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Don't take my folders away! Organizing personal information to get things done

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A study explores the way people organize information in support of projects ("teach a course", "plan a wedding", etc.). The folder structures to organize project information - especially electronic documents and other files - frequently resembled a "divide and conquer" problem decomposition with subfolders corresponding to major components (subprojects) of the project. Folders were clearly more than simply a means to one end: Organizing for later retrieval. Folders were information in their own right - representing, for example, a person's evolving understanding of a project and its components. Unfortunately, folders are often "overloaded" with information. For example, folders sometimes included leading characters to force an ordering ("aa", "zz"). And folder hierarchies frequently reflected a tension between organizing information for current use vs. repeated re-use.
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Jones, Wm Confidential: Please do not copy or circulate
Don’t Take My Folders Away! Organizing Personal
Information to Get Things Done
William Jones, Ammy Jiranida Phuwanartnurak, Rajdeep Gill, Harry Bruce
The Information School
University of Washington
Seattle, Washington 98195
jones@ischool.washington.edu
ABSTRACT
A study explores the way people organize information in
support of projects (“teach a course”, “plan a wedding”,
etc.). The folder structures to organize project information
– especially electronic documents and other files
frequently resembled a “divide and conquer” problem
decomposition with subfolders corresponding to major
components (subprojects) of the project. Folders were
clearly more than simply a means to one end: Organizing
for later retrieval. Folders were information in their own
right – representing, for example, a person’s evolving
understanding of a project and its components.
Unfortunately, folders are often “overloaded” with
information. For example, folders sometimes included
leading characters to force an ordering (“aa”, “zz”). And
folder hierarchies frequently reflected a tension between
organizing information for current use vs. repeated re-use.
Author Keywords
Personal information management, human information
behavior, ethnography, problem-solving, project planning
ACM Classification Keywords
H.5.2. [Information Interfaces and Representation (HCI)]:
User Interfaces—Evaluation/methodology; —User-centered
design
INTRODUCTION
The use of folder hierarchies is problematic for a number of
reasons. 1. Folders can obscure as well as organize.
Information filed away is out of sight, out of mind and
easily forgotten. Malone [10] noted the truth of this for
paper documents over 20 years ago; it is true today for
electronic information as well. 2. Today there are simply
“too many” folder hierarchies [3, 4] supported by separate
applications for separate types information including
electronic documents and other files, email messages and
web references. 3. The hierarchy, as a representation, has
basic limitations. In a strict hierarchy, an information item
(email message, document, web reference, etc.) can go in
only one place. Even if this restriction is relaxed, a
hierarchy is poorly suited to represent certain collections of
information. A collection of food recipes is an often cited
example. Recipes have properties such as preparation time,
ingredients, number of calories, ethnic background, etc. that
have no inherent ordering and are better represented in a
“placeless” fashion where property values can vary
independently of one another [7] or, equivalently, in a
faceted classification scheme [2]
Increasingly, desktop search utilities are available that
support a fast, integrated search across electronic
documents, email, recently viewed web pages and other
types of personal information (e.g., [8, 12]). These utilities
will only get better. In particular, utilities can be expected
to support the customizable use of various forms of tagging
(perhaps both in factorial combination and organized into
hierarchies). It is tempting to conclude that the days of
folders, as used to organize personal information for re-
access, are numbered.
This may be so. But before we discard folders as an
outdated relic it is important to understand better the
purpose they serve. To be sure, folders organize
information so that it can be found again later on (and
sometimes they hide this information instead). What else?
This paper describes a study in which we looked at the role
of folders in the organization of project-related information.
Being alive and active means having projects – both
professional and personal (“Get a job”, “Plan for my child’s
college education”, “Buy a house”). The lifetime of a
project can vary from several days to several years. How
do people organize project-related information and how
does this organization change over time?
STUDY METHOD
Fourteen participants (six women, eight men) were
interviewed and snapshots were taken, using a digital
camera, of various collections of information pertaining to a
December 13, 2004 1
Jones, Wm Confidential: Please do not copy or circulate
selected project. Ten participants were employed by the
University of Washington (four professors, two librarians,
two support staff and two graduate students). In addition an
electrical engineer, two software engineers, and one high-
level manager, all male, not affiliated with the University of
Washington, participated in the study.
Interviews were from one hour to 90 minutes in length. All
but one interview took place at the person’s place of work;
the remaining interview took place in the person’s home
office.
The interview began with the completion of a background
questionnaire. As part of this questionnaire, the notion of a
“project” was introduced, informally defined and examples
were given. Participants were asked to list projects in their
own lives that they would be comfortable discussing with
the interviewer and the to select one for the interview.
Across participants an attempt was made to equally
represent work and non-work related projects.
For the selected project, the participant was asked to give
the interviewer a “guided tour” showing, in turn, how
project-related paper documents, electronic documents,
email messages, web references and any other project-
relevant information types were organized.
The interview concluded with two questions. First,
participants were asked why they created folders and what
purpose created folders served. Then the interviewer
described an ideal search utility and gave the participant
what we terms the “Google option”. “Suppose that you
could find your personal information using a simple search
rather than your current folders…Can we take away your
folders? Why or why not?”
A note about methodology
Results described here are “late-breaking” as befits the
short-paper format. Most of the study’s data remains to be
analyzed. The study itself is exploratory, free-form,
situated (typically in the person’s workplace) and follows
an ethnographic style of inquiry. Analysis of study results
continues and efforts are ongoing to collect survey data to
help establish the prevalence of selected results.
RESULTS
Consistent with other research[3], file folder hierarchies
were far more elaborate than were hierarchies for other
types of information. Results presented here pertain to these
file folder hierarchies. The main results are as follows: 1.
File folder hierarchies are more than a means to an end --
the re-access of information items. Folder hierarchies are
information in their own right. Folders, if only crudely,
summarize as well as organize – they represent an emerging
understanding of the associated information items and their
various relationships to one anther. 2. The folders
associated with a project frequently reflect a basic problem
decomposition or, alternatively, a plan for project
completion. 3. However, additional information is often
“squeezed” into folder hierarchies – information that is not
well-represented in a single hierarchy or is best represented
through properties that cross folder boundaries.
“Don’t Take My Folders Away!” Folders as Information
When participants were first asked why they crated folders
the most common answer given was a variation of “in order
to get back to my files” (and other information items). All
14 participants gave this answer initially. Participants were
then given the “Google” option – “Suppose that you could
find your personal information using a simple search rather
than your current folders…Can we take away your folders?
Why or why not?”. Participants were permitted to stipulate
additional features of this hypothetical search utility and the
“folder-free” situation. Issues of control and storage would
be handled in some other way. The search utility itself
would be fast, effortless to maintain, secure and private (no
personal information is communicated to the Web), etc.
Only one of the 14 participants answered “yes” – he would
be willing to part with his current folder organization. This
participant did so with the “why” stipulation that a “time of
last access” would be maintained that information items
could be ordered by this property. Reasons for saying “no”
(“I still want my folders”) fell into one of three categories:
Trust. “I’m just not willing to depend on search alone”
(no matter what you say).
Control (over the grouping of information items). “I
want to be sure all the files I need are in one place”.
Visibility/understandability. “Folders help me see the
relationship between things”. “Folders remind me
what needs to be done”. One participant said that the
very act of creating folders helped her to understand
her information better.
The first two reasons – trust and control – may not be valid
beyond the hypothetical situation posed. In the real world,
people are not forced to choose between their folders and a
search utility. All of the participants said they would be
happy to have search utility that helped them to find their
personal information better. And it might be possible to
achieve sufficient control over the grouping of information
items through support for an option to tag these items.
Visibility/understandability won’t go away so easily as a
reason to keep folders. Folders may represent, if only
crudely, a person’s emerging, often hard-won,
understanding of the information items contained within,
their relationships to each other, their important properties.
Folders may be valuable information in their own right and
not just a means of organizing information.
Folders as a Problem Decomposition
In the context of a specific project, folders can be very
informative indeed. Consider the depiction in Figure 1 of
one participant’s folder structure for planning her wedding
December 13, 2004 2
Jones, Wm Confidential: Please do not copy or circulate
(re-formatted and condensed to save space and remove
identifying information).
Figure 1. A folder hierarchy for planning a wedding.
Note that many of the subfolders of the “Wedding” folder
represent important components of the wedding -- and the
associated decisions which must be made. Decisions had to
be made concerning which invitation cards to use, what
wedding dress to wear, where the reception was to occur,
what kind of wedding cake, etc. Many subfolders came to
represent sub-projects in their own right. For example,
“wedding dresses” contains information relating to
activities to select and fit a wedding dress that extended
over a period of several weeks.
The participant’s comments make it clear that the folder
structure of Figure 1 functioned as more than simply a way
of getting back to files. Looking at the folders helped her to
“see what needed to be done”. The folder hierarchy
functioned as a kind of project plan – even though it lacked
many properties features commonly associated with a
formal project plan (e.g., due dates or % completed).
Snapshots of “wedding” folder contents at earlier points in
time suggest that the decomposition of Figure 1 emerged,
“bottom-up” over time rather in the “top-down” fashion
often associated with a problem decomposition. Figure 2
shows a snapshot of the wedding folder’s top level taken
some three months earlier when wedding planning had just
begun. At this earlier point in time, the wedding folder
contained only six subfolders, none of which had any child
folders. The wedding folder directly contained over 30
individual files on a range of topics (e.g. “weddingdress”,
“Hyatt-ballroom”). Most of these files were eventually
organized into subfolders; the final “wedding” folder
directly contained only four individual file.
Figure 2. An earlier snapshot of the wedding folder.
All but three of the participants selected projects for which
there was an associated file folder structure with the
following characteristics: 1. the root folder represented the
project as a whole. 2. this folder contained at least four
subfolders and 3. at least ¾ of these subfolders represented
subprojects of the main project (as confirmed by the
participant).
Some (Additional) Problems with Folder Hierarchies
One problem with folder hierarchies has been noted
elsewhere: There are too many of them [3, 4, 9]. Folder
hierarchies are separately used to organize electronic
documents, email messages and web references. This was
true for the project information in the current study –
though, consistent with previous research [3], folders were
most highly elaborated for electronic documents and other
files.
Three additional problems were observed for file folder
hierarchies in the current study:
No support for ordering. The file folders for a project
sometimes included leading characters in an effort to force
an special ordering. Folders were given leading characters
such as “aa” to force them to the top of a listing. Folders
were numbered.
A tension between organization for current use and
later re-use. For several participants folders with names
like “images”, “references” and “articles” where scattered
throughout their file folder hierarchy. One instance was
top-level and designated as a repository for the repeated re-
use of associated documents. Other instances occurred
within the context of a specific project. For example, one
participant had a top-level “images” folder and then
multiple instances of “images” in the context of courses he
was now teaching or had taught.
December 13, 2004 3
Jones, Wm Confidential: Please do not copy or circulate
No support for the re-use of structure. For many
participants, the same structure was essentially repeated
again and again across projects. Examples included taking
a course, teaching a course, planning a conference trip, and
the testing and release of a software product. One
participant reported making a complete copy of the folder
for one project. He re-named the copy to represent the new
project and then carefully deleted most of the files
contained within. He said that the folder structure for the
old project was a useful guide for the new project and he
wanted to avoid re-creating this structure from scratch.
Another participant created a file-free “xxx-xx-Course
Name” template folder structure which he then copied and
instantiated for each new course he took.
DISCUSSION
Previous research suggests that search alone, no matter how
good it becomes as a way of finding personal information
again, is likely to remain a second choice to more
incremental, stepwise methods of re-access [11, 13]. Initial
results of the current study make an additional statement
that the re-access to personal information is not necessarily
the sole or even the primary purpose of a folder
organization.
In recognizing that the folder structure for a project is
frequently a problem decomposition, we open up a
potentially rich set of connections to psychological research
on real-world planning and problem-solving (see, for
example, [1, 5, 6]).
The recognition that a folder structure (as a problem
decomposition) is sometimes used as a basic project plan
also raises the intriguing possibility that personal
information management and the management of personal
projects are “two sides of the same coin”. Can a single
representation serve both kinds of activities?
If, more generally, folders help people to understand and
“see” their information better, it is reasonable to ask “can
we do better?” What about better representations that make
it easier for people to order folders (as they would like to
order the components of a project)? Why not better support
for the use and re-use of folder structure as a first-class
object? (Perhaps we can start by supporting a “Paste
Structure” option.). These and other questions naturally
arise from the study of how people organize information to
get things done.
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
This material is based on work supported by the National
Science Foundation (#0097855).
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December 13, 2004 4
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