Don’t Look Now, But Your Innovation Is Showing

And according to a product manager at Dropbox, that ain’t good. Here’s how to make your improvements as seamless and invisible as possible.

Don’t Look Now, But Your Innovation Is Showing
[Photo: Flickr user Johan Larsson]

When building a new product, it’s easy to think the race to innovation is over when the hurdles of “does this actually work?” and “how well does it work?” are cleared. But there’s one more obstacle that, once addressed, can mean the difference between good and great innovation: how well does it work within a consumer’s life?


It’s a question Matt Holden keeps at the center of creating new features for Dropbox.

Matt Holden

“With great innovations you try to make them useful to as wide a set of people as possible, so to really achieve a lot of impact they need to be as simple as possible but no simpler,” says Holden, product manager at Dropbox. “My favorite innovations, whether at Dropbox or elsewhere, are ones that seem obvious where the user often doesn’t realize something is going on but there’s a lot of hard work behind the scenes.”

Holden offers his tips for keeping innovation as simple and seamless as possible.

Capitalize on Trends

“One of the early features I worked on at Dropbox is called “Screenshot to Dropbox.” We noticed users were taking a lot of screenshots on their computers to share with coworkers or their family and a lot of them were being sent by email. You can use Dropbox to do it but there are a number of steps. So we built a feature that automatically makes those screenshots shareable.

“There are different ways we could’ve done it but we didn’t really want people to have to learn a new tool. These people already learned how to take screenshots, so Dropbox should be able to automatically make that more magical–it should just feel like magic and really become a learning-free zone. So we used the exact same keyboard shortcuts, and because Dropbox is running we’re able to copy a link right to your clipboard so you can shoot it off in an email or a chat. That was a feature that automatically upgraded something they were already doing with no learning on their part.”

Don’t Give Them What They’re Asking For

“It’s really important to talk to customers and people who don’t use your products–really listen to them, watch them use a product, ask them lots of questions. If you build just what people are asking for, you’ll actually end up with a pretty complex product because people will ask for lots of different things, so you need to dig deeper and understand the problems. People will sometimes ask for something and if you really try to ask solid questions and really understand what’s the problem they’re having they may not even know what the solution would be–you may come up with a simpler way to solve their problem that they wouldn’t necessarily know to ask for.


“It starts with developing empathy for people. Frankly, their lives are busy and they don’t want to think about how technology works. We all have a ton of emails, messages, devices, apps–just a lot of clutter in our lives competing for our attention. So trying to understand how to solve problems at the root is important but then try to get out of the way.”

Pare Down Choices

“Choices are stressful–there’s so much competing for my attention. Technology should be making it better for us, not worse. The best product when you’re building them you should try to eliminate as many choices as possible to help someone get something done.”

Embrace Habits

“Another thing we think about it is embracing people’s habits and the tools they’re already used to. We’re all creatures of habit. We want to embrace the tools people are used to–that way you don’t have to learn something new. We try to get out of the way until you need us but then offer you value. It’s a balance. Our users are busy–they don’t want to learn new things so if we can meet them where they are and provide value, that’s beneficial.”


About the author

KC covers entertainment and pop culture for Fast Company. Previously, KC was part of the Emmy Award-winning team at "Good Morning America" where he was the social media producer.