My job is to organize department shared drives - which often contain hundreds of thousands of documents (mostly Word documents, but also spreadsheets and media). I'm quickly coming to the realization that traditional records management teachings - that files should be organized by organizational functions (the major activities that take place in the organization) - might not provide sufficient guidance, and in some cases, might actually give rise to poor design. For example, functions can be so abstract that they might have conceptual overlap - which makes it hard for the searcher to know which function-based folder to open for a particular item.

Instead, I'm thinking that usability principles might prove a better guide for organizing folders. In About Face 2.0: The Essentials of Interaction Design, Cooper, et al. argue that "abstract hierarchies are very difficult for users to successfully navigate, except where they're based on user mental models, and the categories are truly mutually exclusive." They later go on to explain that deeply nested hierarchies are at odds with people's mental models.

With this in mind, I've developed three principles to guide my clean-up efforts:

  1. Try to stick with the folder structure that people have already developed (thereby sticking to their mental models).
  2. Limit subfolders to three levels deep (folder; subfolders, and sub-subfolders).
  3. Mutually exclusive folders. This goal can be facilitated by having all folders of the same type (ie. all folders are projects; all folders represent years).

Does anyone have thoughts on these principles?

  • 1
    It's kind of difficult to make a one-size-fits-all recommendation on this—it seems like it would be very specific to your company and how these files are used. I see nothing wrong with your initial suggestions. I'd recommend that you start there, maybe develop 2-3 different patterns, and solicit feedback from the people that will actually be navigating these hierarchies every day. Feb 3, 2020 at 20:19
  • Thanks for sharing your knowledge. I am currently making 2-3 possible ways of structuring the files :-) As I do this, I realize that every design comes with tradeoffs - shallow structures could force the user read a lot of folder names, for example, and deeper hierarchies might not be so bad if the decision to choose one folder over another is really easy. Thanks for reminding me to actually make the structures and see how things work!
    – oymonk
    Feb 4, 2020 at 18:54

1 Answer 1


This is actually a pretty big topic that is also related to information architecture. These days there is a trend towards the use of metadata (i.e. tags rather than rigid structures) for the organisation, search and retrieval of information. Of course, you might need an overall strategy for the organisation but there is no clear right or wrong when it comes to principles.

However, just as a thought exercise you might want to consider the use cases where you might need to 'break' these rules:

  • How would you consolidate the different mental models for different users or functions of the organisation?
  • Can you restrict the depth of the folder structure without creating a very broad and shallow hierarchy that becomes difficult to navigate?
  • Are there folder types that can take on different meaning in different context and therefore not be mutually exclusive?

I think an analysis of the content and information architecture will go a long way towards solving some of these issues, but also consider a tag based system to complement a sound folder structure.

  • The first question is definitely a big one. I initially planned for a group session where people have their discrete activities written on cards and need to collaboratively put the cards into bigger groups. But I'm moving away from this now because I think it's possible that activity-based categories don't work. I thought about tags briefly but was told that they sometimes get wiped during a system upgrade. I think I'll revisit it though - it opens up a lot of possibilities. Thanks for your answer!
    – oymonk
    Feb 4, 2020 at 19:01
  • @oymonk you might be interested in something called tagspaces (tagspaces.org/faq), which works on top of your existing file systems. I have recommended it to a number of organisations but they seem to like fiddling with SharePoint instead :p
    – Michael Lai
    Feb 4, 2020 at 22:30

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.