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Why Folders Suck at Organizing Content for Teams

By Olav Andreas Frenning on August 28, 2019

One picture 
among a thousand others 
In a folder 
neatly stored with hundreds of others 
On a shelf in a storage room 
with hundreds of shelves 
Gotta find it before deadline!

OK, so this is my first attempt at a haiku. Hopefully it got the point through: Folders work - for the most part. They’re great for keeping stuff organized, and most of the time we have a pretty good idea where to retrieve the things we stashed away for later. If I go back looking for a particular picture from a summer vacation some years back, the folders inside my Pictures folder all have names that make enough sense that I can at least find the collection where I expect to find the correct one. That works for me. And that pretty much explains why we love folders so much: You've invented the structure and naming scheme that makes sense to you, so why bother with anything more complex when folders are so easy to set up and organize?

Arguably, if you’re organizing all your content yourself and never need to let others access your data, tidily organized folders may be just fine!

Somewhat unrelated and very nerdy linguistic remark: The word "suck" in the title was chosen very deliberately: In the early jazz age, musicians would say that a guy could really "blow" if he had a good sound when playing the horn. If his sound was bad, they would say he was "sucking" on that horn. So in this context, "suck" really only denotes something bad, and it's quite suitable for trying to describe the difficulty of getting a team of coworkers to store stuff in the right place so others can find it later.

Featured image: Ruchindra Gunasekara on Unsplash 

Where folders fail

The real problem with folder organization becomes apparent when people work together in teams. Team members often need access to the same resources, and there's usually more than one person updating and maintaining the collections' structure. No two minds think exactly alike, so while a well thought out folder structure may still work for smaller teams, problems will unavoidably become apparent as the number of files grows exponentially with the number of team members. In simpler terms, the more people get involved in a project, the greater the number of brains you throw into the mix, and the harder it gets keeping them all thinking the same way about content organization. At some point you may find yourself peering into the proverbial storage room wondering just how to retrieve the exact piece of content that you need...

A point we’re continually trying to make at FotoWare is how metadata is the key to cleverly organizing content when groups need to collaborate. But that’s not the whole story. While tagging your content with clever metadata will get you a long way, two things are crucial to succeeding:

Metadata governance

For all the inherent qualities of metadata, metadata without governance spells anarchy. You’ll discover that a large part of managing your collections involves describing them in a way that’s meaningful to users. This means you need to define 1) what metadata to use to describe your content and 2) enforcing and maintaining that scheme so that it can successfully reflect the content you keep. This is not a matter of do-it-once-and-forget-it: Both aspects of metadata governance will no doubt change as time goes by; content changes as does the way users interact with it. That’s only to be expected.

Visualizing content

Ask yourself (and by all means don’t forget to ask several groups of users): How do they expect to navigate the system? All FotoWare DAMs, for example, have a homepage with a big search bar. Most users, though, have no idea how to search or what to search for. Can you help them by providing them with a more visual way to navigate content?

Folders-that-are-not-folders to the rescue: Taxonomies and SmartFolders are two technologies we use to create a navigable side bar in the interface so users can get an idea of what they can expect to find in the different collections. There’s no question they work - people use them all the time when they go online shopping: Men’s wear - Sweaters - Wool, for example - you’d be hard pressed not to get the point.

Taxonomies

Taxonomies for blog framed

Taxonomies work well for assets that have structured metadata, i.e. where some time has been spent categorizing the different assets using metadata. In fact, it’s not as painstaking as it sounds; this process can also be automated to a great extent.

Why Taxonomies Could and Should Rock

SmartFolders

SmartFolders-framed

SmartFolders are another invention we’ve come up with - it’s a visual “folder” with a descriptive label that users can see in the interface and that, when clicked, executes a search - however complex - and returns the results, much like a folder. It's a great solution to help users quickly get to content even if the metadata that describes the assets leaves a little to be desired. It's a very powerful way to make assets easy to access for users while the underlying query that powers it can be very complex - all depending on how narrow or wide the search has to be to include just the right results. System admins set them up - users just click what they perceive as a folder, and the rest is magic - sort of.

Albums

Shared albums are great for smaller projects where only a subset of files is needed. A handful of files can easily be managed, and by giving users access to contribute and edit the assets in the album, everyone knows where to find the stuff they need. And new content can easily be added to the album as needed. A word of caution is in place though. While albums tend to start out small and easily manageable, there is always a risk that the collection of assets will grow out of proportion with time. Before it gets to that point, you will want to reorganize the content altogether - maybe by introducing a separate archive for your project since archives offer greater content control and allows you to organize the content in sub-collections using technologies such as taxonomies and smartfolders. The key takeaway is that one should always be on the lookout for potential pain points before they arise.

Well worth the time invested

Will this take much time to implement? Won’t it be easier to start off with a folder structure and migrate to a DAM if and when the need arises? Or should we start with a DAM right from start?

True, setting up a DAM takes a little more work than simply copying your collections to a file server. It doesn’t have to be a terribly painstaking endeavor, though. Once you’re past the initial hurdles, we can promise that managing your assets in a DAM long-term will be much less daunting than trying to keep an expanding folder structure in check.

In fact, you can deploy and test run a FotoWare DAM system completely free of charge for 30 days and get professional help from our onboarding team to cover the first bases. You'll get help migrating your content to our cloud solution, setting up the archives and workflows you need, and getting users onboard.
Then, if against all odds you decide after 30 days that it’s not for you, we’ll leave it at that with absolutely no strings attached.

Want to learn about planning a metadata structure and getting users excited about organizing your assets?
Download our Taxonomies ebook for free now and start thinking about content organization!

e-book Download: Succeeding with Taxonomies