No one likes the new Gmail compose

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Published: April 19, 2013

And why should they?

By all accounts it’s a terrible design. At first I assumed Google must have hired some smart ass marketing firm to “rethink” email, but no, apparently it was this guy:

Hi! My name is Jason Cornwell & I think I know better than 80% of Gmail users, so feel free to dislike me.

Why it sucks

Despite Google’s assurance that the new compose “experience” is somehow an improvement let’s be honest: it’s a steaming atrocity. Or at best a glorified chat window. There are a number of claims being made about the benefits of the new compose but the most hilariously asinine one comes from the lead Gmail user experience designer (that smarmy guy pictured above, Jason Cornwell).

The new compose “experience”

Erroneous benefit 1: A smaller amount of writing space is better

The claim: “A streamlined compose pane”

Less is not always more. I mean, listen to how ridiculous that last statement sounds? Of course less is not always more. Sometimes a user interface can be greatly improved by removing elements or making things smaller, but this is hardly a universal rule.

Gmail Jason explains that the new compose interface “give[s] you permission to write shorter messages.” Guess what? We don’t need permission to do that. Previously, when I wanted a smaller window, I just re-sized my browser.  But now, with the teeny tiny new compose window anchored in the lower right hand side of my monitor the only option is to pop out the compose window and maximize it if I decide I want a larger canvas to write in. A principle we often use in web design is to allow the user (and the user’s browser) to be in control whenever possible. It’s super annoying when a website or an app takes over your screen or forces you into fullscreen mode without your consent. The size and positioning of the compose window in Gmail feels like this sort of intrusion into user preferences best left to the browser.

Erroneous benefit 2: It’s helpful to have other messages open behind the compose pane

The claim: “Check your mail while typing”

I get this in theory, but again, this was something we could already do with browser tabs or new windows. In the original Gmail compose this could be easily accomplished by either using a new tab, a new window, or Gmail’s pop out compose option. So the idea that the new compose gives us a benefit in this way is not really true, what it does in fact is force us to use the pop out option to get a distraction-free compose experience. As an extremely busy professional, the last thing I need is to “check my mail while typing”.

Erroneous benefit 3: Gmail was too cluttered and confusing with the formatting controls visible

The claim: “Formatting and insert options appear only when you need them”

In the original compose, if we didn’t want to see the standard formatting controls we could simply turn them off by switching to plain text mode. Now, basic formatting controls are hidden from view by default. This again, removes choice from the user.

Erroneous benefit 4: It’s an advantage to be able to write two messages at the same time

The claim: “Compose two messages at once”

I think I’ve covered this already, but here it is again:

  1. We already had this ability with tabbed browsing
  2. Composing two messages at once is for the most part a bad idea with limited usefulness

Maybe it’s time to leave the cloud?

Dumb corporate decisions happen all the time. But whenever a totally unassailable corporate behemoth like Google (or Apple, Microsoft, Adobe, etc) makes a poor decision which affects the day to day operation of my business, it gives me pause. It also shines a spotlight on why the only software you can really trust is open source software, because the community owns it, and if you don’t like the direction the developers are going you can fork the project and steer it in another direction.

Initially when I moved from Outlook (on the desktop) to Google Apps (in the cloud) it was a huge boon to my productivity and streamlined my workflow greatly. This was also a time when Google Apps was free (for up to 50 users). With the recent changes to the Gmail UI coupled with the elimination of all free* business accounts it makes me realize that, while there is still a lot to like about Google’s email offering, it may not be a solid enough foundation for the backbone of our business communication and collaboration. Maybe I’ll take another look at a Thunderbird/IMAP setup. At least that way I’ll be able to influence the future of my email user interface.


* Incidentally, Google Apps was never really “free”, it was and still is, ad supported.