Design research at Dropbox

How to win friends and influence product

Every researcher wants to have impact. If research sits in a drawer, unused and unappreciated, nobody’s happy — not researchers and certainly not the organizations they support. Making research actionable and influential is a problem we all share, and there are countless approaches to solving it. What works?

At Dropbox, the Design Research team is actively designing our approach to influencing the organization. Is it perfect? Not a chance. But we’re committed to relationships as the foundational prerequisite for knowledge creation. The most actionable kind of understanding isn’t externalized in reports and fact nuggets; it’s about people — our conversations, connections, and contexts.

So how do you design a research team around relationships? We’ve identified three key points of leverage: connecting to the organization by embedding in product teams, collaborating closely with stakeholders through facilitation techniques, and systematically bringing researchers from different product areas together to address key strategic questions.

Connect to the organization by embedding in product teams

Our researchers sit with product teams and are dedicated to their concerns. Up close, we can see the uncertainties that slow teams down. We can help surface questions people didn’t even know they had.

Anybody jumping onto a team for the first time knows — it’s incredibly hard to establish a shared history and get the right amount of context. When we’re embedded, we don’t have to spend a lot of time getting up to speed. We know what the team has considered before, so our research is better able to get to the heart of the question.

And, finally, embedded researchers accumulate knowledge that makes them more valuable to their collaborators over time. When related questions emerge or the roadmap shifts, we can make recommendations based on what we already know. Research reports can be beautifully written and organized, but the most flexible knowledge is in people’s heads.

To be able to embed, researchers need to have a broad, foundational level of research skill. Researchers will always have strengths and specialities, and those specialists should always be there to support and mentor the rest of the team on complex skills. But embedded researchers need to be confident in core research approaches and be capable of effectively seeking help from specialists when research problems become especially tricky. So while skills are always an important hiring criteria, being an active and self-aware learner is often even more important.

Collaborate with stakeholders through facilitation techniques

We believe research projects are an experience that can be thoughtfully designed and facilitated. Research isn’t just a report. Product teams need to actively engage in the sense-making process, and they need to apply what they’re learning to the problems they’re personally facing. Product teams need to make something with the knowledge that research creates.

Our stakeholders engage with us throughout the process and share ownership in our discoveries. We bring methodological and process expertise to our partnerships. Our stakeholders bring their own unique disciplinary strengths and domain expertise. We facilitate a collaborative process that leverages the superpower that each discipline brings to the table.

Some researchers might protest that all this coordination — back-and-forth between the different disciplines — slows research timelines down. We get it! It can be harder to collaborate with others than to work independently. But it really speeds things up when you’re trying to communicate your final takeaways. When a team is involved in research all along the way, everyone owns the findings, sees clear implications, and can make efficient decisions. These partners become advocates for the research, able to speak to learnings amongst their peers, reducing the burden on the researcher in disseminating the findings across the organization.

To effectively influence product teams, it’s not enough to describe the complexity in people’s behavior or to enumerate an interface’s usability problems. At Dropbox, we don’t give our product teams a score and a list of to-dos, and walk away. We solve problems and articulate a path forward.

Bring researchers together to address key strategic concerns

The embedded model can produce a lot of quick, but relatively small, research studies. One of the key risks of the embedded model is that individual researchers each go heads-down with their product teams, and the research team as a whole starts to miss a broader understanding of the problem space.

To directly connect researchers across product teams, we organize strategic research projects on a quarterly basis that explicitly pair researchers who haven’t worked together before. This develops relationships and aligns thinking across different parts of the organization. It helps us get out ahead of fast-paced product teams to do critical, strategic work. And it’s also a beautiful opportunity for researchers to expand their skill set by working with people with different specialties.

On a quarterly basis, we also prioritize creating summary docs for key domain areas (for example, what do we know about how people share with Dropbox). We sometimes pool research findings from multiple studies and run workshops that help interdisciplinary groups of people process the patterns we’ve seen across time, geographies, and user types. Connecting researchers in different parts of the organization requires explicit prioritization, but it’s just as important as producing new findings. Partnerships amongst researchers distribute and unify knowledge about our product and the people who use it, making our team more efficient in the long run.


Understanding people is both what we do and how we do it

Our goal as design researchers is to improve people’s experience with our product by understanding their goals and values. We’re all about people! So to design a better, more influential design research team, we start by being intentional about our relationships — across the organization, within product teams, and with one another.

So that’s what the Dropbox Design Research team is all about. These three principles and the freedom to change our minds if we find a better way! We’re always interested in how you’re approaching research integration in your organization. Feel free to reach out with questions, comments, and your best practices.

Want more from the Dropbox Design team? Follow our publication, Twitter, and Dribbble. Want to make magic together? We’re hiring!