The Cake Folder is a Lie

The Cake Is a LieThe Documentum folder hierarchy is a lie, a contrivance, a GUI-fostered illusion based on a few attributes and hopped-up queries. It pays homage to an outdated metaphor because people take comfort in that reassuring promise of a place for all things, all things in their place. Ugh. Using folders as your primary wayfinding strategy in Documentum is like having a horse pull around your new Ferrari because you don’t want to learn how to drive a car.

I’m not in the camp that thinks fulltext indexing is the magic bullet. I also don’t propose giving people a big, juicy text box and running their DQL statements directly. Sometimes folders are useful for particular tasks like organizing things during lifecycles, workflows, or archiving. Think of it as metadata about the workflow or lifecycle, not the documents themselves: An inbox cabinet for indexers to pick up piecework for instance. It might not be my first choice, but I won’t go postal if a client demands it. Basing object replication off of folder structure though–that’s just silly. Tsk, tsk Documentum!

My distrust of folders started way back in 1994 with my first Documentum project. We committed the usual transgression–having category/subcategory folders AND attributes. Keeping them in sync was a pain in the anatomy; the attributes weren’t repeating and we didn’t have any new-fangled DBOF do-hickey to handle the synchronization automagically. We got so much else right the first time around, but not this. If you must do something similar then please use real taxonomies, custom attributes, and an overridden save method to do the location shuffling.

The basic problem with how people use folders is the desire to taxonomify things by creating elaborate folder trees and putting documents in them. It’s as bad an idea in shared areas as docbases, but everybody does it. Nobody’s happy with it of course. Different people have different ideas about where some things should go or what folders there should be. Couple that with the unnatural fear some users have of documents linked into multiple folders for some really fun times. That’s why a Documentum architect should also be equal parts information architect and animal trainer. It’s a hard behavior to correct in most users especially if you don’t correct them as they’re misbehaving.

One kind of Documentum folder structure abuse drives me completely berserk. I see again and again where occasional Documentum developers will write code to find exactly one document in the docbase by stringing together a complicated folder path instead of querying directly on the attributes that make up the business-defined primary key. It’s also worth mentioning a corollary pet peeve: Query results like repeating attributes can have more than one value; it’s very important to know (1) if you got more than one value and (2) what you should do if that happens. If (2) happens to be “do nothing”, PLEASE put that in a comment before the close collection so the lucky inheritor of your code doesn’t have to ask the question all over again or at least knows why he thinks you’re wrong.

You’d think links and shortcuts would have shattered the tenuous link between metaphor and reality even on the desktop. Hard links in UNIX are the ultimate expression of files not being in just one place; they really aren’t anywhere in that sense. Directory better expresses what’s really going on; your phone number can show up in all kinds of White Book wannabes because they contain references to things, not the things themselves. Let Ernestine worry about which wires go in which holes.

The good news is the folder metaphor is on its way out thanks to new wayfinding strategies on the web and desktop. Some of my younger associates like J. (a twenty-something freshly indoctrinated CompSci PhD) and D. (a BARELY younger, recently forty information architect) are perfectly happy with everything in one folder never to be opened directly. They do their Google Desktop or Mac OSX Spotlight searches to find everything.

I’m not quite willing to go that far just yet given my pathological need to classify things and Container Store fetish for things that contain and organize other things. I have dozens of folders in a shallow GTD-inspired structure on my Macbook that I shuffle around like some people play Solitaire–therapy as much as organization. My typical user who stores all non-Documentum content in sequoia-sized folder trees on Windows shared areas is the one who needs to be stopped. I’m personally hoping for massive deforestation as people like D. and J. take charge of these information wildernesses. Hmmm, maybe I’ll name my next scratch docbase papermill or james-gaius-watt.

Apple and Google are taking a middle-of-the-road approach to breaking users of the folder habit. Both provide pseudo-folder functionality as well as full-blown total desktop search. GMail and Google Reader use tagging but represent the tags as folders. It looks familiar, but it isn’t beholden to the metaphor’s limits. Apple added smart folders and lists to applications like the Finder, Mail, and iTunes. They’re really just saved queries that look like differently-colored folder icons instead of the unfamiliar look of dm_queries and smart lists. I use them all the time in Mail and iTunes but much less frequently in Finder because mail messages and media files come with plenty of metadata built in.

Hmmm, d-brat would love them given his obsession with changing folder icons in desktop client; maybe he should get a Macbook or an iPhone.

The irony here is that Documentum folders are just queries underneath already, just like Apple’s “new” smart folders. The problem is that Documentum tries too hard to behave like folders and confuses people when the old metaphor can’t hold up, like when changing a folder’s security doesn’t impact its contents. It also doesn’t help when an accidental drag-drop means your manager can’t find that critical report on that one day of the month when he braves the wilds of the docbase. Until people give up folders for better wayfinding strategies, it’s time to roll up a newspaper and correct bad behavior when it happens.

Bad user! *thwak* Bad! Look at this stinky folder mess all over my brand new docbase!

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