Double secret auto-arrange probation


When you view a folder for the first time, Explorer arranges the items in a nice default pattern. And when items are added to the folder, they get added to the end. And when you delete an item from the folder... the other items auto-arrange to close the gap? But wait, if you look at the View options, the Auto-Arrange option is not set.

So are we auto-arranging or not auto-arranging?

Well, yes, but only until you touch it.

As long as you express no interest in the placement of icons in a folder (and the desktop counts as a folder), then Explorer will auto-arrange them. But once you move an icon around, Explorer will turn off its double secret auto-arrangement and leave the icon arrangement to you.

(Programmatically, this mode is known as LVS_EX_AUTOAUTOARRANGE.)

Comments (35)
  1. R. Bemrose says:

    "When you view a folder for the first time, Explorer arranges the items in a nice default pattern. And when items are added to the folder, they get added to the end."

    I think Raymond mentioned this in a previous blog entry, but this behavior has changed in Windows Vista and newer.  Explorer will rearrange items as they are added, which can be a little disconcerting if you expect it to add them to the end like it did in XP and earlier!

  2. This is one of the longest discussions in user interface design: locality versus non-locality. Users tend to remember the position of the icons in their folders, and look for them at the same places, so "re-arranging" them often causes the user to get disoriented. But, what if the user deletes, let’s say, the middle 50 files from a folder that contains 60? Should we respect the spatial memory of the user, or should we compact the icons into a neat row at the top of the window? Each approach has its own advantages and disadvantages. Anyway, I feel that in the last decade or so, major OSes’ file browsers (at least Windows Explorer and the Macintosh Finder) have moved heavily to non-spatial models (i.e., rearranging the icons at the user’s back). I think there should be a middle point. It will be difficult to reach, but everything is possible (specially if you can afford doing usability tests).

  3. Malcolm says:

    Isn’t the problem with spatial organisation that it works if you have a handful of things (eg. icons on a desktop, files in a folder on a Win95/Mac Classic era computer) but becomes hugely unwieldy once your folder contains 3000 mp3s/photos or whatever you typically encounter on a modern computer.

    Hence the move towards a search/sorted list type model in modern OS’s – except where applicable – like on the desktop for instance.

  4. Joseph Koss says:

    Temporal ordering is strong.

    "This was worked on about a month ago"

    "That was worked on about a year ago"

    ..and so forth

    Of course, this methodology falls apart when an installer dumps a hundred files into a folder all at the same time.. there is no familiarity of temporal order among them.

  5. Xepol says:

    Ah, if only this entire class of behaviour was better exposed in the windows UI.

    Frankly, it all drives me insane.  It is as if they did a usability test and then did exactly the opposite.

    Currently my system has randomly started to group all the folders and nothing I do can make it stop more than temporarilly.

    Then we get to the whole "auto guessing folder type" thing that just drives me 10 times of mental.

    I really the Cairo replacement shell project gets its act in order – personally I have learned to hate explorer and it’s insistance on changing things for me no matter how much I don’t want it to.

  6. Anonymous says:

    James: It isn’t a coincidence that GNOME’s file browser shares characteristics with old Macs.  The people who wrote the first version of Nautilus back in ’01 were former Apple employees.

    Wikipedia page on their now-defunct company: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eazel

    I seem to recall it was very hyped.  I believe they had a story on them in the New York Times.

  7. someone else says:

    “Of course, this methodology falls apart when an installer dumps a hundred files into a folder all at the same time.. there is no familiarity of temporal order among them.”

    Well, they still have their creation date.

  8. Nick says:

    This kind of auto-arranging was one of the things that surprised me about the default behavior in XP.  When you drag-and-drop a file into a folder, it puts it exactly where you let up on the mouse button, even if it’s right between a bunch of other files and the name is impossible to read because of overlap.  Do this a couple times and pretty soon you have files scattered all over with no rhyme or reason besides "this is where the user clicked".  I’ve seen many normal users lose files because of this location memory feature (and it’s one of the reasons I always stick with Details view).

    It was nice to see in Vista that the arranging of icons in folders was largely improved. That said, I can’t say I care for the detection algorithm for determining whether to view in photos, videos, etc. I really wish there was an easy way to say "Show everything in view X by default, and keep it that way unless I say otherwise."

  9. Gabest says:

    Vista also re-arranges files after renaming. Quite bad if you want to change more than one file, you have to find them again each time.

  10. RobO says:

    "since objects in the real world stay put when you set them down, we have millions of years of evolution supporting spatial memory"

    and, because objects in the married-with-kids world rarely stay put when you set them down, I have years of marriage supporting search-each-time-you-want-it.

  11. Puckdropper says:

    Vista also re-arranges files after renaming. Quite bad if you want to change more than one file, you have to find them again each time.

    I /hate/ that behavior.  Especially when it reorders files in a multiple rename.  It seems to do it at somewhat random times, guess I haven’t taken the folder in question off "double secret auto-arrange probation" yet.

  12. configurator says:

    I didn’t know Vista had any of these features, and I’ve been using it since beta… Long live Total Commander!

  13. James Schend says:

    Antonio: I’d go further. Modern OSes (except Linux GNOME, weirdly) have thrown spatial models out the window. Then driven over them with their SUV. Then set them on fire.

    Which is a shame, because I really love spatial file browsing. I know from experience that my brain can keep thousands of items in spatial memory, and barely a dozen in ‘conscious’ memory.

    Maybe I’m the opposite of most geeks, who can memorize thousands of CLI commands but can’t find where they put the remote control, but my guess is that if you did a study, you’d find that most people have much better spatial skills than conscious memorization skills.

    Look at it this way: since objects in the real world stay put when you set them down, we have millions of years of evolution supporting spatial memory. People have been memorizing epic poems and the such for only thousands of years. :)

    Anyway, I feel like an old fogey Mac user, but Finder in Classic *used* to get it right. Now it’s crap. Oh well.

  14. James, these studies have already been done. Thirty years ago, in the Xerox PARC, and twenty-five years ago, in Apple, while developing the Lisa and the Mac. And they definitely prove the average user has a lot of spatial memory – but doesn’t want to look at tiny labels to find a file or folder. Because of that, the original Lisa Filer and Macintosh Finder were strongly spatial. They were able to remember icon positions, window sizes and positions, even scroll bar positions!

    Windows 95 did the same, I suppose that as a result of more usability tests. Then came Windows 98, with its silly "browser metaphor", and all spatial browsing went to /dev/null (as *nix users say). A couple years later, OS X Finder (which is based in NeXTStep filer and *not* the original Macintosh Finder) went in the same direction, supposedly because it wasn’t re-written from the ground up. It was interesting (and worrying) to see the company that developed the spatial model to practically destroy it.

    I’d like to know whether there are usability tests that support non-spatial models, but when I watch my friends and family use a computer, I realize normal people have a lot of spatial memory, and often rely in it. It isn’t a formal usability test, of course ;-) .

  15. Nicholas Sherlock says:

    Vista also re-arranges files after renaming. Quite bad if you want to change more than one file, you have to find them again each time.

    Gabest, that is incredibly annoying. There’s a workaround though: Instead of pressing enter to confirm the rename, click in the window instead. The file will be renamed but the scrollbar stays exactly where it was.

  16. Yuhong Bao says:

    "Then came Windows 98, with its silly "browser metaphor""

    Actually it was introduced with the IE 4 desktop update back in 1997 as an optional part of IE 4. In fact, Windows 98’s shell is pretty much the same as the shell shipped in the IE 4 desktop update.

  17. Abhishek says:

    Meh. Details view FTW! :P One of the first things I do when I sit at a new machine is to set the Explorer properties to exactly the way I want them (details view, statusbar on, no classic folders crap, double-click to open items, show full paths in title bar and address bar, do not hide extensions, select columns to be shown including the attributes column (that really should be on by default), the column widths etc.) Then I click on Rest All Folders and then Apply to All Folders and ok my way out.

    Aah… A job well done! ;-)

  18. enjpm says:

    I find many of these things annoying as well – but windows is not targeted only at people who write code all day. Non-geeks who want to just open word and excel documents or view their holiday snaps might even be pleasantly surprised by some of the decisions explorer makes on their behalf.

    If that were true, wouldn’t this then make all the moaning on this thread essentially "I wish windows would target people like me and then lose it’s domination of the market so that people like me wouldn’t have to use windows at all as no’one would want to buy the applications i’m writing"?

  19. Mark (The other Mark) says:

    RE: "I wish windows would target people like me and then lose it’s domination of the market so that people like me wouldn’t have to use windows at all as no’one would want to buy the applications i’m writing"?

    That’s actually a common theme to many of the discussions on this blog. In fact, it’s a common theme to many of the discussions about Microsoft.

    This specific behavior doesn’t bother me at all- My Desktop retains the spatial location I’ve come to expect, while everything else retains the alphabetical listing I’ve come to expect. At the risk of starting another flame-fest, the way Alphabetical listing itself is done bugs me. However, I understand this is one of those "You can’t please everyone" areas, and I know how to change the default behavior.

    That I have not seen others complain of this suggests that I am in the minority in thinking the default is in the wrong position, and quite possibly in the minority by even knowing there are multiple ways of correctly doing this.

  20. boxmonkey says:

    RobO,

    I have a similar problem, except my search algorithm is weak, so it’s "ask the girlfriend where x is."

    It’s actually an interesting question, if we evolved in small groups/communities, the idea of personal property was probably pretty much non-existent. Have we actually evolved to *not* expect things to be where we left them, and instead expect to have to hunt it down again/ask?

  21. Abhishek says:

    Umm, *Reset* All Folders

    BTW, when will Explorer, if at all, have better multiple file rename capabilities (possibly, *gasp*, user customisable)?

    [It was not one of Explorer’s design goals to provide a Turing-complete interface for bulk file renaming. -Raymond]
  22. Leo Davidson says:

    "Vista also re-arranges files after renaming. Quite bad if you want to change more than one file, you have to find them again each time."

    The file manager I use (Opus) always sorts by some criteria (i.e. never "where you dropped the file"), but defers the re-sort until you’re done renaming things. So the files don’t move around until you hit return and you can use the cursor keys or tab to rename several files in a row. That seems to work well.

    (It’s also got an option to "add new files at the end of the list" for people that like that.)

    It also lets you see which view modes are assigned to which folders (or types of folders if you like) and lets you edit that list. People still get confused when they don’t know where to look but once you tell them it’s okay. OTOH with Vista I still have very little idea why some folders end up displayed in different modes, let alone how to stop it happening.

    I’m glad that Vista always sorts and has dropped the spatial stuff, though. As someone else said, spatial arrangement simply falls apart when you have a lot of files. You quickly end up with a mess and have to auto-arrange them based on some criteria. I feel it’s better to just keep them arranged.

    If things are arranged alphabetically (or whatever) then they still stay in the same place if nothing is added, so there’s no disadvantage there. When things are added they move to a predictable and easy to find place, unlike spatial systems where you often end up with an unpredictable mess.

    But maybe it’s one of those things that is largely down to what you are used to. I grew up using systems that were always sorted.

  23. Aaargh! says:

    "Maybe I’m the opposite of most geeks, who can memorize thousands of CLI commands but can’t find where they put the remote control, but my guess is that if you did a study, you’d find that most people have much better spatial skills than conscious memorization skills."

    You’re probably right. But there are 2 issues here, user-friendliness and use-friendliness. Only one letter apart but a huge difference.

    The ‘thousands of CLI commands’ might take a while to master (not user-friendly) but after you mastered them it is both quicker, more convenient and more powerful to use (use-friendly) than the GUI file manager.

    Take e.g. the issue of renaming a lot of files. It’s very user-friendly to click on a file an choose rename from the popup menu. It’s less user-friendly to rename it using the ‘mv’ command. If you have to change the name of a thousand files, however, right-click rename is still very user-friendly, but not that use-friendly.  You’ll spend the entire day renaming files. Whereas find + sed + mv might not be user-friendly, you’ll be done in 2 minutes (very use-friendly).

    The trick is creating something that is both user-friendly (easy to use, intuitive) and use-friendly (quick, powerful and won’t get annoying if you have to use it a million times a day).

  24. steveg says:

    LVS_EX_AUTOSQUAREDARRANGE or LVS_EX_AUTOTOTHEPOWEROFTWOARRANGE?

    Thanks for the post, I’ve often wondered what the heck was going on in explorer (and how to reset to the AUTOAUTO behaviour; I gather I can write myself a little program if I really care enuf).

  25. Tanveer Badar says:

    We already have 2-3 schools of thought in this thread. Why the debate then which side is better?

    Aside, I like the new blog theme.

  26. Tanveer Badar says:

    This is weird, it was showing in white and blue theme like IE blog before my last comment. ;(

  27. James Schend says:

    A few replies:

    >I’m glad that Vista always sorts and has dropped the spatial stuff, though. As someone else said, spatial arrangement simply falls apart when you have a lot of files. You quickly end up with a mess and have to auto-arrange them based on some criteria. I feel it’s better to just keep them arranged.

    I kind of agree with this, but when I look around my computer, I’m struck with the thought: when would you *ever* have a folder with thousands of files in it? Even a good sized iTunes library isn’t that bad. It seems to me that you’re justifying the lack of spatial browsing by using an extreme example– a folder with 3,000 files in it might be something that geeks are used to, but the OS should cater to normal human beings, not geeks. It’s like the window with 500 listbox controls… sure it works, but if you have one you’re probably doing something wrong to get to that point.

    The thinking should be this: geeks, who like to have thousands of files in a single folder, can figure out what options to tweak to make that work for them. Non-technical users can’t– therefore the OS should always error towards the non-technical users.

    >The ‘thousands of CLI commands’ might take a while to master (not user-friendly) but after you mastered them it is both quicker, more convenient and more powerful to use (use-friendly) than the GUI file manager.

    Or you just download a GUI file renamer program that works quicker than even opening a CLI window and navigating it to the correct spot. I think this is a misnomer, frequently seen on Slashdot by Linux users who are used to abysmally-bad UIs.

    A good GUI will virtually always be better than a good CLI for the common cases. The reason Explorer isn’t good at renaming 30,000 files at one time is the reason Raymond indicated: it’s not designed to do that. Download a program that *is* designed to do that, master it’s (comparatively quick) learning curve, and you’ll be doing it as quick or quicker as the most white-bearded Unix "guru" you know.

    That also brings up the same issue as the above point: why would the average computer user ever need to rename 30,000 files at once? That’s something geeks do, and geeks can figure out ways of doing it (even if there was no CLI, you could quickly write a binary in .net to do it, or find one and download one), so there’s no reason Microsoft should expend effort making it quick or easy.

  28. Aaargh! says:

    > Or you just download a GUI file renamer program that works quicker than even opening a CLI window and navigating it to the correct spot. I think this is a misnomer, frequently seen on Slashdot by Linux users who are used to abysmally-bad UIs.

    I’m a Mac user so I’m used to very good UI’s.

    > A good GUI will virtually always be better than a good CLI for the common cases. The reason Explorer isn’t good at renaming 30,000 files at one time is the reason Raymond indicated: it’s not designed to do that. Download a program that *is* designed to do that, master it’s (comparatively quick) learning curve, and you’ll be doing it as quick or quicker as the most white-bearded Unix "guru" you know.

    That will probably do for the simple cases. The problem is that your GUI file re-namer will never be as powerful as what a proper CLI can do. Lots of the time I want to do something so specific there simply is no GUI tool available and writing one that will be used a single time is not really cost effective.

  29. Aaargh! says:

    Thanks for letting us know you’re the expert here.

    Are you thick or just trying to look like it ?  I was responding to this remark: "I think this is a misnomer, frequently seen on Slashdot by Linux users who are used to abysmally-bad UIs."

    What part of "is not designed for" did you not understand? (…) The point is that it’s not the case that a GUI is more/less "powerful" than CLI.  Their tools are designed for different things.

    No, you fail to grasp my point: the CLI is more powerful exactly because it let’s you do things it wasn’t explicitly designed for. Instead of having a million different tools for all kinds of specific cases, you just need a few powerful ones and combine them in the right way.

  30. Jeremy says:

    "I kind of agree with this, but when I look around my computer, I’m struck with the thought: when would you *ever* have a folder with thousands of files in it? Even a good sized iTunes library isn’t that bad. It seems to me that you’re justifying the lack of spatial browsing by using an extreme example"

    I have a folder of family pictures with ~1500 files in it.  And you hardly need to get to thousands of files before it becomes unwieldy.  Even if I divided up those 1500 files into folders with a dozen pictures, could you mentally make sense of the locations of dozens of files in hundreds of folders?  Or would it just look like a mess?

    "Or you just download a GUI file renamer program that works quicker than even opening a CLI window and navigating it to the correct spot. I think this is a misnomer, frequently seen on Slashdot by Linux users who are used to abysmally-bad UIs."

    Definitely.

    "I’m a Mac user so I’m used to very good UI’s. "

    Thanks for letting us know you’re the expert here.

    "That will probably do for the simple cases. The problem is that your GUI file re-namer will never be as powerful as what a proper CLI can do. Lots of the time I want to do something so specific there simply is no GUI tool available and writing one that will be used a single time is not really cost effective."

    I cannot do it therefore it is impossible.  Excellent logic!  What part of "is not designed for" did you not understand?  Of course you can find some task a tool was not designed for, that’s hardly a nobel prize winning observation.  The point is that it’s not the case that a GUI is more/less "powerful" than CLI.  Their tools are designed for different things.

    Unless you happen to know of some amazing mathematical theorem that proves that CLI tools can inherently do more than GUI ones that I am unaware of.

  31. Jeremy says:

    "No, you fail to grasp my point: the CLI is more powerful exactly because it let’s you do things it wasn’t explicitly designed for. Instead of having a million different tools for all kinds of specific cases, you just need a few powerful ones and combine them in the right way."

    No, I’m pretty sure that is, in fact, *exactly what the CLI was designed for*.  

    GUIs are designed to be user-friendly and look pretty.  But there’s nothing stopping you from making a GUI that can do everything a CLI can (other than the difficulty of keeping your GUI user-friendly).

    But it’s insane to say "your GUI file re-namer will never be as powerful as what a proper CLI can do".  Unless you happen to have a proof that it’s impossible (not just difficult!) to make a GUI Turing complete in any way.

    The point is, that just because no one’s bothered to make tools to do it doesn’t mean it’s not possible.  It’s just outside the scope of a typical GUI’s intended set of features.

  32. Falcon says:

    There’s actually a GUI file manager with a bulk renaming tool that allows you to specify masks for the name and extension and perform a search and replace in names, with regexp support, too! Plus, it lets you preview the results before starting the operation.

  33. Aaargh! says:

    "There’s actually a GUI file manager with a bulk renaming tool that allows you to specify masks for the name and extension and perform a search and replace in names, with regexp support, too! Plus, it lets you preview the results before starting the operation."

    Not nearly powerful enough, not even close.

    Say I had a nasty filesystem crash which, after recovery, left me with a bunch of files named 1.txt, 2.txt, 3.txt etc. These files are actually java source files and I want to rename them according to the classname that is specified inside the file. (so if 1.txt contains "class Person", I want the file to be named Person.java). How would your GUI tool accomplish this ?

    > No, I’m pretty sure that is, in fact, *exactly what the CLI was designed for*.  

    You mean it was explicitly designed to do things it wasn’t explicitly designed for ?

    I’m not saying GUI’s are bad, they are a good thing. But an OS also needs a decent CLI to make it truly useful.  

  34. Falcon says:

    "…I want to rename them according to the classname that is specified inside the file. (so if 1.txt contains "class Person", I want the file to be named Person.java). How would your GUI tool accomplish this ?"

    It wouldn’t (at least this particular app), and I’m not about to deny it. Arguing strictly in favour of one side is pointless, anyway – if you have both GUI and CLI tools, you can choose the method that accomplishes desired results in the easiest way for you. In fact, I have been known to resort to CMD commands/scripting for tasks that could have been done faster with Explorer!

    The case you described definitely looks like a CLI job, which may involve coding a custom parser to extract the class name (I don’t know if such a tool is already available, but that’s beside the point). However, the GUI tool I mentioned has come in handy a number of times, in both personal and work situations, saving a fair amount of coding, scripting and/or manual labour.

    I’ll end it there before we drift further off topic – I’ve made my point to my satisfaction.

  35. t warman says:

    Seems the point is – not everyone wants the same thing – so why have the decision made for you?

    I want to be able to do both – some folders I really don’t care about – some I do.

    So, let me create the type of folder I want, for the folders & files I want.  

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