Interfaces for the ordinary user:
can we Hide Too Much?
THeRe Is a tendency today, in the operating systems for PCs, tablets, and cell- phones, to hide the under- lying file structure from users. The idea is to simplify by hiding
“technical details.” We challenge this
view, show there are situations where
the user needs to work on the file level, and offer arguments that controlling the folder structure will simplify
Modern computer-based devices,
including PCs, phones, and tablets, are designed for wide markets.
Since these devices are acquired to
make our lives simpler and perhaps
more interesting, we do not expect
to spend a lot of time learning how to
use them. Interfaces should therefore
be intuitive. The techniques applied
to attain this goal go in two opposite
directions: hiding and visualizing.
By hiding technical details we can
reduce the number of objects and
processes an ordinary user needs to
know. With visualization we can represent the more important objects in
such a way that these can be handled
by the user. A car is a good example. In
earlier generations of automobiles, a
driver would have to open the hood to
pump gas, check the oil, and perhaps
clean the gas filter and carburetor. Today, with automation, drivers do not
need to see the engine at all. Technical details are hidden under the hood,
while lamps on the dashboard give a
warning if there is a problem. That is,
flexibility of modern
make it impossible to
hide files and folders.
the panel visualizes what we need to
know in order to drive the car.
Manufacturers of computer devices, operating systems, and application
software have used these principles
of hiding and visualizing for decades.
Low-level technical parts, ASCII codes,
disk track and sector numbers, program code, and system files are hidden. At the same time care has been
taken to visualize more high-level objects such as programs, files, and folders. Based on ideas from Xerox PARC
in the late 1970s, the user is allowed to
start a program by a click on an icon
or to copy a file by “dragging” the file
icon from one folder to the other, that
is, to operate directly on the visual
representations of the underlying objects. The aim is not only to make intuitive interfaces but also to empower
the user. With control of the data users can apply their devices to all sorts
Now an explorer program—a file
manager—becomes crucial. With this
the user is offered an overview of all
data resources on the PC, often with
folders visualized as a tree structure.
However, on modern devices, from
cellphones to tablets, we see a tendency to hide files and folders. The idea
is perhaps to make things simpler by
taking hiding a step further, using ap-plication-dependent file locations. For
example, when the user takes a picture
the operating system of the cellphone
will store this in a default location.
Most users will not be aware of where.
When the user wants to view pictures
this is done through a photo viewer
that shows the contents of the hidden
folders. Some devices even come without an explorer program. Where folder
and file names are created by the system, an explorer view will be of little or
no use anyway.
We argue that this development is
counterproductive—that the complexity, extendibility, and flexibility of modern electronic devices make it impossible to hide files and folders. As we shall
see, there are many situations were an
explorer program is necessary to offer
the user full control over the device.
when an overview is needed
The user-oriented interfaces we build
on top of the underlying hardware and
software break down whenever a device
error occurs. It may be an unreadable
disk, a corrupted USB device, a change
in the underlying file structure, or run-