Google's Cloud Throws a Thunderbolt to Gmail Users
4/24/2012 by: Fernando Cassia
AFTER WARNING its Gmail users that the previous user interface could be used but only "temporarily". Google has by now forced many - if not all - of its Gmail users to the "New look" by now.
Users angry and vocal about it
As the forced change to Gmail was rolled, a wave of disappointment hit Twitter as you can see on a screenshot I made Thursday morning, uploaded over there as part of another article of mine on the subject.
By Saturday, the criticism continued: "Ack! The new @Gmail interface is terrible. I kept pushing it off but it finally force-"upgraded" me. Thanks for nothing..." said @brainpicker. "Ugh, I hate the new Gmail, and it's now been forced on me." exclaimed Jillian C. York.
Others were a bit more bellicose: "Well, Google, you've won. you forced me to switch to the new Gmail interface and I hate you and it very much now." wrote @shari, and argentine economist Lucas Llach took it to one of Google's UX designers: "Hey @jasoncornell is it true that you're responsible for forcing us to revert to Gmail's horrible new look?."
User @Vandamir focused on one common complaint, Google's decision to use icons rather than words for many of its buttons: "Why does Google think menu icons rather than words are better for Gmail? I HATE the new look. May switch to Thunderbird to manage accts."
Others preferred sarcasm, like @mcduh: "#Gmail finally forced me into the NEW LOOK. It is not bueno. Maybe I will start using PINE again!", referring to a popular and ancient 'text mode' email client for the Linux command line.
The new Gmail interface, with inbox view on top, and message view on bottom.
A matter of taste or a matter of usability?
So what is wrong with the Gmail "New look"? Well, everyone who hates it has his or her own reasons, although many would find the outrage difficult to put in words. As a scribbler, I spend about four hours a day reading mailing lists. To avoid eye fatigue, I use a 'theme' in the old Gmail look that gave me the familiar green-text on black background of the ancient terminals. It's pleasant to the eye and without the extra brightness of a white background.
"Terminal" theme with the 'old look'
That eye-pleasing theme is gone with the 'new look'. While the Gmail Themes page still shows a "Terminal" version what you get is a gray background Inbox view with white text, but as soon as you press the Compose button, the message composition returns to the normal black text on white background scheme. So much for a dark background. But this annoyance is just the tip of the iceberg.
"Terminal" with the "new look". The joy ends when you compose a new message and the editing background is white
At Google's Gmail product forum, a standard reply tells users who come to complain about the new Gmail look that "too bad" there are very good reasons for the change, it's just that we don't understand them.
To understand those reasons Google provides a video and plenty as "training" to like the new way. And if you happen to still not like it and the end of the process, well, Google UX experts tell us that Google in fact maintains an old version... the "plain HTML" version, which feels like a joke, really.
Fog Cloud Computing or "The fine art of separating people from their software"
In the pre-cloud days, if you didn't like the changes a new version of some software introduced, you could always keep running the old version forever. This scribbler still has among his tools an ancient copy of Paint Shop Pro 5 picked up on eBay a decade ago, a piece of software designed for the age of Pentium I computers, and which just flies in today´s hardware, and runs perfectly under WINE, too.
But to keep running an old version of some software because you like its user interface is no longer an option in the world of Cloud Computing and "software as a service" model, at least not as designed these days by Google, where the "look and feel" of the web based applications are dictated from the top down by a group of experts and an integral part of "the product". But maybe it doesn't have to be that way.
One of the few advantages of moving towards the web is the technical ability to separate core logic of your application from the presentation layer. But as you will see below, in the case of Gmail the Google UX person says maintaining the old look would mean keeping a different code base.
A close encounter with the UX kind
The guys responsible for user interface changes are the GUI designers, or, in modern parlance "UX designers" where UX stands for User eXperience. One of them is Jason Cornwell, whom I ran into by pure chance over Twitter, nine months ago.
As the Gmail new look was being introduced I complained to Mr Cornwell about what I interpreted as change for change's sake, and some odd features like slim scroll bars that didnt look like the browsers' own standard ones.
My main grief at that point was why the firm felt the need to circumvent standard scroll bars - "restyle" in UX designers' parlance - a perfectly good and working GUI element, replacing those with slim versions just for "visuals". Surprisingly, Jason answered.
Cornwell said they were "styling the native scrollbards with CSS as part of Google's overall redesign." In other words, Google was spending time and effort into making scroll bars slim, harder to find visually and hit with a mouse pointer. My temperature and heart rate got higher. My next question was if it was possible to revert to using native scroll bars, to which he explained that "the goal was a scrollbar design that matched the rest of the page visually".
"Strange", I remember thinking. At that point my reply was that with the increasing popularity of small mobile PCs - netbooks, tablets, etc - with small screens, scroll bars should be bigger so that they´re easier to see and click on, not smaller.
Thin scrollbards in the early implementation of the 'new look'. A feature apparently killed now.
Designers' bias: visuals first, usability later?
Clearly at that point as an end user I was just trying to extract some logic about why were the changes implemented and what problem was being solved - if there was any in the first place - but Jason told me scrollbards were disappearing in the age of touch interfaces, and that "touch wheels and touch pads" moved the desktop "in the same direction".
I was unconvinced that it'd be a good idea to shrink a standard GUI visual feature that everyone understood because it didn´t fit the UX designers´ seasonal fad and latest trend. This reminded me of the IBM-Apple-Microsoft jointly developed CUA (Common User Access) standards and how its recent fall from grace meant years of GUI standardization thrown down the drain. His response was that "UI design, like language constantly evolves".
Finally, he told me that that for Google to keep the old Gmail user interface running would be "expensive" for the firm. We would love to put a figure to that statement. Would it be more or less than the cost of one UX designer over a year? Because Google apparently hires them by the boatload. We don't know.
In this humble scribbler's view, the main disadvantage of the Cloud Computing model for end user apps is that users lose the freedom to continue using old versions. Cornwell thinks that cloud services "are much more convenient but the provider controls updates" adding that "the tradeoff is worth it for most".
That ended our civilized chat, and he was left with the not so easy job of dealing with several disgruntled Gmail users coming to his Twitter TL to complain about the new look. For a detailed analysis of the oddities of the Gmail new look, check it out this page.
Problem? What problem?
Gurgle breathes and lives by metrics, and performing some searches doesn't bode well for the search giant... googling "new Gmail sucks" restricted to Google's support site gives 2,000 results. The same search performed on Google Groups: 37,200 results. And what about Blog posts... One Million, Seven Hundred and Eighty thousand results. And that's just the English language web, imagine if we measured every single other language and word permutation for "New Gmail sucks".
Dreams, possibilities, and hope going forward
Perhaps Google should concentrate on doing what it does best: Provide infrastructure. Very few can match the scale of Google's data centers and search technology. Maybe, providing the back end "core logic" of apps should be Google's core business, allowing third parties to build different "looks" and graphical interfaces on top. Of course the looks do matter but why tie looks and screen arrangement with a "version" of the Gmail product?
If "looks" were separate from "core logic", the FOSS community could "skin" and re-arrange the Gmail any way they please, with user-developed, free Open Source modules whose code anyone can inspect and upload to his account at will.
After all, changing the arrangement of data on screen does not compromise the core back-end code that delivers e-mail and does searches. Why should the Gmail look - other than the default look - be a closed product?
Google allows running the users' own Java apps in the Google cloud as part of its Google App Engine initiative. It could be possible to let users run their own "Gmail Skinlets" of sorts that re-arrange the Gmail service screen at will, too.
As Google allows running user developed scripts on Gmail extending the concept to the screen arrangement seems doable. It could even be possible to create an "open marketplace" for Gmail layout "skinlets". Want the old Gmail look? simple, "buy it here for $5 and use it forever, here's the file you can download and later re-upload to your on-line Gmail profile" would be one approach. Of course, also much simpler would be to just let the old and new looks co-exist forever.
The 1979 space sci-fi movie Alien had as tagline "in space, nobody can hear you scream". In the cloud, Can Google hear us scream?
Google, GOOG, Gmail, GMail, User Interface, GUI, User Experience, UX, Twitter, Gmail UI, Gmail UX, Gmail experience, Gmail interface, Paint Shop Pro 5, Jason Cornell, Lucas Llach, Terminal, Terminal UI, Gmail Terminal, Gmail Theme, Cloud Computing, Fog Computing
© 2009 - 2011 Bright Side Of News*, All rights reserved.