More on Gmail's 'New Look'

This weekend I mentioned that the "new look of Gmail" was remarkable mainly for how much more white space, and how much less info, it presented to the user on each page. As a reminder, sample shot of new-look Gmail below.

Thumbnail image for KennedyA.png

The readers respond:

- Many, many readers wrote in to say that in addition to this airy new "Preview" look, there was also a "Preview (Dense)," which shows more info.

Yes, indeed. That's what I was referring to in this part of the earlier note: "If this is anything like Google's previous offerings, users will have the option of sticking with old settings, or using a "dense" version of the new settings with more info shown." And while it would have been more sporting to call the variant "Enhanced" or "Extra" or "Super-Length" rather than "Dense," it is a step.

- One hypothesis on origins of the new look:

>>Maybe user studies showed they had a lot of misclicks when trying to open a particular message? It might be a Fitts's Law thing: make acquisition easier by increasing the size of the target area. They may also be trying to drive users toward heavier use of tags and search to locate messages rather than using their eyes to pick them out of a big pile. Priority Inbox felt like a different tactic for reducing the amount of eyeball work required to find things you were likely to be looking for, but maybe they decided it didn't work all that well and are trying to push users into solving the problem individually.

Between this and Google Plus, it's been a big month for Google pushing users to create taxonomies for their stuff.<<

- Another view. it's just the wave of the future:

>>Web 2.0 was putting rounded corners on everything.  Web 3.0 seems to be less content, more fluff.  I've seen the same 'extra white space, less content' redesign on several recent site redesigns.  I sent in feedback on several sites, but they've all kept their 'less content' designs.<<

- Or, it's part of the endless quest for speed:

>>They're constantly trying to figure out how to get the page to load faster. I think the standard is this: how quickly can the customer start using the page?

I think that Google's access to archived mail stretches out the time needed to load full functionality, so prioritizing what loads first makes sense.

I can't remember what computer you've said you use, but the MacBook Pro laptops I use overheat, especially when actually held in my lap. (That problem is ameliorated when it's placed on a flat, hard surface, like a tray.)  [JF note: Agree on the problem, and this way to lessen it.]

Heavy graphics use seem to be particularly challenging; even using a screen view that makes the file icons look like mini-views of the first page of a document can make the chips heat up faster. It's the chip in the back left quadrant of the machine that really heats up, gets the fan moving, which I'm convinced only adds to the problem. Fan operation creates heat.

I've just looked at their explanations, and they say they've "pruned our pixels", which I take to be a confirmation of what I just said. The new page also seems to make less use of colored background boxes with black outlines that have colored text knocked out. Again, less use of the graphics chip.

I also believe the cursor is a major hog of computing power. When I had less internet bandwidth, files that 'hung up' could often be kick-started by using one of the arrow keys, which makes the cursor disappear. The cursor looks simple, but if you look carefully, it's a black arrow with a white outline that has an additional gray rounded-corner outline. (I also wonder whether the angles used in the character are a particular problem.) Calculating and subtracting these pixels when you move it around dents computing capacity, and I think it must use less when it's on a white background.

That's all I know, and it may be that none of it's true.<<

More after the jump.

- From a programmer:

>>I think you've misunderstood the gmail "new look".

Take a look at http://gmailblog.blogspot.com/2011/06/preview-of-gmails-new-look.html for the scoop.

In particular, the following paragraph:

"We're kicking things off with two new themes for you to try out as a sort of sneak peek at what we're up to. Starting today, you'll see the "Preview" and "Preview (Dense)" themes in the Themes tab in Gmail Settings. Why two themes? Our new interface will eventually expand dynamically to accommodate different screen sizes and user preferences, but until then you can pick the information density that you prefer."

So don't worry, you won't loose you valuable screen real estate :-)

BTW, you're very right to be concerned about screen real estate. While memory, disk space, processing speed, and just about every other computing metric has increased by at least hundreds of time, screen resolution has increased by say 10 times or so. And there are technical reasons why that's the way it is. Don't expect your next LCD screen to have billions of pixels any time soon.

So... my pet peeve is how programers (I'm a programer) spend countless hours optimizing memory usage and execution speed, they waste screen pixels - the most non elastic resource the computer has - as if they don't matter at all.

But don't worry Google's too smart to do anything that dumb. :-) <<

Another hypothesis, ad-related:

>>If I had to guess, the rationale would be this forces users to look at more pages, and each page represents an opportunity for a different set of advertisers to sell to. This is not unlike the way the NYT carves up its articles into multiple pages.  Usability-wise, this goes back to Jakob Nielsen, who recommended using a Next Page link because readers are reluctant to scroll down. (although it turns out, if you read Nielsen closely, that's because readers don't find pages interesting enough to scroll 90% of the time, which means he empirically verified Sturgeon's Law... but I digress.)

*Possibly* this is a sop to the lower screen resolution of mobile devices. But since Google is an advertising company, I'd think the extra ad spaces to sell is more likely.<<

And one more for now:

>>In re your recent Gmail post, I'm trying out the new look in "dense" mode (25 emails versus the classic layout which showed 31). The regular preview looked way too spread out.

There are a lot of websites which benefit from the less-is-more look (which has taken hold in the past few years--remember when websites crammed as much information as they could on to a page?) and a few which could (for instance, many newspaper sites, imho). Email, however, is not necessarily one of them. When I check my email, I want to see all non-spam, non-filtered email as efficiently as possible. And one of the reasons that Gmail was successful initially--remember, they were a late comer to email--was the no-nonsense UI, which nearly everyone (Even AOL!) has copied: Sender, bolded subject, and as much of the email as they can show. It just works.

The "dense" version is, of course, not a dense as the classic, but the classic is about as dense as I'd want it to make it readable. In other words, if it were any more dense, the font would be too small and/or squeezed. The 15% reduction in mail in the dense preview is definitely not as bothersome as the 50% reduction using the normal new version preview. I think I'll stick with the current version for now, though.

What I'm interested in is how this interfaces with Google+. Note that in G+ that red becomes a theme for "important things" like how the "compose mail" button in the preview Gmail version has turned red. I'm sure there's a connection.

I think when Google opens up G+ full-on, they'll want migration from Gmail to G+ to be seamless enough to quickly build a large user base (one of the reasons why I think G+ has a good chance--Gmailers seem to the be the target market for social networking, not grandmothers using AOL, and boy is it a large user base).

I am, however, concerned that Google might take more of a top-down, Facebook-style "you will use this new version of our product" approach which we've seen time and again from Zuckerberg et al. One thing I've liked about Google is that they are generally open about changes, explain them, and usually give you some option to return to an old interface. One thing I hate about Facebook is their refusal to do this (someone could write a book on the changes in the FB UI over the years--I remember it being very different in 2004). I would bet that in a few months Gmail and G+ will be more integrated, and this Gmail UI change's timing will not have been coincidental.

One other thing about Google vs Facebook ... it's nice that they believe in the power beta testing. (Especially now that I have a G+ invite; I was a little bitter about it before.) They seem to put forth products which have seen some back room debugging and don't need drastic changes once they've been released. For the complete opposite, I'd point to Facebook, which mandates a new feature on to its user base and waits for the bugs or the push back....<<

Thanks to all. And, to be clear, the "Settings" tab lets you choose whatever look you want.

UPDATE: Here are two more, one from a tech perspective, and the other having more to do with commerce. First, tech:

>>The "new" look probably transfers considerably less data than the old.  No custom backgrounds to download.  Probably less "taxing" on the display device's graphics engine.  Perhaps it "508's" more easily.   Being less to transfer most likely means a shorter response time.    Means less bandwidth consumed, which staves-off bandwidth upgrades for the server farms.  Might let a device's wireless link go low-power sooner.

One thing that Google have been pushing has been an increase in the TCP initial congestion window to 10 segments as a way to cut the number of network round-trip times to get a given quantity of data to the user at the beginning of a TCP connection.  Typically a TCP segment is 1400-ish bytes in size, sometimes 1200-ish I suppose.<<

And, from the blogger who writes as Jotman.

>>I got sufficiently irate with Google's design changes to tweet:

http://twitter.com/#!/Jotman/status/89401692302479360

That got no response. To my horror and astonishment, a quick Twitter search revealed many people are delighted with it.  I realized few people must care.   Presumably, Google came to the same conclusion.

My hunch is that the reasoning behind the new design has little to do with esthetics, even less to do with usability, and everything to do with Google's business model.   We should consider the likely effect of "more blank white space" on user behavior.    

In aggregate, we're lazy.  Who likes to scroll?  Less information on the screen will mean that Google-sponsored ads will represent a larger fraction of the total information viewed.  Increase the space between rows of text, and ads will garner get more attention.  If "more blank white space" leads to an even slightly greater likelihood that ads will be clicked, that design change ought to profit Google handsomely over time.<<
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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.

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