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Young Users No Longer Know How to File and Navigate

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A friend sent me a very interesting article: Kids who grew up with search engines could change STEM education forever - The Verge

Please do read the article before continuing here because I won't repeat its ideas or content. I would like to comment on this article from my point of view.

People don't understand the concept of files and folders any more

First of all, I, too, notice an anecdotal decline in the ability to work with file names, folders and local file retrieval both on the desktop and on mobile platforms mainly for younger people.

This is supported by the fact that we had to develop mobile apps in order to show COVID test or vaccination documents because people can't find and open a local PDF file on their phones.

In general, it's a good thing that people start adapting the idea that strict hierarchies are the only way of managing files. Adapting other concepts such as search, non-hierarchical storage concepts, and so forth are overdue as the desktop metaphor is an outdated concept.

Desktop search instead of navigation

But it may also be that in an age where every conceivable user interface includes a search function, young people have never needed folders or directories for the tasks they do. The first internet search engines were used around 1990, but features like Windows Search and Spotlight on macOS are both products of the early 2000s. Most of 2017’s college freshmen were born in the very late ‘90s. They were in elementary school when the iPhone debuted; they’re around the same age as Google. While many of today’s professors grew up without search functions on their phones and computers, today’s students increasingly don’t remember a world without them.

According to my memory, good desktop search is available at least since 2002 or so. I vividly remember starting to use the great Copernic Desktop Search for Windows. Therefore, I would not say that the availability of desktop search is a major reason why young people do not use files and folders any more. If this is a major reason, why would it take almost two decades to adapt? Featureset and speed was good enough long time ago.

As I'm no longer paid to work in PIM research, I did not catch up with the latest file retrieval studies. However, until five years ago, I can not remember of any study showing a change in a preference for local desktop search among young test persons in contrast to local file navigation. Maybe the article is emphasizing a minor trend too much? Or it mixes up mobile/web with desktop interfaces too much?

The Science of Managing Our Digital Stuff (2016) mentions research work that confirms my assumption:

[...] In addition, the evaluated search percentage seems to be quite stable and unaffected by a user's age, years of computer use, evaluated experience, and hours of daily use. A later study [...] also found that the estimated search percentage is unaffected by computer literacy. In other words, computer experts are no more likely to use search than novices.
[...]
Therefore, our results indicate that improved search engines do not affect the preference for navigation over search.
[...]
Altogether, these results confirm the results of Jones, Phuwanartnurak, et al. (2005), who showed that improved search engines do not reduce reliance on hierarchical storage.

In general, mobile and web interfaces emphasize on consuming information. If you really need to generate information in an efficient way, you are much better supported on a desktop system (including notebooks) which consists of a larger computer screen size and a decent physical keyboard input.

Target group bias

I do think that it is necessary to know how to curate and navigate files and folders in most business environments. Companies still have their file server and I don't see any large trend that changes that circumstance except moving the files to a public cloud which I loathe for various reasons.

Therefore, I do think that young people who never learned properly to use files and folders do have to learn this ability when entering their business life.

Comparison of skills

“When I was a student, I’m sure there was a professor that said, ‘Oh my god, I don’t understand how this person doesn’t know how to solder a chip on a motherboard,’” he says. “This kind of generational issue has always been around.”

I don't like this comparison. Even among IT professionals, the necessity of soldering chips onto motherboards was very low. There are way better allegories such as "bookmark management", "manual backup/copy workflows", "extending RAM memory" and so forth.

But the issue is likely not that modern students are learning fewer digital skills, but rather that they’re learning different ones.

As an upcoming IT dinosaur, I don't think that this is true. Maybe I have lost my connection to the young people?

In my opinion, the IT knowledge got much more shallow compared to the knowledge we had in the mid-nineties when I was starting to join the university, where computers were far from as common as today. I got my first computer in the age of sixteen or seventeen. And there were no mobile phones around yet.

IT knowledge these days seems to concentrate on how to use ready-to-use interfaces of all kind (mostly mobile, unfortunately) instead of looking behind, how it's working.

And it's far from learning how to hack things, which I still define as "using technology in a creative way" in contrast to evil use of IT knowledge, this was called "cracking" or "black hat hacking".

Search-only virtual world

Today’s virtual world is largely a searchable one; people in many modern professions have little need to interact with nested hierarchies.

I think this is true. And I also think that the main reason why this is true is the shift from local data and applications to web-based services and mobile apps. Both do hide or avoid hierarchies from the user. And both are dominant for younger people.

Again, while I do think that moving away from the classic Desktop Metaphoe is a good thing, I also would like to emphasize that users should not forget hierarchies and navigation. For information retrieval, search and navigation, both do have their advantages. And we should keep using both in order to get the most out of our tools.

When talking about folder hierarchies, I also would like to mention that it is not necessary to use over-complex hierarchies.

Embrace change

His advice to fellow educators: Get ready. “This is not gonna go away,” he says. “You’re not gonna go back to the way things were. You have to accept it. The sooner that you accept that things change, the better.”

It might be the case that a young person is able to grow up with modern technology while neglecting knowledge on local file management and navigation. At least when entering business life with its necessity to use desktop computer interfaces instead of mobile and web interfaces, file management and navigation is one of the virtues you need to master.

I, personally, would love to see completely different computer interfaces that do have almost nothing in common with the current IT world. On the other hand side, I'm septic that we are in a position where such a conversion is possible any more. At least for desktop interfaces. We're too locked-in to the current way of using desktop computers and I don't think that mobile and web interfaces will replace desktop interfaces to such a great extend. Designing interfaces is dominated by a handful of multinationals and there is no incentive to move away in order to get something substantial better. Yet, research results from the 80s upward tell us that we've not settled for the optimum in IT user interfaces. But this is another story I might want to cover in my second PIM book after I finished my first one.

Until this major shift in concepts happens, young people need to (re-)learn how to deal with local files, folders and navigate among them.

If you disagree here or there, please drop me a comment below!

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