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    Here’s a fun anecdote (which is one of the many anecdotes that eventually educated my guess that UI intuitiveness is largely bullshit).

    In my corner of the world, we don’t have folders. I mean we don’t use them. Neither me, nor my computer-using peers from like 25+ years ago, when we were just learning about computers, had ever seen a real-life folder. The first time I actually saw one, for real, was at some point in 2008 or so, I think, when an American prof was visiting the research lab I was working at and he had a few with him.

    We do use things that are kind of like folders, but they look nothing like the icon. To make matters worse, one of the words we use to refer to those things that are kind of like folders is the same one used to translate the English word ‘file’. There is no direct equivalent for ‘file’ – we’d just call it a document instead, or, if it’s literally just one page, the literal translation of the word we have is ‘paper’.

    None of the mainstream operating systems were localized for our country until the mid ’00s or so. So a whole generation of computer users, including mine, grew up using computers that:

    • Used the term “folder” for something that we’d never seen and which we would’ve called a “file”
    • Used the term “file” for something you put into “folders”, which was basically the other way ’round for us (a file is something you put things in, not a thing you put in something else!)

    It took about 30 seconds to explain what each thing was and we all went our merry ways and used computers productively – which we still do, for that matter. The “local” equivalent for “file” now actually has a double meaning: it still denotes what Americans would call a folder (albeit a special kind of folder, more or less – specifically, one whose content is sorted in a particular way), but it’s understood that, if you’re referring to it in a computer context, it means something else.

    The fact that so many companies are spending so much time trying to make files and folders and their organization more intuitive is, IMHO, just another symptom of so many companies in our industry having ran out of relevant things to do in exchange for the money you pay them, so they settle for changing the part that’s easiest to bikeshed and most visible when it’s modified – i.e. the interface.

    What this article describes as novel – people just dumping all their files in a single directory, typically the desktop, since it’s the one you can reach with the least clicks, or maybe “Documents” if you have enough things – basically describes how everyone who’s not a computer nerd has been using personal computers since hard drives became cheap enough to render floppies relevant only for file transfer. So… roughly 30 years or so? In these 30 years, I’ve seen maybe half a dozen neatly-organised collections of folders and files, all of them belonging to programmers like myself, or people in other technical fields (e.g. various flavours of engineering). At best, most people will maybe have some folders on their desktop called “Work”, “Personal” and “Shit”, which they never refer to as “folders” but as “Work”, “Personal”, and “Shit”. That’s the apex of document organisation.

    The one difference that even cheaper local storage, along with cloud storage has brought, is that concepts like “multiple drives” are now pretty much irrelevant for many computer users.

    Also, I like to point out things like these:

    “As much as I want them to be organized and try for them to be organized, it’s just a big hot mess,” Vogel says of her files. She adds, “My family always gives me a hard time when they see my computer screen, and it has like 50 thousand icons.”

    every time someone in UX wants to sell me on a “clean” and “polished” interface that can show like twelve icons at a time, at most, all of them huge and with acres of space between them. It’s incredible how a field that literally has “user” in its name is so incredibly disconnected from how users, uhm, use computers.

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      a file is something you put things in, not a thing you put in something else!

      This is actually true in English too. Trying to teach people about “files” and “directories” (or, later, “folders”) in the ‘90s was really hard: no-one could understand why the document was called a file when a file is a thing you store documents in. I used to describe it as a “file” for bytes, or something like that, but I don’t really know why they called it a file.

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        I think it may date to mainframe operating systems or COBOL where what a “file” contained was “records”.

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        What I find interesting is the disconnect between real-world organisation and the attempts of translating this (and failing) into 2D on a screen. I have the desktop organisation problem of “icons accumulating” -> moved into “world domination 3” and creating a 4 when that is too full. Neither are explored for what they are – it is either “browse as thumbnails” or grep and nothing in between. “Minimalism” didn’t work, “skeuomorphism” didn’t work, ontologies didn’t work. xdg-user-dirs makes me want to punch someone – there’s more documents in Downloads than in Documents.

        At the same time there is, at the least, a few hundred ‘data stores’ in my lab in various bins, and if I close my eyes and think a little bit, I can mentally walk through what is on the cupboards in the bathroom and most everything in the kitchen and closets with fair accuracy. Nothing of this translates to the desktop.

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          I found that while ontologies don’t work, as in, they don’t work for every case, they do work in certain situations and they emerge organically when needed.

          Personal example: while my downloads/documents are a dumping ground, my actual documents (invoices, contracts, etc.) are uploaded with relevant tags and dates to Zoho docs.

          Business: almost every company I’ve seen which has a shared drive has a pretty good tree of documents not handled by a specialised services. For example invoices/plans per customer, documentation per project, etc. I’m not aware of any of them getting someone to plan/organise it. It’s just what happens naturally when you have a team of people who need to refer to those files daily.

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            there’s more documents in Downloads than in Documents.

            On some systems this is a consequence of web browsers configured to download all files in a fixed place (eg. ~/Downloads). I always make sure to disable this option and get the browser to ask me where to place each document. They often go to /tmp, which will be wiped on reboot, but for the ones I plan to keep I have to place them in the directory tree right away.

            I understand that this “everything goes to Downloads” option was chosen as a default because most users don’t have an establihed folder hierarchy they care about – so asking them to place each document is a burden to them – but it also reinforces this tendency to have dumping grounds instead of structure. I wonder what a good UI design to nudge people towards more organization (when useful) would be.

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              RISC OS has always worked like that: when you ask to save a new file (from any program, not just a browser) there is no default location. It just shows a little save box with the file icon and name, and you have to drag it to a folder somewhere:


              I tried to get Linux to work like that a long time ago (http://rox.sourceforge.net/desktop/node/66.html) but it didn’t catch on, and most Linux desktops copied the Windows UI where everything ends up in a big unordered mess by default.

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                I tried to get Linux to work like that a long time ago (http://rox.sourceforge.net/desktop/node/66.html) but it didn’t catch on

                This is great as one of options. If I already have opened a file manager with given folder, I would be happy if I can just drag the icon from an application to save the file. But in other cases when I have no file manager window opened, I want to save the file through the standard save dialog, because starting a file manager and dragging the icon will be cumbersome and annoying.

                I would appreciate such draggable icon especially in the screenshot application. However it does not fully replace the save dialog.

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                  because starting a file manager and dragging the icon will be cumbersome and annoying

                  On RISC OS the file manager is always running, and you usually just keep open the folder(s) for the project you’re working on. For power users, the drag bit can get annoying; I actually wrote a little utility (called TopSave) that made it save to the top-most folder in the window stack if you press Return in a save box with no existing path.

                  You really don’t want a file-manager inside the save box though because:

                  1. It takes up a load of room, possibly covering the folder you want to drag to.
                  2. It will inevitably open in the wrong place, whereas you probably already have the project folder open (and if not, you can get to it faster using your regular desktop shortcuts).
                  3. If the filer is in the save box, then it goes away as soon as you finish the save operation. Then you can’t easily use the same folder for the next part of the project (possibly with a different application).

                  The Unix shell actually feels similar in some ways, as you typically start by cding to a project directory and then running a bunch of tools. The important point is that the directory persists, and you apply multiple tools to it, rather than documents living inside apps.

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                    Disclaimer: I wrote a utility for Windows to deal with this in the stock file dialogs: https://github.com/NattyNarwhal/OpenWindows

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              This is one of the things I miss about “proper” spatial file managers, clunky as they were. The file-and-folder organisation method inherently retains the limits of the real-life equivalent that it drew inspiration from which, limited though it may be, is actually pretty reliable (or should I say “was” already?) – IMHO if it was good enough to develop antibiotics or send people to the Moon, it’s probably good enough for most people today, too.

              But in addition to all of those limits, it also ended up with a few of its own, that greatly diminished its usefulness – such as the fact that all folders look the same, or that they have no spatial cues. There’s no efficient computer equivalent for “grab the red folder called ‘World Domination through Model Order Reduction’ from that big stack on the left of the middle shelf” – what would require sifting through four or five folders at the top of a stack devolves into a long sequence of clicks and endless scrolling.

              Users unsurprisingly replicated the way these things are used IRL, with some extra quirks to work around the additional limitations, like these huge “World Domination” folders for things that you probably want to keep but aren’t really worth the effort of properly filing inside a system that not only makes it hard to file things in the first place, but makes it even harder to retrieve them afterwards.

              Spatial file managers alleviated at least some of that, not very well, but better than not at all. They fell out of use (for a lot of otherwise valid reasons, though many of them relevant mostly for low-res screens) quite quickly, unfortunately. The few that remain today are pretty much useless in spatial mode because their “clean” interfaces don’t lend themselves easily to browsing more than a handful of items at a time. It was not even close to the efficiency of cupboards and shelves, but it was a little better.

              Most of the software industry went the other way and doubled down on filing instead, drawing inspiration from libraries, and giving people systems that worked with mountains of metadata and rigid hierarchical systems, on top of which they sprinkled tags and keyword searches to alleviate the many problems of rigid hierarchical systems. IMHO this is very much short-sighted: it works for libraries and librarians because filing things is literally part of a librarian’s job, and librarians have not just a great deal of experience managing books & co. but also an uncanny amount of specialised education and training, they don’t just sit in the library looking at book covers. And even they rely enormously on spatial cues. Besides being mostly unworkable for people who aren’t librarians, most of these systems are also pretty inefficient when dealing with information which is unlike that which goes in a library – well-organised, immutable (books may have subsequent editions but you don’t edit the one in a library) bundles of information on a fixed set of topics, with carefully-curated references to other similar works, which you have to find on demand for other people for the next 30 years or so. Things you work with on a daily basis are nothing like that.

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                But in addition to all of those limits, it also ended up with a few of its own, that greatly diminished its usefulness – such as the fact that all folders look the same, or that they have no spatial cues.

                One of the nice things about OS/2’s Workplace Shell was that you could customize the appearance of folders — not just the icon, but also the background of its open window, and probably some other things I don’t remember. Pretty sure that MacOS 8 (maybe later versions of System 7?) let you at least color-code folders.

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                  Mac OS has supported custom folder icons since 1991, and special folders like home, Downloads, etc. have special icons by default. Colors have been supported since about 1987, but lately they’ve been repurposed as tags, and these days the folder itself isn’t colored, there’s just a colored dot next to it.

                  Pre-X, folders had persistent window positions and sizes, so when you reopened a folder it kept the same place onscreen. This really helped you use visual memory. Unfortunately the NeXT folks never really “got” that, and this behavior was lost in 10.0.

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                    Yep! On the Linux side, Konqueror and I think Nautilus up to a point allowed this, too, IIRC Finder dropped it a long time ago. Most file managers dropped it, lest users would commit design heresy and ruin the consistency of the UI by indulging in such abominable sin as customising their machines. Most contemporary file managers just have basic support for changing folder icons (and quite poorly – I don’t know of any popular manager that adequately handles network mounts or encrypted folders, for example).

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                    I have a few ongoing “experiments” in this space. They are quite slow moving as they all take 90% engine-development, 10% implementing the concept. Experiment is a bit of a misnomer as the budget for modelling, generalisation and qualitative user studies is quite ehrm, anaemic.

                    simple - A damage control form of the ‘most of the software industry’ form.

                    1. User-defined namespaces (so a tag / custom root).
                    2. Indexing and searching is done per/namespace and not the finder-i-can’t-find-her. Don’t want to search my company docs when it is my carefully curated archives of alt.sex.stories-repository I am after.
                    3. Navigation-map, forcing a visual representation to be sampled for each document, stitched together into larger tilemaps.

                    wilder - A form of what the mobile phone- space does (ignoring Android EXTERNAL_STORAGE_SDCARD etc.)

                    1. Application and data goes together (me suggesting coupling? wth..) VM packaged, I might need 4 versions of excel with absolutely no routable network interfaces way too often. Point is, the software stays immutable, VMM snapshot / restore becomes data storage controls. “File Association” does not bleed outside the VM.
                    2. Application (or guest additions for the the troublemakers) responsible for export/import/search.
                    3. Leverage DnD/Clipboard like semantics. I take it you are familiar, but for the sake of it - DnD etc. involve type negotiation already: source presents sets of possible export types, sink filters that list, best match is sent. Replace the sink with a user-chosen interface (popup, context-sensitive trigger, whatever) .

                    all-the-way-to-11: That it would take me this long to mention AR/VR.

                    1. The VR WM I have was built with this in mind, a workspace (or well, safe-space) is a memory palace.
                    2. The layouter (WM policy) is room-scale (Vive and so on).
                    3. Each model added represents either a piece of data as is, or as an expandable iconic representation of something from the simple/wilder cases.
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                      Indexing and searching is done per/namespace

                      Why have ‘namespace’ as built in instead of an arbitrary user-definable tag?

                      forcing a visual representation to be sampled for each document

                      Probably some interesting things to be done with text viz, following cantordust. But I don’t know if you can get it to be both distinctive and stay stable as a document changes. And of course the whole zoo of other non-image formats—audio, zip/tar/, iso, subtitles, executables, random noise, …—need to be handled. And if you’re not careful with your processing that’s a DOS.

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                        Why have ‘namespace’ as built in instead of an arbitrary user-definable tag?

                        Externally defined tag so that it can be combined with system services, e.g. mounting daemon triggered arcan_db add_appl_kv arcan ns_some_guid some_user_tag

                        Probably some interesting things to be done with text viz, following cantordust. But I don’t know if you can get it to be both distinctive and stay stable as a document changes. And of course the whole zoo of other non-image formats—audio, zip/tar/, iso, subtitles, executables, random noise, …—need to be handled. And if you’re not careful with your processing that’s a DOS.

                        You mean like Senseye? quite certain that one went a lot further than cantor :-P. I didn’t exactly stop working on it – just stopped publicising/open sourcing.

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                    Nothing of this translates to the desktop

                    You wander into TikTok and hit a specific icon and scroll for 3 pages and the thing you want is now on screen.

                    Poor Unix. All this time with a single root while users gravitate to stuff stored under multiple roots/apps.

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                    The “folder” metaphor was already sort of niche when folks at Xerox PARC invented it for the Star in the late 70s. People who worked in offices used them, but I’m sure a lot of the US population didn’t. And the metaphor never worked for hierarchies anyway. Still, it was useful for its initial target audience.

                    Humans just aren’t good at mental models of hierarchies or recursive structures. We use them anyway, of course, because they’re essential, but they don’t come naturally.

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                      You’ve made me realize I actually use folders like real folders. I have a mostly flat Documents folder, and the only folders inside it exist to group a small amount of related documents. Taxes 2021, Camera Manuals, and so on and so forth. Nothing nested more than 1 level deep, no folders used as “categories” or any other kind of hierarchical concept.

                      Finding Generic Form Name.pdf without context of a folder would be so annoying. I definitely don’t rename things, so they have to at least be in folders.

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                        In my corner of the world, we don’t have folders. I mean we don’t use them. Neither me, nor my computer-using peers from like 25+ years ago, when we were just learning about computers, had ever seen a real-life folder.

                        As I understand it, “folder” means this sort of thing, but what do you call this sort of thing, which is more common (even today)? In e.g. Dutch there are separate words for this (“map” or “ordner” for the second one, “map” typically used to translate “folder”), but I’m not sure about English?

                        Either way, I think this doesn’t really matter; it’s essentially about the mental model of a hierarchical file structure, and whether you call it “folder” with an etymology some people may not follow or something else isn’t all that important.

                        I don’t think hierarchies are all that unintuitive; there are many (simple) ones in every-day life: in a library you have “fiction” further subdivided in categories, and “science” further divided in categories, etc. On a restaurant menu it’s the same: “starter/vegetarian/[..]”. In Amazon.com there’s a whole structure for products, etc. These are essentially not all that different.

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                          That sort of thing we call a binder.

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                            Vegetarian / vegan is more like a tag than a component of a hierarchy. Same with other common menu tags like spicy, gluten-free, and so on. They can apply to any menu item regardless of category.

                            On Amazon I rarely use the category hierarchy, and stuff I’m looking for often legitimately falls under multiple categories in the hierarchy.

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                              In the Nordic languages and Icelandic, we also say “mappe”/“mapp”/“mappa” for a folder, but I would say that’s the name of the first physical thing. The second thing is definitely a “ringperm” (no computing analogy).

                              But what about a file? We have the word “fil”, which in its physical form is the same tool as an English “file” – the prison escape tool. Just unambiguous. Maybe an unfortunate analogy, but at the same time so nonsensical that there is no confusion – people take it from context, and you can always say computer file (”datafil”) to be precise. Edit: LOL, you do the same in Dutch: “computerbestand

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                                Oh, that second kind of thing is even cooler: the word we use for it is a portmanteau of the words used for “library” and “shelf”. Due to its extensive use in public administration, this object is so loathed that I doubt anyone would try to use it in an interface, except maybe in order to sabotage their own company :-P.

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                              That’s a very interesting perspective. If you don’t mind sharing, what is your native tongue?

                              FWIW I use a hierarchical structure in my documents and a date-based structure for photos. I can’t bear the idea I need to run a program that eats dozens of gigabytes of disk space and more than an entire CPU code to index all of those things just so I can press a shortcut and type in a few letters of the file I am looking for. I hate to say it, but with my minimal investment in a mental model, the man pages for ‘find’ and ‘rg’, and a graphical preview in my file browser have largely eliminated the ongoing cost of file indexing for me. I started on computers with a Z80 and an 80386 processor. “Waste” is a hard coded thing to shed at every opportunity for me.

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                                There is no direct equivalent for ‘file’ – we’d just call it a document instead

                                I might be misunderstanding something (not a native English speaker, and reading between the lines), but it seems that you think that “document” and “file” are synonyms in English in their “physical” sense.

                                What “file” means in English is, first, a verb with meaning to organize, or to submit: there’s “fileing cabinet”.

                                As a noun, file is literally a folder :)

                                Definition of file (Entry 5 of 8)

                                1 : a device (such as a folder, case, or cabinet) by means of which papers are kept in order


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                                  it seems that you think that “document” and “file” are synonyms in English in their “physical” sense.

                                  Ah, no, I only meant this in the “computer” sense :). Way back (this was in the age of Windows 98, pretty much) when I tried to explain what folders and files were, the question that always popped up was “this is just an image I drew in Paint, how is this a file”, followed closely by “is this a file, as Windows Explorer claims it is, or a document, as Word calls it?”. Hence this… weird thing.

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                                  |one of the many anecdotes that eventually educated my guess that UI intuitiveness is largely bullshit

                                  In humans, intuition is bullshit. Everything is learned.

                                  Somebody quipped “The only intuitive interface is the nipple; after that it’s all learned.” It might have been Bruce Ediger. Doesn’t matter who it was: turns out that humans don’t have much of an intuition for nipples, either. Breastfeeding techniques need to be learned – babies have an instinct to suck on something that’s tickling their lower lip, but mothers have no instincts about it at all. There is a chain of teaching that goes back to, very likely, the first primates that held their babies off the ground – and we only know it exists, rather than being “intuitive” or “instinct”, because of the successful marketing efforts of formula companies in the twentieth century.

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                                  This is an article written for the layperson, and as such it misses the real crux of the issue here, and sadly the discussion in this thread misses it too. Hierarchical file organization is an incidental problem. The real issue is that people do not understand that data is separate from programs at a fundamental level. Laypeople always had this problem, and the mobile-app abstraction and the web-app abstraction only made it worse by trying to obscure the distinction further.

                                  Laypeople think that files are an artefact of interacting with the program, just a weird UI thing that you have to do for whatever reason. People learn how to use GUI programs in a very dumb and mechanical way, now you have to click here, and now you have to drag this here, the whole UI mechanics itself becomes the abstraction internalized in people’s minds, and not just a language that describes something else. The something else part is not internalized for most people and as such files and folders are just some UI thing they have to do but which they’d rather not.

                                  This is also the reason why people not only accepted, but welcomed the data-siloed world we live in, where our data is not in our control but rather hidden away in someone else’s cloud. When you don’t understand what data even is, it’s easy to give control over it to someone else.

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                                    A very simple piece of empirical evidence for what you’re saying (and which I very much agree with): if you look at most users’ computers, you’ll see that the file associations for many (most?) file types don’t match the application they commonly open it with, except for files that they pretty much hoard, so the only way to find anything is via a thumbnail or directory view in a file manager.

                                    That’s because most of them tend to think in terms of the application. “Parasitic” file associations develop through other means (Windows updates restoring defaults, small utils installed for different purposes later) but they’re never used.

                                    The idea that “this document here” and “this file here” are one and the same thing, and that they are both backed by the same bucket of bits behind the scenes, is surprisingly foreign to surprisingly many people. That’s why so many related things (like what should happen with a document opened in an editor if the file is moved or deleted) are so hard to get right for everyone.

                                    Unpopular opinion, though: just like nobody expects people to operate industrial machinery without training or to drive cars without taking driving classes, I think it’s extremely wrong that we now expect people to operate non-trivial software without training or reading the manual. 30+ years of attempting to design non-trivial software so that it’s immediately usable without any training should’ve long show us that this doesn’t, and will never work. It barely works for trivial software. The only niche for which it “works”, as in it keeps people hooked up, is the advertising industry. I obviously realize this shitty model is not something we’re going to leave behind any time soon and that the RTFM crusade is not something we can realistically expect people to follow, I just wanted to rattle my elitist battle gear a little, for old times’ sake :-D.

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                                      Microsoft tried to turn this around a long time ago, but failed to change users’ behavior by changing the GUI.

                                      In Windows 3, the ability to open more than one document at a time in the same program was so cool they had a name for it (MDI, Multiple Document Interface). Documents went in sub-windows “hosted” by the application window, the titlebar showed something like “Microsoft Word - FOO.DOC”, and there was even a separate hotkey (Ctrl+Tab) for changing between documents in an app, like Alt+Tab changed between apps.

                                      Then in Windows 95 they decided to “put the document first” — the host window went away, you could seamlessly have one window per document and drag it wherever you wanted, and the titlebar changed to “Foo.doc - Microsoft Word”.

                                      Then sometime (I dunno, 2010-ish?) a lot of apps decided to go with the tabbed paradigm, which is really just a revamped version of the Windows 3.1 way. You have a host window, and sub-windows, just with less freedom of organization of the sub-windows (which is probably for the best, tab navigation is frankly easier). Ctrl+Tab/Ctrl+Shift+Tab even navigates between tabs in most of those apps. The document-first window titles stayed around, though, and there are taskbar facilities for switching straight to a given document (most of the time… I think… the windows 10 taskbar confuses the hell out of me.)

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                                        30+ years of attempting to design non-trivial software so that it’s immediately usable without any training should’ve long show us that this doesn’t, and will never work.

                                        Absolutely. And it wasn’t always this way, when I read Doug Engelbart I understand that this was obvious to him. Unfortunately we remember him for inventing the mouse and forget that he also used a chorded keyboard.

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                                      I don’t understand this. Most young students these days use Google Drive. Google Drive not only has folders, but they’re actually really important because you can share whole folders with your group for a group project, or with a teacher for grading. If you don’t know about files and folders, it will make everything more difficult in that environment too.

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                                        And even if the concept is foreign, surely someone who is studying astrophysics is able to grasp the concepts of directory, folders and files? In the article they claim that these are smart people, but that it is still beyond their capabilities. I wonder how one can understand all kinds of abstract, foreign stuff and get good grades, but not get this.

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                                          It doesn’t really encourage you to use them as a directory structure. Drive folders are, as you say, to group a bunch of files for sharing. On Drive, the search bar and “Shared with me” page are way faster to find things.

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                                          Working with befuddled students has convinced Garland that the “laundry basket” may be a superior model. She’s begun to see the limitations of directory structure in her personal life; she uses her computer’s search function to find her schedules and documents when she’s lost them in her stack of directories. “I’m like, huh … I don’t even need these subfolders,” she says.

                                          This feels like a case of the pendulum swinging too far the other way. If you’ve ever tried to keep everything carefully organized you’ve probably found it to be a chore. That’s because it is for the vast majority of people. I’m a “files and directory” kind of person and I mostly toss things in a “downloads” folder until I feel the need to sift through it a bit and build up the patience to bother doing so. Search, even basic search, is really useful. Directory hierarchies are useful. Neither is all that superior to the other all the time. (Mind you, a good filename goes a long way. Sometimes just renaming it is good enough.)

                                          The article seems to be deliberately playing the extremes off each other for some shock value. I know various high school teachers who teach in an essentially “paperless” classroom and the students are familiar with, and use, a hierarchical filesystem, even if that’s not what they would call it. Would they know about a “file on the Desktop”? Maybe not, but grasping the concept wouldn’t be totally alien. Folders of documents in OneDrive and their electronic classroom setup are quite similar.

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                                            I know various high school teachers who teach in an essentially “paperless” classroom and the students are familiar with, and use, a hierarchical filesystem, even if that’s not what they would call it

                                            When I was working on Étoilé, I came across a paper that showed that around 10-20% of people find hierarchies a natural form of organisation. It came out at about the time iTunes was getting awful reviews from geeks and stellar reviews from everyone else. iTunes (prior to iTunes 5, which was the turning point where Apple decided that they hated their users) didn’t use a hierarchy at all for organisation. It used structured metadata, but allowed arbitrary filters, rather than the traditional {genre}/{artist}/{album}/{track} filing that most filesystem-based players used. This was a lot more flexible (what happens if I want to list all ‘60s music? Trivial with iTunes’ filter model, difficult with a hierarchy if decade is not the top layer in the hierarchy) and was popular with most users.

                                            I’ve wondered for a long time about the self-selection that we get from the fact that most programming languages are strongly hierarchical (imposing hierarchy was, after all, the goal of structured programming). This leads to programmers being primarily selected from the set of people who think in terms of hierarchy (the percentage of people who think in terms of hierarchy and the percentage that find it easy to learn to program seem to be sufficiently similar numbers that I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they’re the same set). This, in turn, leads to programmers thinking that hierarchical organisational structures are natural and designing UIs that are difficult for non-programmers to learn.

                                            With Étoilé, we wanted to remove files and folders as UI abstractions and provide documents and tags, with a rich search functionality. That can still be mapped into a filesystem abstraction for the low-level interface but it didn’t need to be the abstraction presented to users.

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                                              …we wanted to remove files and folders as UI abstractions and provide documents and tags, with a rich search functionality.

                                              For the record, I think this is a superior approach. Ultimately, the problem is that actually tagging or categorizing your own data is a chore, so the results are somewhat lacklustre. (Music and photos are kind of an exception here because they often come from a source that provides the metadata that makes a structured search useful.)

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                                            I’ll repost what I said elsewhere (rough formatting ofc) with notes to further clarify:

                                            to be honest, i doubt it. there have always been people inept with computers (i.e. boomers and gen x) - have they even met their fellow faculty?

                                            (And yes, even millenials. Again, the fact we’re all on this forum is an indication that we’re just hyper-used to this model.)

                                            the other question is they may simply be good with computers, just not YOUR computers. people say gen z, but the people i’ve seen most on their phones are boomers.

                                            Specifically, I’m referring to the fact that stuff like the iPad is a different model of a computer in ways from the traditional one we’re used to. The fact students are proficient in one but not necessarily another doesn’t make them stupid.

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                                              As an example that may be more familiar to people here: Most people in the 70’s had never used a computer before; they would have to be taught. Likewise, in the 80’s, home may have used a home computer, but it would be a big shift to whatever the heck they had at the CS department.

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                                              I wonder whether we should give up nested folders and just move to tagging.

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                                                I tried this for a while and it suffers the same problem as nested folders: you still have to tag/categorize everything.

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                                                  For things that have no better location, I use a system of weekly folder rotation which works out pretty well since everything current is there and you don’t need to check a lot in the older folders usually.

                                                  Everything that has a better location (e.g. because it’s part of a project) gets moved to that then.

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                                                    Yeah, it just seems like it is more flexible. Yes, tagging can be a pain and there is no notion of one categorization being a sub of another. That part is not easily discoverable. Those are two downsides.

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                                                      I do think tagging is better, by the way. When I tried it, though, I found I was very inconsistent with what tags I was using so finding that “thing that was like some other thing” was not as great as was made out to be.

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                                                    A path is just a list of tags, especially if you have a super fast search engine like Everything.

                                                    I place my files in nested folders, but I don’t navigate them. I open Everything, type parts of the path, and it’s in the top 3 of “Date accessed” 99% of the time. Takes one second.

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                                                    I’ve sometimes seen discussion of this topic really only engage with the file/folder metaphor, rather than fundamental abstraction, however skeu’d.

                                                    My generation (millennials) is exactly the right age that for most of us files & folders have just always been there, and recently are being replaced and/or obscured by things like search. So sometimes I hear people talk as if files & folders are a fundamental part of how computers work “under the hood” (where I guess hood = search bar?).

                                                    …but, an older generation might remember that hard drives were in reality a series of magnetic platters where you could store data in fixed size blocks, and it was up to them to figure out how to organize that data. The file system was one such solution, but it needn’t be the only one. It isn’t fundamental.

                                                    I think this crowed is generally savvy enough to realize that in principle – but it’s an interesting dynamic that I’ve seen a lot of.

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                                                      I’m actively refusing to use the ‘folder’ terminology, because I’ve probably never seen a real folder in real life. I prefer to use a virtual description: directory. However, I originally was accustomed to the concept by using the word drawer, because that’s what was used on Amigas. Drawer is much more fun than a folder, because it can store big objects ;)

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                                                        This is not a virtual description. A “directory” is a structured list of information, such as a telephone directory.

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                                                          I’m actively refusing to use the ‘folder’ terminology, because I’ve probably never seen a real folder in real life.

                                                          Do you not use these tings to keep important documents around? https://eu-browse.startpage.com/av/anon-image?piurl=https%3A%2F%2Fcdn.officecentre.de%2Fassets%2Fscaled%2F9d%2Fasset.4863473.1500x1500.box-245c4a9f.jpg&sp=1632391488Ta170e4937b5ac48795fc5e117244b6dbd58d645ef9f6b7654c3a78bd8a72a22f

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                                                            Hi, I’m 20.

                                                            Most of my important documents are PDFs. I have one thin plastic envelope that stores important physical documents, like… basically just my examination certificates and my birth certificate.

                                                            • My apartment’s lease and agreement are virtual,
                                                            • almost all my bank statements and bills are paperless
                                                            • My employment contracts are virtual

                                                            et cetera.

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                                                              I’m using it, though I know it by other name – “segregator” in my language, which according to some random translation website translates more or less to “binder” ;)

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                                                            “Where’s the document I saved just a minute ago?” is a common problem, as old as folders and save dialogs themselves. I keep having it, despite being familiar with folders so much I could write a file system from scratch. So maybe it’s just a bad UI?

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                                                              It occurs to me that it would be really cool if an OS had a user-visible log of things you did. Add searching/filtering of that log and tracking down your files gets much easier. It could also be a natural way to implement undo/redo.

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                                                              In German, the words for file and folder are Datei and Ordner.

                                                              Datei is short for Daten-Einheit which literally means unit of data.

                                                              The literal translation of Ordner is something like sorter or maybe orderer and means thing the brings order.

                                                              Hence Germans never discuss this tiresome and futile topic whether files and folders are good or bad abstractions.

                                                              Anyway: named units of data in named hierachical structures are easy to understand and freaking awesome. If you’re unable to grasp that concept in a few minutes, you’ll probably never use a computer for much else than entertainment.

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                                                                That might be a retro-explanation. -ei is just the suffix for “place for”. See https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/-ei#German and https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/Datei . Compare Bäckerei.

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                                                                  The point I’m trying to convey is that the word Datei stands for itself and doesn’t have an analogon in the material realm. Hence, the confusion about its interpretation is less.

                                                                  To clarify: I learned the explanation that Datei is short for Dateneinheit in middle school. It maybe a retrograde mnemonic as I had trouble finding it via web searching.

                                                                  I found an explanation stating that Datei somehow relates to the word Kartei (meaning card index) which is composed of Karte (card) and the suffix -ei. Kartei indeed has the meaning of place where the cards are. But as a native German-speaking person it feels wrong to understand Datei as the place where data is. By that logic Datei would have the meaning of file system which is obviously wrong.

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                                                                    Wiktionary agrees with the Kartei derivation.

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                                                                      If the folder is where the files are, then it would be Dateiei, and the filesystem the Dateieiei. Doesn’t that sound like a better world to live in?

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                                                                    I thought it was formed in analogy to “Kartei”, as in a card in a card file (see, there we have files again).

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                                                                      Datei is short for Daten-Einheit which literally means unit of data.

                                                                      As a fellow German I have never heard of this until today. I have been using computers since ~30 years. I doubt that this is well known.

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                                                                      It would be great to see Dropbox and Google Drive data on percentage of users who actually create subfolders. My guess is < 5%

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                                                                        “Take their phones away and get ‘em on Windows 98.”

                                                                        I don’t think child abuse will help.

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                                                                          They were all getting the same error message: The program couldn’t find their files.

                                                                          I feel ya. If my browser history is gone, I don’t have any google docs.

                                                                          P.S: My first computer ran MS-DOS. I grew up with files and folders.

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                                                                            I feel ya. If my browser history is gone, I don’t have any google docs.

                                                                            I don’t get the joke. They are all there https://docs.google.com

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                                                                              If you can’t find them in there, they do you no more good than if they weren’t there.

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                                                                                That was no joke. I honestly didn’t know there was an overview. Thanks you for finding my files :)

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                                                                                  There is one of these per document type. For sheets go to sheets.google.com for slides slides.google.com. They are also reachable from drive.google.com, but the semantics of what you see are different. Drive shows you your stuff, while the individual pages show also things that are shared with you. (can you tell that I have done an integration project with these services? ;-))

                                                                                  btw you may also like this trick:

                                                                                  type docs.new into your address bar (or sheets.new or slides.new) :-)

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                                                                              I’ve always thought that a sort of tag-based model to browsing data would be much better than hierarchies of folders, at least for user data. I’d much rather try to find a file by doing a query on its metadata than attempt to scroll through the massive buckets that inevitably pop up in your folder hierarchies, because properly sorting through stuff requires a lot of effort and nobody wants to do that, meanwhile a lot of tags already exist on the file or could easily be derived from e.g. which application created it or where it’s been downloaded from.

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                                                                                I’ve seen people having a total mess on the desktop since the Windows 98 days. It’s also a very common pattern outside of IT and STEM in general. Often goes along with lots of useless programs installed and some malware to make life more interesting. ;)

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                                                                                  Seems like result of using technology/services/ux/ui designed much more for consumers than for creators.

                                                                                  However, if you are able to do your job, keep all the files in one directory – no problem with that.

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                                                                                    This is not limited to just students, I have two very dear friends of mine that are over 50 and struggle with this concept all the time. I have tried (unsuccessfully) to use the file cabinet and folders comparison, but no matter what they just can’t grasp it for whatever reason.

                                                                                    I personally have struggled to understand why this concept is so hard for some folks.

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                                                                                      Way back, Microsoft had talked about using a file system that was basically a relational database (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/WinFS). Then search would have been a much more common way of navigating, and we would probably have had the same article 15 years ago.

                                                                                      Talking about the idea in an operating systems class helped open my eyes that directories were also an abstraction.

                                                                                      Still a cool idea.

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                                                                                        BeOS did something similar, earlier. And I have a friend who works with ancient IBM systems where the filesystem and database are basically the same thing. It’s a very old idea, turns out, which really deserves to be explored more often!

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                                                                                        TIL we had an education tag.