Open Question: How Can We Fix Files?

I was recently helping my mother share a file using Microsoft Sharepoint. The file was a zip archive containing a few word documents. We uploaded the file and sent a share link to the recipient. They clicked the link and was unable to use the files. It turned out that rather than downloading the file, the link opens an online file browser that navigates into the zip. This caused confusion because the the user did not understand that a online view of the files is not the same as having the files on your computer.

This is common in the world of online files. So I started to wonder: How can we build software that does not continuously confuse people?

Context matters. If you open a folder on your computer, it is different than opening it in a web browser interface and it is different than opening it on your phone. In computers a lot depends on context. Files are a great example of this. They are a building block of modern computing and there are many different contexts where people work with files.

The file browser view is iconic to our industry. Anyone who has used a computer with a GUI (Graphical User Interface) knows what a file browser looks like. It looks the same as it did in classic Windows, with a list of files in the centre and often some common folders on the left. Any place that you find files, you will eventually encounter a file browser that looks familiar.

While they look the same, they do not act the same. Some file browsers can create, edit and save files. Some can only show them. Some can only work with certain types of files. Some wont even show the correct list. This is often a platform limitation. To do something with a file. users need to move the files from one file browser to a different one. To a user this is confusing.

Is it a bad thing that we have so many different browsers? Are there ways to simplify and streamline this fragmented system? I think its important to look at these questions since every new file browser and every new context makes it harder for people to know how it all should work. It silos our users and keeps them within a smaller ecosystem.

Written 05/08/2021