Staff Researcher at Dropbox
In early modern Europe, revolutions in papermaking, bookbinding, and printing changed the way information circulated. The result was a shift in the way people acquired knowledge, interacted with one another, and, well...worked. And if you ask Jennifer Brook, Design Researcher at Dropbox, the rise of technology is a similar revolution that will impact the future of work and the way we unleash creative energy far into the future. Interview.
Jennifer, technology has been seeping into our lives in all sorts of ways, and we tend not to notice. Dropbox is one of those technologies that has woven itself into the fabric of our daily lives. What excites you about working for the company right now?
Dropbox’s mission is to unleash the world’s creative energy by designing more enlightened ways of working. As a Design Researcher, I do fieldwork that investigates the cultures and values of highly collaborative teams. Our goal is to understand working conditions and cultures. When we talk about conditions, I mean where and how we work, who we work with, and our beliefs about how work should or shouldn’t get done. Culture directly informs those conditions, and therefore has an impact on the types of tools workers need. So, there are tools and there are conditions. If we can better understand the conditions, we can better design the tools. And the better designed the tools, the more creativity we can unleash. That’s where Dropbox comes in.
Helping workers solve meaningful problems...that sounds like a big opportunity for Dropbox. Is there a recent project that illustrates your point?
Helping others solve meaningful problems is the biggest opportunity we have. It’s why I decided to go in-house after a stint as an independent consultant. You’re challenged to find problems that excite you enough to work for long periods of time. A recent example is research we conducted with a staffer in the UN Development Program. He manages 30 to 40 field offices all around the world, and Dropbox helped him create an open culture. Staffers in Haiti or Namibia could see what other offices were doing, and they were all working together to solve meaningful problems across time zones and borders. I felt inspired by their stories.
Were you always interested in design and internet culture?
No! I spent most of my 20s living in a treehouse I helped build. I worked in bookmaking and printmaking studios, crafting out in North Carolina. It wasn’t until my late 20s that I became curious about design and entrepreneurship. A subscription to Fast Company opened my eyes. I started to make connections between the history of bookmaking and technology. In Europe, the confluence of papermaking, bookbinding, and printing created the foundation for modern society. I realized the same kind of change was occurring with new technologies in our day and age. All of a sudden, it clicked. I wanted to be in the middle of publishing technology in contemporary forms and thinking about the way it was changing. When I moved to New York City, I was offered a job with the New York Times working as an information architect interaction design. Mobile technology was just starting to rise and accelerate and for a long time, I was the only person working at the NYT on those sorts of problems. That meant that early in my career, I had interesting opportunities. For example, I spent about a month working inside Apple on the first version of the NYT’s iPad app. A few weeks after, I presented the NYT’s app on stage at the iPad press conference in Cupertino with Steve Jobs.
Wow. Steve Jobs himself. How did your experience with Apple and the New York Times influence you?
It exposed me to research practice. We were able to make decisions at Apple, even though we were isolated from peers, evidence, or data, thanks to the research we had conducted the previous summer. In fact, I had asked our Head of Research if we could conduct studies of people using our mobile apps. We had no idea what our users were doing, why they used our app, what they were trying to accomplish. We spent a summer deep diving in to their world and attempting to understand how they were using mobile. That contextual knowledge helped us make more compelling, informed decisions about the product when we went to Apple. That experience taught me that there’s a difference between building products that resonate with people who use them, versus products built on a whim. There’s huge value in research and evidence-informed product builds. I decided from then and there that I never again wanted to work on product design if it didn’t involve a qualitative research process. And because I took that vow, it often meant that I was the one doing the research! After the New York Times, I worked as an independent consultant for about four or five years helping companies through their research process.
So now that you’re at Dropbox, how do you conduct research?
Dropbox likes to facilitate complex, creative work. That means we have to understand how complex, creative work is done. In the same way that Nike studies athletes to build its products. So, we study exceptionally successful and collaborative teams. We try to figure out what makes them tick, so we can translate their ways of working into the tools we build to help other teams work at their level. Last year alone, we studied eight teams in education, theatre, design, and marketing. All of them are incredibly mission driven. They could be doing any kind of task moment-to-moment or day to day but they knew exactly where they were going and the kind of world that they wanted to create. We observed them work together and then debriefed with them. Our vision of the working conditions and systems of those dream teams is very clear now. We know what kinds of models we must aspire towards if we want to build software to support incredible co-creative and collaborative work. If we succeed, we have a chance to build tools that resonate within dream teams, and maybe even elevate other teams too.
Based on your research, what makes dream teams different?
Two things happen simultaneously. First, there’s always a culture maker. It might be one person or multiple people, but they actively shaping the team’s culture and elevating the team. Second, most of these teams have explicit social contracts with one another. It’s a cultural norm amongst homo sapiens. We form groups, we create implicit norms about how to behave and the way we are going to work and communicate. These teams, however, we consciously explicit about their norms and shaped them together. It’s fascinating. They didn’t feel passive or like they didn’t have the ability to control their own relationship, but took an active role in shaping and creating them together. If we apply the same logic to Dropbox, we can, as a company, act as a culture maker in the world and positively shape the conditions of work through explicit norming.
Do you have a method for explicit norming?
We’ve developed a toolkit. We actually use animal pictures! We play a game that helps us to speak about our individual values. It starts off as a simple conversation. First, we focus on a positive collaborative work experience, then on another that was frustrating or challenging. In both cases, we pick an animal that embodies each story and that helps us express our core values quickly. If we’re then going to work together, we’ve ultimately had a conversation about what works for you and me, how you and I like to work, and what fuels us both. We can then anticipate where conflicts or mutual admiration might arise. Ultimately, animals pictures are just vehicles for metaphor. Metaphor is useful in the co-creative process because it’s a shared language, you can learn a lot about someone quite quickly because we create deeper conversations quickly. Animals are evocative for people. We project our best and worst selves onto them. Our intention with a tool like this is to licence under Creative Commons and share it with the public. I’m a researcher and I still consider myself a designer, by my philosophy is that we should invite more people into the design process and I want to create the tools and conditions to do so. The animal picture toolkit is just one way to encourage more people to have creative conversations.
Co-creation seems like something Dropbox takes very seriously. How has that impact the product as it evolves from a storage solution to a suite of co-creative tools?
A cultural shift is happening in the creative process. There’s a shift away from the notion of a “genius designer” or a creative, singular vision to a more collaborative approach. It’s a different mindset. So digital products and services must follow. Dropbox needs to follow, too. That’s why my team of design researchers and I are developing an understanding of the culture and values of the most high-performing, collaborative teams, so we can apply that knowledge to Dropbox, which has been repositioning itself as a tool for collaboration and not just file sharing. All this knowledge will help the organisation develop better co-creation products for its users, such as Dropbox Paper, or new functionalities that are coming. Stay tuned!