Tearing up the paper paradigm

Ranjith Kumaran

July 25, 2016

Xerox Star desktop metaphor
This is an updated version of this post, originally published in July 2015

Desktop. Document. Folder. Trash can. For more than 40 years, office-related metaphors have been central to our digital experience. This paper paradigm was popularized by the Xerox Star in 1981 and served the purpose of providing novice home computer users with an interface that referenced the offices they worked in.

But is the desktop metaphor still relevant? Do we need it now when most of us are fluent in digital and no longer need a translator? What does such an interface say to the digitally native generation of millennials for whom many of the metaphors make no sense, like the floppy disk that is still a widely used save icon?

Microsoft tried to answer these questions with its Windows 8 update, while Apple’s iPhoto app puts photos before files. But neither system caught the imagination of users, who for the most part remain resistant to change.

iPhoto content view

The file-less internet with just content to be acted on and unique features like hyperlinks should have heralded a move away from this paper paradigm. But how many times have you clicked a link and had a PDF automatically download to your hard drive? Instead of accessing information, you’re waiting for a download, opening an app to view the file and figuring out where to store it.

The desktop metaphor is so powerful that it’s often hard to remember that these files and folders are not real. They’re a representation of how machines organize information and as such are optimized for storage and retrieval.

To do anything with your content and information, you first have to take your files out of the filing cabinet – the digital equivalent of walking across the office to get the document you need. Collaboration happens by either sending each person a duplicate of the document or by giving them access to your filing cabinet (and hoping they don’t rearrange things too much). But wouldn’t it be better if you just pinned a big version of it to a wall and have everyone access and discuss it in one place?

There have been some successes in shifting our mental models. Anyone who has ever worked on a shared Google Doc can appreciate the power of an always active and live text-based document, while Hightail frees creative collaboration on visual files from the piecemeal review processes that smother ideas and dampen enthusiasm.

Changing our approach to digital content is not just about improving collaboration. The file system is also a distraction. The digital age was supposed to free us from the drudgery of indexing, storage and retrieval, yet we waste so much time organizing folders, sending around multiple versions of abstract dot file types and saving each new file to yet more folders.

collection_view-resize

Hightail’s new Collections feature takes a lightweight and flexible approach to organizing your work. Projects – or as we call them, Spaces – can be grouped by a category of your choosing and, crucially, any one Space can exist in multiple Collections so updates and changes are reflected everywhere.

Collections are a very personal form of organization. Others aren’t bound to follow how you collect things, but you can share your Collection with them to categorize how they wish. This non-hierarchical approach is in keeping with the trend for businesses to no longer impose structures and systems. Whether it’s BYOD or increasing autonomy when it comes to choosing tools and services, smart companies are led by their employees.

Even the office itself is changing. Filing cabinets are rare, floppy disks an anachronism, while folders gather dust not documents. Yet the digital world remains strangely slow to catch up.

It’s time to break free of the restrictive models of the past and embrace a digital experience that is active, collaborative, efficient and flexible. So with every app we develop and interface we design, let’s tear up the paper paradigm and send the desktop metaphor to the trash.

Responses

  1. Jim Rowe

    1 year ago

    The Xerox 8010 was not a device that: “served the purpose of providing novice home computer users with an interface that referenced the offices they worked in.” You need to do your homework. There may not be many of us still around that was involved in the sales of the Xerox Star product, but it certainly was not a home or novice device.

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