Power to the chaos

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Power to the chaos

Published by on March 15th 2008.

I spend a good portion of my time developing software and only a fraction designing. Still, after a couple of years, I have hundreds of files with images and 3D models on my computer. And to tell you the truth, it is a mess…

I’d bet I am not alone in this situation and every full-time professional designer must deal with the chaos of previous work. How to categorize the files? By time, by project, by topic, by file type? What if I need to reuse an older file and adjust it a bit for another project? Should a create a copy of the file in the folder of the new project? Should I update the old file? How the hell did I name that 3D model of a globe? Was it earth.u3d? Which one is the latest version? I just spent 10 minutes looking for it and I still can’t find it!

Hierarchical file systems

The concept of folders (or directories) is very old. It is good for computers and to certain level also for humans. But only to certain level. While having 10 folders with 50 files in each one is better than having 500 files on a heap, once the number of folders starts to grow and it becomes necessary to use folders inside folders, the system quickly becomes unusable. The problem becomes more apparent if a hierarchy created by one human is handed to another person and the second one is asked to find something in the hierarchy.

The core of the problem is the fact that things can be categorized in many different ways and all of them all correct in certain contexts. The hierarchical file system is unable to capture this property of the real world. Imagine to have things classified in folders according to color. If the need arises to find thing with rectangular shape, the classification by color is useless.

Besides, there is a group of computer users (usually older people) that has difficulty to learn the fundamentals of hierarchical file systems. Should we blame the people or the system?

Associative file systems

There were many attempts to break away from the hierarchical file systems and switch to a system that better fits the human brain. Windows Vista was supposed to have such mechanism (known as WinFS), but it did not make it to the final version. Online storage services (such as flickr) or bookmarking services (del.icio.us) take a different road and they are relatively successful. They use tags instead of a folders and instead of imposing a hierarchy, they allow classification into multiple categories. Humans have much less trouble navigating in a tagged system than in a hierarchical one.

Dangers of tagged systems

In a hierarchical system, there is always a single path to a file (not considering hard links). With tags, all is a little fuzzier. Hierarchical system always presents the user a limited number of choices: there is an active folder with constant number of subfolders and files. On the other hand, tags can be combined arbitrarily and choosing one tag does not limit the choice of a second one.

Due to this element of uncertainty, a good user interface of a tagged system is crucial to its success. Or, in another words, if the user interface fails to provide better experience than a user interface of a classic hierarchical system, all is lost and people would not use it. Hence, the user interface must:

  • Be fast and responsive.
  • Present files in a manner that allows fast and correct choices by users. Having thumbnails is a must.
  • Do not rely on user remembering the tags, instead present list of most often used tags and allow to pick from a list.
  • Provide help.

Tags in RealWorld Designer

RealWorld Icon Editor will be the first of the rw-designer apps to use the tagged file system. The database will reside on a local hard drive in a single file and all will be implemented using the sqlite library.

The Tagged storage takes form of a plug-in and all appropriate open/save dialogs will offer the choice to use classic file system or the tagged storage. Users will be able to:

  • Pick a database file to use. Backup and restore the database.
  • Merge contents of two databases. This will allow multiple users to easily share their work and cooperate on larger projects.
  • Import/export individual files to file system.
  • Attach arbitrary tags to each file stored in the tagged storage.
  • Display files matching given tags.
  • Maintain multiple revisions of the same file.

The example files shipped with previous versions of RW Icon Editor will now be moved into the tagged storage for better orientation (thanks to the thumbnails) and to let the users become familiar with the concepts.

Opening a file from the tagged storage

Highlights

Files matching the chosen tags are displayed using tiles with thumbnails and all basic information about the file. Tooltips provide additional info: last modification date and actual tags. Optionally, they also display content dependent data like for example number of icons in an icon library, dimensions of an image, parameter names of a parameterizable 3D object, etc. They will also display your own notes (BTW, you can attach a note to every stored file).

Files can be dragged and dropped between Windows Explorer and the tagged storage.

It is no problem having multiple files with the same name and tags. If you want to keep an older version of a file, simply check the “Create new revision” box while saving.

The tagged storage is seamlessly integrated with the application, because RealWorld Designer was designed with storage plug-ins in mind. A 3D model stored on local hard disk can safely use a texture from the tagged storage.

Files stored in the tagged storage are compressed and while there might be a small overhead introduced by the database, in a typical scenario the database file will occupy less space on your hard drive than the individual files would.

Summary

Introducing an alternative to such an established concept as hierarchical file system is not an easy thing to do. The idea of an associative file system has been in my mind for almost 8 years and I am certainly not the only one who has been tempted to realize it. It offers great benefits, but it may also fail spectacularly.

People hate to give up what they have already learned to use and learn something else. So, please, keep your mind open and give the tagged storage a chance. It may just get under your skin and you may find yourself wondering how could you have lived without it for such a long time.

The tagged storage will be available in a couple of weeks in the beta build of RealWorld Icon Editor 2008.1. If you wish to become a beta-tester, send an email to info@rw-designer.com.

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