Novices and the filesystem

July 24, 2011 in Technology

Speaking of Lion, I've been reading John Siracusa's review over on Ars Technica. Every few years (and lately, every year) John puts out a lengthy review of Apple's latest OS - and by lengthy, I mean you should set aside half an hour to read it. In fact, this year's version is available as a Kindle e-book. Nonetheless, I always find it worth reading if only to ensure my familiarity with every aspect of the new OS. To tell the truth, I usually wait until after I've upgraded to read it.

In any case, his introduction to the Launchpad feature intrigued me for a very different set of reasons. I reprint the beginning here, bold emphasis is mine:

For all its warts, the radical simplification of application management brought to Mac OS X by the Dock really has benefitted the platform. As I wrote in my ten year Mac OS X retrospective, "For every user who continuesto be frustrated by the Dock's limitations, there are thousands of others who are buoyed in their computing efforts by its reassuring simplicity and undemanding design."

But the Dock falls short, especially for novice users, as an application launcher. Or rather, it falls short if the application to be launched isn't actually in the Dock. Most novice users I know want to have every application they are likely to use available in the Dock at all times. As these users gain experience, the Dock can become a very crowded place. But why are these increasingly Mac-savvy users stuffing their Docks to the gills rather than limiting its contents to just the applications they use most frequently?

The answer lies in how applications not in the Dock are located and launched. Choices include the Finder,Spotlight, or (I suppose) a Terminal window. Moving from an always-visible line of colorful icons that's front and center on the screen to any one of those alternatives represents a huge increase in conceptual and mechanical complexity.

If you don't understand how typing the name of an application into a search box can be so much more difficult than clicking an icon in the Dock, I suggest that you have not spent enough time with novice users. Such users often don't even know the name of the application they want—or if they do, they don't know how to spell it. That's before considering the frequent disorientation caused by the rapid-fire search results refinement animation in the Spotlight menu, or the existence of multiple files whose contents or names contain the string being searched for. And this all assumes novices know (or remember) what Spotlight is and how to activate it in the first place.

The jump in complexity from the Dock to the Finder, I think, needs less explanation. As a general rule, novice users just don't understand the file system. They don't understand the hierarchy of machines, devices, and volumes; they don't grasp the concept of the current working directory; they don't know how to identify a file or folder's position within the hierarchy. Fear of the file system practically defines novice users; it is usually the last and biggest hurdle in the journey from timid experimentation to basic technical competence.

I think that last sentence is an interesting observation - is familiarity with the filesystem the digital "coming of age"? Certainly, by the time a user is interacting with the filesystem from the command line they are well beyond the novice stage (in fact, just launching the terminal intentionally is a rather advanced step).

I've been thinking about this for a little while and I don't have a strong opinion. I like the idea as a soft boundary for novice users, but is it a sufficient definition? I can think of some Photoshop wizards who couldn't tell their home directory from a hole in the ground; I'm not sure I'd call them novices, however. The iPhone is a device without a (user-accessible) filesystem; nonetheless, we clearly demarcate novices from power users. However, those users demonstrate their ability to navigate the idiosyncratic (filesystem-analogous?) mazes that the iOS presents. I think I'm coming down in agreement with John - what do you think?

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