Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Bottom up 101: how to empty your inbox fast by learning from Google

Why does it take less time to find something on the web than on your hard drive?

It’s because the internet has no order, but we’d like to think we do. Guess again: using an orderly approach to storing and retrieving is similar to paying full price for airline tickets: it made sense twenty year ago but is a costly decision today.

Here’s how to file and find things in the next decade.

Bottom Up vs Top Down

Storage and retrieval ultimately fits into two methods: top down and bottom up. A top down approach is to come up with categories, and perhaps sub-categories, and sub-sub-categories…and then to place each item in exactly one place. For instance, my residency might be classified as United States:Maryland:Prince George’s County:College Park. From a legal perspective that’s the only place you’d find me today. This is how file cabinets and hard drives have been setup forever.

However, in a bottom up system, one places all items into just one bucket—that means all residents aren’t classified into countries, they just get adjectives (or tags). They have their name and their adjectives, some of which might conflict. For instance, I could be a resident of both DC and Maryland in a bottom up system, of both the United States and Spain.

In the physical world it would be impossible to find anything if it were all lined up next to one another, but with fast servers and intelligent algorithms, you can search for “Jared Goralnick” without having to narrow your search to any geographic criteria. This is helpful, because I identify first with DC, second with Baltimore, and not really at all with College Park. So if you met me you might have trouble looking me up in and old-fashioned (top-down) phonebook—you might never look in the College Park edition.

There are numerous reasons why bottom up storage and retrieval are better than top down approaches when it comes to digital information:

  • When filing something, there’s only one place to put it. Tags are optional. No choice means a heck of a lot less time filing
  • When retrieving something, it’s better to use a (very fast) search tool…rather than guessing the right folder to look in first
  • If an items relates to two projects, or is from an old friend but relates to business, etc…there are times when it’s tough to know where to file…or to retrieve it. In a bottom up system, you just archive it in one place and search for it later. End of story
  • With tagging, one can tie one item to many categories. So something can be tied to two projects without one having to copy it into both folders

Applying Bottom Up Approaches to Email

Not everything in the world of technology is ready for a flat, bottom-up architecture. But email is, at least if you use Gmail, Outlook 2007, or Postbox. I presume Mail is the same (feel free to verify in the comments). The fewer folders you have, the faster your filing and retrieval will be.

That is because these modern email clients/web email sites have full text search, the same technology that allows sites like Google to searching the web so quickly. With Outlook you can even search within the body of the attachments that are attached to your emails. And it’s all instant.

That being said, you may still want to have folders for broad categories, but if you do, I’d suggest that you ensure that you can see all the folders on the screen at the same time. That means that if you have more than a dozen you’d probably better rethink things. Try to have fewer than five.

You may be thinking that having fewer folders feels less organized. But in reality there’s less to deal with: fewer places to go, fewer places to look, and less time spent filing or retrieving.

Applying Bottom Up Approaches to the Rest of Your Technology

Data is becoming more bottom-up friendly every year. The search features in Windows have been pretty good since Vista, and get some helpful improvements in Windows 7. Same goes for Mac’s Finder—it gets faster in Snow Leopard.

For a long time you’ve probably paid attention to metadata (which is a fancy word for the tagging taking place inside a file) for your music collection—your artist, title, track, album, and other data have been associated with your music files. That trend is going to be carried through to everything over the next ten years.

So I’d suggest that you think seriously about it the next time you do some reorganization on your computer. We have more files than ever before (even if they’re online). So labeling and tagging will be more relevant. With photos, this is especially true. But all documents deserve better labels, not better folders.

As we’re surrounded by more and more data, bottom up filing and sophisticated searching will be the only approach for us. We need to start shifting our mindset and getting ready for it.

You can start now, with email.

Source: Technotheory

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