit surveys in the moment they were doing things. That made a major impact in our attempts to understand what the real issues were.”
We were hoping to get some in-context feedback; we needed participants to submit surveys in the moment they were doing things. That made a major impact in our attempts to understand what the real issues were.
The Dropbox study took four weeks total—longer than most. However, the length was necessary for the type of insights Dropbox was looking for, as well as the product they wanted to release.
“We kept it pretty open-ended in the beginning,” Meghan says, “We didn't want people to feel like they were doing something right or wrong. We really just wanted to be a fly on the wall and understand what was going on. For the first part of the study we said: ‘Whenever you do something in the new app, send us a post about your experience.’ So we got a description of what the user did, whether or not they accomplished what they were trying to do, and their additional thoughts. What we found particularly helpful was to ask for this feedback in the form of short videos.”
The second half of the study was more straightforward. Participants were sent specific survey-like questions asking about different parts of the product. And as the study concluded, Meghan conducted a Live mission—pulling specific users in for 1:1 interviews about their experience.
“The interviews were nice because we already had so much context,” Meghan says. “They were really efficient. You can get straight to the heart of things after having heard from this person on dscout for the past four weeks.”
Using [dscout] was also a great way—one of the best ways I think—that I’ve been able to involve stakeholders in the process.
Meghan: “The ease with which dscout allows you to send comments to your participants was really helpful for us. People were putting a decent amount of time into this study over the course of the four weeks and we wanted to make them feel heard and appreciated.
The ability to ask for more detail on something that they reported was also really useful. But really, being able to leave quick comments was primarily important in that it allowed us to really connect as opposed to just asking people to send us all these things for four weeks.
Using [dscout] was also a great way—one of the best ways I think—that I've been able to involve stakeholders in the process. I could give designers, engineers and PM's temporary access so that they could also communicate directly with participants through comments.
All this was on the stakeholders’ time too. Sometimes it can be hard to work out timing if stakeholders want to shadow interviews, but the fact that it was asynchronous—that they could just hop on and see what people are posting and send them comments whenever they had time—was helpful.”
Research Tip 2: Speak their (body) language
Meghan: “Getting a glimpse of the users’ body language on video was really enlightening because we really care about their attitude and their perception—particularly when it’s a new product. Being able to see their body language was the best way of understanding that. It also just provided way more color and detail.
[The users’ videos] were pretty authentic too. Some people couldn't take videos in certain environments, like if they're on an open floor plan in an office. But otherwise I think when people were in a space where they could record themselves, it felt more real.”
Leaning on dscout’s platform, Dropbox was able to conduct a longer study and expanded the breadth of their insights as a result.
“dscout offered us a complete understanding,” Meghan says. “Usability problems are glaringly important from an evaluative perspective. In a typical usability test, we'll see someone encounter something once over the course of an interview. But when we're seeing people encountering things over and over, it's definitely a signal that they're more important.”
This allowed Dropbox to address those issues, and address areas in which they could really impact their users’ needs.
“We identified some key problems pertaining to the new functionality that we're adding. We're adding features to help people collaborate and work with each other better. And there were some pretty key blockers to people being able to do that.”
“So identifying that has informed our design direction and understanding what we need to do in order to help people collaborate more in Dropbox.”
Insights limited by inability to see users interact with product
The team wasn't sure how people were using the new app as part of their everyday work
The team could watch users interact with their product on video as well as observe their thoughts on diary entries
Usability issues became much more apparent and recognizable through repeated study of the user
Stakeholders had the opportunity to interact and engage with the product in the context of their work
The team gained a better understanding for how the new app fits into people's everyday workflows.
Tony Ho Tran is a freelance journalist based in Chicago. His articles have appeared in Huff Post, Business Insider, Growthlab, and wherever else fine writing is published.
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