posted by Christian Paratschek on Wed 30th Jun 2004 18:56 UTC
IconGnome 2.6's recent switch from navigational to spatial mode within Nautilus was highly controversial. As probably most of you know, "navigational" means browsing through folders in the same window, just like it works in Windows 2000/XP or in Konqueror. "Spatial", on the other hand, is a very different concept of managing your files. Not only does each folder open in its own window, but the windows also memorize their exact position and size on the desktop.

This concept is taken from real life: folders that come up the same way each time are much more like "real objects", and it's easier for people to deal with those than with a highly theroretical file hierarchy. There's a really good article at arstechnica about this matter. I recommend this article to everyone who is interested in learning about the navigational/spatial issue.

I have read a lot of reasons pro and contra spatial and navigational modes during the last weeks, especially here on osnews. Many people compare the spatial Nautilus to Windows Explorers (terrible) behaviour in Win95 - changing the setting to "open new folder in the same window" was probably the first thing that most of us did after completing a Win95 install. I know. I did. A lot of people complain because they feel that the Gnome project forced this decision on them, others flame back, saying that it's easy enough to change Nautilus back to navigational mode. As I said, this is a highly controversial issue.

Why do I write this article? There are mainly two reasons. First, I have a lot of experience with computer newbies. I worked as IT-support for two years and now I am self-employed, also supporting and administrating computers and small networks. I mostly have to deal with computer illiterates and office people who think that "the internet is the blue "e" down there", people who think that ms office is part of windows and writing texts is only possible with MS Word. Well, you get it. Therefore, I am pretty sure I know a lot about usability and ease of use. I am constantly configuring desktops for users, constantly trying to improve their comnputing experience. And "improving" means "making it easier" most of the time. Second, I myself, am an advanced computer user who has dealt with file hierarchies ever since i first found the option to open a new folder in the same window in Win95. I am sure this article can be helpful to a lot of you intermediate-to-expert users who can't stand spatial nautilus because you are so used to your file hierarchy. Well, let's see how it worked out for me...

First, I wanna tell you what I usually do to make a computer easy and consistent to use for a newbie: when I set up a computer for anyone of my clients, I usually do that in Windows XP. There are some tricks I use to make the computing experience as easy as possible for the user: I clean the desktop and delete all automatically created shortcuts, except for the tray icon and the "my computer" icon. Then i turn on the quick launch bar. Shortcuts to programs should always be there so that the users can switch between programs without having to minimize all the open windows just to get to the icon. Then I change the location of the "My Documents"-folder from c:\documents and settings\blablabla to another partition. This is of course just a way to seperate user data from systemdata, nothing that improves the users computing experience.

I try to avoid anything that even remotely reminds the user of a file hierarchy. I have seen, over and over again, that novice users (and often enough users who have used computers for several years!) don't get the concept of a file hierarchy. They get lost as soon as they open Windows Explorer. They call me because they don't find the attachment they just saved from an email. Believe me - it happens. It happens over and over again. File hierarchies are bad for anyone who can be content with a handful of folders.

So how do I avoid file hierarchies in Windows? To do that, I create some folders in "My Documents", ("My Music" and "My Pictures" are there automatically, so I just have to add one for new files, one for documents, maybe one for videos, maybe 1-2 more, depending on the needs of the user). The one for the new stuff is called "new". After creating "new" I open all programs that could possibly want to save files on the computer (browser, email, cd-ripper, office programs,...) and configure them to save to this folder. Then I put a shortcut to this folder on the desktop. Despite being navigational, Windows includes some spatial features (folders memorize size and position) that are just enough for me now. I open the "new"-folder, resize it to a reasonable size and put it somewhere on the left of the screen. (see screenshot new_folder.jpg). Notice that i strip Explorer of all the unnecessary features? It looks a lot like the new Nautilus, eh? Then I put shortcuts for the other folders on the screen, also open each of them to resize and position them. These folders are on the right side of the screen so that it's easy to drag and drop files from "new" to them (see screenshot my_pictures.png). You probably see where I am going now, right?

This really is the way for computer novices and just about everyone who does not really want to go in-depth with his computer. I am pretty sure that 80-90% of the computer users do not need more than 5-7 folders where they put their documents, their pictures, their music files and their videos. Let's add another shortcut for a server or for a folder called "backup" and tell the users to duplicate important stuff there. Do not bother these people with file hierarchies. It is pretty obvious that having some folders, each with a direct link on the desktop, is easier for those people.

One problem remains: if I create a subfolder within "My Pictures", maybe to have all the pictures of my last holidays in the same place, Explorer opens the folder in the same window. And now it's inconsistent: I have my "My Pictures"-folder, here, exactly where it is all the time and now it's gone. I don't want to teach my client to use the "back"-button (after all, I tried to avoid all this navigational stuff). So, what do I do? I check the option "open each folder in a new window" (ironic, isn't it?). And then it's consistent again: on the left, there's the "new"-folder with the pictures from my Digicam, on the right, there's the "My Pictures"-folder and on top of it, there's my new subfolder called "Vienna, June 2004". And here I move my files (see screenshot moving_files_01.png). Even better, I can do that without opening the "Vienna, June 2004" folder, just by opening "new" and "My Pictures" and dragging the files over the "Vienna, June 2004" folder (see screenshot moving_files_02.png).

That's why the Gnome team chose to use the spatial mode as the default: expert users who want file hierarchies can change that within 20 seconds. Novice users, on the other hand, should never need to see a file hierarchy. It just makes sense this way. No one switches Windows XP from navigational to spatial (although it is possible, as I have shown). You have to make the option you intend for the novice user the default. That's why they are called novice users: because they don't know how to change a setting they don't like.

Table of contents
  1. "Spatial Paradigm, Page 1/2"
  2. "Spatial Paradigm, Page 2/2"
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