What Went Wrong With Gmail?

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A month into Google's experiment with the design of Gmail, we are safely past the reactionary phase of criticism. Now, we're on to the searing and increasing hatred phase. It feels like Steve Jobs' evil ghost doppelganger went through the interface and made everything just a little bit harder to use. The problems with the new Gmail are not about look and feel; they strike right at the core usability of the software. This is the biggest step back for email since I signed up for Gmail in 2004.

Let me explain why. I use Gmail all day, every day. I also chat with all of my colleagues here and elsewhere through Gchat all day, every day. Well, the new Gmail has made these two CORE functions nearly incompatible. That is to say, writing emails and chatting with people has become a huge hassle.

Here's the problem. See that big text box in which I type hundreds of emails per week? Well, it is obscured by chat windows that I use thousands of times per week. The two basic ways that I communicate are in direct conflict with each other.  

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Could I come up with another workaround? Running Gchat in a client, say? Of course, but I didn't have to worry about that before and I could have all my communication in one tab in my browser. It worked great. See that screenshow below? That's how the old interface worked. I could chat to my heart's content and email to my heart's content ALL AT THE SAME TIME. In the new one, I have to minimize my chat windows to see my email. Why would they do this?

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It feels incredibly ill-considered not to have thought about the Gchat+Gmail use case. I mean, how many information workers today use these tools together?

Which leads me to the key question: what happened, Google? We know that designers at the company use tons of data to come up with their user interfaces, so why do things keep going wrong with the company's product releases? Is this a case of Big Data overruling Simple Common Sense? Where was the guy in the meeting who should have asked, "But what if someone wants to chat as they write an email?"
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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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