Dropbox Paper - When File Sync And Share Moves To Collaboration

Image: Dropbox

Dropbox was the early mover when it came to a file sync and share service that was able to make it easy for people to save files on one device and have them available, almost instantly, on another device. But since they started, many competitors ahem come along and the core service they offered has become commoditised. That's driven the company to look for new ways to differentiate themselves and to solve different problems. And that's where Dropbox Paper comes in. Paper is about helping teams of people work together.

When teams work on a project, the information they need ends up being scattered. Some lands in email, other bits in fileshares and in various cloud-based storage services. Then there are the challenges of version control and making the latest changes visible to everyone promptly.

This is the type of problem Paper seeks to solve - disparate information from multiple sources with a team of contributors and editors.

I had a walkthrough of the app with Kurt Varner, Dropbox's Design Director. And it's an impressive application.

Starting out

When you launch paper for the first time you are confronted by an interface that's best described as sparse. There are no toolbars, buttons or icons. All you see is a blank canvas. Unlike traditional applications, like word processors, Paper doesn't presuppose what sort of content you'll be creating.

"We took a different approach with Paper," said Varner. "We wanted to take a step back and look at how digital collaboration is done. A big thing that we observed was content fragmentation. Right now, there are hundreds of pools of data where the content is created and the conversation and feedback on the content is happening is in many places. We wanted to break down content silos and where the context of the project and content is stored".

When content is added to a Paper document, it is almost instantly displayed. For example, if you copy/paste the URL for a YouTube or Vimeo video in, the movie is ready to watch without any need to do any coding or messing about. Similarly, images display and can be moved, resized and manipulated.

When you add content from a spreadsheet, changes to the master data - which might be controlled by one person in the accounts team for example - are reflected instantly in Paper.

It's about users, not content

Unlike traditional apps, that were focussed on the content, Varner said Paper was designed around the needs of users so the tool works around the users rather than users having to adapt to the tool.

As well as adding content, users can leave comments, ask each other questions and even create tasks lists within the Paper environment. That means it's possible for everything to do with a project to reside completely in one place. Varner said that Dropbox doesn't use any traditional project management tools now, preferring to operate wholly within Paper when working on projects.

"You need to use the tool to see how it unfolds," said Varner.

In order to help users adapt to this interface, which is very different to most other applications, the on-boarding experience gives users guidance on what they can do. And, when Dropbox assists companies deploying Paper, they find "Paper Champions" who can help promote the software and support new users.

In terms of who can use Paper, Varner said the focus is on helping teams work together. For example, I can see how Paper could be used by creatives - one of Dropbox's target verticals - to assemble pitches or proposals that use different types of content and require a group of people to work together.

Lots of data sources supported

Paper supports data from hundreds of apps and services. When sharing content that's stored in Dropbox folders, such as the content from a document or spreadsheet, Paper automatically handles the permissions on that file so you don't have to mess about with sharing settings.

There's also integration with third-party tools such as Slack and you can embed source code, PDFs and almost anything else you can think of.

Thoughts and recommendations

The collaboration space is becoming increasingly cluttered with many businesses focussing on tools such as Slack, HipChat or Stride from Atlassian, and Microsoft Teams.

Dropbox Paper takes a radically different approach to those tools by taking a user-centric view of how people work.

The reality is that we work with many different types of information spread across multiple silos. Paper provides a central meeting point where that content can be easily held and shared so everyone is working from a common source of truth and can communicate easily. On that basis, I can see it finding a place in many teams.

My feeling is that it's ideal for teams of up to about ten people as, any more than that, could lead to an overload of comments and editors who get in each other's way.

When I showed Paper to my son, who is attending uni, he could immediately see value in how it would work with a small group of students creating lecture notes communally and friends in the creative industries could see similar potential.

On that basis, I think Dropbox Paper is well worth a look.


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