Dropbox’s Onboarding Brilliance

Building a digital product is challenging; so is getting the word out. In the shadow of these obvious tasks, however, is the oft-overlooked process of onboarding — making users understand and appreciate the proper usage of an unfamiliar product.

You’re probably familiar with Dropbox, the widely-used cloud-storage service. The service is dead useful, but it has two significant hurdles to overcome:

  1. It isn’t easy to explain. Cloud storage and file syncing aren’t widely understood yet outside the tech community.
  2. It isn’t sexy. Cloud storage and file syncing aren’t interesting enough to go viral on their own.

The Dropbox team has found graceful ways to overcome these challenges, both before and after a user signs up for the service.

Before Sign-Up

Users are likely brought to the site by a recommendation from a friend or publication, but the real Dropbox experience starts on the homepage. They are presented with a friendly and easy-to-follow video, which explains the service in a manner both techies and non-techies will appreciate. Underneath the video is a single call-to-action encouraging users to download Dropbox — to avoid presenting the user with unnecessary choice, it detects their operating system and serves the correct version of the application.

Dropbox Intro Video

If the video isn’t enough, or if users want to learn more, the site offers the friendliest product tour I’ve ever seen. The five-page “book” is a quick read, easily understood and filled with quirky illustrations. Even the least computer-literate user should have no trouble understanding and downloading the program.

Dropbox Tour

After Sign-Up

The real magic happens once the user has already installed Dropbox and signed up for an account. In order to better explain the service and provide the user with authentic, personal use cases, the Get Started page includes a list of tasks essential to the Dropbox experience. The tasks include items like “Install Dropbox on other computers you use” and “Share a folder with friends and colleagues” — fundamental activities which might not be obvious when explained in a video or tour. To incentivize completion of the list, Dropbox offers users an additional 250 MB of storage for finishing the tasks.

Dropbox Get Started

This solution is much more elegant than simply forcing users to sit through instructions. For one thing, it offers them a choice; nobody is forced to go through the steps, but most people will anyway in order to gain the reward. Furthermore, the reward is intrinsically linked to the product — it isn’t a tangential incentive like a badge, but rather more of the product itself. Rewarding appropriate use of a product with more of the same product is simple and elegant.

Dropbox uses the same model a second time to incentivize marketing. By clicking on the infinitely-enticing “Get free space!” link at the top of each page, users are given a list of marketing tasks with associated rewards. By following @dropbox on Twitter, for instance, one can earn an additional 125 MB. Using the Camera Upload feature on the mobile app earns a further 500 MB. These tasks are simple, quick, and surprisingly addictive — once I completed one, I felt compelled to complete the rest.


Through the use of creative onboarding, Dropbox provides the means for users to get acquainted with how it works and why it’s worth using. The friendly tone and hand-drawn style offset the dryness of the topic, similar to Mailchimp‘s use of a ridiculous(ly awesome) mascot for the similarly dry subject of email marketing.¬†For all of us involved in app or product development, Dropbox is full of lessons about effective onboarding.

Jumpstarting a Design Community

Understand Your Compensation

Designer Monoculture

The State of Design Leadership

The Science of Product Design

Interview with Michael Flarup: Co-Founder and Lead Designer at Robocat

The Importance of Design Conventions