Trashing the desktop metaphor

Desktop. Trash can. Folder. Document. For more than 40 years, office-related metaphors have been central to our digital experience. But when you think about the fact that the designs, illustrations and videos you create on your computer are treated as “files”, the system begins to feel very outdated. It’s optimized for storage — you put your files in folders — and doesn’t encourage doing things or working with others. It’s time to shift our mental model.

A short history of the desktop metaphor

The desktop metaphor once served a noble purpose. The Xerox Star was the first computer to popularize the concept in 1981. Tasked with designing the “Office of the Future”, the Star’s development team decided to make the user experience more intuitive for the new home computing market by referencing the offices that people worked in.

Designer Dr. David Smith was influenced by art historian Ernst Gombrich’s theory that artists who successfully introduce new ideas always incorporate or play with existing conventions. He invented the concept of using icons to represent different pieces of digital information and referenced familiar office objects like folders, filing cabinets and trashcans in his designs for the Star.

Smith’s desktop metaphor is so powerful that it’s often hard to remember that these files and folders are not real, but a mere representation of how machines organize information. The file-less internet with just content to be acted on and unique features like hyperlinks should have heralded a move away from this paper paradigm but instead we just use it to store our files online.

Apple — which back in 1982 turned its Lisa machine into an icon-based model after seeing the Xerox Star — is now interested in moving away from this system. In 2005, Steve Jobs said that, “eventually, the file system management is just going to be an app for Pros, and consumers aren’t going to need to use it.”

The company made its first significant attempts to do this with OS X by hiding files within applications, like importing your photographs directly to iPhoto, has so far proved frustrating for users. Most of us are too used to finding files in folders, copying them, moving them and sharing them.

A new metaphor for the digital age

At Hightail, sharing, storing and organizing files is our bread and butter. So what is wrong with this system? Why do we want to change it? And what does the alternative look like?

The problem with the desktop metaphor is that we simply don’t need it anymore. Most of us are fluent in digital and no longer need a translator. Millennials are digital natives and many of the metaphors make no sense to them, like the floppy disk that is still a widely used save icon.

More importantly, the file system distracts us from our real work. We spend a lot of time organizing folders, sharing work as abstract dot filetypes and saving received files to yet more folders. In the pre-digital age, administration was a necessary burden. You had to index, file and store documents, artwork and film otherwise you’d never find them again. The digital age was supposed to free us from such drudgery. Instead of wasting time on admin, we should be focusing on creating — whether that’s illustrations, spreadsheets or architectural drawings.

Maybe we are more ready than we think. Steve Jobs’ vision of a world without file management systems is a reality on iPhones and iPads, where apps and their content is all a user sees. This is what the broader digital future looks like and — recalling Gombrich’s theory of working with convention — the more content-centric experiences of mobile devices make the shift to larger, more work-oriented devices easier.

A new Space to collaborate

As for why Hightail wants to help bring about this change? We simply think that there is a better way to do things. When we started providing our service (known as YouSendIt), we wanted it to be for living documents — files that were constantly revised or accessed regularly — not a dumpster for things no longer required.

Files, though useful, are just metaphorical containers for content. What we love at Hightail is the ideas that are exchanged when files are shared. The photograph, not the jpg. The home page design, not the .ai file. The quarterly financial report, not the xls.

That’s why Hightail’s new feature, Spaces, leads with your content and the actions that help you do things with your work — from sharing and collecting feedback, to adding new versions and getting final approval. We’re especially interested in creative collaboration, which is what happens when creative professionals and stakeholders take a project from concept to completion, via multiple rounds of iteration and feedback.

The artists, architects, ad execs, photographers, filmmakers and marketing managers involved in this creative process should be able to focus on the work itself, not the minutiae around it. More creative, less process. By dragging the desktop metaphor to the trashcan, we want to help update people’s mental model, eliminate dreary admin and get everyone working more effectively than ever.

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To see this new metaphor for the digital age in action, click the links below to learn more about Hightail’s new creative collaboration feature, Spaces.

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