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Dropbox’s Carousel Design Deconstructed (Part 2)

Dropbox’s Carousel Design Deconstructed (Part 2)

Many of today’s hottest technology companies, both large and small, are increasingly using the concept of the minimum viable product (MVP) as way to iteratively learn about their customers and develop their product ideas. This two-part series, looks into the product design process of Dropbox’s Carousel.

Part 11 covered the core user, their needs and Dropbox’s business needs, and broke down existing photo and video apps. This second part is about Carousel’s primary requirements, the end product, its performance and key learnings since the launch.

Primary User Requirements

In a Wired article2 covering Carousel’s launch, Gentry Underwood, CEO and cofounder of Mailbox (which was acquired by Dropbox) and lead designer of Carousel, detailed some of the key requirements that his team prioritized.

Below is a list of some of them, as well as some requirements highlighted in media coverage of Carousel’s launch3 and from our evaluation of existing products and design patterns in part 1.

Back up all photos and videos

The app has to save not only the photos that users want to see in the gallery, but also ones they don’t want to see yet but might want to at a later date. Not to mention, this takes up more storage, which is ideal for Dropbox’s business. Most photo apps allow you only to delete photos, not hide them. “It’s a 100% destructive thing,” Underwood says. And the permanence of deleting photos requires a heavy two-step process of hitting the trash button and confirming the action. Underwood claims that this leads to users not deleting media and, ultimately, to sloppy media galleries with misfires, blurry selfies and many imperfect versions of the same shot.

Display all photos and videos

According to Underwood, another big problem with media gallery apps is that they seem to start from the last time you bought a smartphone. This is especially true for stock apps like Apple’s Photos. However, even with photo stream and other apps that sync a portion of your photos locally while saving the rest in the cloud, users can never see their entire media history — they have to go to their computer or the web for that.

Show the best photos and videos

The most obvious solution for this is to make it easy to manually hide undesired media, presumably with some quick swiping action. However, the app could also surface media that users would most likely want to see, like ones with faces or, more importantly, smiling faces. Beyond finding the best media, the app could also highlight one or more thumbnails of media that seem most interesting.

Enable quick navigation

Media should be automatically sorted in events based on common attributes such as time and location. The groupings should also show just a sample of the photos from that event in order to save space while navigating through a long list. Finally, users should have multiple ways to scroll through media (for example, slowly or quickly).

Feel native

Making it seem like everything is stored locally would set this application apart from the competition. After all, that snappy feeling is what makes Apple’s Photos more appealing than Facebook, Flickr, Instagram, Dropbox and the like. Among other things, fine-tuning the caching and other back-end tricks could help dramatically. But some clever perceptual tricks could also be done. For example, multiple thumbnails of each media file could be saved at various resolutions and be dynamically deployed based on how fast the user is scrolling through the gallery. Faster scrolling would trigger lower-resolution thumbnails so that they load instantly and make the app feel native. Moreover, adding, moving, changing and deleting media files from Carousel or Dropbox should happen lightning-fast.

Enable public and private sharing

Users should be able to share videos and photos with others easily without having to use platforms with storage limitations, such as email. Also, they should be able to easily select between public sharing (i.e. on social networks) and private sharing through email, SMS and private in-app chat. “Carousel’s sharing tools can be utilized through any email address or phone number, whether the recipient has a Dropbox account or not,” says Underwood.

Enable public and private discussion

Although in-app discussion is an option when media is shared privately, as mentioned above, it’s not necessary. However, allowing for focused discussion on a set of photos — particularly after an event, when users want to congregate and compare photos — can be valuable. As an alternative to Facebook Messenger, SMS and email, where many other conversations go on, offering a dedicated set of chat threads for users’ personal media and nothing else would be beneficial. It would also be a great way to acquire new users for Dropbox.

What Do Users Get?

Basically, users get a camera roll for Dropbox. As Federico Viticci from MacStories eloquently puts it4, the app is a clean and imaginative “alternative Camera Roll and Photo Stream based on Dropbox storage with built-in sharing for individual or group conversations.”

Carousel’s MVP is effectively two things for most users: a Dropbox uploader for backing up local photos and videos, and an enhanced version of Apple’s native Photos app, with improved viewing, sharing and discussion functionality. The app doesn’t let users take, edit or manage photos, other than hiding them (or deleting them, if they can find that feature), or view in anything other than chronological order.

For now, if users want to take and edit photos, then their mobile camera, Instagram or Camera+ are great options. To organize photos into folders, they’ll need to use Dropbox directly. And to view them in anything other than chronological order, they would sync Dropbox with a more advanced media gallery such as iPhoto, Picasa or Unbound. You will understand Carousel’s MVP much more easily by testing it out than by listening to me explain it ad nauseam. Below are four screenshots of what you can expect. To help you along, MacStories thoughtfully runs through5 what you can expect in your first experience.

Carousel mobile app6
Carousel mobile app (View large version7)

Results And Learning

Mills Baker, a product design analyst at Mokriya, paints a rather dismal picture of Carousel in “Designer Duds: Losing Our Seat at the Table8”:

It’s honestly hard to determine what should be interesting about it, even in theory; it takes mostly standard approaches to organization, display, and sharing, and seems to do little to distinguish itself from the default iOS Photos app + iCloud Photo Sharing, let alone apps and services like Instagram, VSCO Cam, Snapchat, iMessage, Facebook Messenger, and so on.

To get an idea of why Mills feels so strongly about Carousel’s shortcomings, let’s look at the results since its launch.


Since topping the charts on and around launch day, Carousel has steadily lost attention, now ranking 456th in the “Photo and Video” category of Apple’s App Store and falling off in the overall rankings across all categories. It has basically been buried in the crowded photo and video app market, and Dropbox will need to make some non-trivial changes in subsequent iterations to make it bounce back to the top.

Carousel ranking has steadily declined since launch9
Carousel’s ranking has steadily declined since launch. (Image: AppAnnie25211310) (View large version11)

Upon launching in April 2014, the app certainly didn’t increase downloads of Dropbox’s main app, suggesting that Carousel’s main impact was on revenue or engagement, if anything.

Dropbox ranking hasn’t been affected by Carousel12
Dropbox’s ranking hasn’t been affected by Carousel. (Image: AppAnnie25211310) (View large version14)


As of 16 July 2014, Carousel appears to have been downloaded 174,000 times15 globally. If Dropbox currently has 300 million users16, then it has managed to get a paltry .06% of its total customer base to adopt Carousel. Clearly, it needs to make some improvements to increase adoption.

Carousel downloads are sufficient for testing the app, not for claiming mass adoption17
Carousel downloads are sufficient for testing the app, not for claiming mass adoption. (Image: XYO18) (View large version19)


If we look at reviews in Apple’s App Store, non-target users almost unanimously consider Carousel to be a failure. “Not what I wanted,” “MASSIVE oversight” and “Completely useless” smatter the reviews section — all valid complaints if people are using it professionally. Meanwhile, average consumers like Owen and Nora have mixed reviews, ranging from “Amazing app!!!! This app is the best way to back up and privately share my photos on iOS!!!” to “Bring back Loom! Complete downgrade from Loom… Sad.”

While it wasn’t a runaway success upon launch, Carousel drew user reviews in the US and internationally that at least skew favorably. In fact, the reviews are as good as the ones for Dropbox and even Mailbox, both excellent standards for any productivity app.

Reviews for the first version of Carousel globally (left) and in the US (right)20
Reviews for the first version of Carousel globally (left) and in the US (right). (Image: AppAnnie25211310) (View large version22)

While these reviews make it difficult to dispute Baker about the lackluster adoption of Carousel upon launch, 174,000 downloads is more than enough to learn about how people use Carousel, what needs to be improved and how well various features help Dropbox achieve its business goals.

In-App Purchases

While these statistics are highly coveted and, thus, kept very private, you can at least generalize that Carousel is achieving its primary objective of upselling existing users to premium accounts. However, many details suggest that Dropbox will need to make some major improvements to scale downloads and usage for new and existing users.

With Dropbox charging roughly ten times the price of Google’s popular cloud storage alternative, Drive, it will be interesting to see how much price has stunted adoption of and engagement with Carousel. If we’re being realistic, anyone who wasn’t born yesterday would know that Carousel requires Dropbox’s Pro Plan23 to work reliably. Dropbox will certainly have to address this as companies continue to compete on price in building up their cloud-based apps on top of virtually free cloud storage.

Carousel and Dropbox apps, respectively24
Top in-app purchases for Carousel (left) and Dropbox (right). (Image: AppAnnie25211310) (View large version26)

Looking Forward To The Next Iteration

As expected, this MVP is far from being a full photo and video manager. It lacks some features that hold users back from adopting it, including:

  • better meta data and a better organizational structure for navigating photos,
  • more granular syncing options to reduce clutter,
  • a web viewer for making sharing easier,
  • lower pricing.

However, if you look closely at everything Dropbox has done with Carousel, it has been extremely disciplined in prioritizing many of the most important features for its business and its users. It has drawn from the best relevant design patterns that I could find, many of which are not to be found in the closest alternatives, including Apple’s Photos and Instagram Direct. And while most mobile photos galleries aren’t that complex, Dropbox has managed to edit out features that are less important, such as a camera, editing features, heavy organization options, chat outside of sharing, and friend lists.

It still has a ton of work to do on the web and mobile. Considering how much people wish Loom was still around, many of its features will probably be included. Additionally, well-designed and robust apps such as Picturelife offer a great deal of inspiration for a dramatically simplified alternative to Carousel.

And while Dropbox might have done better to wait for what Rand Fishkin, cofounder of Moz, calls an EVP27 — an exceptional viable product — Carousel has a promising future. Dropbox just needs to tweak what it’s got to get more people to download and use the app.

(al, ml)


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