Getting co-creative with research

Illustration by Fanny Luor

In the last few years at Dropbox, we’ve introduced features that help people work together, not just store their finished work. We ask questions like, how might we help people coordinate less, and get more focused creative time? How can we help people work the way that they want? How can we be conscientious of people’s attention?

The answers to these questions are in the spaces between the tools people use, and how people relate and work together. Finding answers means coming up with new ideas that fit how folks work today. The networks people collaborate within are complex and nuanced. What we might design for a feedback conversation between close-knit collaborators probably isn’t a good fit for a new client and a freelancer. These are nuanced problems that are important to solve thoughtfully.

Complex problems demand our design process become more inclusive and generative. To design resonant, useful solutions, we need to rely on the expertise of the people who will use what we make. One of the approaches we’re using for this is to bring the people we design for into the design process itself.

Research that values all people’s meaningful contributions to the design process

It’s not unusual to ask users to weigh in on ideas we’ve already defined. But what about bringing them in to generate ideas with us? When we ideate together, we can learn what people hope for themselves, not just what’s possible today. We’re borrowing from participatory design techniques to make research more collaborative, inclusive, and strategic. After all, the people we design for are best suited to tell us what they know, feel, and value. Creating together gives us access to a different level of insight we couldn’t get from other techniques.

All people are able to bring creative contributions to design processes.
Convivial Toolbox

This type of research creates opportunities for our product and design teams to come along with us too. When we ideate with the people we design for, our teams can be in the room or even part of the process. Everyone learns at the same time. Beautiful reports become just that — beautiful reports — but co-creative research gives teams embodied knowledge that they’re excited to share with the rest of the company. This is what we mean by co-creative research: Designing research so that the people we design for (and with) can express themselves, learn something, and create together.

Make things with people to identify where opportunities are

Co-creative research is about enabling non-designers to do design with you. This includes identifying the problem. We need to make it easy for people with professions totally different from ours to express themselves about what their work is like. This way, as designers we can create more thoughtfully and accurately when we design for the complexity of people’s work. We’ve found success using maps inspired by a day-in-the-life exercise to quickly see what people are experiencing.

We ask people to map out a project with us from start to finish. We can see how they think of their projects in their own terms. Then, participants use a red marker to show which parts are most irksome. In this example, dots also reveal which phases many people share.

An example of a project map. Red areas indicate where there are opportunities!

We like to use sticky notes so people can move them around. Red shows us which parts are difficult, in context with the whole project. This activity helps prime participants to talk about why something is hard. We use maps like this at the beginning of a conversation so we can dive deep into the peaks and valleys of their overall experience at work.

We also ask people to summarize the biggest problem in their own words. Below is a tweet-sized description:

Another customer sums up the impact of the problem on their work

These statements are clear and concise. They hold up well when we present to teammates who weren’t in the room. And they make excellent prompts when we ideate solutions!

Make things with people to define and discover solutions

We’re excited to turn our findings into helpful solutions. When we can, we ask users to go through this process with us. It’s important to give people a voice to define problems as they experience them, and what they want to do instead. We want to know what the solution should enable them to do.

When we designed our new homepage for, we wanted to know what would be valuable for people when they signed in beyond what we had already. People can only use our products as they’re currently designed, and we needed them to imagine something that didn’t exist yet. And, we needed a shared language for people to express what it should look like.

We chose to use a tactile UI kit. This means we printed out common elements that would be familiar to our participants. We printed symbols and elements that we thought would be likely, as well as what we thought might be unlikely wildcards. This way, we could challenge our own assumptions about what people needed.

A subset of rough UI elements we cut up for the redesign

We primed people by asking them to give us tours of how they use Dropbox on the web. With their goals and pain points in mind, we then asked them to design. Participants moved paper UI elements around to illustrate their ideal homepage experience. As they manipulated the pieces, we asked them to explain their reasoning. Our goal was to base our final design on their motivations, not replicate their designs.

An example how one participant used pins to create a section of shortcuts

After a few participants, we began to see themes. People tried to create shortcuts on their homepage to folders and files using the pin emoji. For them, these folders and files were previously hard to find. This was the impetus for us creating starred files and folders, which is available today.

This method works for many open-ended projects. We created a magnetic version that translates to other surfaces — like mobile — so we can reuse it. Our audience is comfortable with common-place icons and screens. These are some of our favorite tools to spark a conversation about what’s possible.

Our reusable, grab-and-go magnetic co-design kit with UI elements

Learning from our mistakes and successes

We’ve been around the block a few times, and have some tips for doing this effectively. This kind of generative research isn’t appropriate for every project, but a co-creative mindset is.

  • Set goals for the participants’ experience.
    What should time spent with your team feel like for an outside participant? What should they walk away knowing or thinking? We meet with people because they have knowledge about topics we care about. They deserve a thoughtful experience with our design team that reflects this. We often tell share our goals with the participant at the beginning of the session.
  • Give participants time to prepare.
    Don’t expect revelations without giving people time to think. We like to give people prompts before they even come in. This is great for any research that doesn’t rely on first impressions like, “What are people doing?” or “What’s important to people?” We can ask folks to bring in a photo or think of a story relevant to our topic. Then, it’s easy to jump into conversation, and get real world examples about peoples’ lives.
  • Create a shared language with tactile UI kits.
    Most of the people we interview use software all day. Many icons and buttons are familiar: These become a shared language. We use magnetic UI kits as a tool to help people talk about their goals. If someone could put a button here, what would it do? Where would it go? What would they take away? We can reuse these kits for many different research questions.
  • Use metaphors to make meaning.
    Metaphors are one of our favorite ways to understand how people perceive their lives. If somebody describes their team using the metaphor of a town, who on their team is the police? Who’s the crossing guard? How do we design for those roles? We can use metaphors that share cultural significance to understand one another quickly. A couple of my colleagues will be blogging about this soon!

When we invite users (and our teammates) into the generative side of design, everyone benefits. Our users can express themselves in a more inclusive way. We learn what people’s goals and aspirations are — not just what they do today. Our teams benefit, too: They can learn what people think and feel in a way that feels relatable and embodied; and ultimately create more resonant products.

Much of the work we’ve been exploring leans on decades of participatory design research and practice. We’re especially inspired and informed thanks to Liz Sanders and Pieter Jan Stappers, and their book Convivial Toolbox.

Want more from the Dropbox Design team? Follow our publication, Twitter, and Dribbble. Let’s co-create together: We’re hiring in New York and San Francisco!