making life easier – quick filing in visible folders

It is one of those things that has bugged me for years … and if it was right I would probably not even notice it was there – such is the nature of good design, but …  when I am saving a file from an application and I already have a folder window open, why is it not easier to select the open folder as the destination.

A scenario: I have just been writing a reference for a student and have a folder for the references open on my desktop. I select “Save As …” from the Word menu and get a file selection dialogue, but I have to navigate through my hard disk to find the folder even though I can see it right in front of me (and I have over 11000 folders, so it does get annoying).

The solution to this is easy, some sort of virtual folder at the top level of the file tree labelled “Open Folders …” that contains a list of the curently open folder windows in the finder.  Indeed for years I instinctively clicked on the ‘Desktop’ folder expecting this to contain the open windows, but of course this just refers to the various aliases and files permamently on the desktop background, not the open windows I can see in front of me.

In fact as Mac OSX is built on top of UNIX there is an easy very UNIX-ish fix (or maybe hack), the Finder could simply maintain an actual folder (probably on the desktop) called “Finder Folders” and add aliases to folders as you navigate.  Although less in the spirit of Windows, this would certainly be possible there too and of course any of the LINUX based systems.  … so OS developers out there “fix it”, it is easy.

So why is it that this is a persistent and annoying problem and has an easy fix, and yet is still there in every system I have used after 30 years of windowing systems?

First, it is annoying and persistent, but does not stop you getting things done, it is about efficiency but not a ‘bug’ … and system designers love to say, “but it can do X”, and then send flying fingers over the keyboard to show you just how.  So it gets overshadowed by bigger issues and never appears in bug lists – and even though it has annoyed me for years, no, I have never sent a bug report to Apple either.

Second it is only a problem when you have sufficient files.  This means it is unlikely to be encountered during normal user testing.  There are a class of problems like this and ‘expert slips’1, that require very long term use before they become apparent.  Rigorous user testing is not sufficient to produse usable systems. To be fair many people have a relatively small number of files and folders (often just one enormous “My Documents” folder!), but at a time when PCs ship with hundreds of giga-bytes of disk it does seem slighty odd that so much software fails either in terms of user interface (as in this case) or in terms of functionality (Spotlight is seriously challenged by my disk) when you actually use the space!

Finally, and I think the real reason, is in the implementation architecture.  For all sorts of good software engineering reasons, the functional separation between applications is very strong.  Typically the only way they ‘talk’ is through cut-and-paste or drag-and-drop, with occasional scripting for real experts. In most windowing environments the ‘application’ that lets you navigate files (Finder on the Mac, File Explorer in Windows) is just another application like all the rest.  From a system point of view, the file selection dialogue is part of the lower level toolkit and has no link to the particular application called ‘Finder’.  However, to me as a user, the Finder is special; it appears to me (and I am sure most) as ‘the computer’ and certainly part of the ‘desktop’.  Implementation architecture has a major interface effect.

But even if the Finder is ‘just another application’, the same holds for all applications.  As a user I see them all and if I have selected a font in one application why is it not easier to select the same font in another?  In the semantic web world there is an increasing move towards open data / linked data / web of data2, all about moving data out of application silos.  However, this usually refers to persistent data more like the file system of the PC … which actually is shared, at least physically, between applications; what is also needed is that some of the ephemeral state of interaction is also shared on a moment-to-moment basis.

Maybe this will emerge anyway with increasing numbers of micro-applications such as widgets … although if anything they often sit in silos as much as larger applications, just smaller silos.  In fact, I think the opposite is true, micro-applications and desktop mash-ups require us to understand better and develop just these ways to allow applications to ‘open up’, so that they can see what the user sees.

  1. see “Causing Trouble with Buttons” for how Steve Brewster and I once forced infrequent expert slips to happen often enough to be user testable[back]
  2. For example the Web of Data Practitioners Days I blogged about a couple of months back and the core vision of Talis Platform that I’m on the advisory board of.[back]

7 thoughts on “making life easier – quick filing in visible folders

  1. Mac OS X does something pretty similar to what you describe: if you can see a folder on the desktop while navigating a save dialog then click and drag the folder onto the dialog and the dialog will automatically switch to the folder you want. If instead you want a directory of recently opened folders use a saved search (kind is folder, opened in last n hours) and drag that into the sidebar places section to make it available in save dialogs. Hope this helps. All the best, G.

  2. Someone else mailed me to say the same. So not has hard as I thought, … but still rather indirect, and not discoverable. I’m not sure of the same is true of Windows, but on the Mac whenever you talk to another user you find some sort of trick they use all the time that you didn’t even know existed. I guess a sign of the general replacement of instruction manuals with user forums; why tell the users when they can stumble upon it themselves – the OS like a video game :-/

  3. I agree that it is a bit indirect, but undiscoverable? I didn’t know this worked until I read your article. I figured that there would be a way to do it, and the second thing I tried worked. (The first thing I tried was to look for the desktop in the sidebar of the dialog, but it wasn’t there) The one thing Mac OS X has going for it is that its features are very discoverable.

  4. You are right of course – it is ‘discoverable’, you discovered it. Indeed I know there are some drag-and-drop tricks I have shown others and they as “ah I never knew you could do that” … so clearly ‘discoverable’ as I discovered it. However, as I said, more like a video game .. “ah do you know if you press left cursor shift left cursor twice really quick, you can do a spinning head kick”. Fun, and engaging, but far from usable. But of course, as in a video game, there is a great joy to finding these things.

    In fact I do a similar, but sightly different ‘trick’ myself, which is to use the left-hand-side favourites in the finder. When I get into the save box, I notice I haven’t got the folder I want easily available, so go out to finder, go ‘up’ the folder hierarchy on the chosen window, drag the selected folder to the favourites, then go back to the application and continue the save using the favourite! Sometimes I remove it pretty quick form the favourites, but often leave it there for a while as I have got used to using the folder favourites for “things I am currently doing”. If I leave it then next time I do a save/open it is sitting there ready, including in a different application.

    Of course both of our solutions involve a ‘breakdown’ step, where we have to step outside the application and the context. Perhaps save/open dialogues by their nature are in this breakdown mode anyway, so maybe doesn’t matter so much. And notice I have a little bit of pride in my own method … just like the video game gambits.

    Also both our solutions are evidence that you ‘can do it’ on the Mac, but I find that this can-do-it-ness is the bane of computer science, both in formal areas with Turing equivalence or with applications like this on the Mac. Something may be possible, but is it easy, likely that you will find it or do the right thing … who wants to program a Turing machine?

  5. “When I get into the save box, I notice I haven’t got the folder I want easily available, so go out to finder, go ‘up’ the folder hierarchy on the chosen window, drag the selected folder to the favourites, then go back to the application and continue the save using the favourite! ”

    DId you know you can do all this from within the save dialog without going up to the Finder?


  6. yea, I found it ‘by accident’ some time ago, but if the folder is already open in finder that is the quicker path … but there again maybe I have an unusually deeply nested folder structure!

Comments are closed.