Not sure if this is really due to the lack of space on mobile devices or if there are a number of factors, but I have noticed that the 'organic' way of organisation and displaying content (think of the way you organise apps on iPhones or iPods) where users can stack together apps into groups seems to be a predominant strategy for mobile devices. Yet people seem to be more familiar with the tree/folder structure strategy for desktop applications.

I would have thought that the choice in the strategy used for organizing and displaying information should be largely driven by the content that needs to be displayed and the interactions involved rather than the type of device (although screen space is obviously a relevant factor). With many applications now being developed and deployed in the cloud, applications that are accessed through the browser should have very similar behaviour regardless of whether they are accessed on the mobile phone or on the desktop computer (or maybe this is an incorrect assumption?).

The question is, why do iPhones use the 'organic' way of displaying apps while the Windows phones use the 'structured' way of displaying apps, but for Apple or Windows desktop OS both use the classic tree/file menu structure of displaying content? Is this a legacy of traditional desktop application design, and will there be less of a distinction in the age of SaaS applications?

  • Just two comments: I was really worried about the iPhone way of organizing, because it allows only two levels (group and entries). The number of apps installed on my phone has drastically fallen since the first hype - maybe because of the clumsy organization. And - even as desktop-heavy business software designers, we're staying away from the hierarchical folder structure as often as we can, because our impression is that it's heavy on users (I have no empirical evidence on that, though). May 20, 2015 at 7:12

2 Answers 2


My guess: folders are legacy for desktop applications.

The reason is: humans can handle only one level of hierarchy in an instinctive way. This was shown over-and-over again on various cognitive tests.

Monocline grouping, as termed by Alan Cooper in About Face, while referring Donald Norman, seems to be the natural way of organizing things.

Abilities of the human brain are the biggest constraints in UX.

In short, people handle "stacks" of information. While hierarchies are often unavoidable, they create excise (that is, humans have to be conscious and they don't like to be conscious about things they don't care that much), and it is to be avoided if possible.

An interesting, often-quoted article on the topic is: https://ia.net/know-how/mountain-lions-new-file-system

Perhaps Cooper is wrong, but certain apparent design decisions made me think that designers of iOS have read his book a lot.


I think there are two main reasons content isn't organized much in a tree/folder structure in mobile designs, and they have everything to do with the device and not the content (and I disagree that the presentation needs to be similar): screen real estate and touch interaction.

Tree structures benefit from larger screens because one of the features that makes them useful is to expand more than one branch at a time, resulting in potentially long lists. Clusters of information can be laid out in both dimensions, potentially resulting in more efficient use of space.

Touch interaction is the bigger reason still: trees are somewhat wasteful already, and making sure there is enough padding around each element for touch interactions make a tree a rather inefficient choice.

You mentioned Windows Phones would use a structured layout, but just look at the Windows Phone 8.1 file manager: http://www.windowsphone.com/en-us/store/app/files/762e837f-461d-4847-8399-3526f54fc25e

files screenshot 1files screenshot 2files screenshot 3files screenshot 4

To your second question, do I think there will be less of a distinction in the age of SaaS apps? Yes, it's very evident that SaaS apps are moving towards mobile-first designs and that traditional desktop designs are disappearing, sometimes to the detriment of usability, but the trend seems irreversible.

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