Steven Pemberton : Views and Feelings

July 1998

Mysteries Worth Pondering

Consistency helps us get our work done. We can work faster because familiarity means we don't have to think so hard about what we are doing, and it prevents errors since we achieve the same ends with the same means whichever program or subsystem we are using.

This last I can strongly attest. I use three different machines daily. The workstation at my work, the PC I have at home, and the PDA I have in my pocket. Alas, all three have different shortcuts for typical actions, so I am constantly making something italic when I should be inserting text, or getting a dialogue box about reverting when I should be pasting.

Unlike shortcuts, it seems like all systems nowadays have adopted a similar set of actions for file browsers. You can view files as just icons, or as a list with extra information; you can sort on name or type, or date; you can rename, move, copy, and delete in similar ways.

I spend quite a lot of time in the file browser, so I come to recognise the look of a folder/directory, the positions of the files, the colours of the icons and so on. My principle task when using a file browser is to find a file I want to work on, though with some side tasks sometimes, like clearing up, deleting old files, refiling files that are in the wrong place, or renaming.

So can anybody explain to me why when I click on File:Open in just about any system, I get a completely different dialogue form to the way I normally browse files? What's my task? To find a file I want to work on. The most you could say is that the choice of files is narrowed to what the application I am using is able to read. I would guess that 50% of the time (that's what it feels like anyway, though you notice things more when they go wrong than when they go right) when I need to open a file, I go to the browser rather than the File:Open dialogue to find the file that I want to use. (Though first of course I have to cancel the File:Open dialogue, because for some odd reason, even though the system is a pre-emptive multi-processing operating system, and loudly proud of it too, with more processing power than all the computers that were used to put men on the moon put together, constantly doing dozens of things on its own while I am humbly typing in my text, once I have clicked on the File:Open button, I had better open a file, or cancel it, because it's sure not going to let me do anything else until I do.)

So why do I go to the finder rather than the File:Open dialogue? Well, the information is often presented in a different way in the File:Open dialogue, and I know where the icon is rather than what it is called, or because while trying to reach the file, I see that the folder needs clearing up, and I want to do that before I carry on, or I know that it's the newest file in the folder, and the dialogue box doesn't give me that option, or … well, any number of other reasons.

And while on the subject of consistency, the File:Open dialogue sometimes offers me new things I can do, or new ways of doing them. Can anyone explain to me why I want to view only certain types of files on File:Open but not in the browser? Why might the File:Open dialogue offer me buttons to create a new folder, go up a level, view in a different way, but not the browser? Why should the "Find File" process be integrated in the File:Open dialogue, and not in the browser (or vice versa)? Why can I delete or rename a file, or undo an action in the browser but not in the File:Open dialogue? Mysteries worth pondering.

Luke and Ophelia

First published in the SIGCHI Bulletin, July 1998

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