Dropbox is a free software app that provides a popular service: backing up and sharing files via the web. It’s not the only such service provider, but it does seem to be taking the web by storm. I believe it’s because it has a superior interaction design.
I’ve used several file-sharing systems in the past. Each has their advantages and disadvantages. Of all of them, two in particular stand out.
Google Docs obviously matters here. However, it’s notion of uploading and downloading is still web-centric: you have to select files to upload from popups and then wait for them to be converted. This is a distraction, not because of the implied impatience one might think I experience, but because it’s a cognitive disconnect. The whole upload process distracts the user from the reason for uploading. Sharing stuff in Google Docs can also be… “interesting.” One is again tied to a web-based interface, where one must instruct Google on what to do each time you want to change permissions.
Of course, Google Docs isn’t just about uploading and sharing. Most users will forgive Google the inherently clumsy nature of the those bits, because Docs is after all a full-blown document preparation system that lives in the (googlesque) cloud. And Google Docs lets multiple users simultaneously edit the same document. So, in the land of Google Docs, you upload and share documents mostly because you want to be able to change them.
Dropbox, on the other hand, takes a different approach. Instead of giving users a service to upload and share and edit online, they realized that (a) most people have local document editing software already (like OpenOffice or [insert ominous music here] MS Word), and (b) removing the requirement to edit online opens a wealth of possibilities for new user experiences on the uploading/sharing side of things.
Dropbox requires, in a somewhat retro twist, that you download some software to whatever computer you want Dropbox to be accessed from. But that one little thing let’s them do something very cool: sharing and uploading documents becomes entirely transparent to the user.
Dropbox sets up a folder on your computer, inside of which you can create private, shared, or public folders. You use that Dropbox folder as you would any other folder on your computer; you won’t notice the difference at all. Except that every file in that folder gets automatically synced with Dropbox’s servers.
So, backups are automagical.
What’s really cool is that when you set up Dropbox on multiple computers, all the computers maintain synced images of what’s on the Dropbox servers. So, for instance, I create a new document in my Dropbox folder at work. I use whatever software I want to do that, software that’s local to my computer and therefore independent of the Internet (faster, more robust, more powerful, etc). Then I go home, and find I need to tweak the document. I just go into my Dropbox folder on my home computer and there is the file I was working on at the office. I tweak it and save it as I would do any local file on my home computer. Next morning, the new version is waiting for me when I get to the office.
If you think this is impressive, you’re not alone. To the left is a graphic I got from Alexa showing pageviews of four similar services. Notice Dropbox’s fairly steady climb. (Sure, pageviews doesn’t correspond to downloads, but it’s a good indication that there’s a lot of interest.)
Google Docs requires no “installation,” whereas Dropbox does. But installation happens only once, at the outset. Operationally, however, Dropbox folds its user experience and interaction completely into whatever interaction you’re already used to with your computer – which means it vanishes completely from the user’s point of view.
One might argue that the files-and-folders approach to organizing things is neither efficient nor effective (indeed, I think Google’s approach of labels and tags is far better), but it seems that Dropbox’s goal was to make their system as transparent as possible – and that pretty much constrained them to live with whatever users already had on their computers.
That’s a good thing. Design must accommodate people – not the other way around. Dropbox’s developers clearly learnt this lesson well. Beyond that, they’ve come up with the perhaps perfect interaction design – interactions that blend so well into the “background” that you can’t even tell you’re using it.
Because of this, I really think Dropbox has the best service of its kind (so far).