5 Factors for Crafting a Thriving Virtual Community
The most surprising thing about building a virtual writing community at Dropbox was how well it worked.
Written by Sudipti Garvey and Karina Nguyen — Illustration by Pedro del Corro
March 19, 2021
When we, Sudipti and Karina, started a summer internship at Dropbox, we found ourselves constantly referring back to Dropbox’s principles because we kept finding them in the work we did.
In a design craft, it is essential to keep in mind a set of established principles. With each iteration, you have to ask yourself if your designs speak truth to the core values of the company or project you’re working on. With this article, we would like to share how we incorporated those principles in our own internship projects.
In the context of content storage, one of our greatest challenges today is that we’re overwhelmed with content. We see it everywhere—on TV, social media, apps, etc.—and through a variety of mediums—like print or digital, audio or video, etc. We’ve gotten to a point where we’re literally creating something like 2.5 quintillion bytes of unstructured (content we’re creating that’s unique) data every single day. That size of data may be hard to visualize, but to put it simply, this is an absolutely unmanageable scale of content creation that we can’t keep up with. Dropbox plays a key role in this space—while we allow users to store content and collaborate across their teams, we need a better way to manage all the unique, unstructured content we’re creating.
Identifying this problem space is how we arrived at the goal of solving for “user-generated metadata.” While it’s a lofty title on its own, it essentially refers to the unstructured content we’re creating that gives clues as to what a file or piece of content is about. We organize our Dropbox files in a million different ways, and we call them a million different names. So, the goal of my project was to find some alignment in all the different ways your team calls something “project 1,” “first project,” “project-01-01-2020,” etc.
The research question, then, was, “How can we find alignment in all the different ways we assign meaning to a file?” Because this was a really large problem space to work in, we knew we wouldn’t get it right the first time. So, we resolved to start with custom tagging, which gave us the ability to see how people use tags. We could later develop a broader roadmap based on what we learn from custom tagging.
As I developed the MVP, there were so many moments when I wanted to add some cool feature that our competitors had, or I discovered a user need that we might have neglected, but it was incredibly important to maintain that initial project scope by reminding myself that the MVP really only needs a few things to be successful:
Understanding which part of the design process to focus on in order to tackle the problem space
The project seems so simple once you dial the concept down to something like “filters” or “tagging,” but, man, school doesn’t teach you anything about all the smaller details that we so often overlook. In school, you’ll casually redesign an entire website in a few weeks’ time and call it a day. In the real world, you realize there’s so much more depth to a product experience. For example, not only are we designing for the way someone creates a tag, but we’re also trying to figure out how this affects the experience of searching for files, or how it changes the way you might preview a file. Every seemingly minuscule change you make can create a number of new questions that need answering, especially as the change can affect features that overlap with yours. To avoid getting lost in the ocean of feedback you’re going to get, it becomes increasingly important to have a simple target in mind of what you’re designing for.
There were multiple times that I came across a creative block, like how to move forward when there’s a bunch of ideas on the table, or how to manage expectations while dealing with such a complex problem. It was in times like these that the Dropbox value of teamwork really shined. I realized that a great project or a great workplace has less to do with how cool the project looks or sounds, and more to do with the people you’re designing for and with—how they support you in your daily challenges, help unlock your blocks, and make you feel like you can tackle anything.
“Slow is smooth and smooth is fast.”
This quote has military origins—it’s meant to help with combat situations where you might not have enough time to think through your next steps. The idea is that you’ll be more successful if your moves are more deliberate, rather than acting with urgency but not assessing your situation.
These thoughts are from a chat I had with Jay Stakelon about that unhealthy aspiration we all have with working harder than we can actually handle. I was struggling with a fear of burning out while trying to gauge a proper balance between what was expected of me, and what my limits were. Jay helped me realize that it doesn’t really matter how much work I get done super quickly if I can’t sustain it. It’s way more valuable to build sustainable work habits so that you can consistently perform at your best. This might sound like common sense, but it’s one of those things you don’t realize until you catch yourself, completely green to a field and feeling like you have something to to prove, wanting to impress your coworkers and team yet considering your own sanity and well-being.
I felt super lucky to be at a company where sustainable work habits and maintaining a healthy work/life balance were actually things my leadership and peers would call me out on. I can’t tell you how many times someone corrected my habits with reminders like, “Monday’s a day off, do not work Monday,” or the genuine encouragement to get outside on my weekends and take time away from my work. I kind of hate that this is unique and not the standard everywhere, but props to Dropbox for leading that charge. It was really cool to see a company not only talk about human-centered values, but also lead by example.
“You’re only as good as your last game.”
While this quote may have traditionally had more to do with celebrities and athletes, its meaning is universal. It basically suggests that you’ll only ever be remembered for your last few achievements, so it’s not worth holding onto the past. Rather, it might be more worthwhile to focus on goals of what you can achieve in the future. The topic came up during an intern lunch with Alastair Simpson, VP of Product Design, where we discussed what kind of impression you have as a new employee, onboarding remotely.
I was really worried about building the ideal first impression because it was my first job in product design, but I couldn’t figure out what’s too much and what’s enough. After our discussion, I realized that first impressions don’t matter as much as I once thought. I kept thinking I needed to build some type of reputation to carry me forward, but especially now, a few months after the internship, I’m realizing it means absolutely nothing. No matter how impressive your past projects, or what you did last summer—nobody’s going to remember it, and you’re only hurting yourself by trying to find comfort in a reputation. The way I see it, if you focus on your goals and what you’re working towards, you’ll never have to worry about your reputation because you’ll always be striving for your best anyway. Nobody (not even your hyper-judgmental inner monologue) can really criticize you for trying your best. This is something I think back on often, when I find myself frustrated at a lack of growth or change… It reminds me to stop looking back at what I’ve done before, and to start thinking about what I want to do next.
“The thing that you’re working on is not gonna last.”
This quote is from a talk I had with Jen Pearce when I asked about how to make sure to address all the possible angles and ask the most critical questions in a project. I remember that Jen first heard this quote from someone else, but held onto it because it resonated with her. It also really stuck with me. Jen said that what means the most in your career are the people you work with, and the things you learn from them, not so much what you ship or how good your project is (because, chances are, your project will probably change or be handed off to another team soon after you design it, anyway). I took this to mean that it’s so much more worthwhile to build relationships and learn about the people you’re working with, or designing for, because I think the best work you can do is shaped by the people you meet and how they inspire you. The more time you spend learning about the world and all of the people around you, the more it’ll reflect in the dynamism of the work you create.
We are surrounded by all kinds of digital technologies that are intended to simplify our lives, and yet we still feel we don’t have enough time. As much as we are surrounded by different resources, like energy or time, we neglect another resource that is becoming very limited nowadays— attention. Even the phrase “paying attention” hides the metaphoric meaning of the value. There are lots of research studies showing that humans can have only 4—6 hours a day of concentrated attention. It is also called “the state of total focus,” or “the flow state.” It takes approximately 15 minutes for people to focus attention in order to get into their flow state. And for me, those 15 minutes is what “fostering focus” entails. It means minimizing external distractions, reducing attention switchers, and maximizing human-expected utility of time. My work at Dropbox was essentially focused on enabling users to do so.
At UC Berkeley, I mainly study the ethical implications of emerging tech by exploring the technical details of understanding how fairness is defined in machine learning, as well as future applications of cutting-edge research. However, I think it’s equally important to focus on the impacts of already-existing technologies in our society. This internship was a great way for me to realize how challenging it might be to do so.
My project was to design a notification control system so that users could manage their volume in a simple and enlightened way. I think one of the biggest takeaways from it was to understand how current technology can adapt to human context. Just as we communicate with each other, depending on a certain situation and setting, technology should equally adapt and respect user context. This is the essence of ethics here—how do you make sure you allow just the right amount of control and choice to mitigate unintended consequences, so that everything aligns with user importance, minimizing interruptions?
I find a lot of analogies between doing design and practicing data science. Both try to investigate the most optimal model solution in a given context and make predictions by relying on the same human data, while dealing with uncertainty. In data science, there is a concept called bias-variance tradeoff—by reducing bias, you are increasing variance, thereby causing your machine learning model to become more complex. And, therefore, there is a risk of overfitting data because you are capturing “noise,” which will ultimately produce biased predictions. You try to estimate the uncertainty or, at least, find the pattern in random things to validate your choices.
Design is similar. How might we have a focused, yet simple solution with intention, capturing just the right amount of contextual pattern and user relevancy, without trading off the complexity of design? Design is scientific, and requires critical thinking. You are estimating uncertainty to validate your choices through hypotheses or user stories, while evaluating the implications of those.In other words, you are capturing certain patterns in human behavior and reimagining them. I think that’s what I essentially learned abstractly, in addition to some practical things, while collaborating with UX writers, design researchers, product managers, and data scientists.
How has your background informed the way you think about ethics, technology, and design?
I was born and raised in Ukraine, in Eastern Europe. In general, there are no big tech companies there, but there is an increasing awareness around GDPR and tech regulation, focusing on open-source research around technology and its societal implications, through such organizations like Tactical Tech. I remember being a part of the European Youth Parliament, where we would apply human-centered thinking to shape future EU policies in economic development, technology, and sustainability. This has definitely helped me with systems thinking in design at large.
While working at Dropbox on notifications and volume management, there was an intricate conversation about measuring the success of such—when a user engages with notifications, does it mean that something distracts them, or are they proactive in controlling their digital workflow? I definitely learned that, no matter how we measure its effectiveness, users have to have an agency of choice for a seamless digital experience to both get them into a flow state and augment their collaboration.
As human contexts change over time, so does the way we think about various meanings of computing and software. Now, it’s not enough to have tools just for storing or automation; as I illustrated in my work reimagining Terminal and Human Rights Center, we want tools to enable us to do something that wouldn’t be possible otherwise, thus “augmenting our creativity and imagination.” One of my closest friends once wrote, “When a tool makes something so much more radically efficient that it becomes effortless, it also gives birth to a new medium.” (Source)
Researching on affective computing, STS, and reinforcement learning taught me that the non-neutral nature of technology puts a great responsibility on us as designers, engineers, and users. Some of the greatest opportunities to advance human rights involve the use of new technologies; however, if poorly designed, or in the wrong hands, those technologies can harm people in ways that undermine rights. I started a little newsletter, where I write articles on such topics. Some of the recent ones are, “How does VR affect our society, emotionally and ethically?” as well as “From the History of Social Networks to a Machine Learning Harassment.”
What’s next for us?
Karina: I love deepening my mind into understanding and ethically designing human contexts in digital spaces, as well as deconstructing the intricate relationship between ethics and emerging technologies. This requires a tight collaboration between multiple disciplines in order to shape and invent the future. My experiences with product design and engineering in industry, AI and ethics research in academia, and experimental projects in free time help me enormously to do so. I am very grateful to everyone who has ever supported me or opened the door—friends and family, mentors, managers (shout-out to Sam, Chelsi, Seth, and Michelle), recruiters (Lucy and Veronica!), teachers, and professors. I am currently designing and performing front-end engineering at the New York Times. If you would like to learn more about my work, feel free to visit my website or reach out!
Sudipti: It’s been a while since summer now, but with quarantine still in full force, everything continues to feel really uncertain. I’m mostly trying to find comfort in the things that are going well, and looking forward to things I want to learn more about. I’m currently working on my capstone project, where I’m exploring a discursive design project centered on networked thought and how people perceive saving, remembering, and recalling content. We’re currently working on finalizing research and developing our design proposal for next quarter, but I can’t wait to see what comes out of it in the next few months. I’m also taking part in a research project with our department head to explore how we can work with local communities to track climate change (environmental justice projects are my JAM), with a focus on western cedar tree dieback and indigenous communities. Beyond all of that, I’m looking for a full-time role after graduation! ✨ I’m always happy to meet new people and learn their stories—shoot me an email or check out my work here.
The most surprising thing about building a virtual writing community at Dropbox was how well it worked.
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