On our last day in the field, the group decided to take a short trip to the Taipei Fine Arts Museum. One of the many exhibits was entitled code-verse, by the artist Ryoji Ikeda. The exhibit itself was intense. Walking into a large room, the viewer was overwhelmed by an immense screen with lights and sound coming from every corner.

code-verse, an interactive installation by artist Ryoji Ikeda, at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum in Taiwan
code-verse, an interactive installation by artist Ryoji Ikeda, at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum in Taiwan

I could stand in the room for only about three minutes, but in that time I was struck by a notion—that immersing oneself in the aesthetics of a culture can tell you so much about a region: its values, beliefs, operating systems. My second thought: If my job as a researcher and ethnographer for a global campaign is to bring customers’ experiences inside our walls so that Dropboxers can learn from them, shouldn’t I be doing more to immerse my coworkers in those experiences?

The Design Research team at Dropbox interviewed locals in user focus groups in Taipei, Taiwan.
The Design Research team at Dropbox interviewed locals in user focus groups in Taipei, Taiwan.

Fast-forward to December, when Design Research at Dropbox hosted its first-ever design installation, The World@Work, which featured images, videos, and tactile interactive pieces representing how people all over the world work and how they use our product. As you can see from the photos, the setup was complex and centered around a physical focal point: a cluster of colored lights that represented the global collective of people who are connected via the cloud.

The World@Work installation
The World@Work installation at Dropbox HQ in San Francisco, December 2019 – Photography by Megan Bayley

Surrounding this installation were workstations with consoles where people could sit at and view video content “from a different perspective.” The desks on display were a microcosm of a country’s cultural values, collapsing borders to materialize the collaboration and interactivity of cloud computing. They demonstrated values around work, personal expression, and the impact of culture on attitudes toward collaboration, both in person and via the cloud.

Iris Lin, product designer at Dropbox, interacts with The World@Work – Photograph by Megan Bayley
Iris Lin, product designer at Dropbox, interacts with The World@Work – Photograph by Megan Bayley

On a practical level, these spaces also represented hardware and software preferences and constraints for each of the three countries represented: Taiwan, Germany, and India. Taiwan, for example, is similar to the US in users’ preference for Apple products, but reliance on the cloud for primary storage is different. India, meanwhile, has high rates of use for PCs and Android-based products. In addition, the installation consisted of projection screens, monitors, material items, audio, and artworks to help immerse the audience in the work lives of other cultures.

But how did this work come together?

First, we recognized that doing a large-scale immersive experience would require partnerships with companies that are well versed in creating these types of installations. We ended up working with two companies, Digital Ambiance and Citizen Research, and a curator, Barrak Alzaid, who provided the creative direction and set pieces. Fuel came from findings by Dropbox that are based on fieldwork and quantitative research into how people work and connect with each other around the world.

From here the team spent four weeks creating mood boards, artifacts, and a vision for how we would use the space available to us at Dropbox headquarters. As you can see in the schematic below, the installation took advantage of the room’s square shape and created a focal point in the center (the cluster of colored lights), which drew in visitors and encouraged them to spend time learning from our global customers.

Floor plan for The World @ Work

Once the team had settled on the design, each partner went about executing their respective assignments. My job was to supervise the day-in-the-life videos that were shown at each workstation. I concentrated on bringing each customer’s story to the screen, showing not only how they use tools and software throughout the day, but also how they feel about these services and how their use reflects the culture and industry in which they work. Most of the featured users had a visceral relationship with their tools, whether it be WhatsApp, Dropbox Paper, or a personal phone. While we often think of tools as perfunctory assets—performing a job or service that assists with more-meaningful work or personal tasks—this research reminds us that tools also reflect a user’s identity and how they see themselves operating in the world. The team then spent several more weeks gathering materials, including props and software, in advance of the exhibit’s opening in December.

While we expected the heaviest traffic to come during the opening-night reception, we actually found that most people wanted to interact with the exhibit on their own or in small groups. We heard of many teams hosting their weekly meetings in the exhibit space, and of managers taking one or two team members to the exhibit and having a discussion afterward about how it pertained to their own projects. Others came individually, over a few days, between meetings, at lunchtime, stealing 10 minutes here or there to share our customers’ experiences in a new way.

Was it successful?

Before Design Research embarked on this project, we asked ourselves how we’d define success. The criteria we used were (1) internal attendance, (2) qualitative feedback via surveys and interviews, and (3) whether colleagues learned anything new about our customers around the world. While the first criterion exceeded expectations—with more than 60% attendance among employees at Dropbox headquarters—results for the latter criterion were more nebulous. One researcher noted, “The installation inspired participants to search for differences between the international market and Dropbox’s commonly targeted US audience,” but “people wished for more guidance from the exhibit.” While there were curatorial statements and some Easter eggs hidden on desks, we realized eventually that this had not been a typical art exhibit. That is, people came not only to see, feel, and taste what it is like to work in other countries, but also to learn and connect with our customers. Learning and connecting help everyone—including our designers, product managers, and engineers—think holistically about product iteration. Making a connection with other people across the globe helps us find solutions that serve both the functional and emotional needs of our users.

As I write this, I am sitting in my backyard, listening to my children attend their virtual classrooms over Zoom and watching my husband take his first meeting of the day at our backyard bench. Like most of my friends, family, and colleagues, we are sheltering in place, connected only by the tools, systems, and internet infrastructures that, at least here in Silicon Valley, we once took for granted. Before this all started, I had choices: I could work from home; I could see people at the office; I could fly to visit friends, family, and customers all over the world. But now life has changed. We set up virtual playdates and happy hours; we spend time collecting rocks, leaves, or other artifacts from our immediate surroundings. In the wake of this new reality, I am struck by how the Design Research installation reflected a scaled-down version of what has become increasingly illuminated—that all of us, to quote our exhibit curator Barrak, now “sitting at our desks, flipping through notifications and toggling between tasks, are not simply technology users; we are also products of our culture, and this impacts the way we work and collaborate.” Our global mindset, the one we’ve been cultivating here at Dropbox, evolves as we learn more. How we continue to create, share, and grow will be shaped by these new connections and the habits we are developing, the future yet unwritten by their traces.

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