Paul McAleer

The iWork Document Manager

Paul McAleer

The new iWork document manager.

The latest version of the iWork suite for iOS includes a document manager. This serves as the springboard for file management within each app. It’s an enormous step up from the prior carousel of documents, but continues to underscore the sore spot that is organization of files in a hierarchy-free environment. There are a few nitpicks I have with the manager but first, a look back.

The Carousel

Bluntly, the carousel sucked for any serious usage of the tool. Did you make 5 documents? Maybe 10? Then you were fine. But 25, 50? You’re stuck with a single chronological thumbnail list which you can’t reorder in any way. This isn’t a problem specific to Pages et al - iA Writer has a similar, maybe worse implementation - but to me it was the most glaring instance of it.

The New Model

I’m glad Apple abandoned the carousel for the document manager. The presentation is nearly identical to Springboard (your home screens) and the Photos app.

The screen allows you to sort by date or name (scroll up from the top of the thumbnails) and group documents into folders. You still can’t organize these documents arbitrarily, as you can with your apps. Folders are single level only - no nested hierarchies. I think this is fine, honestly, and I’d guess it covers a majority of use cases.

The interactions for creating a folder are the same as Springboard: press and hold a document until it does the wiggle jiggle, and then drag it onto another document to create a folder. The folder gets the useless title of Folder (or Folder 1, 2, etc.) and if your display is sorted by name, the new folder immediately finds its way to the F’s. Next, you can rename it, add more stuff, or close it.

(Above, “Unnamed Stuff” is the folder. It looks and acts like a Springboard folder. Note the lack of easy distinction amongst documents unless there’s a radically different design.)

In contrast to Springboard, the document manager doesn’t try to give your folder a useful name out of the gate; it follows the Mac OS generic name model. It’s too bad. While Springboard’s names might not always be perfect the automatic naming is a nudge in the right direction. Let the computer assist you.

Multiple Selects

Unlike Springboard, the document manager allows for the selection of multiple items. Once you’re in jiggle mode, tapping another document makes it your selection and, annoyingly, your original selection becomes unselected. Boo. But now you’ve got a number of documents selected.

(This was difficult to capture, but here is a stack. Note the 4 slots where the documents in the stack used to be; these could serve as natural drop points… but they aren’t.)

My first thought with these selections was, “I can make these into a folder.” But I can’t. If you have multiple selections and then tap and hold any one of them, they all converge into a stack. The animation is beautiful and made me “oooh” out loud. But all you can do with this stack is drop it into a folder. You do this by dropping the stack onto yet another document which isn’t a part of the stack. Oddly, you can choose to duplicate or trash these documents when they’re individually selected but not when they’re a stack.

This is a weak spot in the interaction but, again, it does follow the OS X model. When you’ve selected multiple files in OS X you can create a ZIP of them but not create a new folder with all of them.

As with the naming convention, this leans too heavily on OS X in my opinion. Once I have a stack of documents, I have already grouped them. They are now one thing to me - and the app represents them that way! - so having to put them onto another thing is silly. A stack should be folder-able, period.

A Side Note on Consistency

Multiple selection within iOS isn’t consistent in Apple’s apps. Consider the Photos app: a user has to explicitly press the share button to enter multiple selection mode. Then, you tap the items you want to manipulate and press a button (copy, print, etc.) to do something with them. Holding down a photo - which really should enter wiggle jiggle mode - just pops up a Copy contextual menu. Note that the document manager includes an edit button, which is the equivalent of the share button in Photos; it enters jiggle mode for you.

In Photos, you can’t create a stack of photos nor a folder, which is a glaring oversight. The photo manager in Photos is woefully basic. I am half-expecting an update for this in iOS 5.


One metaphor shines through all of these managers: Apple is pushing hard for thumbnails as the main way of interacting with documents. It’s true even in iTunes, where album art gets first class treatment.

That’s all well and good for visual documents like photos and presentations, but it falls down for word processing documents. Why? Well, look back at the image atop this piece. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

While I can make out the text on these documents, these thumbnails are substantially smaller than they were in the carousel and of diminishing use here, so I need to rely on the filename and metadata. Oh, but if you use long names like I do, then your names get truncated. Frustratingly there is no way to see a document’s full name until you’ve opened it.

The manager does allow you to rename a document by double-tapping its name, but then you have a tiny input area to work with.

(I’ve got this great giant screen, and this is the thanks I get? This document’s full title is, “Kindle and I Get Off on the Wrong Foot.” It’s like Writer’s focus mode gone awry.)

Thus, if you want the full name of the document you need to go all the way back to the Spotlight screen. But then you can only find the filename and not any of its contents, as iWork’s documents aren’t indexed at all by the system - still.

All is Not Lost

Once you’ve gone to a flat, non-hierarchical situation, ensuring easy access to stuff is difficult - as these very different interactions demonstrate. The fact that the carousel was retired is a good thing, a very good thing: Apple is still willing to scrap what doesn’t work.

The document manager is a step in the right direction. I have a few suggestions on how it could be improved.

  • First, for goodness sake, index the damn files. Even if the document manager becomes perfect, it’s a basic expectation that a search facility on a device will search everything on a device. Spotlight for OS X does this; here’s where you steal from OS X.
  • Let a stack of documents become a folder.
  • Give folders a useful name by default.
  • Allow arbitrary organization of documents.
  • Introduce some sort of interaction (maybe on press-and-hold?) which shows a document’s full name.
  • Full-on tags and labels would be overkill, but a simple favorite/starred item model could work here. One could then allow iWork to group items by favorites.

I’m really excited to see where all of this goes, in any case. Throwing away traditional files and folders was a bold move and I’m certain that as this new model matures, it’ll only improve. And if it can still make me say “oooh”, all the better.