“Gmail revealed to me my email behavior — something I hadn’t previously given much thought.”
At least several times a year, I try (I really do) to set up folders to sort my email. I am an information architect, after all. Setting up folders is, according to my job description, my area of expertise. Actually, I suck at setting up folders for email.
Email is hard to sort into a strict taxonomy because:
- Most messages could live in more than one category.
- Personal and business priorities may shift several times a year, rendering email taxonomies obsolete.
Gmail is Google’s foray into the free email market, and attempts to address these inherent limitations. Typical of Google, they avoided putting out just another email service. Put aside the controversy about the privacy invasion, and Google’s email interface is remarkably innovative. (My exposure to email handlers is limited to Outlook, Outlook Express, Entourage, and various online email services. Gmail’s approach may be old news to you.)
Gmail revealed to me my email behavior — something I hadn’t previously given much thought. By making certain things easier (and others more difficult), Gmail showed me how “typical” email applications weren’t necessarily designed according to how I used them.
Messages in threads
I’ve already mentioned categorizing emails, a behavior most email programs expect users to do. Instead, Gmail bundles messages together in threads. A reply to one of your messages, therefore, does not appear as a separate message in the long queue of messages in your inbox. Instead, it simply is appended to the end of the thread. In the inbox, the thread is highlighted in bold to show that there is a new message.
By keeping all the messages together in a single thread, it’s easier to follow a conversation. More importantly, it doesn’t bog down the inbox with lots of messages with the same subject line.
Google introduced some nice interface elements in both the inbox and in the message view to make it easy for users to adapt to this unusual approach.
In the inbox, threads with new messages get promoted to the top and the total number of messages in the thread is indicated near the subject line. One of my favorite features is that the “From” field indicates the last three people to contribute to a thread. So if I’m emailing with my wife on something related to our home renovation, the From field would show “me, Sarah (7),” showing that we’ve exchanged seven messages.
In the case of emailing with friends throughout the day, the From field might show “Nate, James, Eric (5),” showing that of the five messages exchanged, Nate, James, and Eric were the last three contributors. (It may be worthwhile to have some indicator of whether they were the ONLY contributors to a thread or if there were more.)
When displaying the thread itself, Gmail shows the messages in the order they were received, with the oldest one at the top. This may seem inconvenient, but Gmail hides all but the headers of the older emails, so the newest email is easily above the fold. The header includes the name of the person who posted the thread, a little teaser from the message, and the date it was posted. Clicking on the header of any given message reveals it without leaving the screen.
In a sense, threading messages is like putting them in folders, with each folder being a different thread. Messages, therefore, are pre-categorized, removing that burden from the user. In my case, this is an enormous relief, since I’m not much of a Message Categorizer. (There is no way, according to Gmail Help, to ungroup a message from its thread. But we’ll see shortly that it is unnecessary.)
The reply function appears at the bottom of the page, which could present problems if you’re looking at an especially long message. (The problems with unsnipped quoted messages become readily apparent.) With short messages, this doesn’t present a problem because the reply function is sufficiently above the fold and scrolling is unnecessary.
The annoyance of occasionally having to scroll to reply revealed that I’m equally likely to hold off replying to a message as I am replying to it right away. Sometimes, I’ll wait until later in the day or week to have time to reply to it. For a long message on Gmail, this means scrolling down to the bottom of the page to reach the reply function on a message I’ve already read.
Archive it and forget it
Another behavior I’m loath to admit is that I’m a packrat, and email servers and I have never gotten along because of it. At least once a week, I get scolded that I’ve used up too much space in my inbox. My Yahoo! Mail account goes weeks at a time with a warning message at the top of every page, a bright red bar shouting “98%” at me.
Gmail was designed for us packrats. Besides giving users a gigabyte of storage, Google introduced an “archive” feature with their online email. Although Gmail allows users to delete messages, it instead encourages them to archive messages. In fact, the two most prominent buttons on the inbox page are Archive and Report Spam. The interface for viewing a thread of messages adds “Back to Inbox” to this list, but nothing else. Putting an item in the trash is a task buried in a drop-down menu.
Archiving is Google’s answer to inbox management. Typical email programs expect users to manage their inboxes by removing messages to folders. Every time I need to categorize a message, however, I need to make a decision about where it goes. To paraphrase Steve Krug, “Don’t make me make a decision.” Call me lazy (you wouldn’t be the first), but I shouldn’t have to make a decision every time I get an email. It’s a lot of brain power for not a lot of value. Just because I put something somewhere doesn’t make it easier to retrieve later.
Because there are no folders, Gmail’s inbox could easily become unwieldy, but a message in Gmail exists in one of two places: inbox or archive. For those threads that are no longer active, but you want to hang onto, you can archive them. Putting a thread in the archive simply puts it in storage and removes it from the inbox. If you get another message in an archived thread, the thread appears again in the inbox.
By default, Gmail shows only the inbox, but the “All Mail” link on the left hand bar reveals every thread currently stored, even those you’ve started but to which you haven’t gotten a response.
By archiving messages, you might think they’re essentially gone. You might as well have trashed it. After all, how easy is it to find something in your attic if you haven’t put it in a labeled box? Google, however, includes a handful of powerful features (including its search engine) that renders the email attic as neat and tidy as your local library.
Searching, stars, and spam
Google’s familiar search box appears at the top of every page, though the button “I’m feeling lucky” is replaced by “Search Mail.” You can enter any search term and Gmail will return any threads that include the search terms. Clicking on any of the threads from the search results will reveal the thread. Those messages in the thread that contain the search term are expanded in the thread view, and the search term itself is highlighted in those messages.
Gmail’s search engine is, of course, fast. While a search on my wife’s name in Gmail took less than a second, a comparable search in Outlook Web Access took nearly 15 seconds. Searching on multiple terms leads to similar results. When it comes to email, I prefer searching to browsing, especially when Google is under the hood.
After explaining these basics to my friend Eric, he indicated that he was wary because he uses a lot of filters and subscribes to a lot of mailing lists that are automatically sorted into separate folders. He had a good point, so I looked at some of the other email management features offered by Gmail. Despite the lack of folders, Gmail does give users different ways of marking and categorizing messages.
The method that requires the least amount of thought is to mark the message with a star. In other email applications, this would be like setting a flag. The purpose of starring a message is to give it some priority, and making it easily findable. A white star appears next to every message, whether in the inbox or in viewing the thread. Clicking on the white star turns it yellow and adds a star to the message. A link on the left bar allows users to see all the messages they’ve starred.
For those who feel they would miss folders, Gmail offers labels, a way of categorizing messages. Labeled messages do not disappear from the inbox, unless they’ve been archived. Instead, a message’s label appears adjacent to the subject line. A list of the uesr’s labels also appears in the left bar. Clicking on one of the label names shows all the messages with that label.
Like most email applications, Gmail has filtering functionality, allowing users to apply rules to messages as they arrive. There are four actions a filter can do to a message: trash it, archive it, star it, or label it. Once users establish filtering criteria, they can select any number of these actions.
To test Gmail’s ability to deal with mailing lists, I subscribed to a new mailing list (for people who play the mandolin, a new hobby of mine) and applied a filter. New messages that arrive from coMando are labeled and automatically archived. Mailing list messages, therefore, do not clutter my inbox. At the same time, they are automatically grouped together under the correct label. Clicking on the “coMando” label on the left bar allows me to see all the mailing list messages.
I was pleased to see that when new mailing list messages arrived, the label name appeared in boldface to show that there were new messages, even though they were sent straight to my archive and not in the inbox. The number of new messages also appeared in parentheses next to the label name. The label, in other words, behaved as folders do in other email applications.
No review of new a new email application would be complete without looking at its spam-handling capabilities. Despite having Gmail for only a month, I’m already receiving spam—30 messages in the last week. Gmail’s left bar has a “spam” link to show you all the email that you’ve received that has automatically been categorized as spam. In the last several days, none of my personal email was mistakenly categorized as unsolicited mail. On the other hand, at the beginning of the week, I received three unsolicited emails in my inbox. Since then however, none has made it to my inbox.
Although it’s a little disconcerting that I’m receiving unsolicited messages while barely anyone has my new email address, Gmail’s ability to handle spam seems as good as any other email application.
As Gmail comes out of beta, Google may find itself with a product that users are slow to adopt. People may find the subtle change in the email paradigm more dramatic than Google anticipated. Perhaps this speaks to the dangers of bad design: a bad product can just as easily become entrenched as rejected, such that when a better one comes along, users are reluctant to adopt it.
It may be difficult to think of email applications as “bad design,” and before I started using Gmail it never occurred to me that they were. On the other hand, Google’s different approach to email has led to some stark revelations about my email behavior. At the most basic level, managing email — an activity whose necessity rates somewhere between scheduled car maintenance and eating — requires too much thinking under current models. Users may be pleased to have to “think less.”
The paradigm shift, however, will be the least of Google’s problems. With its search engine advertising practices under constant scrutiny, Google faces myriad new issues by attaching targeted advertisements to emails, potentially a gross invasion of privacy. At the same time, the advertisements for mandolin dealers and instructors that come attached to posts to the mandolin mailing list are almost as valuable as the posts themselves.