Folder People vs. Non-Folder People

In reading reviews of the new Apple OS X (Lion), I was struck by how many reviewers mentioned the All My Files, Mission Control and Launchpad features, all of which display files and applications in a way so that users don’t have to organize their work in folders. I was reminded of when Gmail first came out, and everyone talked about how it didn’t have folders, because you could just search for whatever email you wanted to see.

This was alien to me. I have always organized my work in folders, both in my computer and in real life. When I worked in finance, each new deal got its own accordion file into which went a series of manila folders: due diligence, projections, legal issues, etc. So organizing my computer files and email into folders and sub-folders seemed completely natural to me. How else could you display your work on a computer?

Folders. Very neat, very organized. Even with a mustache.

And there I went, blithely assuming that everyone was comfortable with the folder metaphor. Sometimes I would look at someone’s computer where the desktop was a mass of unorganized icons, but I assumed that was an aberration; I must have just caught them in the middle of a crazy project.

It wasn’t until I read about computer scientist David Gelernter that I realized there might be other ways to look at your information. He developed something called Lifestreams in order “to minimize the time users spend managing their documents.” Lifestreams dumped the file and folder metaphor in favor of “a time-ordered stream of documents.” That seemed crazy to me – I would much rather look for documents “from Project Neptune” than “from sometime in 2003, which I think is when I worked on Neptune” – but it was clear that other people, even computer science people, didn’t think that way.

It appears that lots of people don’t think the way I do. Maybe most people. But whether the count is lots or most, clearly many would prefer to avoid the folder metaphor. To quote from one review of Lion, “The addition and prominence of “All My Files” is yet another vote of no-confidence in the user’s ability to understand and navigate the file system.”

So let’s add another dichotomy into which we can divide people: folder people vs. non-folder people. While improvements in search technology may eventually make this distinction obsolete, right now it seems like the non-folderites have the upper hand, with user interface designers catering to them. That’s fine, as long as folder capability still exists. But if that capability disappears, folder thinkers will have no choice but to rise up and let the Lifestreamers tremble. We have nothing to lose but our files!

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3 responses to “Folder People vs. Non-Folder People

  1. Julio Zapata Schwartz

    Maybe the non-folder folks are more confident in their ability to remember at least something about the files they store. A date, or maybe a key word contained in the file’s contents or its name.

    Usually this works, but sometimes it doesn’t. I’ll open a folder, notice some file and realize there this store of information there that I’d forgotten about, probably wouldn’t have thought to look for.

    The people who design information management systems are probably very different from the people who use them. They’re programmers, designers and project managers, used to retaining large quantities of abstract information in their heads – the dates and key words that you have to use to find stuff effectively through Gmail search or a huge master folder.

    The rest of us create draft files with critical info, maybe set a greasy sandwich on the paper notes we just typed into the draft file, get distracted wondering who animates SpongeBob, kick the power cord out of the wall, and then there goes our data. 7 months later we’re vaguely aware that there’s an important file related to our Christmas list, but like Hansel and Gretel we haven’t a prayer of finding the trail back to it, since we neglected to add the words “Christmas” or “List” to the draft file.

    For those occasions, if the simple discipline of saving our draft file to the “Personal” or “Holidays” folder would have made a brute force search possible, or even let us come across the file as we looked for another file on holiday destinations. In the giant sea of years worth of old files, we’ll probably never find that draft file.

    Yeah, I’m a folder guy, too.

  2. The better configuration management tools proide multiple ways to access a single document or file. Its actual place of storage is of no importance but several ways can be defined to reach the information. So a document for Project Nepture can be found the Project Neptune folder, the 2003 folder, the Failed Projects folder and the Almost Indicted folder.

    A good information management system will use a “relational” system to establish access to data (note that a file can be actually be a group of information blocks).

  3. Pingback: The End of Being Organized | Thoughtbasket

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