Thursday, March 13, 2008

Where’s My Stuff? Beyond the Nested Folder Metaphor

Filing vs. organizing metaphors ...

"As I mentioned in my inaugural column, “Envisioning the Future of User Experience,” I often have difficulty remembering where I put my digital documents and files. It takes considerable cognitive effort to maintain a mental map of my computer’s nested folder structure, and inconsistencies creep into my folder structure as a result of the on-the-fly taxonomic decisions I make when filing things away.

There’s got to be a better way of keeping track of our digital stuff than this decades-old organization scheme.

Google, with the laudable mission of organizing the world’s information, has created desktop tools for content retrieval. Microsoft and Apple, too, have added desktop search capabilities to their latest operating systems. But let’s face it: Keyword search happens after the fact. Search tools help us to find our stuff after we’ve already lost it. They don’t help us organize our stuff.

And with some of us dragging around twenty or more years of digital stuff from one personal computer to another—documents, pictures, what have you—only the most determined and organized of us have their digital files organized in a way that facilitates rapid findability—in a file structure that is easily remembered and traversed.

I blame the file/folder metaphor for this rampant problem. I think it’s no longer up to the tasks we’re attempting to accomplish using it. And I think there are better ways for us to organize our digital stuff.

The File/Folder Metaphor

The file/folder metaphor for organizing content on our computing devices has been around since the advent of Unix-like command-line interfaces and shells. It became more visually oriented with the releases of the Canon Cat, Xerox Star, and of course, the Macintosh.

Along with the desktop and paper-based computing metaphors, the file/folder metaphor has attained near-monolithic dominance in the most popular consumer and business-oriented operating systems. It reflects our paper-based methods of organizing information and hence makes it easier for people who are new to computing to adapt to the digital world.

But here’s the thing: The folder structures on our computing devices now organize more than just our documents. We store an incredible array of stuff on our computers—for example, here’s just a small sample of the stuff I keep on my computer:

* a picture of my signature that I occasionally use to sign documents that I fax directly from my computer
* my music MP3s and audio books
* my family pictures and digital movies
* my “art collection”—about 300 hi-res images of landscapes and Hubble space art I’ve been collecting over the past ten years and use to decorate my desktop (Don’t even get me started on the stupidity of affixing wallpaper to my desktop.)
* templates for user experience work
* my presentations, papers, and so so"    (Continued via UXmatters)    [Usability Resources]

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