BSAG revisited: Trees, trunks and metadata


[First published 11/02/1003]

Dan Hon has written a very interesting article about the limitations of the filing cabinet metaphor of computer filesystems, and the about the finality of saving a document.

He touched on a number of things that bug me on a regular basis. I speak — as usual — from a MacOSX viewpoint here.

Tinderbox screenshot

Representing files in ways that give cues to their content. Icons should tell you what kind of file it is, not what application last opened it (or what the default handler is). PDF files might have an Adobe icon or a Preview one. Of course, I can set one or the other to be the default for *.pdf files, but that sets what application will deal with the file. I want to choose what I open it with, but some standard, application-independent icon would make the files visually more distinctive. Dan mentioned having an icon change to reflect how many pages were in the document, how old it was, and so on. I think this is a great idea: Tinderbox already does this with its notes. Notes containing a little text have an icon with one line, those with a lot of text have an icon with many lines. New notes are subtly darker shaded, then fade gradually lighter over time (see screenshot). Something like this extended to the whole filesystem would be great.

The problems of finding files. This is a tough one. I have a reasonably tidy filing system — compared to those who spray their desktop with files willy-nilly — but I still spend time trying to find stuff I've stored. Very often, files need to appear in two folders to fit in with the categorization. Sure, I could use aliases, but that's rather a clunky way to do it. Creo have a nice application called Six Degrees, which deals with email, contacts and attachments. They make the point that recognition works much better than recall: find files which match whatever you do remember about the one you're looking for (the recipient, part of the name, the rough date) and you'll most likely recognize it immediately. As Dan points out, this kind of metadata is very useful in searching, but harder to implement with less structured data.

Rolling Undos. Now we’re talking”

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