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On the evolution of digital interfaces

// Drag-and-drop, files and folders, and Apple Vision Pro

Matt Birchler recently commented two articles1 related to the drag-and-drop gesture and how we use computers and, in the first one in particular, he asks himself if he’s the one out of touch, or the author of the following lines is:

Remember (if you can) the classic drag-and-drop […] In the age of finger-scrolls and trackpads, [drag-and-drop] feels bizarre. The once-routine activity of moving things around the screen—files to or from a disk, pictures into or out of albums, chunks of text in word processors—is simply harder to get done.

Now, while I don’t agree with the overall article from The Atlantic2, it does raise some interesting questions. How are interfaces changing? Or even better, is how people interact with digital interfaces changing? How? And why?

While I’m not going to answer all of these questions here, I’ll try anyway to give a short explanation of what might be happening here. And I’ll do that because, as Matt wrote:

I read this entire article and couldn’t figure out if I’m completely out of touch with how people use computers today or if the author is.


In September 2021, The Verge published an article titled File not found about how young generations don’t understand the concept of files folders and directories, which was essential to the previous generation’s understanding of computers.

This is probably connected with the fact that, nowadays, every app or service has a search function and young people have never needed folders or directories for the tasks they do.”

To this point I would add the fact that in today’s day-to-day work we rarely have to deal with files. We rarely see them in their place, in their folders. We usually open them directly from the app we have to work with. Looking for a photo? Open Google or Apple Photos. A text document? Open Word or Google Docs. And so on.

This is particularly true when you talk about mobile devices, the ones that taught young generations how to use technology. Think about the iPhone or the iPad: when do you really need to open the Files app?

I grew up when you had to have a file; you had to save it; you had to know where it was saved. There was no search function,” says Saavik Ford, a professor of astronomy at the Borough of Manhattan Community College. But among her students, There’s not a conception that there’s a place where files live. They just search for it and bring it up.” She added, They have a laundry basket full of laundry, and they have a robot who will fetch them every piece of clothing they want on demand.”

Sure, there are still some exceptions and I feel Matt and I live in those bubbles and represent some of those exceptions.
I’m writing this post using iA Writer and, once finished, I’ll move the file from the Drafts folder, to the Posts one. But I know that’s not what the majority of young people (I’d say under 25 years old) would do. They’d use Medium, or another web service to host their blog and write everything directly in there. Or maybe they would use Bear or Apple Notes to manage their notes, without ever seeing the files that make up those notes.

An international 2018 study that measured eighth-graders’ capacities to use information and computer technologies productively” proclaimed that just 2 percent of Gen Z had achieved the highest digital native” tier of computer literacy. […] But the issue is likely not that modern students are learning fewer digital skills, but rather that they’re learning different ones.


Now, going back to Matt’s take, I wrote all of this to explain how interfaces, and how people interact with them, keep changing. Digital interfaces evolve at a pace where it’s almost impossible to keep up. Sure, we all use the same devices but every generation uses them in a different way.

I wouldn’t be surprised if, in a few generations time, the act of drag-and-dropping gets lost or becomes something that is still available, but only few people knew about it.3

At the same time, the Apple Vision Pro may change everything with the introduction of Spatial Computing. It’s the main thing that excites me about it: it opens the way to a completely new way of interacting with technology.
Drag-and-drop feels right at home in VisionOS and, while I’m not sure Apple got it right yet, things will change, once again.


  1. One of use is wildly out of touch and It’s usually a good sign when you agree with Siracusa↩︎

  2. I don’t think the author a full understanding of the subject at hands, and he’s wrong on how he approached it↩︎

  3. After all, drag-and-drop is not that common on iOS and iPadOS. Sure, it’s there and it works with a lot of apps, but you don’t have to use it and it’s often easier to just tap around. And since apps need to keep a similar user experience on mobile and desktop, only those some gestures that are easy and natural to reproduce on all devices survive.↩︎

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