Simple products for (many) users

How to go from diverse user needs to flexible product experiences

How do you feel about collaborating? No, wait. How do you really feel about it?

Teams collaborate more than ever to solve tougher and tougher problems. Team members are scattered across cities, and the conversations about the content feel scattered. Solving problems with a team can be incredibly satisfying, but the process of working together can feel really hard.

At Dropbox, we believe that the experience of working together on stuff should feel effortless and fun — and that people should feel creative and satisfied at work. But a manager, a maker, and an IT admin all have different needs. Designing simple product experiences for one type of user is hard enough. Designing simple experiences for many users with different needs can be even tougher. So, how do we manage this complexity?

Here are some techniques we use to get to simple:

1. Thoughtfully prioritize your users and their needs

Here’s the Dropbox administrator console, which helps an IT administrator manage a team’s Dropbox account.

Dropbox administrator console

Design challenge: Give IT administrators security features that they need in a way that feels invisible and maintains ease of use for end users.

For each new feature we integrate into the administrator experience, we align across engineering, product, and design around the following areas:

  • Get clear on the users: Which types of users will this experience/feature impact?
  • List user needs: What does each type of user need and how important is this feature to them? Which of these needs are most important to each user type? Does the addition of the feature harm the experience for any users?
  • Prioritize needs: If there are conflicting needs, which users’ needs should we prioritize? Why?
  • Identify constraints and creative solutions: What are the constraints? Are there any constraints that we can shift? Can we re-frame the problem to make a better experience for all users?

Answering these questions creates the clarity and alignment necessary to execute a simple product experience, even when your users have needs that seem to conflict.

A specific example is a feature for IT administrators called “device approval.” For security reasons, some companies need to limit the number of computers and mobile devices that their employees can use to access Dropbox. We decided to provide the functionality that IT administrators need but a default experience that is best for end users. This meant giving IT administrators the ability to limit devices that can access Dropbox with a default state of unlimited connected computers and mobile devices:

Admin controls in Dropbox with default states that create flexible end-user experiences

What is useful to one type of user can — and often should — feel invisible to another.

2. For brand-new products, distill the product’s primary purpose

For new products, once we’ve settled on the user that is most important to design for first and understand their needs, it’s important to distill which behavior to encourage most.

Design Challenge: Design a product (Dropbox Paper) to encourage lightweight content creation and collaboration (co-creation).

Our view was that co-creation is most important for early or unfinished ideas and that the most important thing to do with early work is to get an idea onto the page, share early, and share often. This drove many of the design decisions in Paper:

The cheeky gray default prompts on each new doc encourage you not to overthink when you get started with a blank canvas. “Share” is the only visible call to action. The people you share the Paper document with are immediately visible on the top of the page.

New canvas in Paper

If you @mention a person, the document is shared, and you can easily reply with words, a lightweight emoji, or a sticker.

Fluidly sharing and commenting in Paper

Paper is meant to help people share ideas early and collaborate, so every product and design decision reinforces those behaviors by breaking down the barriers to collaboration.

A clear purpose enables us to create a North Star that the whole team can rally around, keep any V1 product simple, and communicate a product’s purpose through its design. It also makes it easier to say no to features that don’t matter and identify ones that do for the future.

3. Use design systems to help ensure the right types of users experience the right features

More and more, we find ourselves designing for teams at work with different roles and needs: individual contributors, managers, IT administrators, contractors, clients, and more. And often, each feature we build only applies to subsets of these folks or a subset of Dropbox offerings. So how do we approach user education for new features that don’t apply to everyone?

Design challenge: Give Dropbox users information on new features that are most relevant to them (and not for ones that are irrelevant).

A great example is Smart Sync, a recently-launched feature that gives you access to all your Dropbox files on your computer without filling up your hard drive. Some people really care about this feature. However, a lot of people don’t have limited hard drive space, so they really don’t care about this feature. We needed a system to decide what features to educate which users about.

Smart sync to send your files to the cloud

The design team created a system of rules to determine who to tell about what features. They shared this system throughout Dropbox so that all product teams can use it as a reference. This prevents individual teams from having to analyze who should see a given feature and why — and the final product feels simpler, more streamlined, and intentional. Here’s an illustrative example of how a team would use this system to decide whether and how to build in user education about a new feature.

Decision trees help teams across the company make consistent decisions

We have learned to never underestimate the importance of establishing systems to manage complexity and create a consistent and simple product experience across teams and organizational divisions. This has been especially true for horizontal initiatives with people across the company.


Keep learning and iterating

As designers, we know that the people who use our products matter most. Continuing to learn about the people we design for and make tough decisions about what needs to prioritize allows us to design streamlined products that make working together feel more fun, more creative, and more rewarding.

We know that this challenge has only begun for us as we continue to venture into building tools for collaborating on content within a company. We are excited to continue to learn and challenge our own assumptions to make work and collaboration feel as seamless and simple as possible.


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