Hierarchy vs. Search
One of my co-workers this morning informed me that she was trying to switch to Gmail. I thought this was a nice gesture - not that she did it for me, but that she told me she was going to give it an honest-to-goodness trial. She's switching from Hotmail and she found that the import of her email and contacts was very easy. Good start.
From there, the conversation takes a bit of a philosophical turn. My co-worker, being from a different generation than myself (and a former librarian) asked me how to structure her folders and group her emails. Things start to get a little gooey here... I can see where's she going... and I know why she's asking...... I also know that my response is going to be tough for her to swallow.
The fundamental difference between the email systems developed in the early '90s vs. the email systems developed in the early 2000's is that the earlier versions are built on a hierarchical system, whereas the latter are built on a system of search. At this stage in technology, they are now both capable of crossing over and performing many of the functions of the other..... but, like Mac vs. PC, no matter how you slice it, they just seem to excel in their specific domain.
"Sure," I tell her, "there are labels and color codes you can add to individuals, or groups... there are even 'extensions' (apps) you can add to Gmail to make it function more like the structured, hierarchical system you are used to... but really, that is kind of defeating the purpose." The purpose of having a searchable inbox is so you don't HAVE to make folders; so you don't have to worry about where things go, how they get there, and if they made it safely. The purpose of a searchable inbox is to give you immediate access to any-and-all emails under a simple search command. Moving from a structured environment, I completely understand why and how this can be a difficult step in retraining your brain and your immediate intentions to think and act towards email, information, data.
Both systems have their strengths... both systems have their flaws.
Posted by DouganMilne, Vice President, Research on 24 March 2010