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We are making an in-house application intended for sharing know-how. It is a sensitive topic, because sharing with one's business partners makes work easier, but there are many (politically powerful) people in our organisation who are afraid of their coworkers sharing business secrets in a place where a competitor can see them. So we are creating an elaborate system for sharing information with only the "right" people.

We were first thinking of a nonhierarchical offering of groups to share with, similar to Gooogle+ Circles. But our industry is quite hierarchical, and the application already knows the department and organisation of each registered user. So we want the user to be able to share with an arbitrary organisation, department, or subdepartment known to the system, as well as user-defined groups and single users - or make it visible to our whole consortium, or entirely public. Whew.

I would like to do this using some kind of tree structure with all the organisations, departments or categories, then a list of user defined groups, and some kind of quick user search interface. From any of these, the user should be able to pull a name into the pool of "groups and users who can see this datasheet" (or whatever nice short label we come up with), using drag-and-drop.

This is a very rough sketch of what I thought of doing

mockup

download bmml source – Wireframes created with Balsamiq Mockups

My co-worker dislikes the idea. He finds it untidy, and prefers a solution where the user has to select an organisation from a dropdown first, then select a department from a second dropdown (which is populated from the first one) and then a subdepartment from a third dropdown. We agree that a user should be able to share with an organisation or department too, but we have not yet discussed how to implement this in the three-dropdowns solution.

I would normally disagree with the three dropdowns, but his point was: he sees the tree view as a good way to animate a user to browse, but in our case, the user already knows whom he wants to share the datasheet with, and wants to simply make a selection. I kind of see how this could be an exception to my aversion to chained dropdowns, but I'm not completely convinced yet.

Will the chained dropdowns be superior or inferior to the tree view solution? Or is there maybe something better than both?

Oh, by the way, I'm trying to remove the subdepartments from the scene (whoever needs to really share with a subdepartment, will have to create a custom group of it) but it is so far not clear that it will happen, so just assume that we really have a 3 step deep hierarchy.

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Your tree structure and your colleague's hierarchical dropdown fields are essentially doing the same thing but personally I think the tree method is less abstrct and less fiddly.

Taking your wireframes as a starting point, I would show the Organisations/Departments, Groups and Users search interfaces in 3 separate tabs (to avoid having lots of things competing for attention at once) and include a search field at the top of each so that users who know exactly what they're looking for can quickly filter the list.

mockup

download bmml source – Wireframes created with Balsamiq Mockups

For accessibility and compatibility, consider allowing a simple click/tap to select rather than relying purely on drag and drop.

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