Creative Lives — Dropbox Design’s senior design researcher Marian Oman on the power of asking questions
Dropbox Design’s senior design researcher, Marian Oman describes herself as the ‘institutional memory’ of her team. Having previously worked as a fiction editor, massage therapist and non-profit fundraiser, Marian actually started out at Dropbox as a customer support agent before joining the research team. With an array of degrees attached to her belt – from American studies to information studies – Marian says that many design researchers come from a diverse range of backgrounds, allowing them to connect and understand the needs of other human beings. Here, we find out what it’s like to research for one of the industry’s most innovative and collaborative companies, and some of Marian’s favourite projects to date.
Senior Design Researcher, Dropbox Design (2014–present)
Fiction editor, massage therapist, non-profit fundraiser
MS Information Studies, University of Texas at Austins (2014)
MA American Studies, University of Texas at Austin (2010)
BA American Studies, Williams College (2004)
What I do
How would you describe what you do at Dropbox Design?
I help my teammates make smarter decisions by equipping them with knowledge about our customers. I’ve also worked at Dropbox for six years, so I spend a lot of time just being the institutional memory of my team.
If you could pick one meme to describe what it’s like to work at Dropbox Design, what would it be and why?
That’s me surfing the waves of change. This is a cliché, but change is the only constant. All you can do is stay flexible, adapt, keep a sense of humour, and don’t forget to breathe.
An article on the Dropbox Design blog about Dropbox Rewind
What recent project at Dropbox Design are you most proud of?
One of my favourite projects is a data recovery feature called Dropbox Rewind, (above) which we released last year.
It was a particularly rewarding project because the customer value is so tangible. Losing important files can be a super-stressful and emotional experience, so being able to help customers avoid that situation was hugely gratifying.
I also got to work with a stellar team of cross-functional partners across engineering, product, design, and customer experience who were all just lovely and laser-focused on the end goal.
What’s your favourite thing on your desk right now?
What desk? I share a 600 square feet apartment with my husband, son, and a 12-year-old cat. During the working day, I rotate between the couch, the bed, and the floor.
How I got here
How did you land the job?
It’s actually a funny story. I was first hired by Dropbox to be a customer support agent for our Android app, even though – wait for it – I had never used, or even held an Android phone before. I didn’t even own a smartphone at the time! Needless to say, I spent a lot of those first few months learning on the fly and asking a lot of questions.
At the time, Dropbox was just opening their Austin office, and they came to a career fair at the University of Texas, where I was studying. Dropbox was a lot smaller then, and I think they were looking for people who could grow with the company, rather than folks who had a tonne of experience, which I certainly did not have.
“Be open to jobs outside of your comfort zone, be humble, and be ready to learn.”
For my part, I saw it as an opportunity to get my foot in the door of a new industry. It didn’t fit into any sort of career plan, but it seemed interesting, and I just went for it. I am forever grateful.
Dropbox didn’t have a research team yet, so there were a lot of opportunities for me to practice my research skills by talking to customers and championing user needs to engineers and product managers. Eventually, once the research team was established, a role opened up, and I was able to leverage my customer-facing experience and transition. I would recommend being open to jobs outside of your comfort zone, be humble, and be ready to learn.
Did you complete a degree, and has this been helpful to your work?
I have a BA and MA in American studies and an MS in information studies. All of my degrees have been helpful in various ways. That said, I am a firm believer that on-the-job experience is just as, if not more, important than formal training.
Design researchers, in particular, often have really eclectic educational and professional backgrounds, and I think this diversity of thought benefits us greatly in understanding the needs and goals of other human beings.
Online praise for Dropbox Rewind
What advice would you give an emerging creative wanting to do the same kind of work?
There are so many ways you can develop skills as a UX researcher, even if you’re not in a capital-R researcher role. Make it a point to talk to your customers, users and audience, no matter your job title. You can practice active listening, curiosity, and empathy are skills in any situation – personal or professional.
Also: be patient and enjoy the ride. I realise this is profoundly easier to say in retrospect than it is to feel in the moment, but I still think it’s good advice. I was well into my 30s before I started working as a researcher, and I wouldn’t trade in any of the twists and turns I faced along the way.
If you could share one image, recommend one website, Instagram account or similar – what would it be and why?
The Internet is amazing and terrible, so I’m going to recommend some books instead. Here are some that have been a source of inspiration and light for me recently:
Dropbox Design is a Lecture in Progress company partner. Every year, Lecture in Progress partners with like-minded brands and agencies to support our initiative and keep Lecture in Progress a free resource for students and emerging creatives. To find out more about how you can work with us, email [email protected]
This interview is part of a series of articles profiling Dropbox Design. See the In the Studio With interview here.