Okay, I Said I Wouldn't Complain About 'New Look' Gmail Any More

But that was then. Also, it's a free country, and I can hardly be expected to keep others from expressing their views.

So I have changed my mind and feel like complaining one more time. I'll start off by explaining why.

NewGmail.png

Until yesterday afternoon at 4:30 EDT, the enforced change to "new look" Gmail was for me not a final, final thing. On both of my laptops, all of the tabs in all of the browsers had gone over to the new side. But on my desktop, one lonely Gmail tab in Chrome had been opened on April 21, in the innocent era just one day before the enforced changeover. I decided I would keep that tab and its Gmail session going as long as I could.

NewLookGoogleMail.jpgI did all my email work in that one "legacy" tab, marveling at how much I preferred it to the new-look Gmail that was the only option in any newly opened tab. I carefully "slept" the machine at night rather than shutting it down. I cancelled any software update that required a system reboot. I worried about what would happen if I unthinkingly closed the tab. It was my living connection to happier days.

It had to end some time. Power outage? Overall system freeze? Act of God? It ended yesterday afternoon. I was in the middle of composing a message -- as it happened, to a friend who works at Google -- and that tab froze. That's a deliberately low-rez shot of it, on the right, taken during what turned out to be a perpetual "still working" error message. I gave it overnight to stew, and then this morning I gave up altogether. I closed the tab, opened up a new one, and re-loaded Gmail. The new look is here, and the old one is finally gone.

Stipulating again that this doesn't "really" matter, I'll say that the new look of Google makes me sad. At least for me it's worse -- less efficient -- to use. For seven-plus years I'd built much of my online life around Gmail. I'll vary it now with something else --Thunderbird? Sparrow? Who knows. They won't show me Google ads with my email any more, but that's not my problem.
 
Enough about me! I pass the microphone to others.

1) The big picture. Ever wish you knew the thinking behind New Coke Look Gmail? Your dream has come true. Here's a presentation last year from a leader of the design team. He gets into new-look Gmail starting about ten minutes into the presentation. He admits that when it was tried out internally at Google, the initial response was strongly negative. "My eyes! They burn!" etc. But he says that eventually people came to accept it. Good to know.

UX Week 2011 | Jon Wiley | Whoa, Google Has Designers! from Adaptive Path on Vimeo.

See if this presentation makes you feel better about the careful deliberation and attention to usability that went into this UI change. Spoiler alert: it had the opposite effect on me.

2) How to cope. Thanks to many people who have sent me a link to this Jason Crawford article on offsetting the most anti-ergonomic parts of the new look. I find this part of the item's comment stream expressive of my own reaction.

I've been using the new design for the last several hours. I happen to have a window open with the old design, so I know it's not merely my imagination that the new one is worse. Not enormously so, but definitely worse.‬

[Already-] Read mails are more legible in the old version, because there is more contrast between black letters and the old light blue background than between black and the new gray.‬

It's also harder to parse the list of emails visually in the new design. In the old one, the 3D checkbox acted like a bullet point, and the name of the sender was closer to it. Now the heavy checkbox has been replaced by a faint square, and the sender's name is about 2x further away from it. So scanning my email is no longer like scanning a bulleted list. It's just rows of text.‬ [JF: In Google terms, I'll say +1000 to this and the preceding paragraph.]

That's a big deal functionally. There's a reason bulleted lists exist as a format, and removing the bullet points from the average bulleted list would make it significantly less legible.‬

3) The accessibility angle. A reader writes:

Being visually impaired, I have a particularly difficult time with the new G-Mail, because, when "Zoomed" the unusability of G-Mail is even MORE pronounced, what with scrolling back and forth, and in many cases, being completely unable to view the rightmost part of an E-Mail message. I suppose, I will have to install a "Client" of some sort, which I have had problems with, in the past, due to targeted vulnerabilities, which hackers are prone to take advantage of.
 
If you change your mind about writing on this topic, you might want to mention the "New Look's" disfuctionality, for the visually impaired.

4) Why not an option? From another reader:

Some companies and websites have no difficulty in allowing users to choose which version to use. Eg:

- The ruined "new" version of Weather Underground, with awful colours:

- The functional and visible version of Weather Underground with distinct colours:

Why can't a company like Google figure it out, despite all its wealth and resources?

Most times, "improvements" on website are designed by people who wanted their own personal preferences that appeal to 1% of users instead of being useful to most.  Changes aren't properly tested - google only tests on chrome and "hopes" it works on other browsers. (In reality, they hopes it DOESN'T work on other browsers so people are forced to change to google's.)  This isn't the first time google has screwed up without consulting users (re: the menu "fade in" of 2009).

And most of it is "feature creep", added bloat that makes the site run slower.  I don't want "more and newer features!", I want streamlined, fast and reliable.  If I were able to have a permanent domain name (which I don't need) and a POP email address, I would STILL be using Eudora 3.06, which was made 15 years ago.

5) Effect on the Google brand? From another reader:

I'm sure you're aware that the main reason for the "artsy" look (which I prefer admittedly) is to synchronize all their products with Google+. You mention that it goes against everything Google has stood for, and that's most certainly true. Google sees that the future is inherently social, and so they're completely realigning their entire business to suit that. We'll see how this adjustment treats them in the long term because for now the shuffling is hurting their image(aka Google+/personalized search results)

6) A radical solution. There is a way to get back to a really old Old Gmail look, if you're willing to do without keyboard shortcuts and other useful features. A reader explains:

The proper nomenclature [for this approach] is "HTML view," and what users gain in visible utility they lose in available features, such as keyboard shortcuts, spell checker, and chat.

Here's a link that compares the two views:

I get by without those features most of the time, but when I need them I just click on "Gmail view: standard" at the bottom of the HTML view page.

7) And upcoming: a message from an academic historian-of-technology, who has some very interesting observations on what the New Look says about Google, about its users, about people-and-computers, and related topics. But it's long and complex enough that I'll save it for presentation on its own.

Now, to see whether the latest version of Thunderbird is less of a CPU-hog than it used to be.

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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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