Tips & Advice

Words matter: why notification messages could kill Dropbox’s UX

Dropbox's new branding won't overcome their frightening notification message issues.

As many of you know by now, Dropbox recently completed a large-scale brand overhaul. Dropbox says of their new branding is about “shifting the conver­sation around work,” offering this explanation:

“Our users run the gamut from business professionals to scientists and creative types. Most of these folks tell us they feel overwhelmed and distracted during the workday, and that this is one of the biggest barriers to creating work they’re proud of. 



They deal with cluttered inboxes, devices that ping them constantly, and processes that force them to switch between tools all day. Our modern way of working saps their energy and keeps them from the things that matter.



We want to change this, by building products and a brand that help people focus on meaningful work, instead of busywork. And we want to inspire creative energy, instead of taking it away.”

Great idea, noble cause. But all the branding and messaging in the world, no matter how good or thoughtful it is, will fall dead flat if your notification messages do the opposite of everything you describe here.

These words become hollow when your irresponsible, poorly-worded notifications scare the shit out of your users.

Which most certainly (a) takes away their creative energy and replaces it with stress, and (b) introduces busywork when they have to contact you to chase down exactly what the heck just happened.

I’ll explain by way of personal story.

“You deleted 910 files.”

I recently moved a large number of files into a new, shared directory for my production team here to access. Here’s one of several email notification messages I received from Dropbox after doing so:

"You deleted 910 files."

Now read that again and think about what it implies to a business owner, who (a) relies on Dropbox to keep their invaluable files safe and secure, and (b) knows without a doubt that they did not delete anything.

Say it was you. What would your reaction be?

Would you feel calm, cool and collected?

Or would you be freaking out, telling the dog “I didn’t delete anything!!! What the hell are they talking about??”

For what it’s worth, my Beagle Rosie didn’t seem too bothered by any of this.

“I understand it must have been alarming, but…”

I’ve been around long enough that when I see things like this, I assume it’s most likely the result of sloppy work on the part of product owners, designers and developers (because it usually is).

So I suspected “deleted” really meant “moved.”

Regardless, this made me more than a little nervous — so I took it up with Dropbox support.

The response I got from the support engineer (who was very thorough) was this:

Dropbox support response: " I understand it must have been alarming, but..."

“Our system recognizes moves as batches of deletions and additions and this is why you received those emails.

I understand it must have been alarming but I assure you nothing has been deleted.”

Now — he was a really nice guy and this is absolutely not his fault. But this is the same bullshit explanation far too many companies offer users in situations like this. “Oh, that’s just how the system works.”

Maybe, but it shouldn’t be just how the system works. Because to most people, those words are a clear indicator of just how sloppy and IRRESPONSIBLE you and your product team have been in designing and developing the product. It’s also a complete lack of understanding on the part of management, who is most certainly aware that people are concerned by these instances — a quick Google search for “Dropbox deleted files” will confirm this.

Google Search: "Dropbox deleted my files."

And yet, I hear stories every week from UXers, designers and developers who tell me management — or product owners — insisted that these things weren’t important, forcing them to move on and leave these “small details” alone.

I’m only going to say this once:

Moved is moved, deleted is deleted.

They are absolutely, unequivocally not the same thing.

One of those words is a confirmation of a non-destructive action.

The other is a red flag alert that says “HEY, SOMETHING’S REALLY WRONG HERE!!!”

Things like this disturb me greatly, both as a user and a consultant.

Not just because Dropbox is scaring the hell out of people, but because it’s actually a fantastic product/service. Simple, efficient, well-conceived. And it bothers me when great companies skimp on the details and, by doing so, allow them to become Achilles heels.

In the three decades I’ve been doing this, these kinds of “small issues” product dreams and management ignore are precisely what causes the slow death spiral so many great products (and the organizations behind them) have experienced.

It results from a blind focus on technology first, people last.

It results from the abuse of Agile & Lean methodologies, sacrificing attention to critical detail in the name of speed.

It results from a profound lack of understanding about how trust is built — and lost — in the user experience.

Trust is eroded every time you cause a user to fear a possible outcome. In this case, that their valuable files may have been deleted — even if there is a 30-day safety net.

The fear stays. It’s remembered.

It colors every subsequent interaction with doubt.

And when a cheaper, faster, newer competitor comes along, that doubt is a motivator for jumping ship.

You are all in a position to do something about this.

Recognize it. Look for it. Bring it up. Insist that it be addressed.

Whether writing an error message or a notification of ANY kind, be clear, be precise, be explicit.

Leave NO room for misinterpretation.

Words matter.

Details matter.

Don’t do this.

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