Global Constant
Steve Nay's ramblings

Eliminating the hierarchy: GNOME Do and Google

This week I became acquainted with two applications: GNOME Do and Google Chrome.

GNOME Do is a program similar in concept to the Mac Spotlight. Although not quite as simple as Spotlight, it still allows you to find files, launch programs, and even search Gmail contacts.

GNOME Do and Spotlight both illustrate a concept Alan Cooper addresses in The Inmates Are Running the Asylum. (See my recent post on this book.) Cooper suggests how incredibly confusing hierarchial filesystems can be to users (see, e.g., pp. 9-11). Humans don’t think of file storage in a hierarchial way. When you’re writing something on a pad of paper, you might tear the sheet off and leave it on your desk. Or you might put it in your file drawer. That physical drawer has an advantage over a computer’s filesystem–it is much easier to see and comprehend the whole thing at once. You open the drawer and see all the folders inside it all together.

Now imagine your computer’s filesystem. You just wrote something on your virtual pad of paper. You “tear off” the page and want to put it somewhere. You click Save As…, and it opens to your usual My Documents folder. You put the file there and forget about it.

That isn’t so hard to deal with until you have to dig into the hierarchy of your hard drive. Imagine that you want to locate a file you worked on six months ago. It was a poster for the company barbeque you had in the spring, and you need it again. But where in the world did you put it? How are you going to find it now?

You could start clicking through all the folders on the hard drive until you find it. Or you could use a tool that eliminates the need to comprehend the hierarchial file structure in the first place, such as GNOME Do or Spotlight. Or the Windows search, if that’s the best you’ve got….

Those programs will let you search the file name or (more understandable for a human user) the full text of the file. Once it finds possibilities, you’ll still probably have to wade through a disorganized list to find the actual file. But at least you didn’t have to click through a hundred folders to get to it.

Google does a good job of implementing non-hierarchial file systems in their web apps, such as Gmail and Docs. You simply have lists of things, which you can further organize them with labels (and even use the labels as a sort of file-folder system if you really want to). And full-text searching is a standard, simple necessity.

Google Chrome also does an excellent job eliminating the hierarchy from the web browser: it has very few menus; your address bar, history, and web searching are all in the same box; you open a new tab and see a list of your most frequently-visited sites. No searching through menus of bookmarks or a confusing history pane. Just type in a keyword and it finds it for you.

After all, the computer knows where everything is anyway. Why not make it find things for you?

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