The New Gmail Sucks

by Henry on January 13, 2012

Doesn’t it though? It looks horrible. The interface is badly designed. Keyboard short cuts do unexpected things like e.g. make your email disappear irrevocably. And while you can temporarily revert back to the old look, they make it clear that they are going to impose the new one on everyone soon, like it or not. Finally, if you do revert to the old style, a ‘switch to the new look’ pop-up keeps on coming up on the lower right hand of the screen, persistently nudging you to accept your destiny like a demented jack-in-the-box from a Thaler/Sunstein scripted horror movie.

It used to be that Google claimed that their motto was ‘don’t be evil.’ Now it appears to be ‘I’m sorry, but we have to be evil to compete with Facebook.’ It was bad enough when they got rid of the social features from Google Reader (which worked very nicely to allow you to see what other people with interesting tastes were looking at), because they wanted to force everyone over to Google Plus. And don’t get me started on the new social search stuff. But crippling Gmail is going too far.

I invite readers who (a) have similar sentiments, and (b) have their own blogs to write posts with the word “gmail” hyperlinked to this post, in order to see whether we can get a bit of a googlebomb going. If nothing else, it would be an interesting experiment in algorithmic politics. Google claim that they can do nothing to help Santorum wipe himself clean of Santorum. But would they tweak their algorithm if their own product were the target? It would be interesting to see.

{ 102 comments }

1

Salient 01.13.12 at 4:34 pm

What’s with the icon pictures replacing ordinary word labels on the buttons? At least the pushing people into Google+ thing is understandably evil; replacing the label “Move to…” with a picture of a closed file folder is just astonishingly daft.

2

politicalfootball 01.13.12 at 4:36 pm

like a demented jack-in-the-box from a Thaler/Sunstein scripted horror movie

Nice.

3

Fearghal 01.13.12 at 4:42 pm

I hated, hated, hated the new interface when I first tried it. But I stuck with it because, as you say, they’re not coy about the inevitability of it all. Now I can’t remember what it was, exactly, that I hated.

There have been a few interface changes in the past (usually Windows stuff ) that I initially hated but eventually came to grudgingly accept were better once you got used to them. Not that I’m saying I think the new GMail is actually better than the old look. I just don’t hate it any more.

4

J. Otto Pohl 01.13.12 at 4:45 pm

I liked the old Gmail better. But, how do you know that the Google people will not further screw with it in retaliation if you write nasty things about them? I do not care if most of the world hates me, but there are certain people you need to stay on good terms with. In the old days this included the mail man. My aunt’s dog once spooked the postal carrier and my uncle had to go to the post office to collect their mail for a year. Now it is your internet providers and services you do not want to anger. Gmail has been better than Yahoo and using only my university e-mail is a problem in that it has a very limited capacity compared to these other services. It is impossible for instance to receive large files using my university e-mail. I would prefer Gmail not to get any worse than it already has.

5

Barry 01.13.12 at 4:48 pm

“Google claim that they can do nothing to help Santorum wipe himself clean of Santorum. But would they tweak their algorithm if their own product were the target? It would be interesting to see.”

Nah, it won’t be interesting, because they will – if it gets to be a noticeable problem.

6

Andreas Moser 01.13.12 at 4:49 pm

What is a Gmail?

7

SjH 01.13.12 at 4:52 pm

Not helping Santorum has to do with not being seen to succumb to pressure from politicians/elected officials, which is not the same as not burying criticism of their own products.

8

TW Andrews 01.13.12 at 4:53 pm

Yes, yes, yes. I hate the new gmail look. If they really do force me over to it at some point, I’ll start looking for a new web mail provider.

9

Kevin 01.13.12 at 4:54 pm

well… the whole googlebomb idea doesn’t exactly seem to be getting off to a roaring start!

10

Kenley Neufeld 01.13.12 at 5:02 pm

I’ve just begun experimenting with the Sparrow mail program (Mac only). All my gmail keyboard shortcuts work and it manages the mail correctly. It’s an alternative if you’re really hating the new interface (and as others have said, I have gotten used to it in the last couple months).

11

Fabrizio Gilardi 01.13.12 at 5:02 pm

Why don’t you just use an email client?

12

Graham 01.13.12 at 5:03 pm

I’m not particularly incensed by Gmail, possibly because I usually work through IMAP. But I will never, ever, ever understand why there was no way to take my Google Reader contacts (which I believe included you, good sir), and export them as a circle in Google+. I almost would have accepted that as an upgrade.

13

Adam Kotsko 01.13.12 at 5:07 pm

I’m almost starting to wonder if it might not be a better idea to use a software client of one’s choice rather than being tied to a web interface that can be arbitrarily changed at any time.

14

odaiwai 01.13.12 at 5:09 pm

Gmail also allows you to use a standard IMAP client to read your email, so that you never need to see the webmail interface.

If you dislike the webmail interface, your options for using Gmail are ‘restricted’ to just about every standard email program ever made, from Mutt or Alpine on Linux to Thunderbird on Mac, Linux, Windows, or the native clients on iPhone/Android/Next/BeOS, etc, yadda, yadda.

15

Thrawn_Lives 01.13.12 at 5:09 pm

I’m assuming you tried changing the density settings, right? After doing that, I like it a lot more. And as far as I can tell, keyboard shortcuts haven’t changed at all. What is different?

16

Henry 01.13.12 at 5:18 pm

bq. Gmail also allows you to use a standard IMAP client to read your email, so that you never need to see the webmail interface.

Given that I’ve been doing teh blogging and stuff for years, I’d have thought that people would have reasonably guessed that I’m familiar with the concepts of IMAP, POP etc (which I am). My point isn’t that there aren’t exit options available via desktop clients. It’s that the existing interface worked pretty well for stuff that IMAP clients don’t always handle nicely – e.g. dealing with long threaded conversations from groups etc. Also, that the ‘if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it because it offends your own aesthetic sensibilities’ thing seems to be hard for tech companies to get. See also, Apple Lion, under the headings of ‘reverse the standard convention for direction of scrolling with mouse, because it annoys Steve Jobs’ sense of universal order, regardless of the fact that everyone has been using it for decades,’ ‘introduce the most annoying system of version control ever‘ and ‘make computers restart running all the programs you had running when you quit unless you click a box every fucking time you exit’ &c&c&c. Nothing, however beats the old Windows XP protocol of having to type in long WEP passwords for wireless networks, without being able to see what you were writing, twice, so that you doubled your chances of having a spelling error and not being able to go further.

17

Tom West 01.13.12 at 5:23 pm

I’m almost starting to wonder if it might not be a better idea to use a software client of one’s choice rather than being tied to a web interface that can be arbitrarily changed at any time.

Such optimism.

There are almost no programs (desktop or web) that I have ever operated that haven’t undergone major UI transformations that I disliked. Worse still, programs that didn’t (because they worked well) were shortly considered obsolete or dead by most of the world for not changing fast enough and went out of business as they shed customers right and left by failing to incorporate the hundreds of new features that I’d never use anyway.

To top it off, of course, I can’t even keep using the old programs because they inevitably don’t work with the new operating system or new protocol that the world has moved to.

So in the end, I pretty much have to accept the fact that companies will change anything I like and those that don’t will go bankrupt, killing the product.

18

Kenneth Cavness 01.13.12 at 5:25 pm

The reason they’ve switched from words to icons is quite simple: It costs less than internationalizing everything. Not everything is iconified, but the fewer words you have to deal with, the less you have to worry about it.

19

J. Otto Pohl 01.13.12 at 5:28 pm

I think Tom West is right in his summary of the history of computer technology. I still miss Netscape.

20

Colin Danby 01.13.12 at 5:34 pm

I agree — how hard can it be to give us more robust choices in the settings? Re clients, is there a way to get the cloud+browser functionality of being device-independent?

Google has never been that good at user interfaces. They know not to make things too ugly or complex, but theirs is still an engineer’s world where interface is afterthought.

Still this is much less bad than the Buzz fiasco. Are our overlords learning?

21

paul 01.13.12 at 5:36 pm

I never use the web interface, so this is not a big deal for me. If you want to gripe abut the changes in Reader, I’m on board for that.

On Tom West’s comment, if I was in charge, anytime a product was made obsolete/reached EOL or otherwise taken off the market, the source code would be liberated for the community to support/extend, whatever. Consider the products that might have been around a little (or a lot) longer.

22

Henry 01.13.12 at 5:39 pm

I understand from someone who has a lot of contacts within Google that the new look is controversial, has provoked grumpiness and pushback from many employees etc, and is the source of some internal division. FWIW.

23

Don A in Pennsyltucky 01.13.12 at 5:46 pm

Use Thunderbird or some other mail client. GMail supports both IMAP and POP so you never have to look at the web interface.

24

MattF 01.13.12 at 6:02 pm

Use a client. First of all, no one has just one email address, and I resist the notion that Google is the place for all my email. With a local client, you have local backup of your mail, you have all your mail in one place that you manage, you can manage archives of old mail… there’s just lots of advantages. I agree that gmail is the best of the online mail clients, but there’s a price, even though it’s ‘free’.

25

MS 01.13.12 at 6:07 pm

I agree about the interface. I still hate it. I am getting used to it but I hate it. I tend to hate most innovations. I think everything went downhill in Word Processing in 1997.

Otto I think you are being alarmist but funny. I do think it might get worse, but not out of revenge.

26

Cian 01.13.12 at 6:11 pm

Its not just bad, its really amateurish. Loads of really basic mistakes that no half decent Interaction Designer would make (IxD 101 if you like). Google have always been bad at the interface stuff, but in recent months they seem to be aiming at Microsoft levels of badness.

27

ScS 01.13.12 at 6:12 pm

The worst part of the change for me is the changing of the icons to symbols only. While I’m sure it’s intended to streamline the look, it’s pretty damn annoying.

28

Salient 01.13.12 at 6:17 pm

If you dislike the webmail interface, your options for using Gmail are ‘restricted’ to just about every standard email program ever made

Noteworthy: Your emails sent to a personal gmail account, checked on a university computer, are subject to fairly comfortable privacy protection (same as if you’d logged into your online bank account). If you use a client installed on a university computer, the emails become local data stored on your work computer, and may be subjected to far less protective privacy policy. Worth checking the technical details of

This is the best (and perhaps only) reason to prefer browser-based SSL email access on one’s work computer; the worst they can do is simply prevent/prohibit access.

29

JulesLt 01.13.12 at 6:21 pm

And that is the problem with ‘cloud’ hosted software – personally I mostly use my gmail account through native mail clients so it doesn’t offend me much, but I am worried that eventually the webmail firms may start to pull IMAP and SMTP access (claiming, probably rightly, that ‘no one uses it’).

The switch over to icons rather than buttons was particularly annoying, because it’s such a case of cargo cult design – Apple did it, so let’s copy it. It’s not the switch from text to icons, so much as the switch to these grey abstract icons, that may as well just be numbers.

30

mds 01.13.12 at 6:26 pm

Professor Farrell, have you considered using an e-mail client program, and connecting via IMAP? I’m surprised absolutely no one in this comment thread has suggested it yet. Unlike web interfaces, e-mail clients never change their defaults in annoying or counterproductive ways. And if they do, well, then clearly you weren’t using the right e-mail client (Hint: it’s Mutt), just like you should never have been using Gmail’s browser interface to begin with.

31

Alex 01.13.12 at 6:27 pm

a Thaler/Sunstein scripted horror movie

“Have you considered zombiedom?”

“Please take a moment to review the benefits of zombiedom – like brrains!”

“Katie and Steve became zombies today! Click here to see which of your Facebook friends are zombies!”

“7 people in your street have joined the ranks of the undead. Don’t miss out!”

32

Bruce Baugh 01.13.12 at 6:47 pm

Oh ugh. Yes. The interface changes to Reader, YouTube, GMail, and the rest are fascinating to me for being pretty much purely bad. Not one of them has made anything I do easier, less prone to accidental error, more informative, or anything else good. I’ve given up on Reader altogether in favor of Reeder on my iPad, and dabbling suggests that GMail may also be a lot less ghastly that way. G-Whizz does decently for mail and G+, at least. (Sparrow looks neat, and I’m thinking of giving it a try.)

I’m erratically visually impaired, and the hiding scrollbars and such are just awful for navigating when I’m not resolving things well. I’m sure a thorough accessibility analysis would turn up many, many more stupid, easily avoidable problems, too.

33

Substance McGravitas 01.13.12 at 6:48 pm

Use Thunderbird or some other mail client.

Then it becomes a pain in the ass to sync accounts when travelling from machine to machine, and yes I know there are solutions to that, but I don’t want to solve a problem I didn’t have until things got “improved”.

34

Richard 01.13.12 at 7:02 pm

Try Hotmail for a change. You can hook your gmail address up to it.

35

Tedra Osell 01.13.12 at 7:07 pm

The new gmail interface is the least of Google’s evildoing.

36

William Timberman 01.13.12 at 7:08 pm

I’m old-fashioned. I get my e-mail on three different devices, from three different servers, a modest number of sources and destinations by todays standards. I use a native client on each device, and POP rather than IMAP, largely because I don’t like deleting a message on one device and having it disappear on the other two whether I want it to or not. Access isn’t an issue for me, and storage isn’t either. Web-based e-mail clients don’t make any sense at all in my environment, even though I’d be able to make use them if stuck somewhere where an Internet café was my only alternative. Web applications are definitely better than they once were, but IMNSHO, are still not up to the standards of a client application running native on one’s own machine.

37

Curmudgeon 01.13.12 at 7:12 pm

@Salient:

Nearly every work computer owned by businesses large enough to have a full-time IT staff will be loaded with administrative surveillance tools designed to capture every key you type into a stream of locally stored data retained for review by management.

All you get by using webmail is a false sense of security.

38

Henry 01.13.12 at 7:20 pm

bq. Nearly every work computer owned by businesses large enough to have a full-time IT staff will be loaded with administrative surveillance tools designed to capture every key you type into a stream of locally stored data retained for review by management.

Evidence for this claim??? Certainly there is some monitoring, but if you think that all or nearly all businesses with IT staff are doing keystroke logging, you are wildly wrong. Even if it were cost-effective to track etc, which it really isn’t, the legal issues are pretty stark if there is ever any dispute about whether your firm or your employees have been naughty – any information that you retained like this is potentially subject to discovery. That kind of extensive surveillance simply does not make sense for management teams in most industries (you may _have_ to have extensive monitoring in a few tightly regulated ones) with even vaguely competent lawyers.

39

Substance McGravitas 01.13.12 at 7:25 pm

Nearly every work computer owned by businesses large enough to have a full-time IT staff will be loaded with administrative surveillance tools

As Henry says, this is not necessarily true. It adds a LOT to the cost of overhead to police people. Not that IT guys and their managers don’t like justifying a larger budget…

40

Cian 01.13.12 at 7:27 pm

Nearly every work computer owned by businesses large enough to have a full-time IT staff will be loaded with administrative surveillance tools designed to capture every key you type into a stream of locally stored data retained for review by management.

Do you have even the vaguest idea how much that would cost? Ignoring all the other problems with such a thing, the cost alone would be prohibitive, while the benefits would be questionable unless you also had screen shots…

41

basil 01.13.12 at 7:30 pm

That’ll be the least of Google’s doing evil.

42

basil 01.13.12 at 7:31 pm

43

bjkeefe 01.13.12 at 7:35 pm

I am so glad to know I am not alone. New post up linking to this one, also. Let’s get the Googlebomb rolling!

44

dsquared 01.13.12 at 7:35 pm

Thinking about it, the “Saw” series of movies were basically about someone who wanted to “nudge” drug addicts and people who were displaying suboptimal behaviours into a more productive frame of mind, using the psychological apt and nonpaternalist device of trapping them in a horrific maze of torture traps.

45

Tedra Osell 01.13.12 at 7:44 pm

Am I the only one who sometimes wishes CT had the option of “liking” comments, ala Facebook?

Yes, I am ashamed to be asking that question.

46

lightbuzyear 01.13.12 at 8:06 pm

aaah-HA! So, I’m not the only one who had the initial first impression that “it sucks”; I even took the time to fill out the “What’s your opinion (as if we care) questionaire.” What was I thinking? The only thing it’s got going for it is that “G-Mail” doesn’t sound as silly as “Yahoo Mail.” If I could figure out how to configure Outlook, G-Mail could kiss my *ss.

47

Anderson 01.13.12 at 8:09 pm

Nearly every work computer owned by businesses large enough to have a full-time IT staff will be loaded with administrative surveillance tools

And yet, I continue to be employed. Huh.

… I started using Gmail only when my work switched over to it (no more Outlook, no more in-house e-mail servers), so I suppose I came on board with the “new look.” It’s rather ugly, with a strange lack of choice as to fonts (the default’s letters are spidery-thin so as to impair readability), but I’m not heading to the barricades.

48

Salient 01.13.12 at 8:10 pm

All you get by using webmail is a false sense of security.

No no, the false sense of security is what I get from playing D&D on the weekends with a couple of the IT managers at my university and letting their characters take all the coolest items. (That, and heads-ups sometimes months in advance of potential changes coming down the pipeline.)

FWIW, I’ll also note that the suggestion to use a non-university SSL-secure^1^ https webmail client came from those same IT folks, when I asked about sensible intimidation countermeasures. (I am also going to forward them a link to Curmudgeon’s comment, because they are going to find it hilarious.)

^1^bonus points if you feel the urge to ask me about typing number-PINs into the machine-ATM, but I’m too lazy to rewrite the sentence

49

sean 01.13.12 at 8:16 pm

Give up — you’re helpless. This is why I (still) use Yahoo for mail, either Bing or Scroogle for searches, and Privoxy to block as much of Google’s stalking stuff(ers) as I can.

50

js. 01.13.12 at 8:21 pm

Am I the only one not getting all the hate? I mean I don’t think it’s awesome, but I’m not seeing why it’s so much worse than before. FWIW, I think Thrawn_Lives @15 is exactly right, and I also found that changing the background color helped with the look.

51

Anderson 01.13.12 at 8:26 pm

… Ok, I’ve figured how to revert my work Gmail to the old look. It’s ugly too. Y’all were kidding yourselves if you ever thought otherwise.

52

bemused 01.13.12 at 8:56 pm

If you use Firefox, install the add-on “Google redesigned”. It makes the interfaces very attractive and usable. (I found it by reading the gripes about the new look and feel on the Google forums when my mail, reader and calendar changed).

53

Colin Danby 01.13.12 at 9:05 pm

54

Kyle Maxwell 01.13.12 at 9:06 pm

An interface you don’t like and actual evil interfaces are not the same thing.

55

Alex 01.13.12 at 9:09 pm

Absolutely. Though the lack of words is notable, the two major reasons why the new interface sucks are:

1) Google is visually trying to distract you from actually checking your mail. My current setup (I’ve “temporarily” switched back 10 times now) has a nice contrast between my email and the rest of the junk on the GMail page. When I sign in, my inbox pops out, and I can immediately tell how many message I have. The new format tries to blend the message area with the rest of the page, so your eye is easily distracted. In conversation view, they have added pictures next to every person’s name. Why? Email is about words.

2) Google is functionally trying to distract your from checking your mail. In the new version, keyboard shortcuts are almost unusable. They’ve made the indicator nearly invisible.

GMail was a killer app because of 1) simplicity, 2) labels, 3) keyboard shortcuts, and 4) offline mail. They’ve already killed (4), and they are working on eliminating (1) and (3). I’ve done my best to keep Gmail clean (no chat, no tasks, no Buzz, etc.). I don’t know any desktop client that handles labels well, otherwise I’d be using it.

56

jpe 01.13.12 at 9:11 pm

Use Thunderbird or some other mail client. GMail supports both IMAP and POP so you never have to look at the web interface.

I did that for awhile until Thunderbird stopped downloading my emails from the server. Granted, I’m not super techy and probably wasn’t using best practices, but I shouldn’t have to be.

57

christian_h 01.13.12 at 10:01 pm

I’m with js. I barely notice the difference. Then of course I’m not using keyboard commands – I probably receive by orders of magnitude less mail than a blogger would.

58

Anderson 01.13.12 at 10:07 pm

An interface you don’t like and actual evil interfaces are not the same thing.

But it would be cool to design an *evil* interface, just for kicks. Pop-up: “I’m sorry, did you mean to save that, not delete it? Too late!”

59

Tim Wilkinson 01.13.12 at 11:06 pm

Yeah it was all over the place, stupid icons I have no intention of learning, etc. Immediately reverted to the old look.

I assume they are tracking how many people do so, so I’m pleased to see lots of other people agree, and maybe they’ll not try to make me change it again. Perhaps, just for once, a simple basic program that performs adequately can just be LEFT ALONE FFS. The sooner these idiots get it into their heads that these products are not ‘sexy’ or ‘cool’ or any of the rest of it, the better. It’s as if some bunch of lunatics kept taking it upon themselves to redesign the eggbox or the sock or something every year or so, just for the sake of it.

I blame Markets.

60

Gary 01.13.12 at 11:18 pm

Agreed. Between their terrible gmail interface, their new search page which integrates google+ that is a giant mess, and privacy concerns, I am done with Google.

61

Bart 01.13.12 at 11:18 pm

My biggest beef is that the visual difference between the read and not-read messages in a mailbox is not great enough to discern easily. The old version made it easier by having stronger shading differences. And I have tried jiggling the relevant settings.

Another is the slight delay when placing a check mark and when it actually shows up in the left most box in each message.

62

Luis 01.14.12 at 12:27 am

I agree—how hard can it be to give us more robust choices in the settings?

Quite hard. Or more to the point, it’s expensive; and the expenses are not just up front- they are an ongoing expense. The classic essay on this point is by Havoc Pennington; while the piece is titled “Free software UI“, the passage on “The Question of Preferences” preferences (what you’ve called “choices in the settings”) applies to all software, Free, proprietary, or otherwise. Among the reasons he lists why preferences are costly:

* Too many preferences means you can’t find any of them.

* Preferences really substantively damage QA and testing.

* Preferences make integration and good UI difficult.

* Preferences keep people from fixing real bugs.

* Preferences can confuse many users.

More generally, while I’m not necessarily a huge fan of some of the design choices in the new gmail, they are all of the “you’ll get used to them in a week” variety- they’re subtle changes and tweaks. Trust me (having been the “bad guy” who changed people’s software on them in the past)- this isn’t primarily about gmail’s changes, this is primarily about people’s aversion to change.

That said, the Google Reader changes were of a different character- they gutted existing functionality (rather than tweaking it) and they did it in a bad way. It would have been perfectly possible to “port” the greader social functionality to the G+ platform. Yes, you would have been forced to use G+ (a definite negative for some people), but existing social groups and mechanisms for sharing (keyboard shortcuts, roughly the same UI) could have been preserved, using G+ as the platform. Why they didn’t do that, I have no idea.

Finally, a pro tip: if you care about the icons on the buttons, take that as a hint to learn the keyboard shortcuts and ignore the buttons/icons altogether. You’ll be a faster, more efficient, happier user. To see the shortcuts, go to settings, find “keyboard shortcuts”, make sure it is “on”, and then hit “?”.

63

beachcomber 01.14.12 at 1:08 am

I hate the new design.

64

Happy Heyoka 01.14.12 at 1:09 am

As a studly alpha nerd, I was going to mention using another client… all web based user interfaces are pretty universally awful compared to well written native clients.
You have to be a computer user/studly alpha nerd of a certain age to realise that.

So, how about instead:

Never look a gift horse in the mouth

I have a couple of gmail accounts, but I’m under no illusions that this is the best possible way to do email.
I ran my own mail server for a while, if you currently have a domain name and co-located machine somewhere, you can too.
But don’t forget that the business of running a mail server is like the proverbial duck swimming – you get pretty good value for money with gmail.

65

Dennis McGuire 01.14.12 at 1:18 am

Ditto to all the above! I knew I couldn’t be the only one angry about this, and I expressed it to the Gods of The Google and The Gmail via their Comments page. But I was commenting as a lone individual and an individual is easy to ignore. This approach is better. Let us become thousands and then millions. Power to the Peeples!

66

Down and Out of Sài Gòn 01.14.12 at 1:23 am

The things I hate most about the Gmail changes? They killed the colour contrast. Before, light blue shading was used to separate components in the list window. It was subtle, but it helped. Now it’s gone. The interface is resultingly less readable. What were they thinking?

67

Down and Out of Sài Gòn 01.14.12 at 1:47 am

Tim Wilkinson@up above – you “reverted to the old look”. Did you use Firefox Stylish like myself? I immediately installed it after my post #64 and the contrast is back. I feel better already.

68

Luis 01.14.12 at 1:49 am

all web based user interfaces are pretty universally awful compared to well written native clients.

First, let me trump your alpha nerdness by saying that I spent a year of my life deeply involved in the creation of an email client. As Mitt Romney is to capitalism, I am to email- in the 0.001 percent, if not quite the 0.0001 percent; and not actually doing the hard work myself but damn well involved in it.

But I don’t use my own email client anymore, because gmail is better. Gmail is better because the underlying mental model of email is superior to that of any native client I’ve ever seen (other than, say, gmail for Android). Notably, it is search-focused (folders are an awful mental model for email- lots of context switching costs) and conversation-focused (the old “thread-as-tree” model is also awful). Once you’ve internalized these two things, going back to a traditional mail client is a wretched, awful experience.

I have no doubt that a native client that truly grokked and internalized those features (possible) and made them work over IMAP (hah- somewhere between difficult and impossible) could be superior to the same concepts as delivered through the web, but no one has done that yet.

69

Colin Danby 01.14.12 at 1:54 am

Thanks Luis for a thoughtful response but I’m not persuaded. To number your reasons:

1. Too many preferences means you can’t find any of them.
2. Preferences really substantively damage QA and testing.
3. Preferences make integration and good UI difficult.
4. Preferences keep people from fixing real bugs.
5. Preferences can confuse many users.

1 and 5 seem more or less the same, and are beside the point: I’m willing to go to the work, once, of looking up where the relevant setting is buried in the menu system and going in and making the change. This is routine with software of all kinds: the settings/options/preferences are never intuitive and you have to hunt, but once done it’s done. 2 and 4 amount to saying that Google is more interested in streamlining its development process than in giving me a usable interface. And re 3, (a) we’re arguing that the new design is clearly worse — that these are NOT “subtle changes and tweaks” – have you actually read the thread? — (b) we have the choice now, just with a little harassment from Google and ( c) when it suits Google you get lots of choices e.g. in customized home pages or Google Sites.

70

Down and Out of Sài Gòn 01.14.12 at 2:20 am

More to the point, preferences are necessary. There are too many choices available in designing software; UI designers cannot be trusted to get them right 100% of the time. When they get the choice wrong, and don’t allow users to contest their decision, that’s when the user base gets really unhappy.

71

faustusnotes 01.14.12 at 2:33 am

What are you people talking about? Screw simplicity, layout and keyboard shortcuts. I want my ninjas back!!!!

72

Cian 01.14.12 at 2:45 am

More generally, while I’m not necessarily a huge fan of some of the design choices in the new gmail, they are all of the “you’ll get used to them in a week” variety- they’re subtle changes and tweaks.

They’re really not. Several of them are textbook examples of usability failures. I’m sure people will get used to them, but then people got used to windows 3.1

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Cian 01.14.12 at 2:50 am

There are too many choices available in designing software; UI designers cannot be trusted to get them right 100% of the time.

Good UI designers do usability testing. Its been clear for a while now that google don’t do usability testing.

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js. 01.14.12 at 3:16 am

Alex @55 and others:

Try changing the background color (through Themes) — the message area stands out much more clearly (agreed this is a problem on the default setting). Unrelatedly, don’t quite understand people having problems with keyboard shortcuts — they work fine for me on the new version. And personally, I like the icons — they’re pretty straightforward, no? And a bit cleaner-looking I find.

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Down and Out of Sài Gòn 01.14.12 at 6:35 am

But Google must have doneusability testing in the past. The reason so many people got themselves gmail accounts was that it was so much better on so many levels than the Hotmail or Yahoo! equivalents – and gmail would have been the result of iterated usability testing over a large period. Google management are deluding themselves if they think the “brand” brought them overboard.

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Phil Ruse 01.14.12 at 10:30 am

Use Hotmail for a week and then come back – you’ll feel a lot better!

I really like the new interface, with the exception (as Salient nots at the top) of those grey blobs masquerading as icons. It took me a while but my gut feel is options are better laid out because – generally – I find them more intuitively.

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James Joyner 01.14.12 at 1:09 pm

Apparently, I’m supposed to use this space to ask whether you’ve considered using some sort of external client. Otherwise, it’s inexplicably that 50-odd people made that suggestion after it was first made.

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Walt 01.14.12 at 1:44 pm

James Joyner makes a good point. Have you considered using an external client?

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bjkeefe 01.14.12 at 2:22 pm

@Tedra (#45):

Am I the only one who sometimes wishes CT had the option of “liking” comments, ala Facebook?

Yes, I am ashamed to be asking that question.

I don’t think you should be. Or maybe I should be? But in any case, I’ve long wished every commenting system had a like button, because how many times can one type LOL or Second that or similar?

‘Course, on CT in particular, that button would so worn out the admins’d have to be changing it out every week or so.

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bjkeefe 01.14.12 at 2:23 pm

(Sorry I screwed up the blockquote in #79. First non-bqed sentence should be part of the bq.)

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Hob 01.14.12 at 2:23 pm

I’m not sure why I’m bothering to correct Kenneth @18 since it’s clear that he’s never used the software in question, but: if the switch to icons were actually motivated by not wanting to do internationalization, then there would not be internationalized textual descriptions that appear whenever you hover over the icons.

82

Cahokia 01.14.12 at 4:15 pm

U been listed on a news agg. for two days; good. You are not on the tech agg. side of the site (or cross-linked as they do); bad (ie. techmeme.com).
http://www.memeorandum.com/120113/p101#a120113p101 (listing)

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Brad Nickel 01.14.12 at 4:17 pm

Bravo!!! It is the most poorly designed interface from Google ever. Difficult, windows inside of windows. It’s as bad as Windows 3.1 and maybe worse. I was just sitting here contemplating going back to an email client since I use one on my iOS device, may as well on Windows. I am too dependent on Gmail infrastructure, but may have to change that as well. Interesting to see both Facebook and Google clueless about user needs at the same time.

84

JW Mason 01.14.12 at 5:48 pm

Re the changes to google search, interesting to see Gizmodo (not at all a political site) compare “the Google of today” with

the Google you fell in love with, the one that put your search results above its financial ones.

Seems like a nice teachable moment to to point to the difference between markets and capitalism. In a market, it’s a sufficient basis for an enterprise’s continued existence that it produces a product that people want to buy, at a cost lower than what people will pay for it. Under capitalism there’s an imperative to maximize profits and growth, even if at the risk of destroying your core business. There’s a reason why Google is willing to cannibalize search to build up its social network.

85

Sharon 01.14.12 at 6:01 pm

Who came up with this new change? I like the old one better.

86

Salient 01.14.12 at 6:47 pm

I like the icons—they’re pretty straightforward, no?

Indeed, who doesn’t see “stock image of closed empty file folder” and immediately think “ah, that’s the button for attributing label X to the emails I’ve just selected!”? It’s so…. straightforward!

Admittedly, when I see a closed empty file folder, I think…. ah, that’s the button for archive! …but no, the button for archive is… an empty box, apparently. (If you were a little more like me, you’d probably normally think of a box as a recycling box, where for the past five years you’ve been tossing your paper junk when utterly done with it. No, this box — with no lid — is apparently for storage.)

Oh, and when you realize with no small sense of alarm that yet again you’ve clicked the wrong thing and done something drastically unintended, there’s a helpful button you immediately notice — a stop sign! With an exclamation point! Surely that’s the button for ‘undo whatever the hell it just did allegedly on my behalf and with my encouragement,’ no? If there’s anything an exclamatory stop sign button is for, it’s for standing athwart your recent-actions history yelling Stop!

But no, that’s the button to report spam. I rest my case.

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Jerome Armstrong 01.14.12 at 6:49 pm

Concur. “How in the hell did this happen?” Should be on the mond of whoever is running the company.

I’ve tried to adopt three times, each time bailing to the more simpler to use old gmail. I don’t feel like documenting the crapola that now represents gmail “new” as they obviously are intent on imposing it anyway.

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Wax Banks 01.14.12 at 9:30 pm

Keyboard short cuts do unexpected things like e.g. make your email disappear irrevocably.

Which shortcut does this refer to? I’ve never run into a Gmail keyboard shortcut problem that didn’t reduce, after a bit of investigation, to ‘I hit the wrong key’ or ‘I forgot the shortcut.’

See also, Apple Lion, under the headings of ‘reverse the standard convention for direction of scrolling with mouse, because it annoys Steve Jobs’ sense of universal order, regardless of the fact that everyone has been using it for decades,’…

There are non-dumb complaints in this post and comment thread but this is not one of them. (1) You can revert the scrolling style if you like. (2) It takes a couple of days, tops, to get used to the new scrolling direction. (3) Mice will soon disappear and touchscreen displays/pads will soon be everywhere; the scrolling change in Lion is very useful preparation for that. (4) If you’re not using a mouse, you’re almost certainly using a trackpad, and this is the logical way to scroll on a touch-based device like a trackpad. Simple physical/interface analogy and it’s a good thing on balance.

It’s not difficult to understand, Henry. And it’s silly to worry about what everybody’s been doing for decades — analogously, I’m all for widely-available general-purpose computation but the average human being flatly doesn’t ever need to browse a filesystem, and it’s a bit silly to moan about the end of bare file browsing as a standard interface…

The new Gmail look is terrible but the use of the word ‘evil’ here is embarrassing. ‘Incompetent’ works perfectly well — as does, say, ‘totally maladapted to a world in which actual human beings do things for/with other human beings, instead of programs.’

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Wax Banks 01.14.12 at 9:32 pm

Salient@86:

Admittedly, when I see a closed empty file folder, I think…. ah, that’s the button for archive! …but no, the button for archive is… an empty box, apparently. (If you were a little more like me, you’d probably normally think of a box as a recycling box, where for the past five years you’ve been tossing your paper junk when utterly done with it. No, this box—with no lid—is apparently for storage.)

Aren’t these just witless but well-intentioned adoptions of the conventions for, say, the iPhone/iPad mail clients?

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js. 01.14.12 at 10:26 pm

@86:

I see what you mean; I guess I never payed all that much attention — since the relative positioning of the buttons was the same, I got used to the new symbols/icons pretty quickly.

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Mike 01.15.12 at 1:31 am

Mice will soon disappear and touchscreen displays/pads will soon be everywhere.

How am I supposed to do anything useful on a 30″ monitor that I sit three feet away from as a touch interface? Not. Gonna. Happen.

Maybe 90% of people don’t need a mouse, but as a systems admin who sometimes is remoted into 20 different servers at the same time, a touch interface just will not do.

And yes, I do need to browse the file system. Often.

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maja 01.15.12 at 4:28 am

I hate the new gmail too, but you get used to it after a while.

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Down and Out of Sài Gòn 01.15.12 at 7:56 am

I’m slightly negative on the “Like” button issue. Let people think up their own complements. For example, JW Mason’s fine, fine comment on “the teachable moment to to point to the difference between markets and capitalism” gets a “Well said!” from me.

Paradoxically, “Unlike” buttons may be a better idea, as it is probably not a good idea for people to think up their own detriments. For example, there’s one silly poster up thread who seems to thinks it’s ok for IT companies to change their UI at whim as long as it can be inconveniently changed back. I was going to reply to this at great length, and then decided to scrub it. Let’s just say that most people outgrow tug-of-war games in their pre-teens.

Google is not the only IT company that has annoyed users through arbitrary UI decisions. Canonical – the company behind the Linux distro Ubuntu – have really alienated people by forcing a new desktop environment on them. The desktop is supposedly better for touch screen devices, and perhaps Canonical could cash it later. But driving people off to other distributions in the present is stupid, is it not?

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Phill 01.15.12 at 1:32 pm

This thread reminds me of friends who automatically hate any new album by an artist they love or any sequel to a movie they like (or new version of an old movie). Seems like this is less about Google being evil and more about disliking the unfamiliar in a familiar context. Sure, some of the changes are inconvenient, such as the keyboard shortcuts, or ill advised such as the changes to Reader, but I don’t think that makes Google an evil company. Chances are, if you don’t like a change, others don’t like it either, so find the complaint forum and add your voice to it. Maybe they’ll fix it. I had no problem at all with the change; in fact, I think the new design is much more attractive and the UI has some new features that I really like. My experience is that with UI changes in any service, such as an operating system or Facebook, there’s a contingent of people who automatically hate it. Personally, I am always excited by UI changes. Whenever Windows 7 updates, I hope that there will be some noticeable change to the design of the UI or something that will make the experience different (of course, they never do that until they upgrade the OS to a new version). Changes give you an opportunity to explore a familiar space and learn new contingencies in that space, and it spices up something that has become routine and unnoticeable–it makes life more interesting.

95

Stewart Dean 01.15.12 at 3:02 pm

J. Otto Pohl:
“I think Tom West is right in his summary of the history of computer technology. I still miss Netscape.”

I still miss Wordstar. The text navigation was killer….when the Cntrl key was where the CapsLock key is now and you could fly through text by just sticking out your pinkie, holding it down and then moving a character/word/page with the virtual cursore diamond. Who was it that made that move?

Oh, yes, the world improves, and computer are every curmudgeon’s justification for ill-humor……….

And there is very, very little, I “Like”

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paul 01.15.12 at 4:37 pm

Can’t stand my GMAIL anymore, so much so that I am sorry I ever got a sorry-ass gmail account that all of my friends/family/and clients now have.
WHY? For one, ANY person who has EVER contacted me – mostly for business- gets added to my contact list and uploaded to my fricken phone! We, their consumer, have no way of setting up any preferences except for an all or nothing option- either ALL these people become our contacts, or they don’t. -( No modifier for contacts without phone numbers to be deleted from what gets uploaded onto my phone)….so ridiculous.
Oh, I could go through the 2000+ contacts and hand pick the 500 I actually want. I did that once a year ago- 3 hours- and now, a year later, am back to the same shit.
I just wonder what fricken assholes are actually coming up with this shit at gmail/google?

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cian 01.15.12 at 5:00 pm

Wax Banks – I was going to respond and say that there is a whole literature on why going against learnt and cultural conventions in UIs is a really bad idea; as is assuming what the average user does, and doesn’t, need to do. But then I read the rest of the post and realised that engaging with rapid Apple Fanboism was probably not going to be a productive use of my time.

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Roger 01.15.12 at 7:32 pm

I am still furious at the killing of Google Notebook.

But if it dispels the illusion that the interwebs is some anarcho-communistic geek utopia I suppose its all to the greater good.

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Down and Out of Sài Gòn 01.16.12 at 12:23 am

Changes give you an opportunity to explore a familiar space and learn new contingencies in that space, and it spices up something that has become routine and unnoticeable—it makes life more interesting.

Life certainly became more exciting at the nuclear station when they rolled out the new UI for the controlling software. Just to streamline things up, the developers decided to remove all the failsafes and warning dialogs…

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Phill 01.16.12 at 1:28 pm

@Down and Out of Sài Gòn

Haha, touché!

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Down and Out of Sài Gòn 01.16.12 at 11:57 pm

Fair enough, Phill.

I think it’s a little silly to compare UI update frustration to automatically hat[ing] any new album by an artist one loves. A lot of people have difficulty with UIs at the best of times, and sometimes even the slightest change can lead to full-on anxiety. (Thank god my mum uses Yahoo! for her email. It’s not cool nor hip, but it works.) And there are far more interesting things out there than dealing with recalcitrant software.

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Jeremy Allen 01.17.12 at 1:59 am

Just started using Sparrow for OS X on my Mac. It is a nice minimalist replacement for Gmail but still has plenty of features – integrates with Dropbox to send attachments.

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