Gmail UI woes

A couple of months ago, our IT-department configured the university's firewall to block all outgoing SMTP-traffic (except for its own Exchange server of course). As a consequence, I've been using the Gmail web interface a lot lately, and Oh! My! God! has it been driving me crazy. I'm no designer by any stretch of the imagination, but I'm guessing that whoever is responsible for this jumbled mess wasn't getting straight A's in designer school either. Every day there are numerous aspects of that confuse, irritate, and bewilder me, but for the sake of keeping the amount of complaining on this blog to a minimum, let me pick out my two main grievances. First off, take a look at the following pair:

Pop quiz, hotshot: which of these is the back button and which is the reply button? If I had a eurocent for every time I've mixed these two up, well, I'd have a lot of eurocents. And to add insult to injury: in the view where these two buttons pop up together—the detailed view of a single (thread of) message(s)—the back button is superfluous, because the left-hand column also contains a button to take you to the inbox, which is exactly what the back button does. But hey, it's a good thing replying to messages is not something one does frequently in an email client, right?

A second thing one rarely does, is write new messages. In order to help you execute this obscure task, Google has devised this beauty:

Oh, where to start? There's so many things wrong here. First off, it doesn't look like a button at all. Here's what it looks like in context:

It doesn't look anything like the other buttons in this column. If anything, it looks like the title of the column, something that's not even clickable. I'm guessing the reasoning here was: "Composing a new message is a very common task, so let's make a Big Fat Red Button for it", but the effect has been the exact opposite; by making it stand out so prominently, it completely disappears and becomes invisible.

Looks aside, though, let's focus on what the button says. The Dutch verb opstellen is the literal (Google Translate-style) translation of English 'to compose'. Aha, exactly what someone who wants to compose a new message needs, right? Nope. You see, the verb opstellen is only rarely used in combination with mail or e-mail. You don't have to take my word for it; we can look at some numbers. I did a couple of searches in the Corpus of Contemporary Dutch, a corpus of over 70 million words from (among others) newspapers, journals, legal documents, television news broadcasts, novels, and internet texts. The verb opstellen (in any of its inflectional forms) occurs 24,650 times, the noun e-mail 12,264 times, and mail 8,320 times. The question now is to what extent these sets overlap. It turns out that (e-)mail co-occurs with opstellen only a meagre 16 (sixteen!) times. Compare this to the numbers for sturen 'to send' and schrijven 'to write':

mail e-mail total
opstellen 11 5 16
sturen 1706 1409 3115
schrijven 621 771 1392

What does this mean? Well, it means that Google should have chosen a different name for their button. The verb they've put on there is only very rarely associated with the action connected to the button, which makes it unintuitive and hard to use. That said, though, I think the problem is more fundamental than the choice of verb. Even if the numbers in the table had been reversed, I still think the button would have been poorly designed. The most informative part of the verb phrase een nieuw bericht opstellen 'to compose a new message' is the direct object een nieuw bericht 'a new message', not the verb. So if anything, that's what should have been on the button: nieuw 'new' or nieuw bericht 'new message'. It would sidestep the whole issue of which verb to use, and instead would focus much more directly on the result the user is trying to achieve.

Anyway, the good news is that I will be changing workplaces soon—more on that in a future post—at which point my days of Gmail-web-interface-suffering will be over. I can't wait.

  1. Both nouns are used interchangeably in Dutch.

  2. A quick word on my methodology: for both mail and e-mail I did two searches: one with the noun preceding the verb and one with the noun following the verb. In both cases I allowed for anywhere between 0 and 20 optional intervening words. For opstellen the number of hits was so small that I was able to manually verify all of them and throw out any false positives. For sturen and schrijven I didn't do that because there were too many hits. Note that sturen occurs 72,022 times in the whole corpus, and schrijven 209,487 times.