Research alert

XI.6 November + December 2004
Page: 9
Digital Citation

In Pursuit of Desktop Evolution

Pamela Ravasio, Sissel Schär, Helmut Krueger

The Desktop Metaphor: After 40 years of usage, what problems persist in its everyday usage?

Today, working with the desktop metaphor requires memorizing conventions and procedures rather than interacting intuitively and in a straightforward manner. However, detailed information as to users’ common practices, their specific problems, how they cope with problems, and how they try to avoid them, are still unknown. This is why in a series of 16 guidlined, semi-structured interviews, we aimed at gaining in-depth knowledge on the problems users encounter while completing their daily work duties, but also how they handle, organize and—importantly—retrieve their information.

One would expect that the use of such a strong metaphor as the desktop would make it easier for novices to progress quickly in learning to use such a device. However, the opposite is true. We observed that effective use of the desktop depended significantly on the user’s skills.

An advanced user, for instance, frequently used the screen as temporary storage and relied on the icon pattern on the screen for instant orientation. (See Figure 1.) The interviewees acknowledged that the screen became crowded over time, much like a physical desk. This fact was for them a reminder to get organized, i.e. to separate useful from less useful and disposable information.

Users—particularly lesser-skilled ones—shared the impression that the operating system "fiddles" with their information, an impression affected by the poor separation of system-owned data and user-owned data (i.e. the screen real estate—decidedly a user-owned area—is cluttered by the icons of newly installed programs and shortcuts which are regularly and automatically added).

While operating systems today do not provide a proper separation of user-owned and system-owned data, they also fail to support a proper connection of related user-owned material. When working with their own files, for example, most users expressed the need to have their information linked together (e.g. a business report’s author and the respective address book entry). In particular, they were aware that hierarchical file systems did not allow for many of the "networked" access procedures they were accustomed to from browser and email use. Consequently, the separation of documents, emails, bookmarks etc., has complicated the whole working process.

Finally, less is more! The never-ending variety of small system services that are offered without any better reason than their availability is counter-productive in the long term. The provision of small but potentially extremely helpful tools, and their improvement to the point that they become really and truly useable, would result in more content users, more efficient work, and less time and money wasted. Three example services that fall into this category are: (1) facilitation of annotations of electronic documents, (2) conversion of text and image formats to publicly available standard formats when saving them in a document repository, and (3) the system’s document retrieval functionality.

To some extent, what is intuitively clear also became apparent throughout the study: The interplay between the different components strongly influences the success or failure of the entire system. It can only be repeated: Details certainly matter. The best system is insufficient if a fundamental, common task can only be accomplished in a complicated, awkward manner.


Pamela Ravasio
Man-Machine Interaction, Institute for Hygiene and Applied Physiology
Swiss Federal Institute of Technology
Zürich, Switzerland

Sissel Guttormsen Schär
Man-Machine Interaction, Institute for Hygiene and Applied Physiology
Swiss Federal Institute of Technology
Zürich, Switzerland

Helmut Krueger
Man-Machine Interaction, Institute for Hygiene and Applied Physiology
Swiss Federal Institute of Technology
Zürich, Switzerland


This abstract is from a recent or forthcoming issue of ACM’s Transactions of Computer Human Interaction (ToCHI). It is included here to alert interactions readers to what research is being done in the field of Computer Human Interaction. The complete papers, when published, can be found in ACM’s Digital Library at


F1Figure 1. On this user’s computer, different kinds of geometric shapes are distinguishable, as are groups sorted by file format and use. Some of the groups will disappear in the future as they represent ephemeral collections of files that, due to some working context, belong together. The blank area on the right is due to the fact that the screen is sometimes used in a 90-degree rotated position.

©2004 ACM  1072-5220/04/1100  $5.00

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