Inside Box: How the red-hot enterprise startup thinks and works
Building a modern enterprise tool means walking a tightrope, with a CIO on one end of your pole and an iPhone on the other. You need to balance the needs of your business customers -- the people who pay the bills -- with the desires of your users. It’s a delicate balance, and one that needs to be considered at every point in the design, development, and operation processes.
We recently visited Box’s Los Altos headquarters to sit down with members of the company’s development team to learn just how the enterprise sharing platform is being built -- and how the team deals with the conflicting demands of mobile apps and cloud services.
Front-end: A great viewing experience on every platform
Martin Destagnol is Box’s head of Mobile Engineering, having joined Box with the acquisition of the Folders iOS application. He was responsible for the development of Box’s new iOS application, intended to be the way many users experience Box’s services and their enterprise content.
"We wanted to make the new Box app a delight to use, to really be the best of class in UX," Destagnol said, "Users need to see things in high fidelity, with all the formatting."
Mobile usage is different than desktop usage -- people are much more likely to be satisfied simply viewing a file, versus the deep editing traditionally done on a desktop.
Chris Yeh, Box's senior VP of Platform and Product, points out that 75% of views in Box are actually previews. Because so much work is done in preview mode, that means document viewers are a key piece of the Box story. As Yeh describes, "a view API takes documents and renders into HTML5. It’s so simple and so useful. The notion for us is, in the enterprise, the more people use viewers, the fewer files that are downloaded."
Viewers also help mobile users who want to look at files on devices that may not have the original app used to create that type of file. As Yeh says, "One of things we are seeing is that content types are being subsumed by applications. There is no need to know the underlying document object type."
Much of Box’s work on document viewers comes from its acquisition of Crocodocs, where Ryan Damico was founder. He’s now Director of Platform at Box, and focused on how to bring that technology to end users. Crocodocs brought eight years of experience in building document viewers, first in Flash and then in HTML 5, with a focus on quality and speed. "It needs to look the way it does in the native desktop application," explains Damico, "and speed is key, making things buttery smooth."
He sums up Box’s vision for document viewers simply, "Author on the desktop, consume anywhere."
That sounds easy, but it’s not. Document fidelity is tricky: What a user sees in a viewer must be the document that the original author created. His team has to work with complex documents, of all sizes, and there’s always something new to render. Damico sighs audibly as he says, "You always think you have seen the most complex PowerPoint…"
Not only does Damico’s team have to build a user experience around content, but they also have to consider the platform perspective. Viewers need to be relatively open so that any developer with content anywhere can use the Box View API.
Damico explains, "We need to help Box be the hub of content for viewing and annotating documents." The intent is that for end users, everything is on Box, while developers can access the service, convert those documents to HTML, and store them anywhere. "A lot of flexibility and control is required to do whatever is needed for the app," Damico notes, "And there are lots of use cases." The Box View APIs started with Office and PDF as they’re the most common formats, and it now supports many more. Damico expects the range to be expanded still further, to proprietary and industry specific document types.
The development of Box Notes has added an interesting wrinkle to the problem, as it doesn’t try to emulate Office, but rather starts afresh. As Damico says, "This is where Box gets into interesting space: away from legacy formats, but still supporting them."
Building a document viewer isn’t only about presenting content. It’s also about understanding how users will actually use that content. Will they want to make changes, share files with collaborators, or even present? The Box viewer will need to support commenting, handle tasks, allow basic editing, and control who has access to the content. Workflow is key to what’s required, along with understanding where in the workflow a document is. As Damico notes, "You don't need 10 people editing a document, beyond asymmetries in the workflow. But you do need to allow people to approve documents while in line in a coffee shop."
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