Sometimes it's okay to be sucky

August 20, 2007

I’ve written before about the paradox of choice — the concept that having more choice does not in fact lead us to be happier and more fulfilled. More choice leads us to worry and waste time making decisions that aren’t really that important in the grand scheme of things. This applies to software too, which is why I’ve always appreciated software that keeps the preferences panel nice and simple.

The paradox of choice isn’t a mystery. Really, it’s a simple trade-off: I get to put less effort into making the decision, which makes up for the fact that I might not get exactly what I want. Lately I’ve been thinking about how this same concept applies to personal information management.

We all know that keeping your digital documents organized is a lot of work, but you make the effort now so that you can find what you need later. At a certain point, you might wonder, “Couldn’t the computer automatically organize this stuff for me?” Desktop search is a step in this direction, but it only works if you can conjure up the right keywords. Sometimes, you don’t know what you’re looking for until you see it (or, in information foraging theory, until you get a whiff of its delicious scent).

What about automated classification? Your computer could recognize that a bunch of documents are similar, and group them together. The problem is that existing systems just aren’t very good at doing this, especially for personal information. Because of this, people have tended to steer clear of the idea of automated classification in PIM software.

But you know what? Maybe it’s okay that the automated classification sucks. If you can design it so that it degrades gracefully, so that it’s suckiness doesn’t get in your way too much, then maybe it would be a fair trade-off. Like your favourite dog that’s always getting into the garbage, you could just shake your head and chuckle at its stubbornness and naïveté. As with the paradox of choice, I’m willing to put up with something that’s not quite what I wanted, as long as it’s a net win for me overall.