Good UI by Google; bad UI by Google

First, the unsurprising part: yet another convenient, beneficial feature from Google for practically no money. Indeed, the only surprise about this one is that it is not literally free. Since the debut of Gmail five years ago, Google has offered ever-increasing amounts of free storage for each account. It started out at one gigabyte and is now over 7 GB. (Background from the Official Gmail Blog here.) Since you can create multiple accounts, in theory you can have as much storage as you'd ever want, all without cost.

I have a bunch of accounts for various purposes -- different mailing lists etc. But it's convenient to have one main account, so you can search for old messages or attachments without skipping around. My main personal Gmail account is so clogged with pictures, PDFs, article drafts, etc that it is closing in on the 7GB ceiling. Since Gmail does not let you search or sort past messages by size, there is not a quick and easy way to get rid of the lunkers with the 10MB attachments. So I was glad to see the good-news announcement last week: a lot more Gmail storage, for a ridiculously low price.


The first 20GB of additional storage is $5 per year, and onward at proportional rates up to 16TB ( > 16,000 GB) of storage. Pricing details here; Google account sign-in required.

Great! What a deal! So I decided to sink a full $5 per year into tripling my online storage. I hit the purchase button -- and that is when the bad part of the interaction began.

Here's the screen I saw immediately after pressing "purchase" (click for more detailed view):

There's a further part I'm not showing, which asks for a scan of a current credit card or utility bill (account number blacked out) to verify your mailing address.

Apparently the credit card I had on file with Google Checkout has expired. Or because we've moved recently the address is messed up. Or there was some other problem. I have no way of knowing, because the "My Account" setting on Google (unlike those for Amazon or other companies) gives me no way to check what cards are in there, what billing address, what expiration date, etc. Instead... I am supposed to send in scans of my current government-issued IDs and credit card or utility bills? Oh sure. Much as I admire, trust, and rely on Google (disclosure: many friends work there), I'm supposed to do something that under any other auspices would look like the most obvious Phishing attempt? And what, exactly, is a staffer somewhere in Google-land supposed to do with a copy of my passport or driver's license?

There's no indication of a phone number to call (I know: scale would make it impossible); the "contact us" trail leads to a kind of robo-FAQ function that so far has provided no responses. I will think this over for a while -- and meanwhile, my account is suspended. For lack of better alternative, I will probably end up doing what they explicitly ask me not to: set up a new checkout account with new billing info.

It is a sign of how often Google gets UI [user interface] sublimely right that I'm startled by an inconvenience I'd take for granted from most other companies. But who was on the UI testing for this one? Someone detailed from the TSA?

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.


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