IA Summit 12: Clutter is King

I really enjoyed Clutter is King: The story of filing, piling and beyond and how people really get things done by Paris Buttfield-Addison and Jon Manning. It was an insightful look at the way that people organically organize information in the real world, and how that knowledge can be used to create interfaces which support those tendencies.

How do people organize paper based content?

People pile. As Thomas Malone put it there are piles and files. Malone made two major claims:

  1. Desk organization reminds people of things to do, it isn’t just about finding things.
  2. The cognitive difficulty of a categorically organized desk may be a reason why people organize them the way they do.


Piling leads to discovery and reminders. Finding is facilitated as the most important information is frequently on the top of piles. Reminding is done as older information is usually near the bottom of piles. Additional important documents typically have their own special place. Additionally, the stuff physically closer to you is usually more important.

“The physical layout of the desk maps to the mental model.”

Organization takes time and creates stress, especially when documents are miss-filed. Messier people tend to feel more in control as they are the ones creating the structure. Therefore we need to design for clutter.

Software for the Clutter

An example in software is the Apple Spotlight feature. It doesn’t matter where the file is located, you can hit apple+space and type the name and it will appear. Another example is the iPad Pages. The most recent documents are on top, similar to the way a desk might be organized. Safari also has Top Sites which reflect the top used sites which is generated by the browser and used by many in place of favorites.

Lazy organization is about being relaxed in the way users organize content and being flexible instead of imposing restrictions. Lazy organization is good, but it’s not the same as being clutter friendly. Being clutter friendly is about emergent natural structures that bend to the user. Adapting constraints to fit how the user wants to store information.

The method of organization should be attractive no matter what. Pinterest and Flickr are nice examples. They make the messes look good.

The software should be responsive not smug. Siri is an example of smug – an intelligent agent is never intelligent enough. Responsive means it just works, and it works for you based on how you use it.

Finally, the solution should be fault tolerant, not lazy. It should allow things like undo, or the freedom to explore and the ability to fix.

The Future

In the future there probably won’t be paperless offices because people think in piles. In order to design software that organizes based on the way people think you have to let your users make a mess. They are going to anyway, so you may as well help them enhance it.