Monday, February 20, 2006

How we organize information.

I was writing in my pocket notebook (the paper kind) when a co-worker jokingly asked me where is the search function? I started thinking about the increasing amount of information (especially in electronic form) that we're faced with and how we organize them. Then I started to wonder... do we need to organize anymore? Before computers, it was necessary to organize information using some kind of system like a file cabinet, but it was quickly discovered that no matter how we organize not everything fit into the system nicely. The system didn't scale and so creative cross-index schemes was needed to deal with all the information. Similiar methodology was applied to computer systems from file systems to basic things such like how we organize emails, but we've now hit the inherent limitation of this method. There is now simply too much information for a person to try to organize.

That brings me back to my original question. Is it necessary to organize information at all? Can we rely only on searching algorithms? When I look for an email, I often use search instead of navigating the directory structure I've set up for storing email. When I look for a file, I often use "locate" or "find" instead of relying on my understanding of the directory structure. Once I stepped away from trying to figure out where a particular piece of information should go, my productivity improved because I only need to focus on how I can retrieve the information when I needed it .

Does that mean we don't need to organize information anymore? Should every file or email just be in a single big directory and we would just use a search algorithm? My answer is no. Ultimately we still need some form of organization because of our need to process and sort information. Our brain needs some sort of structure to aid it, but it is clear that setting up categories and expecting everything to fit nicely in one of the pre-defined categories doesn't work.

I'm starting to see the next generation of categorization that uses the computer's ability to search while letting users still browse and have a structured view of the information. "Tagging" is a term popularized by Flickr to allow users to assign keywords to pictures. Pictures that have the same tag (or a set of tags) forms a collection, but because an item can have multiple tags a picture can fit into many different collections depending on the views and needs of the user. EverNote, a note taking program, doesn't use tags but it represent a similiar concept using the abilities of the computer. In addition to setting up traditional categories, EverNote also allows users to define "keyword" categories which allows users to define attributes of the notes that should fall into those categories. For example, I might write a note to describe "company holiday party" and instead of trying to decide whether it goes into "holiday events" and "company events", my rules will fit the note into both categories. Thus, depending on why I'm looking for the note, I will go to the category most natural to my needs.

I'm still adjusting to this method, but I'm excited to see more applications adapt the method and see its effects.

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