Windows 3.1 Control Panel
The development of computer interface icons has traditionally followed the office metaphor—icons were designed to look like the analogous office object. (See this link for a graphical example.) Collections of objects were put into containers, similar to how papers were grouped into folders, so we made folder icons. Data organization in general has followed the office metaphor since the first GUI desktop.
Music and video files are also stored in containers called folders, but the analogy is not as descriptive. Mix tapes and VHS tapes were never stored inside manila folders, so a more accurate metaphor may have been a bookshelf container. Fundamentally, how data is physically stored on hard drives does not mimic folder structure, with large files being fragmented across large physical areas of discs.
Although the folder metaphor may not be perfect, it has been successful largely because the hierarchical organization of data is something the human mind naturally understands. I have a music container, a picture container, a container for my books and writings, and so on. Within those containers I have smaller containers, with my documents container being divided into a dozen or more sub-containers.
In real life the same structure is made, with silverware in a kitchen drawer which is further organized into compartments for forks, knives, and spoons. Bookshelves are usually sorted alphabetically or by category. This tendency to use hierarchical structure seems to be part of human nature.
But as data is increasingly stored and synchronized across multiple locations, and as applications become better at helping us organize our data, there has been a shift from folder organization to an application based system. People use Picasa for managing their pictures, or iTunes for managing their music, and don’t even navigate folders anymore. New synchronization protocols, like the Zune wireless sharing system, are making it unnecessary to navigate to folders even when sharing or moving data.
While I spend a good amount of time keeping my folders of music organized and carefully sorted, my friend organizes his music by dragging it into iTunes. I appreciate consistent and strict folder structure, as does he, but since he only looks at his music collection through iTunes, he doesn’t care about the folder structure of his music.
This shift from strict folder organization has allowed for another method: Tags. You can organize your music collection from genre to artist name with a single click, and it doesn’t matter what the underlying folder structure is. Using tags instead of folders made my email organization much easier: I didn’t need to decide if a letter was work or administrative related, now I give the email both tags and find it later using either one.
Doing web design work has taught me much about databases, which do should not use the strict hierarchical organization method, but instead use extra tables as “go betweens” to match lists of data with other lists of data. This method is yet another way of organizing data, and can be incredibly efficient when compared to other methods.
The hierarchical visualization of data is how we see data naturally, and it’s why good visualizations on subjects can cause breakthroughs of understanding. The recent change from analog to digital opens up new and exciting organizational visualizations, making single structures no longer required.
In fact, strict folder organization is something that I am glad to see leave. That way I won’t need to decide if Yo-Yo Ma playing some Bach cello solos should be in the “Bach” folder or the “Yo-Yo Ma” folder.