With their February 24th revelation of more features in the upcoming OS X Lion operating system, Apple may have taken its first steps toward an unfamiliar future… a future in which the file system does not exist.
Credit for this observation goes to Mike Rundle, who tweeted about being able to imagine “a future in which the Finder does not exist”. Documents would be associated with the apps that created them, like on the iPad. Mike went on to describe his vision in more detail, a vision in which users simply have apps. “Documents associated with them appear magically. Presto.” While this might sound like some kind of user experience utopia, I have a grave concern that eliminating a file system in this manner misses a huge audience.
While opening Pages to work on the family newsletter might make sense for casual home users of a computer system, it does not make sense in a professional context. In the professional world, we work on projects. Projects are composed of many different types of files. And yes, we might have the same apps open all day, but do we want to be forced to duplicate a hierarchy of information in every single application?
Besides, “projects” are just one type of organizational scheme. As a user experience designer, I’ve seen a lot of professionals in other fields organizing a lot of stuff in a lot of different ways. So even attempts at inter-app organization around the concept of a project, such as Microsoft’s Project Center, are not effective replacements for an infinitely flexible organization scheme like simple folders.
Some Wheels Need Reinventing
The conversation that Mike’s comments sparked led us both to the conclusion that we still need a high-level organization system of some kind. And that is the challenge. It’s a challenge because that problem has already been solved by the file system. The challenge is to solve it better.
At Interaction11, Tim Wood called for designers to reject the “complacency artifacts” of the past, design patterns that have lost relevance in the modern world but continue to be used simply because that’s how things are done. He encouraged us to be bold enough to reinvent wheels that need reinventing, and that’s exactly where we’re at with file systems.
Gestural user interfaces, effortless portability, and ubiquitous network access… All these things and more are redefining how people interact with technology. UX designers need to recognize this and push themselves beyond the limits of our vision. Yes, we absolutely must continue observing people interacting with technology, analyzing those interactions, and synthesizing solutions that work in context. But what’s even more important now is that we rely on our raw creativity for that last part. There are old problems out there that need to be solved in new ways, and the file system is one of them.
Header image courtesy of Tim Wood.