Deep Dive: How User Experience Research Shapes OneDrive

Posted by

This post has been republished via RSS; it originally appeared at: New blog articles in Microsoft Community Hub.

User experience (UX) research is a vital part of product development at Microsoft. It directly informs the design and improvement of our products and services by helping us understand the needs, preferences, and behaviors of our customers. It is, in short, one critical way our product teams can stay “customer obsessed.” In this blog post Toni Saylor, a Senior UX Researcher working on OneDrive for Web, show us how user experience research plays a role in shaping and improving OneDrive.



The new OneDrive for Web Home experience delivers a number of enhancements that make it easier and quicker to find your files. The illustration above calls out some of the updates.

With a background in mechanical engineering and human-centered design, Toni is passionate about improving how our customers experience our products. After working on SharePoint Pages for three years, she joined the OneDrive team last year (2022) to focus on understanding how people organize and find their files, and how they use OneDrive for work and school across different platforms and devices. She’s been instrumental in driving UX research for the OneDrive visual refresh, which aims to provide a quick-to-use, consistent, and accessible user interface.


Tech Admin










Toni Saylor, Senior UX Researcher, Microsoft


I sat down with Toni to learn more about her role, her research process, and her insights on OneDrive's visual refresh. Here are some highlights from our conversation.


What does a UX researcher do?

Toni: A user experience researcher is someone who studies how people use technology, and how technology can better serve their needs and goals. We use various methods, such as surveys, interviews, usability tests, diary studies, and analytics, to collect feedback and usability metrics from our users. We then analyze the data and communicate our insights and recommendations to our product, design, and engineering teams to help them make informed decisions and design better solutions.

What are some of the challenges and opportunities of doing UX research for OneDrive?

Toni: Well, first of all, not everyone uses OneDrive in the same way. Its versatility means that it can be, and often is, used for different purposes and scenarios, by different people, across different surfaces and devices. This means that we have a large and very diverse user base, whose needs, expectations, and preferences can be very different. It also means that we have to consider a lot of factors and variables when we design and test our product features, such as the user's context, device, operating system, tech literacy, and so on. So, one of the challenges of doing UX research for OneDrive is to understand and represent the needs and perspectives of our customers in a way that both accommodates a range of perspectives and use cases and ensures a unified experience across the platform.

We like to learn from our customers and then innovate and improve our product, so it’s optimized for their needs. OneDrive is constantly evolving and adding new features and capabilities, such as the recent visual refresh (which includes things like new views and smart defaults), the integration with Microsoft 365 apps, and upcoming opportunities to leverage AI within the platform.

How did you approach the research for OneDrive's refresh?

Toni: Honestly, it was a little bit of a whirlwind at first. I knew from the beginning that we were going to want more than just a visual concept test. I knew that the question was not simply, “Are these visuals better?” We also had to be asking “Are they more functional?” Because this effort was not only a visual refresh; it was also changing the way OneDrive on the web functioned in terms of its information architecture. So, in the testing we ran, we needed to evaluate the experience in terms of both usability (can people navigate our new information architecture?) and aesthetics (do the visuals look good?)



The Meetings view in OneDrive for Web gives you quick access to Teams meeting recordings and all the files shared with you in meeting invites and meeting chats.

So, what that meant on a practical level was adopting a mixed methods approach. And so, one of the studies I ran was something like a cross between a concept evaluation (which measures a consumer’s impressions of a prospective product, service, or feature) and a usability test (which measures the extent to which a user interface (UI) is or is not usable, intuitive, and/or user friendly).

In this case, participants went through a set of functional prototypes where they were prompted to accomplish a set of tasks and to navigate to different views in OneDrive. This approach helped us to determine not only the extent to which participants understood and valued the experience, or concept, overall, but it also helped us measure how usable the features were.

In other cases, I used more comparative methods. For example, when the team started designing the collapse and expand feature for the left navigation pane, we had several potential options we could build, and the feature crew wanted to narrow down the option space. So, I turned to scaled comparative testing, which allows us to compare the usability of two or more design alternatives in a statistically rigorous manner. This helped the team move forward with a decision that was data-driven and customer-focused right from the start.

What does collaboration look like for you?

Toni: It looks like a lot of things, actually. So, on the one hand, because we do our planning in 6-month cycles, I do extensive planning for the upcoming semester. And this often means working closely with my product managers and designers each semester to come up with a research plan, or “roadmap” as we call it. For one thing, this helps me prioritize which meetings I need to be in because I can’t possibly attend all the syncs for every feature crew. It also gives me a more global sense of the various workstreams I’m supporting. It helps me to see where one workstream might overlap or intersect with another. This in turn might mean I can uplevel one study to answer questions for another. Or maybe there’s previous research that’s already been done that I can leverage to fill in knowledge gaps for my team in the planning stages. Because we researchers have limited time and a seemingly endless list of requests, we have to streamline our efforts as much as possible. This planning process also helps me understand how the workstreams map onto broader business goals.

On the other hand—and this is what ends up being a little bit unpredictable—I don’t always know ahead of time when and what kinds of studies those areas are going to need. So, this semester is a case in point. We just got done with planning, and I can tell you broadly what I’ll be focusing on, but I’m still not completely sure what or how many different types of studies we’ll need to do until we’re really in the thick of designing. That’s just how the product space works in many cases. Because we’re iterating all the time, it’s not a one-way process. It’s more like a circle where we design, test, and evaluate over and over until we get something that our customers will love and that we’ll be proud to ship. I’m always trying to push my teams to involve me sooner because that’s the most efficient approach. I mean, it’s more work to have to re-code something versus getting the feedback up front and letting that guide the product development.

That’s a great point. Can you elaborate on how UX Research can impact product development?

So, we’re always going to be doing usability studies because it’s important to make sure that we “build the thing right,” which is one of our Design Studio mottos. But it’s also important to make sure we’re “building the right thing,” another of our mottos. In other words, are we building something that people need? And that’s a question UX Research can help answer. But it helps if we get to ask it early.

For example, maybe you have a project where you’re only coding the backend. Maybe you don’t even have engineers on the project yet. If UX researchers can get involved and do concept testing, or maybe some early surveys or interviews to determine what the thing needs to be for our users, then we have a much greater chance of being successful.

If we don’t do that research up front, and we wait until the usability testing stage, which evaluates the product at the end when the code is finished, we may find out that this product or feature isn’t meeting the needs of our users. And then it’s so much more costly to go back and redesign and recode.



The new People view in OneDrive organizes your files by the people you work with to help you find what you need quickly.

You mentioned leveraging other research to help fill knowledge gaps for your team. Can you describe a situation where you did this and how did it turn out?

Toni: Yeah, that happened recently with a project that a colleague and I worked on around Jobs To Be Done (JTBD) for OneDrive on the Web and Files in Microsoft Teams. So, for those who don’t know, JTBD is a framework for understanding what users are trying to accomplish regardless of whatever solution (or product) we think they should be using. So, for example one of the main JTBD for OneDrive is “find files quickly so I can be efficient.” We used the JTBD framework because without it we might come into a space thinking we already know the solution. When we take a JTBD approach where we dial it back to the actual user needs and what they’re trying to accomplish, we often find solutions we didn’t even imagine. We have more options than we initially thought.

Another benefit of JTBD is that the list of jobs you come up with is generally stable over a long period of time. Obviously, we will do better on things like usability by improving the UI, and that will change, but the jobs themselves are relatively durable; they are things people will always need to do. So, the upshot is that we ran this four-month research project that should last us at least 10 years in terms of knowing exactly what business users need. And we were able to leverage that body of research when working on the OneDrive refresh. So, the changes that people will see in the product are the direct result of having done that early work on JTBD with 500 or so business users. That’s the value research can bring. And it’s really a testament to how OneDrive is committed to keeping a high bar on craft.

Thank you to Toni for taking the time to speak with us! Here at OneDrive, we are proud of the improvements we’ve made in the refresh, and we are grateful for the feedback and support we get from our customers. As such, we’re always looking for new ways to improve and enhance our product and we would love to hear from you. Please feel free to share your thoughts and suggestions using the feedback button in OneDrive, or by leaving a comment on this blog post. Additionally, commercial customers are welcome to join OneDrive Customer Office Hours, a monthly Microsoft Teams meeting where our product team will answer your questions, demo new features, and get your feedback. To get on the meeting invite list, just sign up for OneDrive Customer Office Hours.

Lastly, for a deeper look into the new OneDrive design and all the went into it tune into the Sync Up Podcast episode: Behind the Blue - OneDrive's New Design

About the author

Stephanie Maher is a UX Researcher on the OneDrive Sync team. She joined the team in 2022 and focuses on improving the OneDrive Sync experience for consumer and business customers. In her free time, she loves rowing crew on Lake Washington and spending time in her garden.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.