There is no folder

I predict that the Journal on the XO laptop will be a roaring success,

as it is designed around one person

— it is One Laptop Per Child, after all —

and it avoids the problem of Save overwriting documents.

I came up with this prediction after reading

a review of the One Laptop

Per Child (OLPC) XO Laptop

from which I saw a link to the

OLCP Human Interface Guidelines,

specifically the section on how file management works.

We believe that the traditional “open” and “save” model commonly used for

files today will fade away, and with it the familiar floppy disk icon…

Instead, a more general notion of

what it means to “keep” things will prevail. Generally speaking, we keep

things which offer value, allowing the rest to disappear over time. The

Journal’s primary function as a time-based view of a child’s activities

reinforces this concept.


The Journal,

OLPC Human Interface Guidelines.)

I have had similar thoughts myself: my thesis detailed a system that just

used time to organise documents.

Considering that it was academic software, which had its flaws, it was

surprisingly good.

My work on document organisation was inspired by three observations:

  1. Documents are rarely retrieved once finished [1],
  2. Most email clients organise documents (messages) by time, and
  3. Save deletes the prior version.

Inspired my my results, I have been keeping most of my documents in

one folder (/home/mpj17).

For retrieval I use temporal cues and search — and it works.

Without folders, I no longer have to think about where to store a document:

it goes in my home folder.

For retrieval, I used the Recently Used section of the

Open dialog, or search.

The reason this works is that generally old documents are not

useful documents.

The fact that the site-style for

my work

is the oldest document in my home-folder is not really that much of an

issue, because I am unlikely to need to retrieve the two-year old file,

and it stays out of the way at the bottom of the list.

The down side of my system is that Save will still delete the

prior version of my document, unlike the XO Journal system, or indeed

the file system in VMS, or the Elephant File System.

The Recently Used section of the Open dialog is

also useful for the documents that are not stored in my home folder: code.

I use the Recently Used list a lot because I am generally

working on a few related modules, such as the


for a page, and the supporting

Python code.

However, the


code is stored in a strict folder hierarchy.

This is because it is maintained by three people besides myself,

and everyone (and


has to be able to figure out where each code module is, what each code

module does, and how each module relates to the wider system.

In his article in The Register, Brian Hurley expresses a concern

about the children adapting from the Journal model of document

organisation to working with the XO code, which is organised in


I suspect that this will not be a problem.

People commonly use different means of organising different

documents: music is organised in a music player (such as iTunes),

email is organised by a email client (such as Outlook), pictures

are organised by a photo-organisers (such as iPhoto), and Web pages

are “organised” by the Web of hypertext links.

The addition of the Journal to organise personal documents, and the

folder hierarchy to organise code is not a big imposition.

It is definitely better than using a system designed to organise

code (in the

Multics system)

to organise personal documents.

[1] Barreau, D. and Nardi, B. A. (1995).

Finding and reminding: File organization from the


Acm Sigchi

Bulletin, 27(3):39–43.

3 Responses to “There is no folder”

  1. Walter Logeman

    Good to read your philosophy about this Michael. I enjoy your thorough research & reflection on this. When you write about it it usually grabs me, often with some “yes, but…” And I have a hunch I am to launch into another such

    > # Documents are rarely retrieved once finished [1],

    I’m sure that is true, but it might also be true that often documents retrieved are rare documents.

    MS has this notion that to “help” it removes rarely used icons from the task bar, and from the desktop. I put icons I rarely use there! It is so frustrating when they mess with my mess! I like to see them consistently the way I arrange them.

    I’m not sure if this impacts on your point or not.


    I like the big pile of files system you use, and my way of retrieving files is mostly using “ctrl, ctrl” which brings up the Google desktop search, listing the files by date. I can then sort by type of file, it rarely fails.

    But I see another human need to fulfil. To browse the shelves. How can this be done? By lots of views of the pile is one answer, *if* there were tags that might work, creating virtual folders.

    The trouble is files are not always tagged, or tagged well.

    I know it is terribly retro, but Folders are highly functional. If you are asked “where do you want to store this file, and there are already folders, and there is an option to make a new one, then your pile is already sorted. I know that the system is irrational especially if there are many users, but for all the reasons your pike works that does not matter. Search by date does not care where they are.

    This allows someone to develop familiarity with the structure, the train can then be browsed. Sure some minutes my be in the “wrong” folder but through familiarity the chair person gets to know where the secretary in his quirky way always puts them.

    Someone might create a folder called “Interesting” or “ToRead” and they may have docs not accessed since they were put there in 1997. These seemingly useless names have a real use for someone who is strolling around, trying to get a feel of what they *might want to search for*.

    I am advocating a space model, a virtual city of info, that grows organically, with fixed signs, even if they are irrational and do not always clarify the content, who cares, as long as it stays much the same over time we will get to know the place. And it will satisfy that need for travel in *addition* to all that you are advocating.

  2. Michael JasonSmith

    I am familiar with Microsoft Windows hiding menu-items that are not
    used frequently, and the irritation that this causes.
    It is an example of the right idea applied to the wrong situation.
    By moving the items, there is no chance for the user to develop
    motor-memory for the action, which reduces the usability of the
    Add to that, often the menu is accessed when the user is unsure what he
    or she is looking for, when the user wants to see all the items.
    I would argue that the menu is more closely related to a shared-document
    repository, and should be managed as such.
    However, a list of common actions could be made
    available to the user: command-line interfaces typically provide
    a history of previously entered

    as do Web browsers through the Back button, the history sidebar, and
    type-ahead in the location bar.
    It is amazing how repetitive our daily lives are, and the usability of
    computing systems could improve considerably if the repetitive actions
    were able to be done more quickly and easily.


    Notice how the information foraging model breaks down when a user
    is accessing his or her own documents?
    In this case the information gain (G) will be almost zero, as the user
    wrote almost the entire content of the document, so the model predicts
    that the user would never access his or her own documents!

    Browsing for documents takes place in quite a different context to
    retrieval of a user’s own documents.
    The user’s behaviour when browsing for information is modelled using a
    food foraging

    taken from biology:

    R = G / (TB + TW)

    Stated in English, the rate-gain of information in a document (R) is
    equal to the net information gain of the document (G) divided by the
    time spent between document (TB) and the time spent within
    the document (TW).
    When browsing, the user (the information forager) is constantly
    running through this formula … assessing if more information could
    be gained by going to a different location (such as
    Google) or if his or her needs are
    better met by staying and processing the current document.

    This model is the core idea behind the current techniques of
    optimising the usability of Web sites.
    To make people stay, the designers of a site try and increase the
    information scent of the pages by writing good titles, writing
    clearly, and creating good links to other pages.
    Browsing shelves, or Web pages, relies on good information architecture
    to increase the information scent to the information foragers that are
    accessing the documents.
    Folder names are essential to a good information architecture.

    Your space model of document organisation is actually very close
    to what we have with the Web, Walter.
    With all its problems and issues, the Web is an excellent way to share
    documents, and with the information foraging model we have a good basis
    for improving the usability of shared document stores.

  3. Hans Brough

    I love references to other disciplines and their insights when talking about usability. This is especially true when they relate to how we humans may be hardwired from 10’s of thousands of years of development.

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