The Information Architecture of Email

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“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:

  1. Most messages could live in more than one category.
  2. 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.

Screenshot of thread in the inbox

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.

Dan Brown has been practicing information architecture and user experience design since 1994. Through his work, he has improved enterprise communications for Fortune 500 clients, including US Airways, Fannie Mae, First USA, British Telecom, Special Olympics, AOL, and the World Bank. Dan has taught classes at Duke, Georgetown, and American Universities and has written articles for the CHI Bulletin, Interactive Television Today ( and Boxes and Arrows


  1. Great article, was just wondering if you have a “trackback” link? I’d like to blog about this article and link back to it that way.

  2. Hey, thanks for sharing this information. I’ve been using Gmail from the start I knew about emails. 🙂

  3. I believe that Categories in Outlook is one of the most underused features of the program. I currently only use an Inbox and an Archive in Outlook. Searching for mail is very fast as I have most mails set up with multiple categories.

    So if I want to see all mail from a certain person (I have the group by selection enabled) I just click on the From header. Also, with outlooks quick search (not the advance search) I can type in a word and I get all mail containing that word without leaving my Inbox.

    When archiving I just sort by message size and then drag the biggest emails into the offline Inbox (Archive) and voila.

    Folders (directories) should be banished from all computers forever!

  4. Hey there,

    Gmail fan here, but also an Outlook fan … Now we know that e-mail management is a VERY personal thing, so going out and making generalizations won’t be too helpful, but here goes. 😉

    Just kidding … I wanted to say 1 thing about the article, is that I think that from an IA perspective the article did a great job, but it didn’t mention from a behavioral IxD perspective where Gmail really shines over other e-mail (especially webmail systems) and that is SPEED. Oh my G-d! there is like no latency in this system and where there is for processing purposes the user is kept well informed. But moving to and between messages and initiating new messages is so quick. Other triggered events are also amazingly lightning fast (perception only, which says volumes). I don’t think any multi-user web-based application architect is going to have the excuse about performance to pull out of their back-pocket when a designer comes to them and suggests something, dare we say, bold.

    Now, to Heather … Categories in Outlook is underused for email management b/c it is burried. I know it is there for contacts and calendaring but never found it until you pushed me to w/ your response. I have to open the message and then go to “options” (and that is under “view” instead of “tools” where it normally is). Many know me to be agnostic in the whole MS evil/good debate. I like them and I hate them, but this one takes the cake in negativity. All they had to do was keep it on the primary form and I’d be golden. What’s even funnier is that they have it as a arrange by feature which would also be golden.

    I don’t need folders. I don’t need labels. What I need are both. I need to have a view that is easy to get to, folders, that represents item that I categorized (or other facetted relationship) whether manual an automated by my rules or systemic. Gmail sorta does that as I can view a label’s list by clicking on it. What it doesn’t allow me to do is create a more robust system b/c there is no heirarchy of labels. I can’t create a taxonomy. It has to be flat.

    Love Gmail … Love Outlook. 😉 Want my personal hybrid. I wonder what Yahoo is going to do w/ OddPost in all this?

    — dave

  5. if you re searching for interesting email organization, i really advice to have a look at ZOE client email.

    It’s a java based client software working on ur computer just as a server. The application is working standalone and does not require any installation. Just this is already an interesting concept.

    Next, i really like the way emails are organized almost like into a blog. Chronology is a key issue but the sotware also propose person, domain, subject automatic classification.

    Finally, the client interface is a browser so you can just surf your email forlder.

    for more infos :

  6. A little off the Gmail topic here, but what I *really* want is a taxonomy I can create once and use everywhere — in email, on my hard drive, with my PDA, etc. My various applications and clients could reference it, using it as the foundation of their classification or folder system. Any time I edited the source, it would make a global change. This solves the problem of having one classification system in email, and another on my hard drive. Keeping both in alignment is a time-sink.

    For example, if I start working on a new project called Foo, I want to add a category Foo to my personal taxonomy, and maybe some sub-categories called Content and Technical Specification. These new categories would automatically propagate to Entourage, the Finder, and any other application that points to my personal taxonomy. I would then have the option of overriding, deleting, or amending these new categories locally. And if the system were really smart, I could use one of the clients to push the changes back to the global file.

  7. So many articles I read talk about email threading as if it were some revolution in Email. Every mail client I have used has supported email threading: Netscape mail, Mozilla mail, Mutt and so on. The notable exceptions seem to be the commercial heavy-hitters: Outlook & Express/Lotus Notes.

    It would seem that due to the exposure of most of the email using world to the MS Outlook clients, people are surprised when they see a threaded email client.

    I wish article writers would point out that Email has supported threading forever, and these email clients ignore it.

  8. Andrew,

    Actually, what is different about Gmail is not that it does threading, but HOW it does threading. Most threading metaphors still treat the separate postings as different objects that just show relationships. Gmail by default treats the different posts as the same object that CAN be separated later if the user chooses. I know I have never chosen to do that.

    — dave

  9. I’ve found that the biggest improvement in email mangement for me came with a shift in how I think about email, courtesy of the book “Getting Things Done” by David Allen.

    Without going into a lot of detail here, Allen breaks down the way we process and act on information that flows into our inbox (whethere e-mail or real world), and gives you some great mental tools for coping with the flood. The net result for me is that I rarely have more than 3-4 messages in my inbox and frequently have zero – all messages gave been either responded to, filed for future reference or moved into a task list (sometime all three at once!).

    At the same time, I’m also known to be a quick responder to email and for following up with people who don’t respond to me. It sounds like a lot of work and diligence, but once I got the hang of it I found it to be much easier and less stressful than anything I tried before.

  10. Dan, really enjoyed the article.
    While reading it, I started thinking about how we designers review things like this: we praise and criticize the work, but often don’t ever think about the fact that there are real people, just like us, designing this stuff. I have no idea who designed Gmail, but do want to make sure that we acknowledge that lots of work and innovative thought went into this! Thanks Gmail design team! It’s important that we acknowledge each other as designers and not just critique the artifacts of our work.

  11. I really like the way that Gmail allows me to apply labels to my e-mail, giving me a one-click view to see all e-mails related to work, or my personal site, or whatever.

    One thing I wish they would do is allow you to apply colors to the labels, and any conversation with a certain label applied to it, that “row” would have a color corresponding to that label. Similar to how you can apply colors to your Layers in Photoshop.

    Of course, I say that now, but I suppose that if you have 20 labels, the e-mail list could get quite colorful and uneasy on the eye. Maybe an option to apply colors if you wanted to…

  12. No email client I’ve used is quite right. I’d like to take Gmail’s wonderful conversation view, M2 in Opera (with fixes for certain annoyances), and some of Pocomail’s advanced capabilities, and blend them into the perfect email client. Of them all, M2 is closest now, but it isn’t quite up to snuff for me.

  13. I’ve become a huge GMail fan, opting to use my GMail addresses over my accounts at my personal domain (which have become deluged with spam). I’ve yet to see any spam at my GMail.

    The latest trick I’ve discovered is using a Bookmarks label to apply to all those one-off Sent messages my friends are subject that have valuable links in them. Now my Bookmarks are portable.

    As for any inconveniences you’ve encountered when threads grow too long, I have one word, well two, for you: Keyboard Shortcuts. One of my favorite aspects of GMail is that they’ve implemented useful keyboard shortcuts into a web-based application. Want to reply to the message you’re reading? Hit “R,” or even just hit Tab in some contexts. I’m so used to using CTRL+Enter in Outlook to send (or IM or in Thunderbird, etc), that I was flabbergasted by the oversight in GMail, but when you’re composing a message, Send is just a Tab, Enter away.

  14. One minor complaint with Gmail and lists. If you post a message to a list, it doesn’t show up in your Inbox (even though it’s been sent to you by the list processor) until someone replies – maybe there’s a message in that.

    And as it’s all new, there are some cool names up for grabs.

  15. on the topic of deleting in gmail, it’s important to keep in mind that google does not want you to delete your email. this is a great example of the tension between business goals and user goals – google gives you free email so that they can have yet another data source to cohort-test, prototype and validate their algorithms. of course, we users want to delete our email — especially if we are inbox neat-freaks (which i am not).
    Google’s solution: give us so much memory that we don’t have to delete. I’m not saying that alleviates the user frustration of looking for the delete button and not being able to find it. Rather, it is an interesting tradeoff that made it onto the final product.

  16. I’m not so sure about NEVER deleting e-mail. I get a lot of e-mail that has absolutely no value after a few days – or even hours. Even if you give me a gig of space, eventually I’ll fill it. (Remember back about 10 years ago, when people thought that 500 meg was a ridiculous amount of disk space?)

    And even if they have a wonderful search engine, I still don’t want to sludge through a bunch of “out of office” or “ready for lunch” messages.

  17. Hi. Nice article. I saw several suggestions about powerful mail clients. The Bat! (by RITLabs) is an extremely powerful email client that supports “virtual folders”, which are, in fact, based on search filters and not based on the actual storage location.
    (Disclaimer: I’m just a happy user of The Bat!, and in no way affiliated with RITLabs).

    On another note, Gmail is to traditional client-based email what PowerMarks is to traditional bookmarks.

    PowerMarks maintains a list of bookmarks, organized by keywords associated with the page being bookmarked. As part of saving a bookmark, new keywords can be entered by hand, in addition to (or instead of) the default keywords created by the author.

    The lookup of any bookmark is accomplished with the keyword searches — which is extremely fast.

    PowerMarks also has a free network-based server into which the saved book marks can be stored, allowing multiple computers (e.g., home, work, laptop, etc.) to synchronize and share the same bookmark database.

    Disclaimer: I have no relation to the PowerMarks vendor; I’m just a very happy user.

    Now, if I could just have a local email client that worked like Gmail does but without requiring that I be connected to the Net…

  18. A happy gmail user, albeit the relative novice.

    Haven’t been able to unearth categories – unless they are under “filters” which I don’t currently use.

    Love the idea of simply applying label to various threads in order to bring them up again. You can put any number of labels on any thread to cross associate them.

    I’ve always used web-mail, needing to migrate to Gmail when Yahoo “upgraded” their site with IE-centric javascript which wouldn’t allow Firefox to send anything. Nothing like standards-compliant programming and design…

    BTW – the gmail notifier is much, much better than Yahoo’s and handles the problem of not being attached to a POP3 mail service. It uses your default browser (not just IE) and takes very little web resources.

  19. Outlook 2003 has significantly improved its UI to enable a fairly intuitive click-and-reorganize function. The smartest implementation of this is in sorting by date: Outlook automatically groups by “Today,” “Yesterday,” “2 days ago”… “Last Week,” “2 Weeks Ago”…. “Last Month,” and “Older.” This “telescoping” method of organization puts information together at approximately the right level of scale.

    Clicking on “Subject” groups by thread, assuming it can identify the thread (which is a problem for all email clients, gmail or otherwise).

    I added “collapse all” and “open all” buttons that open and close all groups to the toolbar. This should have been standard, or better yet directly integrated with the new UI (and off the toolbar).

    What would make sense next would be to be able to pick a group and select “show only this,” and also “search within.” But this is a surprisingly good start for Microsoft.

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