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For most busy people, the desktop is their short term dumping ground for files that they intend to put somewhere specific. The BumpTop is meant to make your messy computer desktop more like a messy real desk top - but do users want that or would they find a file explorer's built in organisational system more usable?

I know I am not alone in having a computer desktop that gets frankly messy after a short while. For most busy people, the desktop is their short-term dumping ground for files that they intend to put somewhere specific - someday. 

As I was starting that overdue but cathartic file cleaning exercise last week, a colleague of mine suggested that I check out a new way for sorting out files he saw on Youtube called Bumptop.

The BumpTop interface was demonstrated at this year's CHI conference, and is intended to to be a highly realistic way of organising files, and is particularly well suited for tablet PC's.

In brief, the BumpTop is meant to make your messy computer desktop more like a messy real desk top. It uses 3-D graphics of icons representing files that can be manipulated individually or collectively in just about every conceivable way. 


You can fling them into piles, nudge them, flick through them, scrunch them up and lasso groups of them so that they are organised as you see fit.  The 'physics enabled desktop' is intended to let you get some of the benefits of the physical world while retaining those of the virtual.

The demo site and the excellent video demonstration are the best way to truly understand what it lets you do with the files on your computer desktop. Its also a great way to see the reactions of people after viewing the video, with some thinking it is very cool but others pointing out the likely practical downsides.

Unfortunately there is no beta version available yet, although the site hints that one will be on the way soon. So while sorting through the files in my comparatively boring Windows File Explorer, I pondered some of the positive and negative points that the BumpTop might offer.

It certainly looks like a lot more fun than sorting through files by dragging and dropping them or sorting them with Windows File Explorer. But at the end of the day, I'd rather have the files in their proper place than in a set of piles on my desktop.  Would it be possible to have the files in BumpTop be held somewhere proper in the File Explorer, but just available on the BumpTop as the short term, a kind of visual play area for files you are working on?

The biggest criticism is the lack of a good old filename on the icons for the different files. After a while identical icons for different file types start to lose their meaning, and tax your memory even more as you try to remember which file is which. The developers say the file names problem could be easily solved, perhaps as an overlay layer that can be turned on or off.

The other main aspect missing is the hierarchy of folders and subfolders, which is why I could never see it replacing a complete filing system, but rather an alternative view of one level (typically the desktop). Easy switching between the BumpTop view and a more conventional view will be important for learning the system.

However, the visual aspect probably makes it exceptional for sorting through photos and image files, and a lot more fun that looking at thumbnails in current explorer systems. Even sound files could probably benefit from the visual aspect, through letting the user assign different colours or imagery for different songs according to their genre or artist. Or perhaps allow the default icon to be the image from the CD case.

Clearly there are accessibility problems since it requires a mouse (or ideally a pen on a tablet PC), so it can never be the default option for computers, but for those who choose to use it, how long will it take to learn effectively?

Personally, although curious to try the beta version, I think that purely visual organisation scheme will not work for me and I will stick to the tried and tested method of two sections in a file explorer.  

Take a look and let me know what you think. Any suggestions on other similar applications most welcome.


Chris Rourke is Managing Director of User Vision , a usability and accessibility consultancy.

Chris Rourke

Published 5 September, 2006 by Chris Rourke

Chris Rourke is Managing Director of User Vision and a contributor to Econsultancy.

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