Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Break bad document filing. Give folders a personality.

Anonymous and dull.
No wonder nobody really
 files documents correctly.
I have held a theory for a long time that a new application that looks like another popular application (or operating system) will encourage users to use that application in the same way, bad behaviors and all. When I first started working with document management solutions 14 years ago, the constant push was for systems that looks just like Windows. Even before Vista, Windows was not very attractive and was clunky to use (so some things never change). But companies who had invested the time and effort to get users trained up to use the new-fangled technology wanted to make as much from that investment as possible. So if it looked like Windows, people could use it without extra thought, right?!

Fast forward 15 years and we are here in 2011. Windows really looks the same, despite a constant buffing to make it appear modern and slick. The common productivity apps, Microsoft Office continue to confuse the hell out of people by moving all the menus into a ribbon that constantly shifts where you expect to find things. And buyers of new software solutions still want document management solutions to look like Windows -- because everybody knows how to store things effectively on Windows, right? WRONG!

This is the big problem. We might have spent the last 20-ish years teaching new users how to work the basics of operating a desktop or laptop computer with a mouse. But we have never taught them the importance, or even basic know-how required to effectively manage documents. We could have guided them with predefined folder structures, but we didn't. We just let people throw their valuable creations  in whatever folder suits them. 

In the future, when we realize that there is a huge risk in our business, we start to put some structure in place with a formal document management system. We want this to be the quick fix we need, but we don't want to train people, so "that system had best look like Windows or nobody will use it - I know my people!" (the words from the General Manager or similar role). And with that new system, everybody still needs free rein to create their own messed up filing systems, just like on Windows. 

Why do we allow this? Because companies often don't realize that the software or OS is not to blame for terrible filing habits, it is the users, as a direct result of the fact that we have never helped them to do it right. People don't magically learn how to file documents, whether you give them 10 days or 10 years.

I have one great way to break bad filing habits. Give users a simple document management system that looks quite unlike Windows, but does have big pictures that look like individual clients, projects, employees or accounts or whatever it is they need to be filing documents for. Give those folders a personality. You instantly break the view of a faceless system that provides a bunch of anonymous folders, "so it doesn't really matter where I file stuff". When you give real people a face to match a folder, the reality that a document relates to somebody or something sets in, so "I have to put it in the right place". This is easy behavior to influence.

The anonymity of Windows, and the lack of guidance we have given people has made document management a disaster in many companies. It can be fixed with simple improvements to software that definitely does NOT look like Windows. Document management systems do not have to be faceless and dull - giving them personality helps people use them better, and understand why they are filing documents in the right way.

A post from the Improving It blog
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