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What's with this anti-directory structure movement? (osnews.com)
229 points by wim on July 26, 2012 | hide | past | web | favorite | 265 comments

From the article: I have honestly never seen a single person have any issues with directories, nested or no, and as old as the concept might be, the people I interact with seem to be able to handle it just fine.


The author's clearly been interacting with different people from the ones I know. 80-somethings who didn't grow up with computers frequently get hopelessly confused by directories. The philosophy professor who's been using a Mac since the mid-80s is a bit harder to explain. And then there was the time I got called in in the early 90s to fix the office PC used by a succession of secretaries -- running MS-DOS -- and discovered they'd saved something over 2000 Word Perfect files in the root directory because none of the temps the company had employed over a 12 month period had ever heard of directories.

In my experience many casual users (for values of something like 10%-50% of computer users these days) simply do not "get" hierarchical storage at all; they find it as baffling as predicate calculus. Hence the desire of some software vendors -- who are trying to provide machines that anyone can use without training -- to move away from it, at least on the user's side.

I don't know. I think that at a certain point people have to accept that there are just some things must be learned in order to operate a computer. It would be nice if computers could just read the mind of the user, but until then, the user must learn some things about how the computer operates. Folders, I think, is one of those things.

In the end, some knowledge is required. If we remove folders, then that knowledge will change from "What is a folder, and where did I put that file?" to "What is an application, and which one did I use to create that file, and how do I get that file from one application to another?" (Think word processing program to email attachment.)

Either way, the end user has to learn something. We can continue dumbing down concepts and interfaces with the noble goal of making it easier for the people who just don't want to understand how computers work (let's face it, learning basic folder manipulation isn't hard, especially with Google--or a manual or family member, for those who can't even use Google), but there will always be a lazier person, and eventually we'll end up dumbing things down until they become useless.

Maybe the better solution is to have a better "Home" folder concept. I don't know how it is in OSX, but in Windows the home folder is a confusing collection of sample files, folder-spam from other apps, and "library" views that masks the entire concept, but only sometimes. Fixing that mess and making it more like, say, a Linux home folder (/home/acabal/videos/) would be a good starting point without losing the usefulness of folders altogether.

* I think that at a certain point people have to accept that there are just some things must be learned in order to operate a computer.*

That statement encapsulates an ideological outlook.

I, personally, agree with you. (I happen to have a CS degree and used to work in the industry: of course I agree with you!)

However, purely pragmatically, a lot of people don't agree with that position. They no more want to know how their computer works than they want to know how to adjust the ignition timing on their car. Yes, in principle they could learn that stuff; but they consider it to be a waste of their valuable time, for which they have other priorities.

By way of an analogy: we're in the position of 17th century puritans asserting that of course everyone must learn to read so they can read the Bible for themselves and interpret the word of god directly. (While a large chunk of the audience at the time disagreed strongly and wanted to leave that to the priests.)

That's how things are for a large chunk of the general public, whether we want it to be so or not. And as computer use becomes a universal, pervasive element of society, we're going to run up against it increasingly.

I wouldn't compare learning folders to learning car ignition timing. That's more like learning about inodes--something that's interesting but irrelevant to anyone but enthusiasts.

I would instead compare folders to knowing that your car's oil must be changed. (Who doesn't love a car analogy?) You can survive without that knowledge, and you even can pay others to do it. But it's very simple stuff, and at the very, very least, in order to (successfully) own a car you must know that the oil has to be changed every now and then, if not by you then by someone else. It's a matter of fundamental knowledge of the tools you're using.

If you want to live without that knowledge, then it's your own fault really, because it's not hard to learn and every car ever made uses the concept. It's in the manual. If you don't want to learn it, are too lazy to, think it's too hard, or have different priorities, then that's cool--but don't expect car makers to put effort into molding cars to your whims, because it turns out oil is pretty useful in a car.

If a person was born in 1870 and decided to buy a car in 1930, well, it's up to them to learn that cars need their oil changed. Age is not really an excuse, nor is being born to a different generation.

In either case, you're right: the general public will continue to be too uninterested to learn basic computing principles. (And again I mean basic, like files and folders.) But ruining it for the rest of us isn't the way to fix that.

"in order to (successfully) own a car you must know that the oil has to be changed every now and then"

I do not drive a car, but aren't we moving towards "a red blinking light means 'go to the garage within a few weeks'"?

Similarly, "to (successfully) go from A to B you must know how to read a map", "to print a photograph you need to be able to work a dark room", "to make a hole in a wall you need strong muscles", etc.

" But ruining it for the rest of us isn't the way to fix that."

Counterargument: ruining it for the general population is not the way to sell shitloads of hardware.

It's the users own fault? Really? We make products for the users, and they never do anything wrong – and it's never their fault.

Sorry, but the buck has to stop somewhere. For example, if a handful of users can't figure out how to use a mouse, then do we replace all mouses with Wacom tablets because they're so "inelegant" and "unintuitive" to a few people? No, because it turns out they're very useful for most people who get it.

Do they require practice and a certain (very small) amount of domain knowledge? Yes. Is that a bad thing, considering how useful they are? No.

"The user is always right" isn't an ultimate mandate. The customer isn't right if they come in to your store and demand everything for free. Likewise a driver isn't right if he doesn't want to figure out which pedal is "stop" and which one is "go". You must have a certain small amount of domain knowledge to use the complex tools you're given, and dumbing things down for the lowest common denominator is a Sisyphean task because there's always a lower common denominator just under them.

Touch screens replaced mice with something that feels more natural.

While more natural, they are not as useful. they require ui elements to have WAY more realestate on already paltry screens in most cases, (seriously, most 15" laptops are 1366x768) and don't allow for easy access to context menus. right clicking things was the best thing that ever happened to UIs since renaming directories to folders.

It begets simpler software, which is a win win, at least in my book.

design me a complex product in solidworks with a touch only interface please.

how about some detailed, effects heavy video project?

Pro apps and power users still needs mice, I need mice for using Photoshop, but I do believe we were discussing Average Joe and his apps.

> Touch screens replaced mice with something that feels more natural.

Oh, yeah? Show me the data you have that supports your statement.

People are buying and using touch devices, and they claim it's easy to use.

People have purchased enough touch devices to _replace_ mice? Is using a mouse a weird thing to do nowadays?

No, but it's an evolution – mice is still needed for power users and pro apps.

They didn't replace mice. They established themselves as an alternative for an entirely different use case.

They're now used in cases where mice was used before.

Foolish line of reasoning. Of course they do things wrong. It's just that you have a different set of expectations for what users must learn to do to operate something than other people.

(e.g. users need to know how to turn on their computer, what a usb port is to charge/connect peripherals, etc.)

I think it's a great principle to design from, it challenges one do to better. And: users wouldn't need to know what a USB port is, if the design was self-evident.

I don't think reasoning like "must" (or "never") pushes innovation and great design.

"users wouldn't need to know what a USB port is, if the design was self-evident."

"I don't think reasoning like "must" (or "never") pushes innovation and great design"

So "never" getting to know what a USB port is for, "must" be the result of great design ? It "must" be, but that would be bad... by you own stunted definitions. But do keep moving the goal posts around.

In the end you just produce a lot of forced substitutive declarations, like the concepts of innovation and great design that you use. You seem to void them in the process.

They will always be "better" solely because they are used by you, no matter the paradox and bs level needed to try to justify something that isn't even real.

Never having to know what a USB port is, while still getting your digital pictures into your photo app is great design.

I am going to let the "never" slide because you switched on it again. So we are down to your point being that there aren't any good designers around ? And somehow "great design" occludes knowledge.

Does this configure or bring any hope for users, it would be the designers that lock users out of the know-how... you see how that may not even be possible, because of innate properties like human curiosity, the very target of said "great design".

I don't understand, could you give an example?

>Yes, in principle they could learn that stuff; but they consider it to be a waste of their valuable time, for which they have other priorities.

Yet they spend their valuable time on watching television while being bombarded with adverts and forced to come back because their favorite series always ends with a cliff-hanger. Or they are drinking. Or they are working excessive hours because in spite of the fact that we have automated massive swathes of work, five days a week is still the standard, which makes absolutely no sense. Or they are too stressed by their dire financial situation because we have an economy based on gambling and usury.

My point is that people are naturally curious creatures who, given the time and opportunity, are quite capable of learning anything.

When we have a society which spends a great deal of resources constantly diverting peoples' attention, creating fake demands and generally holding an air of chaos, is it a wonder that nobody can be bothered to learn how to operate a revolutionary class of machines which provide one with knowledge about anything and everything?

By dumbing things like this down, we are approaching the problem from the wrong end. We need to work on creating a bigger leisure class which will naturally be inclined to understand it's environment better, since it will actually have the time and focus necessary to do so.

By another way of analogy - we're in the position of the 16th century puritans (in this case tech nerds) asserting that ofcourse everyone must learn to read (or operate computers) so that they can read the Bible (internet) for themselves and interpret the word of collective wisdom directly. Notice how the result of that battle was not to dumb down the English language, which is unnecessarily complicated in many places, but to teach people how to use the bloody thing. This is a similar situation.

It's not about learning the inner workings of the computer but about having a very basic understanding of fundamental concepts.

A computer is eventually nothing but a tool to get stuff done. A user not willing to learn those basic concepts is the equivalent to a craftsman not willing to learn how to use a hammer.

I agree that the inner workings are probably far too complex to understand for anybody not working in the field, but they aren't expected to either. As I pointed out in a different reply, hierarchical storage is no different from putting things and thoughts into mental drawers, as we do all the time (even though we're often not supposed to do so). It's a ridiculously simple concept.

I also agree that devices like tablets and smartphones, which are ultimately just consumer devices, not meant for any productive work, will get by without this concept (although I personally prefer having it). I wouldn't want my laptop, desktop, workstation, whatever to be without directory structure though.

Can we stop with this rubbish that you can't do productive work on a tablet.

Tablets can access web apps and the massive amount of functionality they provide today.

I never claimed they literally can't do productive work, they're just not built to do it.

Touch interfaces and the corresponding on-screen keyboards are good enough for short texts but even writing a medium-sized email is a pain in the bottom compared to the full-size keyboards computers come with. Autocorrection systems make it less painful, but they're absolutely useless when writing formal languages like code or math and since their capabilities are limited, natural language writing isn't as easy as with a hardware keyboard either.

There's a reason for the name of the category "consumer electronics". They're meant to be good at consuming media, not producing it, that's what the workstation is for.

Yes, a tablet doesn't work very well for writing if you don't connect a keyboard to it. Neither does a workstation.

There's a slight difference though. A tablet is meant to be carried around and an external keyboard kind of ruins this, though I admit there've been solutions to this which didn't completely suck.

A workstation is stationary, so mobility isn't an issue and usually the keyboard comes with the workstation anyway.

And on a sidenote, what you're basically saying is that it's easier to be productive when you have any means of I/O at all than when you haven't.

Doesn't change a thing about what those devices are focused on though.

I honestly believe that there are some people who simply don't "get" hierarchical folder structures. And it's not a small percentage.

Years ago when Windows Explorer tree-views were all the rage our desktop app had them all over the place. And the number of support requests were phenomenal. We'd demonstrate the tree-view - expanding out folder nodes till you find what you want, the user would go "Oh that's how it works" and then a few days later would ring up with the same request. I think there's just some part of their brain that can't deal with the geometry of it or something.

You see a similar issue with recursion: it's never seemed particularly difficult to me. But there are, apparently, lots of fairly smart undergraduates who are taking a CS class who just can't grasp it.

A tree is recursive--maybe that inability to "get" hierarchical folder structures is somehow related to an inability to understand recursion?

I think it's the same sort of idea but at a lower level (as it were).

The (very) few times I've tried to explain recursion to non-CS-types have always been met with "I sort of get it" looks (meaning "we'll have forgotten in five minutes").

But there seems to be no pattern to the non-tech people who don't understand tree-views.

The only thing I've noticed is it might be maths-related - as people in the accounts departments invariably get trees straight away.

> I think that at a certain point people have to accept that there are just some things must be learned in order to operate a computer.

This! I personally like the idea of learning concepts in order to be able to make sense of a computer or it's applications. One might argue that the learning curve is too steep for some users, but on this particular topic it just isn't. Come on, we've been putting stuff into boxes for ages. In a metaphorical sense we put everything in boxes and label them in some way. Directories do exactly that. We're used to it and, as much as I hate those three words, "it just works".

Trying to make every last bit of a computer absolutely idiot-proof harms productivity (compare poweruser tools to what-your-grandma-uses) and may even scare away those who actually have to get work done.

I believe we've actually reached the point where the "dumbing down" started a while ago, and it's a rather bad trend.

I am a man and when I first had to do the laundry with our new washing machine I read the manual supplied by the manufacturer. I did the same with a lot of kitchen and household appliances.

So why in hell people whose daily jobs consist of interacting with Word and the computer and managing files are exempted of reading their computer's manual ?! Nobody is asking them to learn a programming language (well, that fad died last week) or compute binary soustraction. Just use some folders (and learn a shortcut or two like ctrl+v, ctrl+c).

I admit good introduction material to "the computer" are a rare thing nowadays (there is a market!) and I remember the win95/98 introduction to the mouse was something good and an interactive learning software should be made available on every platform (I believe ubuntu would grasp billions of users if they provided something like that).

Not getting hierarchical storage is like... I don't know... not getting the subway schedule ? Or how to operate a tv remote ?

I'll bet it wasn't the concept of directories that those secretaries of yours had trouble with. I'll bet that they simply weren't told that they existed and the computer offered no hints and that when they were told, they understood it readily.

My mom frequently has trouble with directories but it's not the concept she has trouble with. It's the fact that the filesystem is so huge that it's hard to manage and there is no way she keep where everything is in her head. The fact that operating system files, application files, and user created files are mixed rather indiscriminately is probably the biggest problem. Also photo-managing applications trying to make things simple by saving files but not telling her where they put them leads to a lot of confusion. But the idea of files and folders she has not trouble with; it's the difficulty of navigating an impossibly huge and insufficiently mapped directory structure that she has trouble with.

The concept of folders is pretty straightforward: "Everything has its place and there's a place for everything." People naturally organize things through place and directories create a semblance of 'place' for abstract pieces of data. (Place is actually such a powerful concept in the human mind, that the Jesuits used to memorize complicated arguments and passages by going for walks and assigning concepts to different locations on the way.) Tagging and search based systems while technically more powerful, I think would actually be more confusing not less because the concept is not as intuitive.

It's a question of jargon. What does the layperson think of when they hear "directory", a telephone directory? Whereas if you call them "folders" or even better, as on the Amiga, "drawers", then it all becomes very obvious.

Not really - it is not very intuitive that you put folders into folders and have all your documents in one big folder containing all your other folders. And you don't have drawers containing other drawers either, in the real world.

But apart from bad metaphors, I thing non-geeks have a problem with organizing things in arbitrary deep hierarchies. You don't really do that a lot outside of computing.

Sure you do, it's common in any sort of industry http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bill_of_materials

Maybe we should call them matryoshkas?

When I started out using computers, an adult explained it to me using a shelf as a metaphor: The drive is a shelf. You can have multiple shelves. Shelves have compartments, which contain things. Some of those things can contain other things, like boxes or folders. Made the nesting rather obvious to me.

Indeed but not quite.

Inside drawers you have shelves. On the shelves you have boxes. In the boxes you have folders, envelopes, files...

There's more: in the files you have pictures, frames, tables

I should probaly have said recursive hierarchies is not intuitive for everyone. Everyone can understand shelves in drawers, boxes on shelves and so on. What is confusing to many is folders inside folders or drawers inside drawers arbitrarily deep.

I've never seen anyone having trouble with putting little boxes inside bigger boxes.

The problem is not directory, it's the hierarchy. The first time I have this described was a looong time ago when reading Alan Cooper's "About Face". I guess this is not news to anyone who is interested in UI and UX.

Obvious? Then you must be in favour of Apple's move to 'at most one level of hierarchy'. Or do you find the concept of drawers inside drawers inside drawers intuitive?

Not to comment on how it works in a UI, but my chest of drawers at home does indeed have two levels, there is a smaller drawer (for socks) inside the main top drawer.

Call 'em "boxes" or "bags" for all I care - the point is the geek word "directory" isn't suitable for non-technical people, I think everyone understand the concept of "putting things in things" because they do it all the time in the real world.

I haven't seen the word "directory" widely used amongst laymen since the move from Windows 3.x to Windows 95, where if my memory serves me (I was 9 at the time) Microsoft made the change to "folder" themselves.

i experience with these types of people has been tht they're not failing to understand folders, they're going 'i dont like new things, therefore i refuse to understand this'

I'm a programmer and I have problems with files and folders. That's why the UNIX "find" command exists.

When I see people struggle with folders, it's these two things:

- System, Application and Settings storage folders that the typical user really shouldn't have to see in the first place

- Predefined directory structures like "My Documents" that the user didn't create themselves. Especially when apps crud things up even more with subdirectories with files the user didn't create themselves and can't edit themselves (on my Mac I have "EyeTV Archive", "Final Cut Pro Documents", "iChats", etc... these should be hidden in Library folders until the user exports them). The Desktop is among these. Storing files on the Desktop shouldn't be possible.

If when new users got a computer, the only storage visible was a completely blank home folder, I think a lot of this confusion would disappear. It's not nesting of folders per-se that's the problem, it's that there's a ton of shit there from the beginning that the user has no idea what it is, where they are right now, and where their document will go. When the user created everything themselves and applications don't save documents go into special folders by default, I think a lot of that confusion is gone.

In this world, users who don't understand folders won't create them, and so they won't be confronted with the complexity. The "app silo" model could be emulated by app open dialogs only showing files created by the app itself by default.

Personally, I hate the app silo model. I like having a folder per project with all the related files in it. If I'm working on a report, I want to be able to quickly get to the text chapters, the graphs, my data sources, etc without jumping between apps so much.

Agreed, especially on Windows this is very confusing. So much junk in your home folder by default so it is hard to tell where your things should go. A clean or almost clean home directory would be much preferable.

Followup: Anyone confused by hierarchical folders is going to be just as confused by a database model with tags and saved searches.

Maybe, but I guess ideally, the user would want to be able to say: "open my 2008 tax report" or "send Jack the photos of my trip to Paris this year". This fits more closely to a Spotlight-like search plus actions, a direction that Apple is clearly moving to.

Sure, things are imperfect now: Spotlight search does not catch everything and Siri often messes up. Coming from hierarchy-oriented interfaces to documents, it sometimes feels like throwing your data in a dark pit, where it is impossible to retrieve it again. But if they can nail this stuff correctly some day, we surely have come a long way!

In some cases it almost works perfectly already. I never put e-mail in IMAP folders anymore, since Mail.app's search functionality allows me to find stuff quicker and more effectively.

I agree that good search is essential and helps a lot with not needing to organize stuff anymore. Making good sense of automatic metadata (with photos, stuff like geotagging and iPhoto's Faces) will help even more.

But there's still often a need to browse, and I haven't seen many successful implementations of tags yet, so I'm still skeptical that it's much more intuitive than folder. I know Gmail does it well, but I rarely use their web app, and not many email clients support it. Meanwhile I've never seen anyone use tags in, for instance iPhoto.

Why shouldn't storing files on the desktop be possible?

The desktop doesn't fit into a hierarchy very well. It feels like it ought to be the "root" of your computer, but it's always really a folder in the user's home directory. In Windows it's even more confusing since they put "My Computer" and the drives under the desktop, which is really in your home folder...

It would work if the desktop WAS your home root, but then you can lose files simply because they're covered up with windows. They could let you open the desktop again in a separate window like current OSes do, but I'm a proponent of the Spatial file manager[0] so I think that would be confusing in other ways. Also some people (me) object to the clutter :)

[0] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spatial_file_manager

What do you mean by "but then you can lose files simply because they're covered up with windows"?

Lose in the sense where the user comes to me and says "I lost my file!" and I move the window aside and there it is. The same way people "lose" their files by saving them in the wrong folder.

> If when new users got a computer, the only storage visible was a completely blank home folder

...you mean the Desktop?

No. That's exactly what makes it so confusing. User sees desktop, all is good. They go into Word, save a file. It ends up in "My Documents" by default. Now the user thinks they lost the file, since it's not on the Desktop.

This all boils down to several salient points:

1) Nobody, not even 90-year-old computer newbies, has trouble understanding hierarchical folders. There could not be a more natural concept of organization. It corresponds to a box inside a storage box inside a closet inside a room inside a house inside a neighborhood, etc. It's just every level is called a folder. Saying that "x" group of people "can't understand" that is just insulting to them, frankly.

2) People who use a flat directory to save 1000's of invoices on a computer which is only used for that, who do not understand folders -- that's fine. This doesn't prove folders are non-intuitive. They just don't need to understand folders, because the job doesn't require folders. The moment their job does, someone can explain it to them, and they will get it, the same way they get that paperclips go in the box on the shelf in the closet.

3) The original Mac OS (say, up to System 6) did a great job of making folders understandable. They were physical icons, physical window locations, they were easy to use. The Open/Save dialogs could be a bit confusing, and still are -- there's definitely room for improvement there.

4) Modern OS's do a terrible job at making folders understandable, because there are drive directories, often hidden, and then multiple user folders, and their Documents directories, and then things outside their Documents directories (like Desktop, Downloads, etc.), and fake folders that show the content of multiple other folders, etc.

5) So people are rightly claiming that folders are a mess and confusing. Yes they are, on modern OS's. But the problem is not with the concept of folders, it's with their back-assward modern implementations. So don't throw the baby out with the bathwater and claim that folders are bad. Instead, the solution is:

6) Modern OS's and apps: stop trying to organize our damned files for us! Stop auto-creating "Downloads" and "My Pictures" and "My Skype Photos" and "My Virtual Machines" directories. Just stop it! Instead, give each user their own home directory, have it be empty on a new computer, have every application open/save things in it by default (including downloads), and let the user organize things gradually as they see fit. And don't let anyone but a power user ever get outside of this directory.

(And ideally, stop allowing users to put documents on their desktop -- it just confuses things and nobody has ever come up with an intuitive way to integrate that with the concept of user folders (my desktop is inside my user folder, what?). Documents on a desktop is an outgrown metaphor that just nobody seems to have the courage to jettison.)

4) Modern OS's do a terrible job at making folders understandable, because there are drive directories, often hidden, and then multiple user folders, and their Documents directories, and then things outside their Documents directories (like Desktop, Downloads, etc.), and fake folders that show the content of multiple other folders, etc.

This is a particularly salient point -- in further particular:

fake folders that show the content of multiple other folders

I'll add to that, widgets that are not intuitive and/or don't clearly express the hierarchy.

My parents understand organization just fine. But then they encounter this interface that keeps breaking the basic rules and UI of same. They stop trusting the machine and themselves to interpret what it is presenting and doing.

This is bad UI.

There is nothing that is intuitive unless it's learned.

Consistency + Simplicity = Intuitive

Not at all.

Something can be very complex even abstract and still be intuitive. It's all about understanding the context.

I never said abstract was an issue. But, do you have a counter example that is inconsistent and complex and still intuitive without training? Because, it sounds like what your describing is what happens after someone has learned a system and not how long it takes them to learn it.

Let's make sure we are having the same discussion here.

I am saying that just because you understand the concept of directories in the real world does not mean that you can use that understanding in the digital world.

This is because the understanding the conceptual part is only a very very very small part of operating a computer.

There are many other things such as operating a machine, understanding moving around with a mouse, which is really a pointer on the screen (talk about decoy for understanding) then understanding clicking, double clicking, applications, documents, file structure, expanding collapsing and so on.

The list of skills you have to do to operate within the metaphor have absolutely nothing to do with you real life understanding of directories.

This is the problem. The conceptual/intellectual understanding does not lead to actual intutition in this other field cause it has nothing to do with directories and folders in real life.

It's like being dropped into the middle of the african savannah. Even though you conceptually understand the idea of lions, trees, the sun, earth, elephants etc. does not mean that you know how to get around or even how to survive.

You have no experience in the environment and thus you can't use your understanding of getting around New York to get around here too.

The only truly intuitive interface is the nipple.

Everything else sucks.

Yeah but that is also hardwired into us and not part of some intellectual process. So that's kind of cheating :)

You are missing the point here.

Just because you understand something in real life does not by any metrics mean that you understand it on a computer.

You grew up with computers for you it's secondary but you learned it.

Someone who have never used computers before do not understand the metaphor.

So no it's not insulting them.

2) Folders are non-intuitive if they aren't learned. There is no natural transfer of understanding between putting documents in a folder physically and then using your moves to drag some icons around. You assume there is, but there isn't, it has to be learned.

5) What people complain about is that it's not the web. They just want to click a link that takes them to where they want to be taken. Of course folders are a mess and confusing cause most data is a mess an confusing.

6) I am pretty sure that it actually works.

I think your understanding of how normal users think is probably as inaccurate as it could probably be.

Okay so let's just stop with the "I'm right you're wrong!" stuff. I think what we need to do here is some research. Are those who classify themselves as "computer illiterate" more or less capable of understanding the concept of directories than those who are more technically inclined?

Until we have some real research into this, we're just making things up, and that's A Bad Thing.

Again you are missing the point.

The question you are asking is the wrong question to ask. The question is whether they understand the concept of directories in this context.

I.e. is it there intellectual transcendence from one paradigm to another without learning how the metaphor is expreseed in this new context.

It's much much much different than you think out there :)

So you're against research, then? I don't understand what you're trying to say with this comment.

Your comment on #5 is interesting: local storage folders/directories don't correspond to the WWW experience.

Locally, I've got to dig through directories to find stuff. I've got some search tools, but they're generally primitive and/or hit-or-miss. I almost exclusively use the command line, not graphical file browsers (which I find exceptionally tedious).

On the WWW, I generally find stuff through a search engine which, with the benefit of some very clever back-end heuristics, does a really good job of turning up the right stuff. Or I might use my local bookmarks collection, though that again uses a folder metaphor and is a bit tedious to use.

But ... I use the Vimperator Firefox plugin, which makes my browser a lot more like a command line. So when I want to open a web page, I'll almost always switch to command mode and start typing a part of the URL or description of the site ... and Vimperator starts searching through my history and bookmarks for a set of likely matches, which I then tab to and hit <enter>. (Granted, some "superbar" navigation works similarly, though I find Vimperator's operation superior).

My experience is that directories work where you're going to put a certain level of thought into how you want to organize content. But heaps and search tools work better where you've got a lot of diverse content and want to be able to dig into it periodically.

The advantage of the web is that you are browsing the documents themselves rather than som structure hiding them. Since these documents link to each other you do not have to remember folds structures but simply click.

That sort of depends.

As Ajax becomes more prevalent, some sites and their features/documents are only accessible by some click sequence, rather than via direct navigation.

Well-behaved sites tend to be structured better, and offer navigational clues (breadcrumbing), and the like.

Many sites really don't have much intrinsic structure and are little more than a large bag (or set of bags) of pages or other objects (Facebook, YouTube, Wikipedia), though these may have linkages (perferably hypertextual) between objects (notably: Wikipedia and kin).

One of the things I'm liking about using an e-book reader (Moon+Reader on Android, Calibre on Debian/Linux) is that rather than scatter docs through the filesystem, they're organized through the reader interface itself. Not an entirely novel concept -- the man and info commands have used a similar concept for years, and are amenable to organization through tools such as Debian's dwww (online localhost Web interface to locally stored documentation, including manpages, info pages, package documentation, and installed documentation resources). Including search and indexing.

Pretty slick, that.

My point was more that on the web everything is a destination/reference/document at the same time.

The content is the interface, the interface is the content.

Where the "document" dynamically changes depending on actions th euser takes within it, which aren't revealed/exposed through the URL, then this falls apart.

It's something TBL has commented on.

I am not sure it falls apart any more than the fact that I can't see all documents at the same time.

>Folders are non-intuitive if they aren't learned

This is the second time you've used the word intuitive. I'm not sure if you don't understand what it means or if you just misspoke twice.

Something is intuitive if it doesn't need to be taught/learned.

I am well aware what it means. And you need to learn what folders are on a computer and what it means to put something into them.

In other words it's not intuitive. People don't understand it in one context just because they understand it in another.

Or let me put it another way.

Nothing is intuitive, you have to learn it which renders the word in this context useless.

Eating is intuitive. I believe drinking water and defecating could also be considered intuitive.

The meaning of the word intuitive may not come to some folks via intuition, however. Merriam-Webster defines intuitive as: readily learned or understood; and intuition as: immediate apprehension or cognition.

I'm not taking a stand either way on if they're intuitive, I've been using a PC for far too long to even try to think about it.

But what you just said is the opposite of: "Folders are non-intuitive if they aren't learned"

It would have made sense if you'd said: "Folders are non-intuitive because they must be learned".

And yet you seem to understand what I am trying to say.

Fine with me.

Only because you wrote a bunch of other stuff that gave it context. Stubborn much? That statement, on it's own, says the opposite of what you meant. I don't know why you're arguing with me about it.

I am arguing with you about it because it's worth arguing about.

There is such a thing called intuition. It just doesn't transcend the way the OP claimed it would.

Intuition is something you build via experience. It allow you to navigate even things you haven't been exposed to before. As long as you understand the basic premise of the context.

The general consensus and then point of the OP was to say that understanding the metaphor is enough to make you navigate two different paradigms just because you understand one of them and use metaphors to connect them . I.e. you can use intuition from one of them in the other. This is simply wrong and is not given at all.

Which leads me to say that intuition is learned. I.e. it's not some linear concept where everything fit together, but rather it exists de facto disconnected underneath the metaphors and concepts.

A metaphor or concept is intuitive if it can be clearly understood once seen. "Without deduction or reasoning" as my dictionary puts it.

While I appreciate your comment, ThomPete's comment, perhaps better phrased as "Folders are intuitive once experienced" would generally be accepted to mean that the concept and behavior of files and folders, through a visual GUI metaphor, is generally grasped and understood (I'm not saying this is or isn't true, but it's a testable and reasonable proposition).

The visual metaphor isn't always manageable. It's not always appropriate. But for most people, the general idea of objects and containers is wired at a pretty low neural level. Enough so that I'm comfortable calling it "intuitive".

Socks and dressers are also intuitive. Doesn't mean my laundry doesn't find itself all over my room.

Your #4 and #6 are pretty spot on in my experience (which is mostly Linux / Unix systems, though I've certainly used others extensively).

Having multiple paths to the same location is confusing, especially when the rationale isn't made apparent to users.

The Windows drive-lettering mode is complete pants and should have died 20 years ago. Yes, there's an alternate scheme, but it's much more verbose, not widely advertised, and if not worse, roughly as bad.

Linux/Unix have terse directory names, but a very, very, very stable naming schema, with a lot of history behind them. Once learned, that's knowledge and behavior you can bank on.

The proliferation of "My ..." directories under user's home directories, the odd distinction between user home and "Desktop", and a slew of other things, really speaks to a horrible mash of concepts which no one (or no empowered team) ever sat down to think through rationally. I've always found the "My ..." meme to beneedlessly verbose and highly condescending (where similar conventions are used on Linux, the "My " is virtually always dropped, thank you unknown benefactors). The use of dotfiles rather than a dedicated $HOME/etc/ directory means that there's a proliferation of magic files and directories off of a user's home direcotry which are significant ... yet hard to distinguish from other folders. As a WindowMaker fan, the presence of a non-dotfile "GNUstep/" directory off my home dir has long been a mild annoyance.

What's also lacking in general computer training / mentoring are suggestions on how to best organize a user's directory space. There's a fascination with desktop screenshots, but I'd largely find an archive of 3-4 level directory trees interesting. How people organize their work has a lot to say about how they do their work.

> (And ideally, stop allowing users to put documents on their desktop -- it just confuses things and nobody has ever come up with an intuitive way to integrate that with the concept of user folders (my desktop is inside my user folder, what?). Documents on a desktop is an outgrown metaphor that just nobody seems to have the courage to jettison.)

Why not make the desktop the home folder, so my files are quick to access? Maybe one could even create a second Desktop for shortcuts and user actions.

A directory structure is too restrictive, much like Java and C++ inheritance. Cluster and search based file access is way more flexible and fluid, but we haven't had a good UI or overlay onto traditional filesystems yet. Think of Go's interface model, but for files.

Imagine you have a file that is a vendor-provided html template. Does it go in vendor/ or templates/? vendor/templates? What if you want to find out all the templates in use by the system? Document that somewhere and expect a newhire to 'just know' where you store the fragments of your templates?

Sometimes there really isn't a parent-child relationship between data, modeling it like that is always true seems very 1980s.

Perhaps Rob Pike can sum it up better than I can:

"My late friend Alain Fournier once told me that he considered the lowest form of academic work to be taxonomy. And you know what? Type hierarchies are just taxonomy. You need to decide what piece goes in what box, every type's parent, whether A inherits from B or B from A. Is a sortable array an array that sorts or a sorter represented by an array? If you believe that types address all design issues you must make that decision.

I believe that's a preposterous way to think about programming. What matters isn't the ancestor relations between things but what they can do for you."

Again, these two are not mutually exclusive. You can store your files in a tree structure, yet unify various nodes by tags or index of concepts.

For example, if I store my photos by Year/Year-Month/Day/

and I'm interested in pictures of my son in the last year, it does not mean these pictures have to be all in the same flat one year folder. It is doable today in spotlight

$ mdfind -interpret "kind:image name date:>1/1/2012"

I think the other point of view, the anti-directory one, is well reflected in this review of OSX: http://informationarchitects.net/blog/mountain-lions-new-fil...

The most notable saying is that "As soon as we have more than a handful of notions, or (beware!) more than one hierarchical level of notions, it gets hard for most brains to build a mental model of that information architecture."

Here is my ranty answer:


My god. Who the HELL are those guys to be so dismissive of human brain?

I have a kid, he is learning ten words a day, and this little boy is not a genius: It is a normal human being in formation. He is also playing a lot with my old legos, and he is communicating better and better in two very different languages. I can tell you, dear "Information architects" that he can already handle more than one hierarchical level!

I have worked in normal companies before. By that I mean companies were people have meetings, get bored by many slideshows every week, and use excel spreadsheets daily. In this kind of companies, geniuses are not the norm. And all of these people, all of these common "brains" could handle easily "more than one hierarchical level".

So, dear "Information architects", please keep your stinky morgue to yourself.

Human brain is the most wonderful thing that can be observed in the world. Its capacities surpass anything we (human brains) can modelize with our other tools. A kid of 3 years is much better in all what matters than a computer. We, normal human beings, won't let you grow a new generation of lobotomized humans for whom it is "hard" to build a "mental model" with "more than one hierarchical level".

Post-scriptum: After a mandatory proof-reading, I sit there and I wonder: maybe my legitimate anger against your aristocratic hauteur did blind me of a better explanation. The "brain limitation" you are attributing so kindly to "most brains" is just your own problem, maybe. Then your are not as cynical as it seems. But then I repeat: of any of my colleagues, old and young, clever and stupid, ubergeek or almost illiterate, all could handle a fking tree structure for their file. Thanks for considering them (a bit).

My God, what is it about this topic? Is there something about geeks that makes them think a mastery of nested folders is a validation of their manhood?

There are other, and probably better, organising principles than hierarchical directories. It is not anti-directory as the original author so witlessly claims but a search for better, easier to understand, alternatives. Something which Apple have repeatedly done, and by so doing made a lot money in the process.

No, my point is that all the office employees I have known did master nested folders. For some assets a hierarchical structure is not ideal, I agree with that, but I don't agree with this "users are geeks or stupid" claim I see flourishing more and more here and there. In reality, users are either very clever or not interested. I have seen once a non geek do incredible tweaking to his Windows box in order to play CS. On the opposite, I know of very clever geeks who can't even fill a sign-up form, or cook eggs, because they aren't interested.

Trees are so yesterday. I think we should move to cyclic graphs for our filesystems.

Don't worry, with the magic of symlinks anything is possible!

Yes indeed :D.

There is a flaw with directories and hierarchical storage and it's not their conceptual complexity.

Gmail made a move away from folders and it's one that I've embraced.

1. It's easy to spend too long manually organizing things into folders. It's the kind of relaxing, busy-work we can fall into to avoid the hard stuff we're supposed to be doing.

2. There are many arbitrary ways to rearrange hierarchies and no clear limit for how deep they should be. Many of us with slight OCD-ish tendencies can fall down the rabbit-hole here.

3. It's manual work that the computer should partially be doing for us.

There are ways to mitigate these problems. Multiple views of the same structure, tags instead of folders and easily accessibly, instantaneous search can teach us to be less dogmatic about our directories.

I very rarely need to use tags/folders with my email now. Search works for me 90% of the time. It's only special tasks such as doing my tax returns or tracking a particularly complex bunch of emails where I might use tags. I think my file system is probably an order of magnitude more complicated and there is less automatic metadata with files (my file system doesn't know what project a file is related unless I tell it whereas you can tell a lot about an email just using from/to/cc fields.)

At this point I was hoping to end on some kind of conclusion but I can't think of one.

The ways something can be abused are not arguments against proper use of it.

"It's manual work that the computer should partially be doing for us."

I disagree, partially ^^ Tags, or where something is located; both can be part of the content.

The cool thing about folders is, if you don't want them, simply don't create them... but don't take it away from those who do themselves more good than harm with it, please :/

> The ways something can be abused are not arguments against proper use of it.

While true, the rate at which things are abused appears to be highly correlated to how convenient or user-friendly they are, or how well they solve the problem they are supposed to be solving.

Just looking at how many people have desktops crowded with every document they ever opened, or how many computer-illiterate friends and relatives have asked me how they should backup or transfer their files to and from other computers, because they don't even know you can actually get to them by other means than the 'open file' dialog in their Word Processor, signals to me that many people don't really think organizing files using folders is something they need or want.

It seems to be two different arguments happening. One is that the hierarchical structure is outdated and/or broken. The other is that people aren't using it correctly (or at all).

I'd agree with the later but I don't see it as a reason to get rid of file structures for those of us that do use them.

You're saying users don't need or want organizing files in folders -- but then how do they not solve that non-existing problem perfectly?

Make the open dialog default to where the app last saved, make that in turn default to the home directory or whatever -- make it only display relevant file types -- done. That stuff is littered on the desktop is because dialogs defaulted to it.

And when someone wants to "backup all my files", they'll need a single-click option with a wizard either way, wether their filesystem has folders or not.

That said, I won't lie, while I have intricate folder structures, I also have a lot of "not yet sorted"-type ones. But doing away with folders would just extend that chaos across ALL my files, and also, with some stuff, there is just no replacement for them. for example, audio samples. sorting them by tags or date or anything a machine-readable just doesn't work. Get a good structure, be diligent about where you place stuff, and something like "find a good maracas sample and a flute" is no problem, with a few clicks I'm where I want to be.

Yes, metadata and databases are great, I'm all for them, but with folders you can basically apply metadata to stuff that otherwise cannot hold it. And when that database/metadata stuff gets ready to be usable for more than trivial things, why should it not be able to handle folder structures, which you can create and look at if you want, but don't have to? And if you have a filesystem where there is no hierarchy at all, why not add the possibility to nest it with metadata ("parent_id" ^^) -- ? People who don't need that, notice or need to know none of this stuff.

> The cool thing about folders is, if you don't want them, simply don't create them

The cool thing about tags is that you could have multiple ways of viewing them, including a hierarchical folder-like view.

I don't have anything against folders, I just think that tagging is more or less a super set of what folders can do.

> Gmail made a move away from folders

You are equalling emails with files, which is not within the point of the OP.

Files are things you store for reuse. Emails are mostly things you should throw right away after reading them. Some emails should become files because they are important. That's why in "normal companies" most people work with attachments, which is a gigantic PITA, but fit with the "Files are important things I need to store for reuse" model.

I was using emails as a parallel. Some conclusions can be drawn from that.

I think at some point Apple will sell us "folders within folders" as a gorgeous update that took so long to really get it right.

and patent it.

We are seeing a comeback of folders within apps in the form of play-lists and photo albums. But they're smarter, synced to the cloud, searchable, sharable and auto-categorized.

The PC is evolving and it's not clear who it will work in a few years.

It's like these great touch screens to which people insist on attaching keyboards. Leading to thing like the Asus Transformer and MS Surface.

There's a lot of experimentation going on still and it may take some time before the "post PC" gets to it's final form. It's fun to watch though.

That's a refreshing view. I fully agree. I hate it when a music player do not allow me to browse my clean and deep directory. I detest the fact that apparently no Picture manager is letting me to see my 10 years of photos in the hierarchy of my choice, that I implemented patiently in a directory structure.

And to the many comments right here that argue that people have hard time dealing with directories, I have one question: Did you ever work within a normal company (I mean, the kind of company where you have people in suit or tailleur doing ppt and excels)?

I have, and I can tell you that the most stubborn HR assistant will have his or her files almost neatly catalogued in a hierarchy, and most of the time they will be able to find the "2001 report on office expenses" directly from the hierarchy.

Granted, most will not use a clever and consistent naming convention for files, allowing to sort them properly (eg. all files prefixed by year). And that is a problem. A problem that the hierarchy solves properly, by the way.

So, I would bet the Apple/Google "no file" movement is a dead end. Worse, it is a trap. Check who will benefit from this move: Users? No. Advertisers? Maybe. DRM corporations? Certainly...

I agree insomuch as you can pry my hierarchical file system from my cold dead hands. And indeed I think it is essential for anyone passing a moderate threshold of any kind of professional work using a computer. However, I the OA wrongly dismisses the trouble people have with traditional file system. The iOS model, however limiting, does work better for a large swath of casual users.

> I detest the fact that apparently no Picture manager is letting me to see my 10 years of photos in the hierarchy of my choice, that I implemented patiently in a directory structure.

Lightroom does, for example.

> DRM corporations? Certainly...

How so?

Well, if you do not have any mp3 or video files on your hard drive anymore, if all of that is in the cloud, then it will be much easier to enforce copyrights (and censorship, and surveillance, by the same way).

Ah, I had assumed you were making an argument against all approaches to data management which do not use a directory-based approach rather than just online ones.

I had to stop reading at "I've never met a user who has trouble navigating nested directories."

My experience tells me he is in the 'tech guy' bubble. As someone who volunteered helping city kids use computers, had a 'business' fixing people's computers, and has a dad who teaches a free computer class at a library, and has worked tech support, I say with some confidence that the silent majority of people don't understand folders at all.

You have to be a tech savvy, middle to upper middle class person with relatively high motivation before you stand a chance of understanding folder structure. Exceptions abound, of course, but then again most 9-5 working, intelligent people struggle to organize their data in folders even though they fit my demographic of people with a chance to understand.

I stopped reading at the same point. There are people confused by everything about computers.. if he hasn't met one confused about folders, then he doesn't have the experience to write his article.

Maybe it started with music playlists. My digital music collection is largely in the same folder structure as it was 15 years ago, but every music player wants to make a library based on metatags, which in theory makes sense, but then just adds the problem of giving everything suitable metatags. Building your own file structure based on your own needs just seems easier and simpler.

There's nothing wrong with tags for music libraries - just that ID3 and the tooling around it sucks - especially genre handling, the artist/performer distinction and the inability to handle my own arbitrary grouping that doesn't correspond to any release information.

I love apps that allow me to easily switch between using tags and using my own folders.

Can you recommend any of the apps?

The rather excellent Foobar2000 for Windows has a library view that lets you switch between folder structure and tagged properties (album, artist, genre etc)

Clementine offers both views also.

The original article wasn't very good, but this response is even worse. It appears the author is lacking any form of creativity to think beyond the idea that folders are the only paradigm for ordering files that could possibly work.

In practice, if you forget about system files and such, I'd estimate 9 out of 10 people have all their documents in a single flat folder, which they only access through their word processor or whatever they use to open them. They have all their pictures and video in a tool that organizes them into albums and such without them having to deal with folders. They have all their music in a program that keeps them in a library somewhere, which they never manipulate on the file system level. And so on. Or (also very common) they just dump everything they touch on their computer on the desktop. This is not because making folders is 'too complex', but because users can't be bothered to come up with hierarchies to order where there files are 'stored on the file system' or whatever, they just want to make their changes persistent and be able to quickly find their files later.

For the vast majority of people, folders are an anochronism. It's not that they are 'hard' or 'complex', but they are simply not essential, and actually quite limiting for file management. The whole idea that the artefacts you create or consume are best structured as a tree really doesn't make a whole lot of sense. Especially not if you want to have all your data available on multiple machines which may have wildly different file systems such as desktops and mobile devices.

This doesn't mean we should all have big piles of files with no ways of structuring them, but it doesn't mean folders are the epitome of file management either. A database-like file system with powerful search options could definitely be much better. From an end-user perspective, organizing files by the applications they can open them also seems to be a pretty good idea to me. Attaching metadata and tags to files so you don't have to superimpose them using a tree-like structure would be a huge improvement.

I'm not saying that what Apple is trying with iOS and now OS X is so great we should all hail it as the future of file management, but personally I think they are moving in the right direction. Ideally, end-users should be able to operate their devices and get to their files without even knowing it has something as abstract as a 'file system'. Just sit down, get the file you want using whatever criterium makes the most sense for finding it, manipulate it, and have the same file available on every other machine. I think this is the vision Apple has, but it will take lots of time to get there.

Also, people mailing files to themselves to get them on their iOS devices literally has nothing to do with how the iOS file system works. Folders or no folders would not make any difference.

Your thought process is precisely how vendors like Apple are arriving at this conclusion. The problem with it is that you are assuming that your users are blithering idiots without any actual work to do.

The oh-so-quaint folder metaphor directly correlates to how humans do things in the physical world. I put my winter coat in a closet. My winter scarf, boots, hat and gloves are also in the closet, but in a box on a shelf.

My system may not be the same as yours, but it works for me. Dumping my winter stuff with all of my clothing on a pile, and affixing a blue tag on it to represent "winter stuff" isn't improving things. Installing a database-backed clothing management system like you would find at a dry cleaner in my house solves my organizational problem, but introduces alot of complexity and overhead.

Let's be real here. The reason that Apple is doing this is that have had success in delivering a dumbed-down API that makes their life much easier on phones, and prevents pesky third party software developers from doing dangerous things like allowing applications to talk to each other. They've decided to bring this innovation to the general purpose computer.

Shoes are simple. But where did you put the backup debit bank card? To the "finance" stuff? Or to the "plastic card" pile? Where to put spare photos for documents - near the foreign passport cause you'll surely need both of them next time? Or to the unsorted photos pile? Where should we put spare screws from a new shelf - on that shelf or in the toolbox with other screws? Etc. etc.

This is why directories are getting old - they allow only one tag for a file - the folder name. New systems, like iTunes and others are introducing concept of advanced tags - you can find the same file in the Author "dir" in the Genre "dir" in the Type "dir" etc. They aren't perfect yet but they are being refined all will be dominant in the future.

Which is why it'd be nice if filesystems supported labels. I'd keep the directory structure, but I want to be able to apply the "2004 vacations" label on a all files in a given directory. Then you can add other particular labels to some files.

I don't want to have to manage labels separately for iPhoto, for Picasa and for all the possible image viewers that I'll use in the future.

Even when I disable in every machine I use, that's the idea behind KDE's Nepomuk.


Yes, yes, yes. I've been fighting photo management software for years when all I want is the ability to tag files.

Windows have had that for years now.

But I guess since Apple haven't done it yet, it doesn't exist to hipsters.

Shoes aren't simple for everyone. My wife's friend has a pretty robust system for managing dozens of pairs of shoes.

The point is, unlike iTunes where you have a consistent and generally understood metadata system, people have their own systems to deal with arbitrary needs, whether that be shoes or code.

Being prescriptive and pushing a single "one true path" for everyone isn't solving problems. And computers are supposed to be here to solve problems.

The argument really isn't labels vs. directories but files vs. siloed databases. The fact that iTunes knows one tag doesn't do me any good for finding the file for use in another application. Labels are great things, but they're much less usable than directories because they're totally siloed to individual applications. iOS definitely does not have a filesystem that replaces folders with tags.

"This is why directories are getting old - they allow only one tag for a file"

Erm, no. A file can be tagged (linked) into as many directory locations as you like. This is what hardlinks do and it is not a new concept.

hardlinks? Jeez... most programmers and sysadmins I've mentioned them to don't even understand hardlinks.

Are you suggesting that hardlinks are good enough for my mom, too?

Actually I believe you're suggesting that the paradigm of tagging files may be inappropriately complex for most users. And I would agree.

The point is that we've had the ability to apply tags since the dawn of unix. It remains an obscure feature because as you say most users are uninterested.

Shortcuts do basically the same thing, and my grandmother understands shortcuts.

This reminds me of an old story: a user backup all his documents by burning them into a CD, only to get his IT department discovered he only backup desktop shortcuts instead of the real file.

This is the main difference between hard links and shortcuts. The above scenario won't likely to happen with hard links (because they're actual files). As with jcromartie, I have a really hard time explaining that hardlinks are not shortcuts even to programmers.

I can't imagine my dad (hell, even my brother) will ever going to understand hardlinks. He don't even understand how shortcuts works (only how to use it).

>I have a really hard time explaining that hardlinks are not shortcuts even to programmers.

While the distinction is important to programmers and sysadmins, the average end-user treats shortcuts as if they were hard links, it would not make the UI more complicated to change the 'make link' behavior to hard-link instead of sym-link.

Yes it won't, but when you have to introduce the concept of multiple files could point to the exactly same data on the hard drive and no, it's not a "copy" of that file, it's rather mind-blowing.

You need better programmers and sysadmins.

The problem with it is that you are assuming that your users are blithering idiots without any actual work to do.

One of the most widely replicated UX results is that over half of people don't "get" the concept of a nested directory structure. Not even when you try to explain it to them.

Not dumb people either. College graduates. It seems to be a mental block. It is not one you will find among programmers (anyone who can't understand this is unable to become a programmer), but if you're designing for the general population you need to be aware of it.

The result is that any user interface which forces people to be aware of a directory structure is going to confuse the heck out of real people. You may have a directory structure. But to get happy users you need to keep them blissfully unaware of it.

One of the most widely replicated UX results is that over half of people don't "get" the concept of a nested directory structure. Not even when you try to explain it to them. Not dumb people either. College graduates. It seems to be a mental block.

I have never heard of this ("most widely replicated UX result"), nor have I ever seen it to be the case on any kind of consistent basis.

In an effort to perform a minimum of due diligence, I ran a couple web searches and no relevant articles were returned.

What I do believe, is that users have difficulty understanding directories / folders as they can be represented on newer OS's as another commenter very eloquently pointed out.

However, I am highly skeptical of the claim that the population at large is simply unable to grasp the basic concept of hierarchical directories.

Could you point to a study or something that describes this phenomenon?

I only ask because I work with a huge (50k+) population of people who, based on the evidence I have from systems we manage, do seem to "get it" to varying degrees.

There's definitely a spectrum, from people who are digital slobs to neatniks who have more folders than files.

I find this too, but I also think that it has something to do with the word "directory." People don't really think of collections of directories (like phonebooks for example), they think of a single directory in which you look up things. When you use "folder", this seems to go away and people get the metaphor. When a tech savvy person is explaining it, they frequently interchange the two terms and confuse the listener. A "directory" is list that you look up things in, like a dictionary, and a "folder" is a object that contains related items.

A list of Artists, Rap, Prince, or Slow songs in some mp3 management software resembles people's ideas of a "directory" better.

One thing I've noticed about these silo/tagging systems and non-savvy users is that, though the users are generally comfortable in them, they also tend to lose data completely a lot and have no idea how to find it again. They also find it very hard to understand the concept of backups because they have no sense of location for any of their data.

"File," "Folder," "Copy," "Move," "Mail," and "Trash" are a really excellent set of terms to explain this stuff easily. Did AAPL or MS come up with this? I find the only problem with them is that people don't understand why you don't end up with two files of the same name in the same folder when you make a copy (because "Copy" is more like "Copy and Move".)

edit: or copy is more like "nothing just happened," really. I think the metaphor becomes broken when you go to clipboards and pasting. Maybe the right metaphor is to make the desktop the clipboard. When people "Copy" a file, folder, or anything else, it should appear on their "Desktop" rather than a "Clipboard," where they can see it at all times, and use it as a shortcut. The desktop doesn't have to be thought of as a proper directory.

I've always thought that Copy / Cut was a poor metaphor. The metaphors are so awful that I almost never used GUI filesystem manipulation until the mid-2000's, doing everything through the command line. I still usually use the command line.

Okay, I want to move files from point A to point B. What you're supposed to use is "cut" and "paste". If I use "cut" in a text editor, the text is gone until pasted. What if I do a "cut" on files? Are they deleted? Are they put in some super-invisible temporary trash bin? Or does the OS actually do nothing until you "paste" them? Do they have the same clipboard as copied text, or a different one? If you do a "cut" on files in folder A, followed by a "paste" in folder B, followed by another "paste" in folder C, what's the result? How do cut/copy interact with shortcuts, junction points, hardlinks, or symlinks? What are the subtle semantic incompatibilities in these metaphors across different versions of Windows, PC, Mac, Gnome, KDE, etc.?

Using the GUI is a crapshoot in terms of whether what actually happens will match my intent, and I'm an expert; I can scarcely imagine what a n00b's experience must feel like. You can do things much more precisely with command-line mv, cp or xcopy, find | xargs, or writing a simple Python script with os.walk(). About the only thing I use the GUI to do is select a large number of randomly distributed files from a directory.

"Trash" is also confusing, because things don't end up there consistently. If you cut things, they don't; if you delete them from the GUI they do. If you delete things from the command line, they don't. If the things are on a removable device, the Trash doesn't get them. If you delete things within an application, who knows what happens? It depends on whether the app is coded to use whatever API routes stuff to the Trash.

>"Trash" is also confusing, because things don't end up there consistently. If you cut things, they don't; if you delete them from the GUI they do. If you delete things from the command line, they don't.

I think they broke the metaphor there by even using the word "delete" at all. Make them choose between "Trash" or "Shred" and that might work.

I once found myself explaining the details of "Copy" as something like "like making a ghost clone of the original that you are holding and can put it down to make it a real clone if you want to, or just let go of and it disappears"... so yeah, that function didn't get properly made graphical at all. Way too much hidden behavior. The command line, because it makes you specify where the copy goes, is far more clear. If there were a little icon of the file that attached itself to the mouse pointer in between the "copy" and "paste" steps, that might clear things up nicely.

>Installing a database-backed clothing management system like you would find at a dry cleaner in my house solves my organizational problem, but introduces alot of complexity and overhead.

This would be complex to implement, but would greatly simplify things for the user.

Imagine I had a big box I could throw all my stuff into, and when I wanted, say, my shoes, I could just say "Computer, retrieve winter boots" and my personal robot would pulled it out of the box for me. This would be awesome. Sure it would be complicated to implement a physical system like this, but storing an retrieving files in this way is easy. OS X's Spotlight gets us most of the way there. Now we just need tags.

The problem with complexity is that it ends up being rigid. What happens when you get boots that the robot can't pick up?

I scan alot of stuff at home and tag it with PDF tags. It's totally awesome, because Spotlight can index them, and the metadata is associated with the file vs. the file system. So I can use it in Linux or Windows as well.

The problem? I can't do that for all filetypes. My TaxCut files for my personal and business taxes have no meaningful metadata that Spotlight can use. I could use Spotlight Comments, but that metadata isn't portable. The portable facility for this sort of file that I have is directory structure.

On iOS, I'm just fucked. Unless the file in question is a picture, I'm stuck emailing things around, storing them within apps and whatever nonsensical filing system they have, or storing them in iCloud and only using Apple apps.

Apple wants my Mac experience to be like my iOS experience. Which is why I need a portable way to organize my junk.

The pile analogy implies that all interaction with the computer takes place using a visual metaphor, rummaging through the pile.

I like folders just fine (exactly because they let me pile arbitrary things together however I feel like), but not having some facility to search for things is just as bad as not having folders.

One nice thing about database style systems is that they don't actually have to own the canonical version of some information in order to be able to index that information. So let's keep our folders, but let's also have nice search facilities that let the user drill through the filesystem analogy and find their data using some other criteria.

The problem with it is that you are assuming that your users are blithering idiots without any actual work to do.

I think we are assuming there will be more sophisticated organizational systems built on top of this abstracted file system eventually. We are still in the very early days of this transition. The need to logically organize files can be accomplished in many different ways. An OS could have logical organization features based on concepts like projects, collections, etc. At that point you can start doing some fancy stuff. What if two projects overlap in some way? No problem. They can both reference the same files. Maybe my project is going to include 100 image files that someone else on my team is producing. No problem. I will just add their shared collection of images into the project and they will auto-update themselves anytime my team member makes changes. In the long run this is all about consolidating sharing, organization and collaboration.

I do everything you describe over the concept of a filesystem. A project/collection... has its own folder. If you have a shared resource you can have it appear in both folders (either through symlinks which are transparent at most UI levels, or by the system automatically configure a mount --bind when you want to share a resource between projects, or you can say, I want to make use of a resource that is part of another project, so I explicitly link to that other project)

> I think we are assuming there will be more sophisticated organizational systems built on top of this abstracted file system eventually.

Yeah, the only problem is it's been 9 years since WinFS was demonstrated as a concept and we're still not significantly closer to mainstream database-like filesystems.

Dumping my winter stuff with all of my clothing on a pile, and affixing a blue tag on it to represent "winter stuff" isn't improving things.

It's a strict improvement (in the mathematical sense) if the tagging system allows you to view items with no tags.

Am curious, what is the mathematical sense here mean? Not snarky, really curious.

What I mean is that a sufficiently powerful tag system can be used to emulate a directory-based system. For example, with simply a means to view files without tags, you can recover a single-level directory system (à la CP/M) by merely tagging files with at most one tag.

If you also incorporate a notion of hierarchical tags (where for every tag X, there exists a set of tags Y which act as the conjunction of X and Y) and extend the above ability to allowing viewing files tagged with X but not tagged with any child tags of X, you can recover the familiar multi-level file system again by tagging files with at most one tag.

GMail almost gets this right, as it has a hierarchical tag system, but (AFAIK) it has no means for viewing e-mails tagged with a given tag but not any child tags.

Hmm.. True.. My first thought was well, i could say the reverse, but realized, our current implementation of directories and hierarchies are restrictive. in the sense of having multiple tags/directory names to a set of files(it can be argued, symlinks do the job well enough). The analogy, also brought to mind the choice to allow multiple inheritance or not. I guess the trade-offs are the same. Power to the user vs easier(but restricted ) for the user -- I don't mean the tag system per se, but the idea of having only one level of filesystem.

P.S: As far as my personal stance, it comes down to the type of use/nature of application/(perhaps more appropriately) amount of attention being spent. I don't want to have to descend hierarchies of filesystem(Even ones, i created/customized myself) to find my music. OTOH, I'll be pissed, if i have to search for my code files by tags/file contents.

I was about to point this out elsewhere in the thread where someone was saying that you can do anything you want with a hierarchical directory structure and hard links ...

This is equivalent to hierarchical tags (if you allow that an "untagged" file is equiv. to the root directory) but maybe less confusing.

I love dumping my stuff and know my mother will take care of it for me^^

At home, I have a rack of shelves with box and manilla folders. Each one contains different things like house bills, banking statements, insurance docs etc. I find it completely natural and a very easy way to file stuff. When I go to the bank, I take my banking folder with me. When I go to the insurance company, I take my insurance folder with me. My Mum and Dad (and likely most other people in the world) also have a similar system in their house.

I store my digital files in a similarly compartamentalized, hierarchical manner. It may come as a surprise to you but my Mum and Dad (who are approaching 60 and are not exactly clued up computer users) also do the same thing on their PCs (dad with his various excel sheets and word docs, mum with her photos). Of all the brain dead questions they ask me to do with their computers and the various tech problems they have, understanding folders and using them is literally something that has never come up. The paradigm is immediately obvious to them and they find it a natural way to catalogue and store their files. This notion that a user is too lazy to organise their files is simply something I have NEVER seen (and I've seen quite a lot when it comes to bad computer users).

If my parents were to be given a computer that had no concept of directories it would be a disaster. They would be just as lost as when I try to explain to them that the email they see in Thunderbird is the same as the one they see via webmail because Thunderbird is accessing their mail account through IMAP. To them that just sounds like magic. They much preferred it when they used to get their email via POP. Oh, and guess how they organise their email? Yep, lots of folders. I don't think they've ever used the tagging and advanced search features offered by Thunderbird.

I'm the same and it would fill me with rage having to exclusively interact with all my files through a GUI front end to an sqlite database. Which effectively is what we're talking about here. I can't think of anything more non-intuitive or pointless.

But physical paper has basic restrictions that digital media doesn't - like lack of easily searchable metadata, and being able to be in multiple groups at one time.

My photos (many thousands of them) are stored in folders by date, but I pretty much never search them that way. I use Lightroom, which automaticaly puts basic stuff like date in there, and allows me to tag every photo with things location, themes, people, ratings etc. It also allows me to put them into (multiple, if I want) groups. And it's combinations of these things that I use to locate my photos - e.g. all the photos of my daughter in Berlin in 2008.

My music is little different - I might fancy listening to a specific album, or a random bunch of jazz tracks or whatever. I get to them through my music app, not through the filesystem.

Some other stuff still relies more on basic directory structures, but that's only because I've not found a suitable set of tools that provide me with a full metadata approach just yet.

And yes, a lot of people would probably initially struggle with moving away from directories and over to a metadata-based world, but that's more to do with the fact that it's what they are currently used to than it being a fundamentally better approach.

Your two examples are both forms of media that require content management to be manageable at scale. In many ways, for photos, audio and video, rich metadata is more important than the actual data. People use iTunes, iPhoto, Picasa, etc. Enterprises use SharePoint and Filenet.

My guess is that at least 80% of that kind of media is managed via applications using specialized apps using metadata.

The "other stuff" that you speak of isn't equipped with rich and consistent metadata.

Think of it this way. Your iTunes folders are exactly the same as mine, there is just a variance in the music that you have. Your photo application is very similar to mine -- the variance will be the degree to which you organize events and add metadata.

Other stuff is different. Look at a folder that you use for a specific project. The chances are, you have documents in there created by multiple people. You probably have scanned documents with no metadata. Maybe even spreadsheets with financial data or some code examples. Whatever you have, there is a high chance that it looks completely different from my directory in key ways. Even the metadata may be inconsistent -- I tag some files for searching and add spotlight comments on the Mac. Most of my colleagues do not. The ones that do don't use the same conventions as I do.

In the real world, I need to look through the documents about Project X, which was implemented in 2009 to plan for a refresh of the project. The people who were here then are mostly gone. If I'm relying on metadata, how in the hell am I going to find Project X documents? How do I find things when I don't know what I'm looking for.

In the physical world, we have drawers, boxes and folders. In the digital world, we have filesystems. That isn't going anywhere, even if Apple decides to drag many people backwards.

I agree that a lot of other documents don't have the metadata that they need to allow them to be managed in this flexible manner. But that doesn't mean that a fixed directory structure is a fundamentally better approach - it simply means that these file types (or the users that create them) haven't caught up with the benefits that proper metadata tagging would give.

In answer to your question about Project X - if the documents were able to be (and actually were) tagged with "Project X", and "2009", it would be extremely straightforward.

Using a fixed directory structure, you're relying on the fact that you know where it was stored. Did you choose to store your projects by date? If so, can you remember when it was done? Was it stored by client? Can you remember which client it was for? Was it stored by development team? Which team created it? In a metadata world, all of those things could be tagged independently against any relevant document and you simply do a search for the attributes that you're interested in.

And just because two files are in different folders you can't still tag them and make them part of the bigger concept?

In fact with folders and tagging you are getting the best of both worlds.

I didn't say that you couldn't tag them if they are in folders. My point is that a fixed directory structure is pretty much irrelevant to how I usually want to manage/search my photos etc - it adds pretty much nothing to what I can manage far more flexibly through the metadata.

Except when searching by metadata doesn't find what you want. Or when it finds too much. This is now 99% case for me when I use spotlight.

I have a huge library of PDF books (tens of gigabytes). If I search for a bunch of keywords or even if I know entire title, the damn spotlight returns way too many irrelevant results. Now I could perhaps spend 10 - 20 seconds thinking about how to write a more specific query, but it's faster to actually go to ~/Reference/Computer Science/CS Theory/ and get right to my damn book, which I know will be there based on how I structured my filesystem and the topic the book covers.

This has in fact gotten worse since snow leopard, before the default was to show file name matches first then content matches. So if you want a book on algorithms, almost all CS theory books will match. You have to type filename:"book title" to be more specific.

Now one could argue that Spotlight should get better. But I'm arguing that you will always encounter cases where it will be really difficult to find what you want, even if you know a lot about what you are searching, let alone if you vaguely remember a detail about what you want to find. But by being able to restrict what you are looking for you will have better luck.

Searching for photos is much easier, because photos are binary content, so apart from EXIF there is not much to look for in there. But if you have documents with plain text or searchable content like PDFs, things get a lot worse.

I agree that Spotlight is dreadful. But that's not really an issue with metadata per se. After all, OSX is still primarily a traditional directory-based OS.

> it's faster to actually go to ~/Reference/Computer Science/CS Theory/

That's fine if this is the only way you ever want to structure your documents, and if you've not got too many of a particular subject. Say you've got hundreds of CS books, some of them have stuff about graphics in them, some of them have stuff about OSX programming in them, and some have both. Now you want to find a book about OSX graphics. Did you store them by subject (maybe not, because the books have loads of topics), or by OS (most of them are OS-agnostic, and some cover multiple OSs, so again maybe not). Do you remember where you stored it?

This is a pretty simple example, but it's exactly the challenge I face on a regular basis when using the fixed hierarchy of the filesystem. Do I store info about my motorbike crash along with other letters I wrote in 2008, or with other info about my bike, or other info about insurance, or medical issues etc? What I want to do is tag it with all of those things, because I might be looking for it for any one of those reasons.

If you want a hierarchical approach, then Lightroom as an example shows how you can still do this - it just allows you almost total freedom with how you do it - files can be in as many collections (and as nested) as you want.

I think it's highly dependent on the type of person, or family. For example I have had to help many people track down their documents which are somewhere in a download or documents folder. I, personally, am not the kind of person who sorts my paperwork into folders. Neither, like some people, do I organise every single e-mail into a folder. Gmail has understood this well, and makes it easier to find what I want. I find it much easier to make sure I know _when_ something happened, I make sure I e-mail myself notes, and copies of documents, but most of the time it happens by itself anyway, so I can search for them in Gmail. For example if I want to find some paperwork done when we moved into a new house, I can track down the date in Gmail, and know in which box to go dig it up. Most of the time what I need has an e-mail record somewhere.

That said, I strongly support allowing people to approach the problem from both sides, chronological with good tagging/searching or being able to organise things into folders in a way they like. People work in different ways. However, I think the default is to be disorganised, and the best way to deal with being disorganised is to keep it as simple as possible.

From what I've seen on the computers I've used, non-technical people seem to have far better filing systems in general. My mum and dad both organise their files and emails impeccably, whereas my file structure is so badly organised I can literally lose files for years before rediscovering them like an archeologist on a dig.

They also likely have a much lower volume of files to manage, being non-technical and all. I could probably get by with the single folder level at home, where I mostly just browse the internet and watch video on my PC, but having to manage all my various projects at work would be a nightmare.

How are you supposed to check out a source code repository? Many frameworks require things to be in a specific folder structure in order to work.

> At home, I have a rack of shelves with box and manilla folders. Each one contains different things like house bills, banking statements, insurance docs etc.

Inside one of the manila folders, do you keep an apartment building, with 12 floors, each floor with 20 apartments, each apartment with 3 rooms, each with 4 racks, 3 shelves on each, each shelf with 50 manila folders? Inside one folder, do you keep a wormhole to the 2nd bedroom in apartment 1409 in the building 2 doors down from the apartment building I first mentioned?

I think having levels of folders is a good idea, each level with different names, e.g. 4 levels: house, room, shelf, and folder.

"...I'd estimate [that] 9/10 people have all their documents in a single flat folder."

You pulled that out of your backside; I decided to use real data. My employer has extraordinarily loose security: our main file server has no access restrictions on any user's working directory. So, I am able to get a quick look at the filing practices of just under 200 people. Of these, 15 didn't use their personal folders at all, presumably preferring to store everything on their desktops. Everyone else had at least one level of folders in their directories. Roughly half of the company are developers, the other half are non-technologists, like sales, administrators, and trainers.

I asked my wife (MD of a mid-sized media company with over 500 staff) what her lot did. Every one of the middle managers she directly looks after have complex filing schemes of their own. She recently went through a big process with IT to create a centralised repository for project work so she is intimately familiar with how her team run their workflow. This is not a technology company; these are sales managers, marketers, operations people, creatives and so on.

9/10? No, not at all. 1/10 perhaps.

"...users can't be bothered to come up with hierarchies...folders are an anachronism..."

This is simply untrue. Neither the data nor my personal experience bear that out: My mother, a retired luddite who never used a computer in her working life and someone who has sent precisely six emails in her entire life, has a hierarchy of folders on the first gen Mac Mini I bought her a decade ago.

"...they just want..."

Assumption is incredibly dangerous. Be careful, especially if you are designing things for people to use. Moving away from hard numbers and into psychology, your thinking is simplistic in the extreme. Human beings absolutely love to organise things. Scrapbooking, Pinterest, stamp collecting. Hobbies that are basically just organising stuff. We love categorising the world: genre-ordered record collections, the Dewey decimal system, Kingdom-Phylum-Class-Order-Family-Genus-Species, Felony Murder 2, Captain-Commander-Lieutenant, Category Theory in mathematics, the Standard Model... People are a lot smarter and a lot more organised than you understand. Have you ever seen a toddler carefully sorting their toys? It's deep inside us.

Very true, I've been in IT for over 20 years and have worked at sites ranging from 10 users to over 13000 users. I can attest to the flat filing system as the exception not the rule. At my current employer, looking at public folders on network shares the average folder depth is 5 deep. Many have a main repository and then secondary and Tertiary hierarchies using symbolic links to the same contents to help people find what they are looking for.

I'm not necessarily disagreeing with you, but I do want to point out that you're talking about employees of a company that has a shared file server... That people use! I have several family members, that I consider highly intelligent, who work blue colar, manual labor jobs, for which they don't have email addresses, even as they were promoted to more senior and leadership roles. My uncle hates his computer. He loves his iPad. Furthermore, I know several more folks who have business email addresses, some kind of web mail, are not issued company machines, and maybe only check that email once a month. Consider service industries, like restaurants. The number of people that work these sorts of jobs likely outnumber tech savvy office dwellers 10-to-1. You live in a bubble. Most of us here on HN do.

Not unreasonable. The bubble in this case is pretty big though: it's anyone who works out of an office. Not necessarily 'tech savvy' by any means: I'm talking about Excel/Word/Powerpoint jockeys, HR managers, sales reps, designers, producers etc. These people's primary tool is the computer they sit in front of all day so there's at least a little familiarity there. The computer turns their thoughts into bits: letters, spreadsheets, presentations, emails. They work mainly in the ephemeral, acting as links in a chain of information, passing it from one person to the next and maybe massaging it a bit in between. They are used to flipping concepts around their heads and are fluent in the 'language' of information. This means they don't suffer much cognitive dissonance when dealing with multi-layered folder hierarchies.

Your blue collar kinsfolk have different tools: hands, for the most part, boosted by some array of domain-specific instruments. Those tools turn their thoughts into furniture, or repaired cars, or pipework, or cabling; I'd widen the group from traditional blue collar to include people like surgeons, too. They work in the arena of the tangible, so - and here I speculate - obviously tortured metaphors like nested folders grate on them and are much harder to adopt.

As to your numbers of waiters vs. office rats: there is probably some data from the Bureau of Labor/ONS. Work calls though :)

> I'd estimate 9 out of 10 people have all their documents in a single flat folder, which they only access through their word processor or whatever they use to open them

I could not agree less: Most people I know follow about the regular OS distribution, ie., most on Windows, some on Linux, and a few on OSX, plus the odd geek using what-not... The only cases that matches your "9/10 observations" are the few guys using OSX, and even then many converted from Windows and keep using their OS just as they did before. And everybody else is using a system where he cannot easily organize stuff through apps (ie., we probably all agree that OSX has the best inter-app interoperability) or otherwise is experienced enough to want full control of their own data and therefore keeps his data organized, eg., in a Dropbox folder hierarchy. And given the majority of people I know are Windows users with very little "IT knowledge", their behaviour is what I would put into the majority bin. According to my own obeservations at least, nearly all of these user-types rely on some increadibly convoluted folder hierarchy to store their music, photos, documents and the odd video.

Note that I am not arguing about the best way to organize folders and files, all I am saying is that AFAIK the very large majority of users does organize their files in deep folder structures (and, is using Windows Explorer to do that, too...).

"In practice, if you forget about system files and such, I'd estimate 9 out of 10 people have all their documents in a single flat folder, which they only access through their word processor or whatever they use to open them."

9 out of 10 home / casual users: perhaps true. Among teachers using the 70 staff computers in this large open plan office, there is an amazing variety of carefully organised folder structures and layouts that typically, for each teacher, organise 8 to 10 courses each consisting of two sessions a week for 36 weeks. With overlap. And shared folders with colleagues.

If we used Mac OS X instead of Windows, it it really is the case that you can only have one level of folder, then my colleagues would have to recreate their heirarchies using file naming conventions. Messy, and hard to manipulate.

A database approach might yield an actual benefit: I'm assuming that would look a bit like Outlook's message view where clicking on the from, received, subject fields allows an instant reordering of the material. But tree like re-orderings would be needed to allow my colleagues to continue to organise their content as they do now.

Part of me likes the Jef Raskin approach, the content is the file name and you use incremental search to find a particular part of your work. It is hard to see how that works for media files.

I have no issues with changing how we organise material, but there does seem to be a shift in assumptions on how people will use their computers towards the superficial media stoage and comsumption sort of model. That won't fit everyone at all.

No, in Mac OS X you can have as many levels of folders as you want. I'm not sure what the article is trying to say… In fact, Mac OS X still relies in directory structure to… well, give structure to its filesystem. We still have /usr, /Volumes, /Users, /etc, et al.

I think the article may be referring to the directory structure in iCloud, which allows only one level of nesting similar to the folders feature on iOS and in Launchpad. John Siracusa's review describes it[1]:

"Only one level of nesting is allowed, and the "folders" are of the iOS variety, complete with tiny icon previews and inline expansion of their contents."

[1] http://arstechnica.com/apple/2012/07/os-x-10-8/12/

That's similar to the AWS S3 namespace, though deeper directory structures can be somewhat faked through use of additional '/' seperators, though if I understand correctly, they're not semantically significant.

I thought that must be the case, thanks for clarification.

> I'd estimate 9 out of 10 people have all their documents in a single flat folder, which they only access through their word processor or whatever they use to open them.

This is demonstrably false. Like probably many HNers I'm the "computer guy" for my family and friends; I have seen dozens of machines used by non-technical people, some as old as 80 years old, some as young as 10. Not one of them does what you say.

Everyone I know organizes their files in a directory structure (for pictures, usually by year/event, for example).

I think this is because 9/10 people really only have a handful of files (lets say < 50, ignoring photos because they are usually managed by a separate app) that they ever deal with, so one "My Documents" folder with a sort by date option is easy enough to deal with. I don't think it's because people cannot grasp the concept of folders. Alternatively, look at email, where the volume to deal with is far greater. I would say that most Outlook users put their email into folder structures, and I have seen quite elaborate set-ups created by people that are not technical whatsoever.

  They have all their pictures and video in a tool that 
  organizes them into albums and such without them having to 
  deal with folders.
Yeah, and they organize their albums by category, containing albums by year. Or they organize theyr albums by genre, containing albums by artist, containing albums in chronological order.

And how exactly does that differ from folders and does that support the point of the OP, that folders aren't difficult?

Referring specifically to something like iPhoto or iTunes, the general purpose or intended paradigm is that users don't have to manage file folders or folder structures themselves.

The whole idea is that users can't do it, especially when complexity increases (it's not a given that power users are great at this either) and that everything you have should just work (when you upload photos, it's organized by location date, etc., on import, automatically or music is automatically there).

As I understood it, the author didn't claim folders were the epitome of file management, but rather lamenting that newer systems don't even give us folders.

Then again, for many tasks, a tree truly is the best way to structure files (start broad and then home in on a file even if you have no clue about the filename or what the file contains or even the type of the file) and any file management system that doesn't recognize this is seriously flawed.

I got hooked by WinFS (then again it was many many years since I last heard anything about it), a traditional filesystem with a database layer on top seems like a good start.

Truly? So, what is the best way to make a hierarchy of, say MP3s:

- year-performer-composer-star rating

- genre-year-song title

- album title-song title

- ...

You get the same problem almost everywhere. Is it year-project or project-year or maybe customer-year-quarter-project?

Yes, for many tasks, a tree is a good way to structure information. The problem is that the choice of tree can be widely different for different tasks (for example, 'that song you played last week', 'that minute-long guitar riff by X')

I think a hierarchy should be like an index in a database: set by an expert to match the most common access pattern, but not enforcing other access patterns. Hierarchical file systems are good at the former, but atrocious at the latter.

And we sort-of already have WinFS, in the form of full-text indexes on file systems.

Well without a tree structure you're still going to have an issue with the names.

Personally I use Album Artist/Album/DiscTrack. Artist - Title.ext

But say we did away with folders - you'd have to put all that data in the filenames to sort properly anyway!

Naaaaaah, you'd just have metadata!

I think the last time I used the filesystem to browse my music was in 2003. And it was dreadful. I use a music library app in which I can decide which way my music is ordered. Albums from oldest to youngest? No problem. Artists alphabetically? Sure thing. Artists alphabetically and their albums in chronological order? No problem.

The music library app is especially tuned for ways to view my music that make sense for music. It makes those easily accessible. The file system is wholly inadequate for that task.

The library app takes care of the underlying folder structure – but that’s an implementation detail I absolutely do not care about. I don’t even know how it looks. (I just looked it up, it’s “Artist” – “Album”, the same structure I used before I started using a library app.)

I’m not sure that the file system is really so bad (at least I’m relatively comfortable with it) but I do think that for certain specialized tasks it’s massively preferable to have dedicated apps. Music and photos are my two prime examples.

"Albums from oldest to youngest? No problem. Artists alphabetically? Sure thing. Artists alphabetically and their albums in chronological order? No problem."

from the "to each his own" file: i have never understood why anyone would care about sorting their music in any of these ways. To me, none of these are ways to "view my music that make sense for music." On the other hand, I find a directory structure for albums and everything else chucked into a giant directory to work just fine, as it supports the sort order I do sometimes care about, mtime. Normal search tools like locate work pretty well too.

In previous comments on related articles on HN, I have pointed out that files, and to a lesser extent directories, are good because they serve as a universal protocol-of-sorts for dealing w/ blobs of data. That allows you to use the system that works for you, and me to use the system that works for me, and yet we can still share files and move between systems etc. with little headache.

I am actually sympathetic to moving to a tag-like system that supports hierarchical tags (gmail style), so that multiple organizational structures can be imposed onto a mess of files. I also find it funny that that's more or less how unix file systems work under the hood.

All of these music filing schemes fail miserably when confronted by Classical music. There you often have four 'obvious' candidates for leading tag---composer, performer, conductor, title etc. There is even an entertaining amount of discussion on the net about the best way to solve the problem. The only point of commonality accepted is that the iTunes approach simply does not work. Then every one starts to bang their personal agenda drums; all sadly out of sync. And this for a subject that every one 'knows' Move into other areas and you will find similar problems. This does not even begin to touch the problem of tagging as a speed bump---takes time, ask a librarian :)

How much music do you have? 100 songs?

I have 5,380 titles, I cannot for the life of me imagine how to deal with that inside the confines of the file system. I want to browse my music. (It probably doesn’t help that I despise search. Search is no alternative to browsing for me.)

(Besides: This is not some evil scheme. Metadata for music is completely standard. My music library app – and every popular music library app – puts music in straightforward human-readable folders. That’s a nice fallback if all else fails – but to me it is just that. A fallback.)

I have 3575 music files on my current main hard drive, organized by hand into an /Artist/Year - Album Title/File.ext structure just fine. I don't listen to classical music or by genres, though.

I have around 69,000 and I find that due to the fact that most music players choke on that amount, that often sorting by filename is one of the fastest ways to get my music into a decent order.

Also in response to other post - you can quickly rename your music with something like Musicbrainz Picard (cross platform) or foobar2000 (Windows).

for the record, I too have about 5000 tracks these days.

I use both. I've got about 10,000 tracks sorted as Artist - Album/Song.ext in the filesystem. Since I'm a bit of a geek about my music anyway I remember which song is where anyway and if not, there's still find.

In the music player (mpd + ncmpcpp as a client) everything's sorted using tags so I can do all the searches I ever want quickly.

The filesystem way of storing things is merely about redundancy and whenever I want to copy stuff onto an external device. I do not want to use an app to sync stuff onto my smartphone. That's just an extra app for a trivial task. Additionally it provides me with a tad more control. And seriously? I couldn't care less about copying over all MP3s recorded by a band Z in year X belonging to genre Y (or some other sort of query). When I copy music to the phone I'll copy albums and that's what this file structure is absolutely perfect for.

Don’t you browse your music? I’m very particular about my music collection and I definitely need to browse it. Sometimes I just do not know what I want to listen to, so search is useless. And looking at something like all albums from 2009 (because I know some good music came out then) can be very useful for me.

I do not care about the structure on the disc. I use my music library app to browse.

I said that many things are well represented by trees, not all things...

And we sort-of already have WinFS, in the form of full-text indexes on file systems.

We have nothing like WinFS in practice, we don't think or use our filesystem as if it was a database. That is the key difference, not the implementation.

Agreed. For example trees of source code seem to fit the hierarchical structure very well, because it can (almost) map directly to projects, modules, submodules and classes, and conveniently separate them from e.g. build products or configuration files. Trees are not evil, but they are not the holy grail of file management either.

From a historical point of view, a traditional filesystem with a database layer on top seems to be the most logical way to go. Personally, I think it would be interesting to see what would happen if someone did it the other way around: create a whole new way of organizing files that doesn't use trees, and allow layering some kind of 'tree view' on top of that.

If not for a specific few lines of code explicitly forbidding hard linked directories, all of the modern file systems would actually be directional graphs.

> start broad and then home in on a file even if you have no clue about the filename or what the file contains or even the type of the file

But this file system does not construct itself and if you made a mistake while sorting a file you hit the search field after a while anyway, because you can't find the file in any subfolder. You're right, a mixture of both will probably the next step. But it seemed to me that MS isn't trying something new with windows 8 and the metro interface, did they?

I completely agree but I would add that a lot of people start out by using folders but it needs a little care and attention to keep it all organized so they end up with a few folders that contain everything.

The beauty of a filesystem is that it is somewhat independent of the applications that use it. So if your photo app index gets borked then you haven't really lost anything too valuable - apart from any meta data that is not stored in the image itself. Put everything in a database and you risk bricking the entire computer as far as the user is concerned. Of course this applies to files and folders as well but these are a little more battle tested.

Way back in the early 1990s Microsoft's Cairo was supposed to be based on an object database which got rid of files and folders. Sine this is a relatively old idea I'd be interested to know why folders have not been replaced yet.

You're assuming the database is tied to each application; that's only one possible approach.

NEPOMUK (currently a KDE project) is an example of a database which is independent of any particular application. It stores RDF metadata about each file (and about other things too, like contacts, events, etc) and provides a common ground for any application that connects to it.

In the end, the filesystem is just a key-value database too...

Google had a Desktop search tool to do a slightly similar job.

Yes and no. Google Desktop was a fully contained application; indexing was just an internal mechanism for its own functionality.

NEPOMUK is closer to an actual filesystem, in that it's not user facing; it's a service for other applications, like email clients, media players, etc. This allows them to almost effortlessly¹ share information like user contacts or music metadata.

¹ Apparently, a basic but functional email client can be built on top of the platform in 10 minutes.

I like that your main argument against trees for organizing files is that people use specific applications per file type to organize them... _in trees._ Photos are sorted by year first and album then. Songs are sorted by artist first and album then. People understand trees just fine.

Also, the problem of being unable to put the same thing in more than a place is a) not one fixed by app silos b) part of our daily life while sorting physical objects c) fixed with filesystem links (soft/hard).

Your argument only proves today's mainstream file management programs/save as dialogues/etc. are inadequate. Trees remain the best simplest model to organize files in a filesystem

Absolutely. The knee-jerk reaction of the author is painful. Mindless copying of what went before is how we end up with bad ideas being repeated over and over. When we try new things the good will survive, and the bad will be improved or removed. When we merely copy, we maintain the status quo. I'm glad to see Apple innovating, and I'd love a system which mostly gets rid of folders to be a success. Let's watch this space.

It took about 10 years for my mother, a daily Windows user, to understand folders. I lost count of how many times I explained it. The previous generation seem to particularly struggle with digitally-native concepts.

Folders are of course a broken metaphor. In the real world folders are not placed inside other folders - it makes no sense! The entire file concept is anachronistic, why do I care how the document is stored? Why do I even have to save? Why can't I undo after closing and re-opening a program? Why a I forced to give a document a name on disk when it already has a title? Etc...

Over the years I've moved from a fairly hierarchical arrangement of my files to one closer to maybe two levels (source code excluded), the congnitive burden is so much less - it's the advent of indexed search which has made this possible.

> I'm glad to see Apple innovating, and I'd love a system which mostly gets rid of folders to be a success.

Okay, let's not get carried away here. They aren't doing anything new. This is old hat, and they are just now working it into OSX. This isn't some Apple invented paradigm, this has been played with many times over.

> It took about 10 years for my mother, a daily Windows user, to understand folders.

Are you really sure about that? I have a hunch the difficulty wasn't with the folders themselves, but rather the badly-designed navigation interface of the Open dialog, and where it's starting from.

I've found that understanding the folder concept is one of the easiest things for new computer users to grasp.

The Open dialog certainly caused a lot of trouble. Perhaps I should have said learned to use effectively rather than understand. The concept of hierarchical folders is not particularly challenging, but the practice of using them is usually a real pain for little upside. One of the main use of folders I see is people grouping their work by year, month, etc - what's the point when the file has that metadata anyway?

Files are sorted into filing cabinets or boxes, which are stored on shelves, in different rooms etc.

I can totally agree. The "folder" file structure is a tree structure. This is easily understood if you have a CS background, but for new computer users it could be a huge mental step if try to explain that you can stack folders endlessly into another.

Additionally you have to think in terms of hierarchies instead of groups to make a folder structure work you. Something like: Media > Pictures > 2012 > .....

It seems to me that Apple was never a Fan of folder structures. Just look at the way iPhoto or iTunes work. They basically are a clients to your media library.

I assume the main reason this works is because pictures and audio files already have a fairly big amount of meta data like music genre or location data.

A scenario where I can find all I worked on in the office yesterday wouldn't be that bad.

Jesus Christ, iPhoto lock-in is one of the most scummy things Apple has ever done. You don't have to be a CS student to feel the need to easily move a bunch of photos easily from your local computer to an external storage device or even upload in batch to something like picasa. By completely blocking the user from the directory structure, Apple made sure people would share the iPhoto albums only with a select few that Apple had chosen for us.

That's just pure BS. If you want to get your photo's out of iPhoto, all you have to do is select them, and drag them to wherever you want to have them.

If anything, iPhoto is the poster child for applications that do not need hierarchical file systems. Sometimes I want to have all photo's for a certain event, sometimes I want all photo's that are less than a year old, sometimes I want all photo's that have my cat on them, and so on. How does a tree-like organization of pictures facilitate making subselections like that?

You are just taking your allergy to applications that manage your files in ways that are incompatible with you messing around on the file system, and making an argument in favor of hierarchical file systems out of it.

Wanting to access my photos doesn't mean I want to copy them elsewhere. Most of the time I want them to stay where they are, just use them with a different app.

I'm not saying nested folders fit everyone (although my anecdotal experience differs greatly from yours), but you don't have to be a geek or an old-timer to appreciate that your data is not tightly coupled to an app.

I don't know enough about new approach Apple has taken to comment directly upon it (yet). I do think original article was crap (and this one isn't great either).

But having to use the app to manage files, is a whole new paradigm that someone has to learn which is exactly what people are trying to avoid in the first place. So either teach one paradigm to a new user and stick to it (aka using the file system) or application specific paradigm (aka use iphoto to manage photos, itunes for music files, etc). So depending on how good you are at controlling the application usage from one app to another you end up having to learn each applications way of doing things instead of learning one way of doing things and using that throughout.

As a developer and previous life as IT support I fully support the teaching the file system paradigm because it works better overall.

All of the tag resorting you are doing within iphoto can and is done rather easily within the file system as well so what has that added other then more complexity?

Both task can easily be achieved. Just select and drag them out of the app into any folder.

I don't like everything about iPhoto (it's database design is rather monolithic and not build for user that have many storage devices that are not always plugged in like external hard drives)

But I wanted to say: "hey, look here! We are already managing many files without folders."

1. Depending on search for file access for most of the time means either the user has to remember the file name to a certain extent (thereby making it a lookup system) or the file search system has to be smart enough - the former is too burdensome for the user and the latter isn't there yet.

2. Your argument is biased by the idea of using multiple machines - most people don't deal with the _same_ data on different machines. If all those machines have the same fundamental way of organizing files (i.e. through directories) then I don't see how that is unfriendly to the user.

3. File management is mostly needed in scenarios where you create/consumer a lot of files - e.g. lots of PDFs or lots of photos or lots of music. The tree-based directory structure is the most intuitive way to organize files in those scenarios. You cannot possibly claim that most people would be happy with a single flat folder system for these scenarios.

File management is of course unnecessary in cases like notes or reminders where you don't need to be bothered by organizing files for each entry in different layers of directories. But this can't be the determining factor for completely abolishing the directory structure concept.

Some people can handle directories just fine. But, a lot of people simply do not grasp the concept. For many, many years I have been trying to explain hard disks, folders and files to family members. They simply don't understand the concept. Opening a folder and double clicking on a file to open it and a program to read the file starts: they do not understand it.

For these ordinary users of computer appliances the iOS way of handling files is simply a blessing. You use an application to do something, to write a text, to listen to music, to communicate. Applications that can interact with each other, will interact with each other. Simple.

For an ordinary computer appliance user it is not necessary to be confronted with a file system. Just as a lot of other technical details are hidden from ordinary users.

maybe they just don't want to learn?

> The article I'm about to link to, by Oliver Reichenstein, is pretty terrible

Funnily, I liked linked article more (better written, also easier to read). Although I partially agree, partially would argue with both.

I think hierarchy-less approach, properly designed and implemented, would work OK for most users. Folders just look like the most basic and generic way for organizing stuff, which isn't necessarily the best, and probably deserves optimization for particular use cases.

However, take for example cases when computer is used for production—say, DTP or video/photo editing. If you take away the freedom to organize files hierarchically, it would impose certain restrictions on the workflow. The “genericness” could be an advantage for more complex use cases.

I wonder if others have scaled back on the "meaningfulness" of file names. I name a lot of my files (and directories) 01, 02, 03, etc (with suffixes according to meaning) and then I have a local README file that lists the contents of each of these.

I find it this scheme handy for scientific work in which the files are often multiple attempts to solve a problem. It saves me from writing file names like "solution" and "solution_method2" and "solution_method2_with_bug_fix" etc. The README format gives me tons of space to write comments (and cross-reference other work), while the filename, incrementing from version to version, is a sort of diary stamp.

This works for directories too. I tend to go only 2 directories deep on a given project. The top level is for the task, e.g. a calculation or a figure for a paper I'm writing, and the second is for a sequence of approaches to that task.

With this scheme, I focus on README files and not names in a directory tree. Colleagues who have tried this have found it weird at first, but then tend to prefer it to the "informative name" scheme they grew up with.

If databases were more convenient, I could imagine doing all my work with "flattened" filenames in a single directory. I think that's what apple are moving toward, but they are thinking of application-specific work, so the application deals with the databases. I prefer the README/filesystem structure because it lets me use tools like grep, etc.

Intuition is learned.

Something is intuitive not because it’s universally understood but because we have learned the meaning of it from a holistic point of view. This requires lots and lots of experience and, for that matter, trial and error.

Metaphors are only meaningful in retrospect.

Don’t count on the physical-looking button to be intuitive just because it’s a metaphor from real life. Once you tell someone what a specific element means, they will most probably understand it, but not because of the metaphor itself.

There are no Bablefish in UX

Designing products and services is like speaking French. Not everyone understands it. Comprenez-vous? The noob might pick up a word here and there, but they aren’t, by any metrics, comfortable with participating in the conversation.

This all leads to the following conclusion:

Intuitive interaction is for experts, not for noobs Understanding something intuitively really means that you understand it holistically. If you understand it holistically, you can fill in the gaps. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t make your design intuitive or improve on it—not at all. Just understand that you are doing it for the natives. not for the noobs.


The article linked to is a witless rant. The article he is reacting to is actually pretty good.

As is commonly the case with people who don't understand what they are talking about, the author is confusing policy (I want to organise my stuff) and mechanism (use folders and sub-folders). What is undeniable is that we need a coherent way to organise our stuff. What is wrong-headed is assuming that hierarchical directories are the best, or the only, way to do so.

Apple's attempts at making "seamless" user experiences can be frustrating, especially on edge cases. For example, in Garageband instruments are stored in special files down a ways in a directory tree in Application Support. It happens that files get corrupted, but access to the file is so abstracted that the source of the trouble is not apparent, as it is a directory not intended to be accessed by the user. It's an attempt to hide complexity from the user but it makes it hard to trouble-shoot, or to perform actions outside of the expected.

The area that does boggle my mind in terms of a flat structure are complex multi-media authoring environments. Where different files and types are used to assemble a larger work.

My main principle as an audio engineer is that I have to know exactly where each file in the project lives in the FS. If I'm not sure, the scenarios in which projects, or parts of projects get lost happen more frequently.

Not to mention that a given project uses many files of different types, and can have 10s or 100s of thousands of files. Automatic file management seems like a recipe for disaster, especially as it won't work perfectly.

I don't get it.

One opinion, repeated a zillion times, does not make an argument; it makes a rant.

I see only a few arguments in this text:

- the author does not think nested hierarchies are difficult. If he added "for nerds", I would agree with him.

- the author equates having limited nesting with the 'data silos' situation on iOS and (from what I read in reviews), in slightly lesser sense on Mac OS X Mountain Lion.

- claiming that the mouse is hard to use because it provides "indirect manipulation". That may seem so, but the human brain is exceptionally good at transferring motor skills between modalities. For example, anybody who can write can write with his feet, nose, car, or whatever, and the handwriting will (except for the quality of fine motor skills) be recognizable as yours (http://www.ebaumsworld.com/jokes/read/211551/)

- equating having limited nesting with vendor lock-in. Proprietary file formats are fine for doing that. I do not see why you would need to do anything more.

"the author does not think nested hierarchies are difficult. If he added "for nerds", I would agree with him."

Imagine you badly need to go to the bathroom, and the only building nearby is a huge hospital... will all the complexity hidden away in the various sections, rooms, and the patients themselves, delay your quest for the toilet even one second?

Also, the brain can only keep a bunch of things in mind at a time,no matter how they're presented. When complexity crosses the threshold, we group stuff together. And we also do this with a flat list, in some way or another. Reality and our concept of it is very deeply nested, but since we only handle a bunch of abstractions at the same time, that's fine.

With folders, you have something that is explorable. You can still search, but if you don't have folders to begin with, you can only search -- and anything you don't think of searching for is either lost forever, or can be seen only as part of a huuuuuge list.

IMHO it's regression alright, no two ways about it.

The article is a bit of a rant, but it resonates deeply with me. The single-level of nesting is obnoxious. The spotify app allows a flat list of playlists--just the one level of nesting. Now that I've got a couple hundred albums in there, it has basically become useless, and I just have to search to find everything, which is _not_ what I want to do.

Hierarchical structures are how we see the world. Tagging and search is not sufficient. File systems give us the illusion of a "place" that a file lives. A single place. Like my socks are in a drawer in my closet, they are always there. A given music file is always in /home/steve/Music/<artist>/<album>/track.foo. That's where it lives. I can find it, even if I have 10,000 albums. My tax documents are in /home/steve/Documents/personal/taxes/2011/ . They exist there. I can auto-backup /home/steve/Documents and I know that those documents are safely backed up. I won't lose those things.

I'm all for any easier file organization system as long as it's portable between systems, allows a large number of files to be locatable and usable immediately after being plugged into a system (i.e. without a lengthy indexing process), and doesn't make it difficult to share files between users in a network (e.g. a Samba set-up in an office). I don't know if there can be any such system that doesn't become as "complex" as the current folders-in-folders way of doing things. Most of the systems I've seen assume that I only access the files from this device and I'd never need to copy them to external storage or share them with another user not necessarily using the same kind of system as I do.

Maybe a hybrid system, like the one being done in GNOME, where you have the traditional underlying file system present, and a separate indexing program (GNOME documents) that enables searching by content, context, date modified, etc would be best.

> Vendor lock-in

Well, duh! Obviously that's what it is about when "apps" don't want to tell you how they store their data. MS Office has been doing that very successfully for more than 20 years now. And removing the abillity to actually locate the data would make it even easier to tie the user to the app and plattform.

I don't think changing the way we structure our files is that bad an idea, although the iOS version of it isn't really great. Folders are basically a way of grouping files of a similar topic/concern together. Files can belong to many topics/concerns, but they can only belong to one folder. I'd really love it if we evolved the folder concept to a concept of tags, where the organization is very fluid and dynamic.

Example(example folder structures):

* I could put an anime movie file under /Media/Video/Movies/Anime or /Media/Video/Anime/Movies

* Same for an anime tv show: /Media/Video/shows/Anime or /Media/Video/Anime/shows

If i could tag the anime movie as "Movie" and as "Anime", i could just pick and choose which way i want to view it:

* All movies?

* All anime movies?

* All anime?

Google Docs used to do this. Folders weren't really folders, they were tags, and it was horribly confusing.

I could see that being confusing.

If something appears in two tag-folders, is it because it has both tags, or because it is two different versions or copies, with different tags?


When GDocs did that, people didn't get it and G switched it to be "one tag per item" aka folders.

Or maybe they realized that implementing Google Drive would be quite challenging with tags instead of folders.

The giveaway phrase here is:

"... instead of having your own structure, tailor-made for you because you created it in the first place ..."

Non-geeks don't have the time, interest or inclination to catalogue and curate these sorts of structures.

The list that the author gives of everyday items that are easy to use ("cupboards, Tupperware, boxes, closets, pockets, wallets") all have the common property that they are not recursive, and that you can easily figure out their contents at a glance, something that is impossible to garner by looking at an opaque list of directories.

While there are some good points here about the problems of files being siloed in apps on iOs, the directory structure is a ux disaster.

> "Non-geeks don't have the time, interest or inclination to catalogue and curate these sorts of structures."

Define non-geek then. Unless you mean "people who have too few items to need organization", I think that's wrong. I've met plenty of not super bright people who had for example a perfectly organized garage or apartment. I dare say it has nothing to do with geekyness. There's even tidy kids.. they cannot even program a computer, they cannot reach the cookie jar like I can, but they can and do organize the stuff they care about, in ways they care about.

> "The list that the author gives of everyday items that are easy to use ("cupboards, Tupperware, boxes, closets, pockets, wallets") all have the common property that they are not recursive"

What? You can put tupperware into a box, and put that into the cupboard. Usually, this is located in a house which is located in a street, which is in a city. And so on. The levels of nesting, nobody counted them.. but most everybody navigates them just fine.

> Define non-geek then

I was using 'geeks' in the sense of someone who is interested in computers in their own right, as opposed to the vast majority of people who use computers as a tool to accomplish other things.

I don't mean "people who have too few items to need organization", and I certainly didn't characterize them as "not super bright"; you made that assumption.

> you can put tupperware into a box, and put that into the cupboard... house ... street .. city

Yes, but you cannot fit a cupboard into a tupperware box, with the cupboard containing another 50 tupperware boxes. Your analogy ignores the important difference between real and virtual items, namely that real containers have physicality which makes it trivial to figure out at least an upper bound on what they contain.

Additionally, an opaque cupboard has context which gives it clues as to what it might contain (clothes in a bedroom, plates in the kitchen). A drawer has a volume which means that you don't need to go looking for a beach ball in it. There are tonnes of conventions as to what types of items go in what containers. For a file system, all we've got is a name on an opaque 'box' that might contain N other boxes recursing to M levels.

You need to create the file structure in the first place, spend a lot of time revisiting, organizing and curating it for it to be as familiar to you as the storage in your house. I don't mean to offend anyone if I say that only geeks have the time to do this.

Geeks = super bright people? Nice pat on our backs. I just came to say that you can put tupperware into a box, but I think most of the time, people just put stuff in one box. Your street and city metaphor seems out of place in this discussion.

"Geeks = super bright people? Nice pat on our backs."

Don't put words in my mouth. "not super bright" is an euphemism for, uhm, simple people. Since I don't know how the poster I replied to defines geeks, I simply took an example from people I know that are 100% not geeks by their definition, whatever it may be.

"Your street and city metaphor seems out of place in this discussion."

How so? To me it seems like pretending people can only understand one level of hierarchy flies flat in the face of daily experience. You pretend the tupperware exists in isolation, it doesn't.

I think android has the approach to filesystems write. Each app has there own dedicated folder for internal usage and is hidden from the user (actually, the user cannot access it at all unless the specific app provides a method because of sandboxing, but that is a different issue). There is also a file structure where apps can read and write any data that the user might want to share between apps, devices. By convention, the files are organized either by type (image) or by app, however when the user wants to move them, or open them with a different program, this option is left available.

It's not so much that folders are counter-intuitive. The problem with them is that they impose a single, arbitrary structure on files that could be organized in many different ways. For example, you could have folders like AllMyImages/ or AllMyCatImages/ or CatImagesJuly2012/ but there's no way to anticipate what will be the most useful directory structure for all future situations. It would be more flexible and useful to have indexes over the files that let you dynamically organize your content according to attributes such as contains-cats, date, is-image, author, etc.

One of the many reasons to hate Apple. I don't understand why supposed geeks can get behind a company that willfully puts draconian protections to keep you from using a computer like a computer. No USB port? No useable FILE SYSTEM? Emailing files is a pathetic hack for a poorly designed device. And "simplicity" is not a saving grace, there is NO REASON to not allow this sort of functionality except to force everyone to use horrible iTunes. People can defend Apple all they want, but no one can give me a valid user-centric reason for those decisions.

To me, this is about choice.

If a computer has a file system that is accessible to the user and supports files and hierarchical directories, then users can choose to use it or not. If they want to use directory hierarchies then they can. Or if they want to store all their files in one place and rely on applications to present filtered views or search (not necessarily even in terms of files) then they can.

If the file system is not accessible or doesn't support hierarchical directories then you have no choice. This is not an option that interests me.

If OS vendor would like to switch to using metadata or tags to organize documents, allowing just two level directory structure could be the first step.

Documents in root would end up having no tags at all and the folder name would be used as the tag for those stored in folders. Obviously you could also do this with complex directory structures, but then the tags would become quite long.

Metadata/tag based systems don't necessary exclude the complex folder structures as we have seen but having both can make things complicated.

I think that isolating data and applications into their own directory on a PC makes total sense.

But there was something that I read to do with organizing your email inbox into folders which is sort of related. A study found that people who organise their inbox into multiple sub-folders don't get any benefit at all compared to those that have just one big inbox; when they want to find something, they just sort by 'from', 'date', 'subject' or do a find text.

  I think that isolating data and applications into 
  their own directory on a PC makes total sense.
Only if you're starting from a position where there is only one kind of application to handle one kind of data. But as a counter example to that, the entire philosophical underpinning on unix is that stuff should be plain text so it can be easily handed between different programs.

I can just imagine the day when I try and pipe the output of one command into another and an ascii paperclip pops up in my cli to scold me for trying to use cat's 'data' with uniq, or something. I shall keep a cyanide pill handy in my desk drawer for such an occasion.


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