In Defense of the New Gmail

By Joe Moon

Alexis Madrigal's criticism of Gmail this week was just one of what seems like a growing chorus of complaints about Google's recent sweeping changes across its services.
 
As far as I can tell, though, almost all of these amount to a resistance to cheese-moving. Madrigal's specific issue with the new design is that the when you have more than one chat window open, they now overlap with and occlude your email message.
 
"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."
 
The simplest and most versatile fix is to click the little "open in new window" button, freeing the chat window from the tab, which has the added benefit of giving you access to the chat conversation not just while you type your email, but as you work in other tabs and windows, as well. So, the fact is that the use-case of simultaneously chatting and writing emails is built-in, but it's an added click to the workflow Madrigal is used to.*
 
And the other pertinent fact is that Google's services have long existed in a culture of 'eternal beta.' Every new product release is plagued with UI issues, but almost on purpose. Google releases products early (some would call unfinished), but iterates quickly in response to both user feedback and data. The new Gmail design is actually a great example of this, as one of the earliest complaints was the overuse of whitespace, which severely restricted the information density of early iterations. The result is not only an option for three different levels of density, but a beautifully responsive design that automatically changes with the size of the browser window.
 
We are all naturally resistant to change, of course, especially when the changes seem unnecessary and have an impact on our daily lives, or force us to change our behavior. We don't want to have to deal with things outside of our respective core competencies. It's the reason my wife hates software updates in general. Something always seems to change unnecessarily (or just break), and she has no interest in becoming a UI expert. She's just trying to get her job done.
 
But the underlying issue is kind of profound and far-reaching. Because as our computing workflows move inexorably to centralized cloud-based models, as we outsource the logistics of actually running software to Google and others, as we relegate these operations to an abstraction, we also relinquish a measure of control. Our daily workhorses are now subject to change, without our input or approval, which can be infuriating.
 
For the near future, though, it seems like the trade-off is going to be worth it. Web email, for example, has so many advantages that I, for one, can't imagine going back to running client software. But Gmail is going to keep changing, and some of that change is inevitably going to affect my workflow. The only thing to do in this situation is to adapt. To think of the workflow not as static, but as a malleable and constantly changing system. To meet every update with a willingness to refine or even radically change the way we do things, instead of obstinate indignation and victimhood. To form a meta-workflow that incorporates change as a constant. It's the only way to stay sane in this brave new world in which more and more of our lives consist in ephemeral, increasingly amorphous software.

* Madrigal's note: I disagree with this workaround being useful; I like to command-tab between applications and this opens up multiple windows that are difficult to command-tab back to. There is a reason everyone uses tabbed browsing now instead of opening up a bunch of browser windows. It was powerful to have all my most important communications within one tab.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2011/12/in-defense-of-the-new-gmail/249712/