Tuesday, October 28, 2008

ASIS&T 2008 - Better to Organize Personal Information by Folders or by Tags? : The devil is in the details.

The presentation was by Andrea Civan of the University of Washington.

Examining the two different models of organizing information: hierarchical folders and tagging with labels. Does placing with folders and tagging make any difference in the ability to find things. The faculty advisor on this project was William Jones. Had people use two real world systems, for a period of time, then had them relate their experiences back to the project. Used Hot Mail and gMail as their study, as they are two different tools, achieving the same function, via two different mechanisms.
Initial interview to explore their use of folders and tags in the past. Selected two topics of 25 item collections. Each day the participants received 5 articles in their email, in each product. They then spent 5-10 minutes organizing the information. They self reported on the experience via email, as well as data capture by the project team. After the project they gathered recall details, re-find 5 articles, and had them sketch their collection. Each participant was exposed to both environments, serially.

Results - a number of similarities, from a retrieval performance, recall, time to retrieve, number of places looked and in terms of the organizational schemes both systems worked about equally well. In both conditions the participants were unable to express the complexity of their internal map of the information, as expressed in the sketch. In general, there were multiple categorization activities going on in each environment. Some participants had a workflow orientation, others had a hierarchical orientation.
Tagging required less cognitive effort. Participants found the tagging to be easy, whereas they felt a strong need to be choosy with the folder names. Tagging required more physical effort. Tags needed to be applied over and over again, where as the folder structure only needed to be placed once. Folders made it easy to hide information, easy to move items out of the in-box. Tagging was seen as more cluttered, as everything stayed in the in-box. Folders were better for systematic search, each time they could look through each folder and be confident that they had correctly cleared a folder. Multiple tags were applied to an item, making it harder to do a systemic search, but easier for serendipitous finding.

The conclusion is that there is no clear winner. Each structure offers tradeoffs. The implications: don't leave the good stuff behind. Filter for untagged items, support hierarchy. Support collections of tags that are content and format oriented.

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