google, what have you got against choice?

Google is losing a lot of friends lately. Their recent decisions to discontinue iGoogle and Reader are making many people unhappy. Today, to the great dismay of many Gmail users, Gmail's new compose interface - a small box in the corner of your screen - became the default. Google says the previous compose style - the more typical large box in the centre of your screen - will be discontinued.


Why not give us options? If some people like to compose an email in a small box in the corner of their screen, that's grand. They can. And if other people prefer to compose an email in as large a space as possible, in the centre of their screen... well, why can't we?

I do not understand Google's continuing drive to dictate to its users how they should use Google products. The technology to allow for customer choice clearly exists. Why not let users decide how best to use a product? Why does Google care where and how we type our emails? Why not let us decide?

This actually affects me less than many users. At home, on my main (desktop) computer, I use Gmail through Outlook. I use Outlook for email, contacts, calendar, notes, and tasks, and I like having everything in one place. I also prefer Outlook's formatting options, and it syncs easily with my BlackBerry.

But like many people, I use more than one computer, in more than one location, so I also use Gmail's web interface when using my netbook, at work, and any other place I might need email. Having both web and Outlook options is a great fail-safe, too. I frequently go into "internet Gmail" to find something I can't find in "Outlook Gmail".

With this idiotic compose function, I'm not going to want to use Gmail on the web unless absolutely necessary. And if Google keeps this up, I'll be searching for another email solution that isn't so dictatorial.

As far as I can tell, this mandatory compose feature is almost universally hated. You can leave feedback about the new Gmail functions on this Google Plus thread.


impudent strumpet said...

1. You might want to double-check the link to the Google Plus thread. It took me to my gmail inbox where I got a pop-up that said "the conversation you requested no longer exists".

2. I don't understand why they think this new feature is superior. So you can see your inbox while you're composing. So what? If I'm ever in a situation where seeing something else while I'm composing is convenient, it isn't in my inbox, it's a website or word document or some other completely non-email-related thing. If I need to see an email while I'm composing, that means I'm replying to or forwarding the email being referred to, and I can easily reference it by scrolling down. In what situation is it helpful to be able to see your inbox while you're composing?

laura k said...

1. Thanks, will do.

2. Me neither. It makes no sense.

laura k said...

3. Link is fixed. I don't know how that weird email link got in there!

4. You can also search for "feedback on gmail compose" on G+ to see articles and comments, almost entirely negative.

James Redekop said...

I'm pretty indifferent to the change in compose, but you can compose in a large space in the middle of your screen if you want: click the arrow pointing up and right in the compose area's title bar, and it'll pop it out into a separate window you can put where you like.

I don't know why they changed it, I thought it worked fine before -- if they wanted to allow you to get at your inbox while composing, well, the pop-out arrow could have gone on the inline compose area just as easily.

The choice argument's a little weak, though. If they hadn't made the change, no-one would be complaining -- but they wouldn't have a choice, either. They'd be just as locked in to a single option, they just wouldn't have ever seen any alternative.

laura k said...

But my argument isn't that we had choice before and now we don't. My argument is that if you're going to introduce a new way of using a standard feature, offer us the new way, but don't make it mandatory.

James Redekop said...

Ok, I just composed a response but got shunted to the login screen when I hit publish, so I now have no idea if my response went through...

So I'll try again, with a little more rambling:

I'm pretty indifferent to the change. I can compose just as easily in a centred rectangle as a right-justified one, and it doesn't bother me one way or the other.

If you want, you can compose in a large space in the centre of your screen -- even bigger than before -- using the pop-out arrow in the top-right of the compose area. It pops the compose area into its own separate browser window, which you can place where you like. I don't remember if the old style had that. If it didn't, this is actually more flexible.

I can't think of any good reason for them to have made the change -- if they wanted to leave the inbox unobscured, they could just as easily have put the pop-out arrow on the old-style inline compose area -- but the "choice" argument strikes me as weak. Had they never redesigned the site, people wouldn't be complaining -- but they still wouldn't have a choice. They just wouldn't have ever seen an alternative.

It's pretty much impossible to let users decide everything about how to use a product -- anything that's that flexible is also extremely prone to breaking. Everything you make configurable is that many more moving parts which can go wrong. The more choices you offer, the more problems you'll have. So you have to pick and choose which things are going to be adjustable, and how adjustable they're going to be.

Unfortunately, one of the other facts of software creation is that everyone hates it when you change something, except for the people who started using the product after the change -- who will hate it if you change back.

laura k said...

It's pretty much impossible to let users decide everything about how to use a product

Sure, but no one is asking for that. Take Blogger, for example. There are dozens of little choices you can make. Show or hide comments? How many posts on a page? Show tags? Date and time format? Etc. etc.

But increasingly, Google is making changes that, to many or most users, seem unnecessary, and funnelling users into those changes with no way out.

I'm not someone who hates software change. In fact, one thing that keeps me from hanging out at Facebook is everyone complaining about every change FB makes! I never know what the big deal is.

But there's something to be said for "if it ain't broke...". What on earth was wrong with the Gmail compose screen in the first place?

I know about the little pop-out arrow, and it helps somewhat, but you're still using a separate window, creating at least one extra (and unnecessary) step.

laura k said...

There are many good posts in that G+ thread, discussing useability and the difference between change for no reason and change for improvement.

Many people point out that formatting is also now an extra step. So an extra step to pop out the compose window, an extra step to get the formatting toolbar, attachments get embedded by default, and some formatting features (like indent) are now 2 menus away.

laura k said...

Some comments I agree with:

- Please do not get rid of the old compose. Having a complete, message-only compose experience is essential to writing detailed e-mails, as many of us do.

- Every day I'm trying to AVOID multitasking, especially being diverted by a new incoming message when I'm trying to concentrate on writing an important one. This is making it impossible.
Please leave the choice to user to revert to the old Compose in full-screen. 

- Also, why in the world can't I see the email I am replying to in the text box anymore?
Why not just have this new thing be the "simple" mode for people who don't really want email but want offline IM and leave "advanced" (or normal) email functionality in place for those of us that need to use it daily like.... email.

- Many of us need to write more than one line emails. It's not chat. It's not IM. Who wants to type in a little box in the corner of a screen?

- I run Gmail in a full screen window on a wide screen monitor, it is not acceptable to have messages forced into a tiny box in the lower-right hand side of the screen by default. If I want to chat with someone or send them a text message, I will do so. I don't need my email experience to be tweaked to match it. I've already ditched iTunes due to the dumbing-down of it's UI, and Gmail will be next if it forces me to use this.

And my favourite: