I just want to start by saying how grateful I am to be in this room with you all. There’s a lot of people here and as I reflect them like the collection of talent that is gathered here. I just feel very lucky to be a part of it. So thank you so much for having me My name’s Kurt. I am from Dropbox and I Am a design director. I’m gonna talk a little bit about how we have created the conditions of great design But before I get into any of that just a little bit about my personal story how I got to where I am now I’ve taken a bit of a roundabout path slightly unconventional In college I got a degree in industrial engineering not to be confused with industrial design My first job out of school was as a flight test engineer for the Air Force So couldn’t be doing something more different than what I’m doing now But this is the aircraft I worked on it is the b-52 bomber My responsibility was to test and maintain new technology on this very old aircraft And I think well, it sounds cool. It sounds like a cool job for me It was just that it was just a job didn’t love it. Didn’t hate it But one thing was especially clear to me. I did not wake up in the morning excited to go to work and a big fear that I had at the time was You know Coming to the end of my career when I’m 60 years old looking back on my life and realizing I had not Spent time on something. I was passionate about or truly cared about and You know work is such a huge huge part of your life Was not okay with this kind of status quo of trading away one third of your life to work one third of your life to sleep and Then the small other one-third that happens on nights and weekends is the life that you enjoy live I was like that’s bullshit. I am not subscribing to that philosophy so it was that was like a good indication that was time for a change and I was like now what I felt quite lost and I looked at the tech industry as something that was really fascinating exciting from the outside looking in and I just saw that it was rapidly changing and having a huge impact on the world and I was like, I’m gonna go be part of that. Whatever that means So I do consider myself a late bloomer but fast learner in design the first time I opened up a design to was 23 years old Photoshop and I had to do it because I had to build something from nothing. I had no marketable skills. I was like, all right I’m just gonna brute-force this and try and like do the startup thing, I guess so That’s I quit my job, very naively without much of a plan and over the course of the next two years It was a pretty wild journey This is a photo of me in the back of a car Part of my journey, I won’t go into super detail here. This could be a whole talk in itself, but When I first moved to San Francisco, I could only afford to do it by living out of my car. My total expenses were about two hundred fifty dollars a month, so ink magazine wrote a nice article about it, but it was just like part of my journey to kind of like break into tech and What I found through this experience I continued to build and ship a lot of stuff with the aspiration that I would still build a company I found that I was not actually passionate about being an entrepreneur I was passionate about design and I was looking for a way to like block out all the other noise that comes with trying to be an entrepreneur so found a way to hustle my Feet into a design agency down south South Bay that’s called ZURB It was kind of like design wonderland we use design to Sun it to solve a ton of different problems My friend was then starting a company called ship. Sorry Matias. We dropped the bow as well Yeah It was a roller coaster. I joined when there was ten people I helped The design team and we grew in total to 250 people in just two years And that pretty much brings me to today where I work at Dropbox. I’ve been at Dropbox for about two years and The reason why I wanted to just share that like quick story was that there’s not one Right way to go about like being a designer breaking design I think often people like say like Oh
Like first I need to go to design school or I need to work at company a B and C and then I’ll be successful So anyways, that was just my path. I just wanted to Kind of give you a quick snapshot of that. So now we can actually talk about the real stuff. I Lead a design team that works on a product called Dropbox paper. How many of you have heard of paper? Ok, how many of you use paper? Okay, we’re doing all right, then. I still got some work to do But for those of you that might not be familiar Paper is a collaborative workspace that helps teams Create and share ideas. We release the product a little over a year ago and When we came out of beta we made a short video to help tell the product story Do we have sound You Just imagine some crazy amazing voiceover right now, it’s happening All right, let’s do it we made a short video to tell the product story It’s about people Working together in a more human and connected way Because that’s how people grow the best ideas That’s paper from Dropbox It’s just what’s needed To keep everything moving Everyone adding and creating together from wherever they are It’s staying connected and keeping each other going With comments that feel like conversations Or fist bumps or whatever that one is So that an idea Can inspire an image It sparks a look and feel And even more ideas about music Emotion And color that all make an idea into an even better version of itself That’s why we made paper because when people work together In a more human and connected way They grow better ideas From Dropbox you This is a piece of paper And we really do use physical paper as Continued inspiration for the product the pitch to Drew house in our CEO was all about taking inspiration from the physical page But making it digital physical paper paper can be Incredibly flexible it is Disposable or permanent formal or informal you can use it for writing collaging drawing painting It’s flexible enough to take on ideas of all kinds and we want our paper Dropbox paper to be equally flexible and inspiring So while we have designed paper to be this incredibly flexible workspace We have noticed a few trends and how it’s used. Our biggest advocates are creatives they’re designers musicians artists Steve Aoki who’s a musician used paper to create his newest album colony fashion designer Dion Lee and his team used paper when creating new fashion collections and John Bernie Chia, he’s a filmmaker and producer He uses paper to plan the Sundance Film Festival as well as a place to imagine new films of zone so I just want to give you a quick overview of what paper is so You have an understanding as I use it to illustrate a few points throughout so let’s get into it Let’s talk about how we on the paper team have created the conditions for great design Really? I’m going to focus on three primary themes. The first of which is to build a team that cares This is the paper design team – a few folks, we’ve grown a little bit. It is made up of product designers design researchers and UX writers However, however, the whole paper team looks something more like this There’s about 80 of us in total across engineering product management marketing analytics and one thing that has felt very special about the team of people that we have assembled is the depth of care that we have for paper so Care build a team that cares but one thing I want to be especially clear about is I am NOT saying build a team that cares about design that to me is arrogant and Unfair to ask of your team you as a designer are not entitled to have everyone care about design Instead what I’m suggesting is that you care about the product The product is objectively what matters it’s the thing that is built and is what ships it’s the thing that people use and find value in and ultimately, it’s the thing that Great design is affecting so this might sound quite obvious and maybe trivial of course care about the product But the type of care that I am talking about is like real genuine Authentic care the kind of is heartfelt and deep and I actually think that’s quite rare to find across an entire team So how have we done it on the paper team? I really think that it can be distilled down to One kind of like thing that we have really invested a lot into and that’s to create a sense of ownership across the team When you feel personally connected to what you build you tend to care more about it So how have we done that a few very tactical things? The first is called hacky hour. It happens twice as sprints Which is once every three weeks we gathered together in a room and we build whatever we want Anyone who has an idea I can grab an engineer and build it so it really like speaks to the culture of like having ideas come from the bottom up and when you’re contributing your own ideas into The product directly into the product it gives you this this sense of ownership over it to build on that point we Tend to encourage lots and lots of experimentation. So for experiments that are larger in scope We allow anyone to build and ship to a small team of people that call the composer team. It’s made up of about 150 people who work at Dropbox but it’s a way to build something real and ship it So this is a screenshot of our experiment panel inside a paper There’s where the composer team lives. I’m part of the composer team I can come in here and toggle on and off any experiment. I’ve lured the experiments because they might just blow your mind But it is real it is a real thing that we do cool Another way that we have built on the design team a strong sense of ownership outside of design is we practice what is called participatory? Design, meaning we pull other disciplines into our design process This is a photo it was taken a few weeks ago. We’re in the process of rethinking our onboarding into paper and We got together with engineers PMS Researchers writers and we had a generative like brainstorming session. Well you see on the wall is our existing flow we called it like our Subway, because we like mapped out the user flow with yarn the past that they could take But what this allowed us to do was to get the entire team bought in super early this is before we ever like touched a design tool and Contributing to the direction that we take things finally I’ve noticed that when your work matters to the company you work for You tend to care more so paper has been a top company goal at Dropbox for the last two years in 2017, and now this year and I think when you’re up against a very aspirational goal for the company It tends to bond the team together and create this collective sense of ownership. So There goes the rocket Cool so build a team that cares check The next theme is around Being opinionated be opinionated with your designs This is Microsoft Word it is the godfather of the word processor It’s design has informed almost every text editor that would come after it and it was the first version was built a little over 30 years ago and Word was fundamentally designed for the printed page. There is literally a piece of paper inside of the interface and This is word from today what you saw just the screen before was a screenshot from ten years ago and It’s held true to this design Very very little has changed about the approach to the design of word But over the course of 30 years the way that people have worked has dramatically changed and Even tools that were built for online use and intended to be collaborative are sticking to this design of the past This is just my moment to throw a little shade at our friends at Google So what do we start with on paper you We started with truly a blank canvas. We wanted to think from first principles around what a tool would look like built for modern-day collaboration and What we designed doesn’t actually look a whole lot different than that blank canvas on the surface It’s very simple, but it is able to unfold around you as you work into almost endless possibilities This is a strong opinion. We hold on the paper design team We believe that your tools should mold around you personally rather than you needing to mold around your tools. So Be opinionated we have a strong opinion But put a bunch of opinionated people together in a room and ask them to make decisions and things become quite difficult so in order to Help with that we of course created design principles. I was here yesterday and I caught a few talks, and I think every single presenter had the word principle in their in their presentation, so this is nothing new but I Feel like teams often write principles stick them on a shelf said we did it and let them gather dust So what I want to share with you is how we have specifically Put our principles into practice Because the hard part is actually living your principles. So our first principle is confidence through clarity we believe that people do their best work when they’re confident and Confidence comes when things are clear to you Here’s how we have designed for clarity and the product the first thing that you’ll see is our editor attribution You can clearly see who has contributed to each piece of a doc Another example of designing for clarity is our annotations feature So if you drop in an image We allow you to annotate a specific part of it. If you’ve ever tried to give design feedback over email or written text It’s it’s quite difficult. So this allows you to be like specific and actionable in your feedback Principle number two flow through focus, we believe that your best creative thinking happens when your focus it almost Allows you to enter like a state of flow someone yesterday I forget who was talking about this state of flow and it is something that we designed for So again on the surface very very simple. You won’t see any Overly exposed formatting menus or features really? But the way that we have approached this is that we give you the things you need in the moments you need them So a couple examples Are formatting menu only appears when you highlight text indicating you want to interact with it And better yet, we support markdown so you don’t need a formatting menu at all. He never need to leave the keyboard Similarly with our table of contents as you’re composing and building a dock we are automatically inserting these tick marks along the left edge Upon hover, we expose the table of contents allowing you to navigate to a different part of the dock But by default we’re getting out of your way We took another approach when you copy and paste links into the canvas we can often recognize that there is a piece of content associated with that link and We automatically expand it and allow you to interact with that content inside of the dock So here you dropped in a youtube link, you can play the video Similar you have a Pinterest board. You just paste the Pinterest link in SoundCloud Envisions so you can put an envisioned prototype in and actually like click the prototype with ever without ever leaving the paper canvas And we do the same thing with framer Last thing for designing for focus. This is one of my favorite features from like a standpoint of cleverness we allow you to turn your dock into a presentable artifact in a single click of a button so Here’s a quick demonstration of that so click present and We open in a new tab We even if you want to be provocative if we let you go into dark mode scary But essentially what this gives you is Slides we increase the size of the content. We remove the user interface Really creating that focused experience for you to tell your story Alright principle number three creativity through play we believe people are people regardless if they’re at work or not and People like to have fun. I don’t think you need to be this dark cold rigid version of like what people often identify as Professional so here’s a few ways that we have allowed people to be their most creative selves through Play The first kind of simple thing is we have Integrated animated stickers into our comments. It allows you to express and emote as you would in real life And we really do love our stickers. This is our paper wizard He has become almost like a mascot for the team Because he embodies so much of the character that we strive to have in the product Every time you start a new dock. We write a little clever message just for you a couple examples Give me a name now write something brilliant The trees thank you for creating this dock You are a shining star you are a tiny masterpiece Everyone loves emoji. So do we and An example of how we have taken this in To like a playful forum is whenever you insert emoji into the document title We also insert it into the browser tab So it actually there’s some utility it helps with wayfinding if you have a ton of tabs open Or you could just do stupid shit like have a zoo and your browser. I don’t know Cool we also have a handful of Easter eggs hidden throughout the product. There’s actually quite a lot If you remember the old school Nokia cell phones. They’re like the brick phones. It was my first cell phone It came default with one game. I think it was snake. So we have recreated our emoji snake inside of paper Buy me a beer sometime and I’ll tell you how to find it. Otherwise, you can click around randomly until something happens I don’t I don’t know secrets Cool fourth and final principle of of our team and how we have acted on them is teamwork through trust we believe the best teams operate with inherent trust with one another and A couple examples of that is our shared to do feature. So At any point in time you can ask a teammate to do a task for you and your teammates can do the same to you Additionally, when you go to share a dock we default to edit permissions, we think that the best teams are co-creating together So that’s it be opinionated that’s kind of like how we have acted on our opinion and ensured that the opinion was coming from the collective team not just like one-off opinions the The third kind of theme and this one will be shorter, but it’s to put people at the center This is probably not something new like talk to users I say people I think users is a little like dehumanizing There’s just like people using the products. They’re not users. I don’t know but talk to people all the time and We really do do this on paper a lot of times It’s like a kind of like a mantra but people don’t often do it a couple examples. We’re very lucky to have a supremely talented design research team on paper So we do traditional kind of like more formal research studies as an example. This is us going on sites and Getting a deeper understanding of a team’s creative workflow We took a participatory approach with this as well where the people were Demonstrating how they work with their team throughout a given day in this study the People or the animals you can see like the elephant represented the person’s teammates and the modes of transportation So the school bus and bulldozer were the tools that they were using In a much more casual way we also do weekly customer chats so anyone on the team is empowered to Schedule a chat. They just reach out to a customer say hey We’d love to talk to you for like an hour a lot of times we do this over Videoconference, but it allows us to simply have conversations and keep our customers or people at the top of our mind So we’re not like designing for ourselves We do sometimes go on site. This was in Australia, and we went into a design agency They’re called present company and they showed us their Docs that they have been creating there. Beautiful is very inspiring But it’s also a good opportunity for Our people to tell us why the product sucks and what they need and where it’s kind of like where we’re dropping the ball The third thing that we do that feels pretty unique to Our team is something we call real world Wednesday’s this happens bi-weekly. We bring in about five to ten participants to test super super early concepts Sometimes it’s literally like we print off two mock-ups and like put them in front of people and just have a conversation about it The way we did we had designed this session is in this case. There is five participants It’s done speed-dating style. So they’re very very rapid kind of like concept test. We do fifteen minutes and then the participants Stands up and goes to another station to test another concept That’s all I have to share with you today This is how we have created the conditions for great design the paper team and just to recap and summarize build a team that deeply cares about the product a very strong opinion about your approach to design and Put people at the center of what you do I am super bummed that I cannot come to the after party. I would love to chat with you more But you can reach me online at Twitter. It’s at Kurt Varner. Thank you so so much for having me

Design Director at Dropbox | Kurt Varner | The Conditions for Great Design
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6 thoughts on “Design Director at Dropbox | Kurt Varner | The Conditions for Great Design

  • September 30, 2018 at 11:07 pm
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    good talk, bad audio

    Reply
  • March 13, 2019 at 5:38 pm
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    thanks

    Reply
  • July 7, 2019 at 4:35 am
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    Great talk

    Reply
  • July 23, 2019 at 11:44 am
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    These videos aren't getting enough credit

    Reply
  • August 9, 2019 at 1:41 pm
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    What’s the opposite of ‘engaging’? I’m looking for a word to describe this uncharismatic feller

    Reply
  • August 23, 2019 at 12:46 am
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    Bold, ambitious & interesting. But Paper is too abstract & invisible. Cannot ask clients to use for most collaboration situations, as they wouldn’t know how to. Or where to.

    Hope Paper is successful, or leads to something great, but today, imo product is too ‘inside baseball,’ too difficult to learn/adopt/troubleshoot. Great, easy to use alternatives do not require learning, explaining etc.

    Also, as DB is perceived as cloud drive service, there is a conflict with Paper. Think that product design changes could help, though depends who target users are.

    Greatly admire the team for being brave & bold, all just feels too ‘General Magic.’

    Reply

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