File is a verb

When telling tales, whether it be fairy stories to children or explaining how to use complex technology, you should have a good idea of what your audience understands.

When explaining computer technology, I imagine their attitude to understanding how it works is similar to my attitude towards car technology. I don’t want to understand cars, I want them to run reliably without me ever having to see how they work.

The subtle difference when learning computer technology is that terminology is a problem. When we learn about chemistry, we are told about atoms, molecules, acids, covalent bonds and condensates. When the subject is electronics, we have to understand diodes, resistors, capacitors and amplifiers. In most fields of learning, we use new words to understand. In information technology, each term comes from a normal English word: file, directory, click, mouse, disc, bus. Some words come from less everyday words such as interpreter and icon.

I think that because everyday words are used to describe technology, when people come to understand it, they can get confused by the normal use of the word in the world of technology.

14 years ago I was introducing my friend Neil to the Macintosh. I explained the mouse, menus, clicking, icons, windows. He took notes. I then showed him how to move documents from one folder to another, and how to move folders from place to place on the computer hard drive. He then asked me a very pertinent question:

“What is the difference between a file and a folder? They seem like the same thing to me.” I explained the difference in terms of the computer, but that confused him. “So in the Mac, files are different from folders. In real life they are the same.”

He’s right of course. In the real world, we used to take different bits of paper with content on the same subject and put them in a card binder which was called a file. “Could you get me the letter I wrote to Jim at Prudential? It’s in the insurance file in the top drawer of the filing cabinet.” “I’ll just catch up with my filing.”

The term ‘file’ comes from the very early days of computing. It used to be that computers were programmed by operators who set a series of input switches in sequence, following instructions typed on paper. This became a lot simpler when these combinations of switches could be encoded on punched cards. A program was stored on a series of cards which could loaded onto a card reader and read one by one. The term file probably comes from the concept of a queue of instructions, a dictionary definition of file is ‘a line of people or things one behind another.’

When Apple first popularised WIMP principles (Windows, Icons, Menus, Pointing devices) in user interface design on the Lisa computer in 1983, they had to introduce people to many new ideas. Before Lisa people hadn’t heard of using windows and icons for organisation. Menus usually filled the screen when a program was started – a special keypress took you back to the menu to change modes. Apple decided to call programs applications, came up with a way of going back if you changed your mind (‘Undo’) and referred to computer files in directories as documents in folders.

In those days menus titles were verbs:


You ‘File’d a document, ‘Edit’ed a selection, ‘Format’ted a selection, and ‘Customize’d the application you were running.

A year later, the Macintosh arrived, this convention continued, but the menu title of ‘File/Print’ was abbreviated to ‘File’ as the Mac screen was much narrower at 512 pixels wide, and menu bar space was at a premium.

After a few more years of applications for the Mac, Apple realised that menus in applications were better understood by new users in terms of nouns for menu titles, verbs for menu items. The order of the menus should also give some idea of the structure of the kind of information the application edits. The order from left to right goes from largest to smallest logical unit. The Apple symbol represented commands associated with the Mac. The file menu was where all the commands associated with the current document were. This is where you open, close, save and print documents. The edit menu is for the verbs associated with selections: you cut, copy, paste, find and select all here. The theory went that the next logical unit below that of document would be controlled by the next menu. In desktop publishing applications that would be the Page menu, where you can add, move, format or delete pages. Then you’d have a Text menu or Picture menu etc.

This means that if Apple had the courage, and that enough of their computers had wide enough screens, they would have named the menus ‘Document’ and ‘Selection’ instead of File and Edit. They later added the application between the Apple menu and the File menu, but they gave it the name of the currently running application.

All this goes to say, remember what your audience knows before you tell them a story. For anyone over 45 bear in mind that they might have a very different understanding of the technical concepts you think are generally understood. This difference is down to the fact that they haven’t yet come across someone who knows the way they see things work. If you don’t have an idea of what they know, don’t be surprised when what they hear and what they understand is very different from what you intended.

1 comment
  1. Rob said:

    Over the years I’ve had to write many sets of instructions for folks to use my software. It is incredible how creative people can be at interpreting words.

    I remember hearing all the hype around the “intuitive” Apple GUI interface. Having cut my programming teeth on punch-card decks and text-editing on a teletype, I thought I’d be open to the new experience.

    I managed to sit down by myself with a Mackintosh in the showroom of a Computerland store and tried my hand at the mouse. I remember the frustration of clicking on the “File” menu item over and over but it just wouldn’t stay open. I’d click on it and try to whip the cursor down onto an item before it snapped closed. After five or ten minutes I gave up and left completely disgusted with this new-fangled interface.

    Much later I learned the concepts of click-and-drag, a simple concept that completely eluded me that first time. Windows introduced the concept of clicking on a menu item and having it stay open and Apple has adopted that concept. Now if they just adopt the any-border-stretch concept, a very intuitive method of changing the size of a window, I’d applaud.

    Now my definition of an intuitive concept is that, when you look back, does it seem obvious.



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