Monday, June 26, 2006

Virtual mess

My colleague, Sebastian Wohlrapp, just sent me a link to this video of a new desktop metaphor based on a more realistic desktop of piles of paper rather than the more aspirational model of files and folders. Given that I just moved and my new house is a mountain range of "messy" and "tidy" piles, it was probably the wrong time for me to watch this video :)

It does raise an interesting point. Most desktop environments were designed by very organized people - people who actually file things in folders and put things away. So the desktop is really just a temporary holding area for what you are currently working on. Once you are done with something, you file it. However, maybe most people don't work that way (even though they aspire to). Their physical desktop environment looks like the desk shown at the beginning of the video. "Pile people" have a virtual desktop with over a hundred little icons on it which is even less usable than a messy physical desk.

So, that raises a big question, do we create an interface where a user can recreate his physical world mess in a virtual world, or do we try to give him tools for more formal organization and hope he can adapt? The latter has been de facto approach but it does not work for most people who carry over their habits from the real world: take that pile of paper and throw it in a filing cabinet to deal with later. Or just leave it on the desk until some major purge event.

Like the physical world, the notion of piles would seem to break down under large volumes of content. The beginning of the demo was showing chicklet sized icons which gave no indication of what the document was about. This is not that useful unless you like to constantly sort and examine documents. If you were a pile person, chances are you would bring in an expert archivist when you had thousands of documents to manage. Otherwise, your desk would just be a skyline of tall stacks (I once interned for a lawyer with an office like that and, believe me, that model does not scale). The demo made a lot more sense when dealing with a smaller set of documents like photos that you want to sort through and browse like an album.

The desktop metaphor as a permanent holding area for documents also breaks down when your scope extends beyond an individual user because a desktop is so personal. To get it to work, the objects on the desk should really be pointers to a shared repository. Now this is a great idea: allow users to organize a shared repository in their own way without disrupting the organization of the central repository. This is really what social tagging is all about: organizing references. The stack concept is a surrogate for metadata, it would be useful, if behind the scenes the server tagged content with a taxonomy based on the stacks that users put them in.

Also, interestingly, the demo did not show search. I guess searching in this environment would be a lot like my experience finding things the last couple of days: open a box, look in the box, open another box, look in the box.....

I think that this metaphor works to enhance the functionality of the virtual desktop but it is not a replacement of a file system or repository. My concern is that people would tend to get even lazier than they already are and organize in such a way that only works for them in the very short term. You can only remember what pile holds what documents for a short time before you start to need to go from stack to stack. And that is what my old lawyer boss spent most of his time doing.