How do you use tags vs groups for data management?

Hi all,

I am currently on the DTPO trial and am trying to figure out if it will work for me. I currently use Evernote and make use of tags heavily, but as I understand things in DTPO, were I to migrate, in order to take full advantage of the AI I should have a methodology more focused on groups organized by topics. I came to this idea by reading both Stuart’s series on the blog here where he mentions using tags for “provenance”, which I believe comes from here.

This got me thinking about strategy of groups vs tags and how to organize the two for long term ability to get the most out of DTPO. Looking for feedback on how others using groups and tags.

Thanks –

my strategy has evolved over time and I have never been satisfied, including with my current system.

I use DTPO for a number of different aspects of my life, but I’ll describe my work usage. For my work I use DTPO primarily to organize research materials such as academic journal articles and the various government/media/policy documents that inform my research.

I use groups to organize these files roughly by substantive topic area, theoretical framing, or stakeholder (e.g., if the document is a policy document or open letter from stakeholder). Inevitably, many articles will span multiple categories (e.g., using Theory X to discuss Substantive Topic Area Y), so I will replicate articles as needed.

I use tags to bring resources from those groups together under a single project tag. Sometimes I will create sub-tags for more granular organization for a given project, for example, separating articles about research methods from articles directly related to the substantive topic I am writing about.

My system is constantly evolving. While currently the system mostly works, I know it could serve me much better with some tweaking. These things are always ongoing processes.

Hopefully this gives you a bit of taxonomical inspiration.

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Thanks for the reply. The use of tags for a project is an interesting idea… in my GTD’esque system I am using groups/folders for projects. Not seeing much use for tags at this point in my new setup but I’m sure it will evolve. This is very different from my almost completely tag-centric Evernote system.

The big taxonomical advantage of tags is that an item can have multiple tags, while traditionally speaking an item can only live in one folder/group. (I like to use the file-folder/sticky note analogy. If you have a paper document, that document can only exist in a single file folder. You can, however, affix as many sticky note labels as you’d like to that document).

[from a true file system perspective, getting down to the technical nitty gritty, there is actually zero distinction between tags and folders, at least in terms of a conventional computer filesystem. A “folder/directory” is just an attribute of a file, and in theory a file could have multiple “folder/directory” attributes, but the chosen analogy for decades has been that a file has only one folder/directory attribute].

However, in DEVONthink, the distinction between groups and tags is fairly arbitrary, particularly with the ability to use replicants. Since you can replicate a document into as many groups as you see fit. So in my system, I could very easily just abandon tags, using groups for both coarse subject matter organizing and projects, replicating as needed.

What matters in the end is that you can get your work done, not that you are using every feature that is made available to you. If you are finding your way forward without tags, then perhaps you don’t need to force tags into your process, at least not yet. If with time you find a need for tags, then you can start working them in!

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This is indeed technically true but people can run into issues not realizing replicants are instances of each other. This means ANY change to one instance propagates to all instances. If you step on your own toes often with this, duplicate and Tag is a better option. Just something to consider.

And this is sage advice I also give to people. DEVONthink is deep like Photoshop. Use what you need, but allow time for play and discovery.

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Here’s my (still basic) use case, as it hasn’t been very long since I’ve begun using DTP.

I am a freelancer, so naturally I work for more than one client. I have a database for each client, and at least for now, each client is a specialist in a certain field or industry.

Within each database, I have top-level groups that are as follows: current ongoing project, written materials, audio materials, miscellaneous materials (this one is still empty). The current project group has all of the materials relevant to that project - PDFs, PowerPoint slides, A/V, etc. The other groups all have different materials from previous projects that are relevant to the client’s specialty, and they are divided first by the type of material they are, hence the different groups.

So where does tagging fit in all this? Let’s say I have done work for a development aid client, and I was involved in projects at three countries. The tags I would put on all those files would be words or phrases that are relevant, such as the country name, the type of document (annual report, etc) and some of the general topics the documents cover (agriculture, micro finance, gender empowerment, rural development, primary education, etc.). I (try to) do this upon receipt of the document, so when the project is over, I’ll just sort them in the top-level groups.

Another thing to consider: A Tag is NOT a permanent attribute. Our late, beloved Bill DeVille was well known for his use of temporary tags, removing many when he was finished with a particular project.

One way to approach tags vs groups (and this is just one viewpoint) think of groups as containing nouns and tags as defining adjectives.


My use of tags is somewhat similar to Scott’s above, and it seems I inadvertently took Bill’s advice re: temporary tags. I use folders/groups heavily in all of my databases, but assign tags to items for specific projects as they arise. When a project is completed, the tags are removed. When starting a project, I use the built-in “see also” to find things across my databases that will be assigned a tag. After over 10 years of using DTPO, I still find documents I didn’t know I had.

Curating tags is a lot of work with not much return on investment, I’ve always found. Tagging can never be better than the Search and See Also features of DEVONthink. Bill DeVille was a great polymath and researcher, in part because of his minimalist techniques. He taught me that the discovery tools in DEVONthink (especially See Also) were far more time-efficient and productive for advancing his research projects than tags. He would rather focus on the end product than tweak widgety things like tags. That’s part of what lead to his “temporary tag” approach.

In general I agree that the Search and See Also features of DTPO are a pleasure to use and tend to yield surprisingly helpful und unexpected results. However, in a research environment with multilingual sources the AI-capabilities necessarily fail. That is where tagging/grouping comes into play IMHO.