Where’s My Stuff? Beyond the Nested Folder Metaphor

Envision the Future

The role UX professionals play

A column by Paul J. Sherman
March 12, 2008

By Paul J. Sherman

Published: March 12, 2008

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. It’s no longer up to the tasks we’re attempting to accomplish using it. I think there are better ways for us to organize our digital stuff.

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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

The file/folder metaphor just doesn’t cut it anymore. Sure, it makes sense for the digital objects the device itself maintains and relies upon—that is, operating system files, program files, scripts, and databases. And to a certain extent it’s still appropriate for organizing document-centric information. But it’s not up to the task of organizing the variety of stuff we keep on our computing devices these days. It’s as if your office mate decided to use her file cabinet to store her kid’s inflatable pool, her husband’s chainsaw, and her scrapbooks, and also kept some paintings and potted plants in the top drawer. It’s just not the right kind of container for all those things.

Is there a better, more natural way of organizing information on a multi-purpose computing device such as a PC?

People Organize For Findability

Findability is, according to Peter Morville, author of “Ambient Findability”:

  • the quality of being locatable or navigable
  • the degree to which a particular object is easy to discover or locate
  • the degree to which a system or environment supports navigation and retrieval

In the distributed world of the Web, findability usually focuses on getting people to the stuff they’re looking for, but didn’t previously have. This could be information; an asset like a program, image, sound file, or some other entity; and so on.

For stuff we already have, findability takes on a slightly different meaning. The problems we need to solve on our personal computing devices include

  • memorability and findability—How can I organize my stuff so I can easily remember where it is?
  • navigability and findability—Can I easily get to something once I remember where it is?
  • flexibility, maintainability, and extensibility—Can I easily modify how I organize my stuff?

I’d like to put forth this proposition: In the physical world, people organize their stuff using many criteria simultaneously. Their organizational schemes are, of course, limited by physical factors such as available space, but people’s organization schemes are heuristically driven—by convenience, frequency of use, and other factors relating to the context of need. In the physical world, we also create spatial relationships between things.

But in our computing devices, space restrictions don’t apply in the same way they do in the physical world . And, we have the added advantage of being able to reorganize our digital stuff at a single command.

All of this begs the question: Why don’t our computing devices let us organize our stuff in a way that leverages some of the advantages of the way we organize stuff in the physical world, while avoiding its restrictions?

Can We Leverage Existing Behaviors and Predilections?

Here’s what I’m proposing: We can actually can improve on how people organize their stuff in the real world, because the spatial limitations the real world imposes are not factors in the virtual world our computers’ programming and storage capacity make possible.

Let me get concrete here: Why can’t we organize our stuff in virtual spaces—rooms, really, not the “one damn desktop after another” spaces of Linux or OS X—that we can then configure to our whims?

And wouldn’t it be nice if we had the option of instantly having our digital stuff rearrange itself according to any attribute we chose—for example, creation date, date last saved, type, or various metadata tags—in a three-dimensional representation that we could browse by walking or flying through it.

And what if you could approach one of your digital objects and have it resolve into a preview of itself as you got closer. Then, at a certain point, you wouldn’t be previewing it anymore, but editing. (Yes! One step closer to modeless computing.)

Here’s another scenario: How valuable would it be if you could create a virtual project room that was as useful as some of the best physical-world project rooms, complete with lots of table space, whiteboard space, a long wall on which you could hang and rearrange storyboards or architecture diagrams, or whatever noodlings and doodlings you wanted.

Here’s the kicker: Let’s say you’ve finished the project. In the real world, when you finish the conceptual design phase, you almost always have to break down the project room. After all, another team is going to need that space. What if at the flick of a bit you could recreate the project space from a completed project, displaying it exactly as it was before you shut down the project?

If this sounds like virtual reality, well, I guess it is. The key difference to me is that, to date, we’ve used VR technology to solve a different class of problems—mostly those related to entertainment, training, and social interaction. I have not seen many instances of this concept being applied to the problems of findability, storage and archival, or the organization and retrieval of personal content. But several recent items in the news suggest we may start to see VR technology being applied to this class of problems.


The blog—“In search of the post-PC user interface”—reports on a number of products that present search results and the contents of a user’s desktop in visual—sometimes zoomable—user interfaces. One interesting program that’s now available is SpaceTime, a PC desktop program that lets users display search results in an unlimited 3D environment, shown in Figures 1 and 2.

Figure 1—SpaceTime user interface
SpaceTime user interface
Figure 2—SpaceTime video


A “lookable user interface” application, according to its creators MATT Services, Spectasia presents objects in a 3D perspective plane, as shown in Figures 3 and 4. This allows users to select near or far objects, rotating the portion of the plane containing the object to the foreground.

Figure 3—Spectasia user interface
Spectasia user interface
Figure 4—Spectasia video


A three-dimensional representation of a desktop surface, Bumptop lets you toss, stack, move, and gather up icons representing your files or folders, as shown in Figures 5 and 6.

Figure 5—Bumptop user interface
Bumptop user interface
Figure 6—Bumptop video

Cooliris Piclens

Cooliris Piclens is a tool that enables users to browse images on the Web as though they were in a gallery. It arrays images on a vertical surface that stretches off into the distance, giving the impression of strolling along a gallery wall, as shown in Figures 7 and 8.

Figure 7—Cooliris user interface
Cooliris user interface
Figure 8—Cooliris video


From Microsoft Live Labs, Photosynth is a technology that actually stitches together multiple pictures, drawings, or schematics of a particular location, enabling users to traverse the virtual representation of the physical space and zoom in to examine details at very fine levels of resolution. A video demo shows Photosynth in action.

In Summary

None of these applications gets to what I envision: organizing our stuff in virtual spaces that are more like a well-organized closet or kitchen drawer than a desktop. But all of them take steps in that ultimate direction, and I, for one, can’t wait to store my kids’ pictures on a virtual wall. That would be so much better than putting them in a folder. 

Founder and Principal Consultant at ShermanUX

Assistant Professor and Coordinator for the Masters of Science in User Experience Design Program at Kent State University

Cleveland, Ohio, USA

Paul J. ShermanShermanUX provides a range of services, including research, design, evaluation, UX strategy, training, and rapid contextual innovation. Paul has worked in the field of usability and user-centered design for the past 13 years. He was most recently Senior Director of User-Centered Design at Sage Software in Atlanta, Georgia, where he led efforts to redesign the user interface and improve the overall customer experience of Peachtree Accounting and several other business management applications. While at Sage, Paul designed and implemented a customer-centric contextual innovation program that sought to identify new product and service opportunities by observing small businesses in the wild. Paul also led his team’s effort to modernize and bring consistency to Sage North America product user interfaces on both the desktop and the Web. In the 1990s, Paul was a Member of Technical Staff at Lucent Technologies in New Jersey, where he led the development of cross-product user interface standards for telecommunications management applications. As a consultant, Paul has conducted usability testing and user interface design for banking, accounting, and tax preparation applications, Web applications for financial planning and portfolio management, and ecommerce Web sites. In 1997, Paul received his PhD from the University of Texas at Austin. His research focused on how pilots’ use of computers and automated systems on the flight deck affects their individual and team performance. Paul is Past President of the Usability Professionals’ Association, was the founding President of the UPA Dallas/Fort Worth chapter, and currently serves on the UPA Board of Directors and Executive Committee. Paul was Editor and contributed several chapters for the book Usability Success Stories: How Organizations Improve by Making Easier-to-Use Software and Web Sites, which Gower published in October 2006. He has presented at conferences in North America, Asia, Europe, and South America.  Read More

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