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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
how about some detailed, effects heavy video project?
Oh, yeah? Show me the data you have that supports your statement.
(e.g. users need to know how to turn on their computer, what a usb port is to charge/connect peripherals, etc.)
I don't think reasoning like "must" (or "never") pushes innovation and great design.
"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.
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".
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.
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.
Tablets can access web apps and the massive amount of functionality they provide today.
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.
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.
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.
A tree is recursive--maybe that inability to "get" hierarchical folder structures is somehow related to an inability to understand recursion?
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.
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.
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 ?
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.
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.
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
- 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.
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.
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.
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 so I think that would be confusing in other ways. Also some people (me) object to the clutter :)
...you mean the Desktop?
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.)
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.
Something can be very complex even abstract and still be intuitive. It's all about understanding the context.
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.
Everything else sucks.
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.
Until we have some real research into this, we're just making things up, and that's A Bad Thing.
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 :)
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.
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.
The content is the interface, the interface is the content.
It's something TBL has commented on.
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.
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.
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.
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".
Fine with me.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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"
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).
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.
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.
"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 :/
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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...
Lightroom does, for example.
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 love apps that allow me to easily switch between using tags and using my own folders.
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.
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.
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.
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.
But I guess since Apple haven't done it yet, it doesn't exist to hipsters.
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.
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.
Are you suggesting that hardlinks are good enough for my mom, too?
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
It's a strict improvement (in the mathematical sense) if the tagging system allows you to view items with no tags.
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.
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.
This is equivalent to hierarchical tags (if you allow that an "untagged" file is equiv. to the root directory) but maybe less confusing.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In fact with folders and tagging you are getting the best of both worlds.
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.
> 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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...).
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.
"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."
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).
They have all their pictures and video in a tool that
organizes them into albums and such without them having to
deal with folders.
And how exactly does that differ from folders and does that support the point of the OP, that folders aren't difficult?
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).
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.
- 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.
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!
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.
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.
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.)
Also in response to other post - you can quickly rename your music with something like Musicbrainz Picard (cross platform) or foobar2000 (Windows).
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.
I do not care about the structure on the disc. I use my music library app to browse.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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...
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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?
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."
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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?
"... 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.