Readings' list

Malone, T. W. 1983. How do people organize their desks?: Implications for the design of office information systems. ACM Trans. Inf. Syst. 1, 1 (Jan. 1983), 99-112.

Summary/ Key Points

This paper describes a series of interviews focusing on the way professional and clerical office workers organize the information on their desk and offices.

10 people. One hour interview.

Two example of offices selected to represent important kind of offices:

-The neat office: everything in stacks. Every stack has an important function and serve as a step in a document flow. Docs from one pile are processed and put in another pile.

-The messy office

The 10 subjects were classified roughly in the two representative groups.

People with messy offices sometimes has problems in finding documents, and sometimes things get not done. They have more problem reminding tasks to do.

Differences based on job content: people with routine job tend to have more organized desk. People with non routine job, half had organized desk and half didn't.

Definition of files and piles:

"Files are units where the elements (e.g., individual folders) are explicitly titled and arranged in some systematic order (e.g., alphabetical or chronological). In some cases, the groups themselves (e.g., entire file drawers) are also explicitly titled and systematically arranged; in other cases, they are not. In piles, on the other hand, the individual elements (papers, folders, etc.) are not necessarily titled, and they are not, in general, arranged in any particular order."

Functions of desk organizations

Evidence of Cognitive Difficulty to Classify Information

"The difficulty of deciding how to classify something can be an important barrier to filing the information."

Implication for Design




What, then, are the forces that lead to the creation of piles? There appear to be four:

  1. The mechanical difficulty of creating labeled file folders, binders, and so forth, especially if multiple levels of classification are desired.
  2. The cognitive difficulty of creating appropriate categories and decidinghow to classify information in a way that will be easily retrievable.
  3. The desire to be reminded of tasks to be done.
  4. The desire to have frequently used information easily accessible.

The new systems should continue to provide two of the functions of conventional desks: easy storage of loosely classified information and convenient use of visible reminders.


This is a study of a paper office. The idea is that the way in which people organizes their office desk can inform computer design of the desk space.

The suggestions are previous to today environment. Some of them have been implemented, others have not. Today they don't make sense.

Disclaimer: these summaries are made to help me remember the content and the main ideas of the paper. Since I am interested in certain aspects, I may leave out others