Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology

The effect of folder structure on personal file navigation

View publication


Folder navigation is the main way that personal computer users retrieve their own files. People dedicate considerable time to creating systematic structures to facilitate such retrieval. Despite the prevalence of both manual organization and navigation, there is very little systematic data about how people actually carry out navigation, or about the relation between organization structure and retrieval parameters. The aims of our research were therefore to study users' folder structure, personal file navigation, and the relations between them. We asked 296 participants to retrieve 1,131 of their active files and analyzed each of the 5,035 navigation steps in these retrievals. Folder structures were found to be shallow (files were retrieved from mean depth of 2.86 folders), with small folders (a mean of 11.82 files per folder) containing many subfolders (M=10.64). Navigation was largely successful and efficient with participants successfully accessing 94% of their files and taking 14.76 seconds to do this on average. Retrieval time and success depended on folder size and depth. We therefore found the users' decision to avoid both deep structure and large folders to be adaptive. Finally, we used a predictive model to formulate the effect of folder depth and folder size on retrieval time, and suggested an optimization point in this trade-off. © 2010 ASIS&T.