PLM User Experience and The Evil of Folders?

Ask people about usability of PLM and other enterprise data management systems. From my experience, the answer is simple – it is way too complex. Very few PDM systems in the past were recognized as simple and easy to use. It made me think about Folders.

Folders: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

A long time ago, folders were invented to organize files in the operation system. The idea of folders and files did proliferate and became the major paradigm for information organization almost everywhere. It was so easy to place files into folders, so office people started to use this organization to store and classify the information. Wide expansion of Windows platforms just helped to spread the idea of folders even more. At the same time, the simplicity of folders has many drawbacks. One of them is the need to duplicate information between folders. The introduction of "shortcuts’ in Windows didn’t solve the problem. In many situations, people will prefer to copy files between folders and not to create a "shortcut" to another folder. Another drawback of folders is inability to find information in an easy way.

CAD / PDM – starting from simple folders

Starting from the early beginning, CAD systems relied on files and folders to save information in computer systems. CAD files spread out on workstations and, later, on PC/Windows computers. The complexity of folder structures introduced various problems related to location of files, references and version management.

Developers of data management solutions for engineers (TDM, EDM, PDM) are heavily inherited and relied on the idea of folder data organizations. It was well understood by people and easy. Many data management systems in the past implant the idea of folder organization and made their solution simple to use. At the same time, in my view, using the same folder paradigm was a problem with increased complexity of data. As a consequence of this, many systems that were initially clear, but system got very complicated with the time.

PLM – Usability Sucks

PLM concepts requires significant expansion of data management scope in the organization. The amount of data and complexity are growing. At the same time, the concept of "folders" was kept by the developers of many PLM systems for capturing and management information structures. It caused a significant complication in data organizations and the overall user experience. Navigating between folders and hierarchical structures became complex and not efficient. File folders, Projects, Requirements, Bill of Materials, Suppliers, Requirements – this is only a short list of various elements of data that need to be organized by PLM.

Possible Solutions

The obvious question asked by many PLM developers was how to improve PLM user experience. Recently, PLM vendors came with several innovations related to that. Some of them moved to enhanced visualization and immersive usage of 3D. Some of them moved to SharePoint as a solution to solve usability issues. However, "folders concept" is still there. Do you think "Folder" is ultimate evil? The discussion is under way, and I don’t see a final point. With the development of some web user interface, we started to see some new and fresh ideas are coming from that side – search, web 2.0, tags and other solutions are proliferating, and we started to see some ideas how to simplify things. At the same time, the conservatism of users pushes it back to something known and even convenient (at least from the beginning).

What is my conclusion? The usability of PLM and other systems related to the data is far away from being optimized. This is not a secret. People demands these days to get it as clean and as simple as possible. The last recognizable effort to change the status quo, was to present Microsoft SharePoint as a universal hammer to solve the usability problem in the enterprise. This is a place where innovation will continuously happen in a near future.

Just my thoughts…

Best, Oleg

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2 Responses to PLM User Experience and The Evil of Folders?

  1. Ken says:

    So, the advantages of folders are:

    Easy to conceptualize.
    Everyone knows how to use them.
    <li)They are handy to compartamentalize a set of files you are frequently working on.

    So we have other ways of finding data in most PDM systems such as the ever popular attribute filtered searches. This is great if you don’t know what you want because you should have attributes that would match whatever folders you would have compartmentalized the files by, but the advantage is you can filter by multiple attributes. The problem is, what do you do with that data once it was found so you can easily get it while you need to work with it over days/weeks/months. You had mentioned tags, but I’ve also seen virtual folders used (Teamcenter) that still provide users with those advantages that folders are really good at, but don’t duplicate data (essentially tags). I think it is a most excellent compromize as I would shudder to think I have to search each and everytime I need to work with a handful of files for a given project over several months…

  2. Ken, Thanks for sharing your insight! I agree, folders are great and easy way to start. However, it becomes messy within the time. Filtering and search is a good way to avoid this problem. Time ago, I was organizing my emails in folders using Outlook. However, it got complicated and time consuming. I ended up with searching for emails directly in my Inbox. Just my experience, of course… Best, Oleg

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