Paper or mouse-click? What's on computers is easier to find

September 01, 2004

As office workers pause for Labor Day and students prepare for school, a new study sheds harsh light on an item that gives both groups headaches - paper.

Participants in a survey from the University of Washington's Information School reported that they were much more likely to misfile and lose track of paper information than information stored on a computer.

More than half of survey participants admitted losing track of a paper document at least once a week - more than twice the number of people who reported losing electronic information.

The result? While more than 60 percent reported being satisfied with their ability to handle computerized records such as e-mails, electronic documents and Web bookmarks, only 31 percent were satisfied with their ability to organize their papers.

"People report more problems with paper than with other forms of information," said William Jones, an associate research professor. "This suggests that many will be happy to see a more complete transition to electronic storage."

But a "paperless office" would bring its own challenges. Just 10 percent of those surveyed were extremely satisfied with their ability to keep track of computerized records (compared with 2 percent for paper), and computer users reported an ongoing trial-and-error search for strategies to manage information in a way that worked for them. The challenge is likely to grow as music, images, notes and data get scattered among an ever-expanding array of electronic devices and computer applications.

"With the ongoing digitization of our workplaces, homes and even our cars, so many things are acting to pull our information apart," said Jones.

To help pull it back together, Jones and colleague Harry Bruce, the Information School's associate dean for research, are developing a "Universal Labeler." Now in a prototyping stage, the software tool is designed to help people organize information according to the things they need to get done, by making it easy to "drag and drop" many different kinds of information - e-mails and portions of Web pages, for example - into logical folders.

It's all part of an ongoing National Science Foundation-funded project called Keeping Found Things Found whose goal is to understand how to help people to manage their information better regardless of its form or location.

"We really have to focus on the whole person - not just the 'pc user' and not just the 'pda user' - people have to bring these things together in their lives," Bruce said.

"The increasing sophistication of desktop search engines is helping," added Jones, "but is not likely to solve the problem by itself."

For example, participants in fieldwork observations of the Keeping Found Things Found project repeatedly expressed a desire to organize their information, even if it could be easily found through search tools, said Ammy Jiranida Phuwanartnurak, a doctoral student working on the project. Jones and Bruce are preparing a new survey that aims to understand better the reasons why people would want to organize their information even if they had a hypothetical "desktop Google" at their fingertips.

The latest study demonstrates the need for better tools. Among the 219 respondents to the detailed online survey, nearly half were librarians, with the other half a mix of managers, researchers, professional people, students and others, Phuwanartnurak said.

The librarians, not surprisingly, reported being better organized with all forms of data, but even many librarians reported losing track of personal information.

"It seems we all experience similar problems managing our personal information," Phuwanartnurak said, "regardless of our profession or our training."

University of Washington is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to