It seems that every few years, experts in the information management space get spun up about the best way to structure information. One of the perennial debates concerns whether to use folder-based navigation or rely upon search. It’s something of a religious war, with adherents on either side.
The latest round began on the AIIM website. I’ll list links to the key blog posts in the debate at the bottom of this article for those who are curious. It’s a lively discussion, as is typical on the Internet when there are strongly held opinions and no clear answer.
But the debate is largely irrelevant. Most users of content management systems don’t care how they get the information they need, so long as they can get it quickly and easily. If folders get the job done, they use folders. If tags do the trick, they use tags. If search yields good results, they use search.
You can see this at work on the Internet. While search engines like Google are the primary way users get to the sites they need, a lot of folks use browser favorites or social bookmarking sites like Delicious. And once you arrive at the site you want, you’ll usually see some sort of structured, folder-like navigation to get you to the pages you’re interested in. Most folks think nothing of combining these different approaches to locating information within a single browsing session.
So why is the debate about folders versus search so contentious? Among players in the information management industry, it’s a big deal because vendors have to decide where to spend their software development dollars. They have to set priorities, which means placing tagging over search over folders in their work queue, for example. Even if your system of choice has decent implementations of these three different mechanisms, the folks implementing the solution will likely pick one approach to focus on.
As a user of these systems, you have to hope that they picked the right one, whether out of blind faith or careful analysis, or that they spent the considerable engineering or design effort to tackle all three methods at once.
Here at Infovark, we’ve felt this problem acutely. We opted for the “all of the above” approach because we feel that the more ways you have to find a piece of information, the more likely it is to get found. As a result, we’ve spent more time on getting the information architecture right than on anything else. And it shows: Our interface is plain, the documentation is sparse, and… well, you get the idea.
But beyond the investment in maintaining multiple search mechanisms, you’ve got to help people know which one to use when, because each has its strengths. It’s not that one of these approaches is better than another, it’s about which one is more appropriate in a given situation. And that means understanding the context in which the application or website gets used.
You can’t make an informed choice about search versus folders until you know how the business operates and how people get their work done. And the answer may very well be that both are needed.
Like a lot of abstract debates, this one can’t have a clear winner. And that’s a good thing, because different teams will come up with different approaches. It makes it more likely that you’ll find a tool that will work for your particular situation. Is a search engine better than organizing by folders? It depends. You won’t know until you try it yourself and see.
OK, here’s that chain of blog posts I promised earlier. The debate rages on. Check them out and go add some fuel to the fire: