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.
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.
- 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]
- 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]