Issues for both novice and expert users:
I would say that nested hierarchies of folders have fundamental issues for both expert and novice users, but we have kind of squared with it and learned to manage it as good as we can.
There are at least two problem areas that I can think of:
1- Finding existing documents:
To find a file or a document you created you need to remember where you have placed it and as the number of files grow our capacity to remeber diminishes.
When locating a document, the user can either try to remember where
exactly he has placed the document he is looking for, or he can ask
himself the question of where he would put this item now, if he had to
file it, looking for it there — a process very similar to actually
filing that same document. Due to the fact that most computer users
are simply not able to remember the exact locations of all documents
in their ever-growing document collections, in many cases, users have
to revert to the latter variant when seeking a file, thereby
performing a simulated filing (categorization) task very often.
2- Creating and saving new documents:
This is better demonstrated with a scenario: You receive an email with a document that needs to be stored but you are quite busy and need to make a quick decision about where it should be stored, so you categorise the document on the fly, create a folder and place the document in it or simply place the document in a preexisting folder with the promise to rectify the situation later!
How this categorisation takes place is quite problematic and does impact on findability as users can't remember where exactly they have placed the document and will automaticaly resort to guess work after few failed attempts.
In both cases mentioned above (users trying to find an item or create a new one) the main assumption behind the design is that users have a plan and will execute their plan by "computing" the best course of action to achieve their goal. This is not necessarily true. users have simply an idea of a "plan" and they don't compute before taking action, rather their actions are determined by localised contingencies and circumstances that arise in situ.
Plans and situated action
File systems or nested hierarchies of folders are examples of designs influenced by the cognitivism of the early 70's (Still prevalent today). The rationale of which was described by Lucy schulman professor of Anthropology of Science and Technology at Lancaster University and author of "plans and situated action"
The cognitivist strategy is to interject a mental operation between
environmental stimulus and behavioural response; in essence, to
relocate the causes of action from the environment that impinges upon
the actor, to processes-abstractable as computation-in the actor's
The computational theory of mind holds that the mind is a computation
that arises from the brain acting as a computing machine. The theory
can be elaborated in many ways, the most popular of which is that the
brain is a computer and the mind is the result of the program that the
Fortunately with sustained UX effort assumptions and "plans" are questioned,interrogated and challenged by putting the users and their observed behaviour at the centre of the design process.
If this sustained effort continues we might see interesting and more valid paradigms when viewing our personal information for example:
BumpTop, a user interface that takes the usual desktop metaphor to a
glorious, 3-D extreme, transforming file navigation into a
freewheeling playground of crumpled documents and clipping-covered
I think the following quote which prefaced schulman book sums-up things quite well:
Thomas Gladwin (1964) has written a brilliant article contrasting the
method by which the Trukese navigate the open sea, with that by which
Europeans navigate. He points out that the European navigator begins
with a plan-a course-which he has charted according to certain
universal principles, and he carries out his voyage by relating his
every move to that plan. His effort throughout his voyage is directed
to remaining 'on course.' If unexpected events occur, he must first
alter the plan, then respond accordingly.
The Trukese navigator begins with an objective rather than a plan. He
sets off toward the objective and responds to conditions as they arise
in an ad hoc fashion. He utilizes information provided by the wind,
the waves, the tide and current, the fauna, the stars, the clouds, the
sound of the water on the side of the boat, and he steers accordingly.
His effort is directed to doing whatever is necessary to reach the
objective. If asked, he can point to his objective at any moment, but
he cannot describe his course (Gerald Berreman 1966).
I would like to believe that we are all like the Trukese Navigator