Gmail: Love It! Hate It! Love It! Hate It!

I'm a huge admirer of Google's free e-mail service. Which doesn't mean that it doesn't make me gnash my teeth nearly every time I use it.

By  |  Friday, August 22, 2008 at 6:19 pm

There are applications and services that I know I like. There are applications and services that I know I don’t like. And then there’s Gmail. Ever since I got my hands on an invite back in 2004, I’ve been a fan…or so I’ve thought. But recently, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s slowly driving me crazy–and that it may be time for an intervention of some sort.

The stuff that’s great about Gmail is plentiful, and pretty obvious:

–it introduced the notion of monstrous storage capacity for free e-mail, beginning at 1GB and now at 7GB and counting. Even if you use Hotmail, Yahoo Mail, or another contender, you have Gmail to thank; without it, free e-mail might still be stuck at 100MB;

–it’s got Google-style searching that’s fast and effective;

–it’s just plain fast;

–it’s got an extremely brass-tacks user interface that doesn’t overwhelm you with ads or promotions for other stuff;

–it doubles as an AIM-compatible IM client (I like Meebo even better, but it’s still nice to have the option within Gmail);

–it offers POP3 and IMAP access for free, letting you mix and match browser-based access with a traditional e-mail client such as Outlook or iCal;

–it’s available in excellent versions for multiple mobile-phone platforms (the Safari-based version for the iPhone is especially well done);

–it’s got extremely effective spam protection.

These features didn’t just turn me into a Gmail fan–they turned me into a veritable evangelist for the darn service. (In 2005, at PC World, I headed the team that named it the year’s second best product, right after Firefox.) When I left PC World and got to pick which e-mail system I used for work for the first time in my life, I didn’t even bother with a desktop e-mail client–I just used Gmail. (I did so via the Google Apps version that allows me to have it host e-mail for my domain–and hey, that’s another Gmail virtue.)

Here’s the thing, though: In the subject line of the very first e-mail you get in a new Gmail account, Google declares that “Gmail is different.” It’s right. But after years of heavy Gmail use, I still struggle with some of those differences.

The single thing about Gmail that’s most different is its notion of Conversations: Rather than the inbox just listing all incoming mail in the order it arrived, Gmail clusters everything into threads, so that every message in one back-and-forth discussion is grouped together. It’s a wonderful idea, and far more logical than the way the rest of the world does things.

Logical, however, doesn’t always equal good. After thirty years of using e-mail in one form or another, my brain is hard-wired to handle an inbox organized in the standard fashion, so the very fact that Gmail marches to its own drummer complicates matters. And for every aspect of ordinary e-mail that Conversations fix, they seem to introduce at least one new inconvenience. For one thing, they make you deal with every message in a thead even when you don’t want to, which creates an amazing amount of clutter when the discussion includes more than a message or two.

Here’s a snippet of a conversation from my own inbox (personal info redacted):

All I really wanted to look at was that bottom message, but Gmail displays the first few words of the first message in the thread, then a bunch of empty bars to indicate there are other messages in the discussion, then the first few words of the message immediately proceeding the one I wanted to look at. All of which pushes down the item I was looking for, making it harder to find. And none of which gives me anything that I really needed in this instance, since I was interested only in the last message, not the entire conversation.

When you put multiple messages on screen at once, as Gmail does, you also need to provide multiple commands and menus to perform actions on them. Here’s one snippet of a Conversation with five (count ’em) Reply buttons, including two apiece for two of the messages:

I don’t think it’s a sign of senility on my part that I frequently find myself clicking the wrong Reply button when using Gmail, or otherwise pausing to find a command that’s easy to locate in other e-mail applications.

Google could do away with any issues relating to Conversations by making them optional and providing a more standard view as well. That would provide the best of both worlds, and it’s something that you can find folks asking for in the Gmail support group. Four years into Gmail’s life, though, no such feature exists; I have the possibly unfair sense that Google is such a believer in Conversations that it doesn’t want to help Gmail users avoid them.

Here’s another Gmail interface “feature” I still struggle with: I’m considently befuddled by its use of both a More Actions menu and another one that’s unnamed (it’s showing “Reply” in the image below). Just about every time I need to perform an action, I find myself pausing while I try to recall which menu it’s in:

When I pause to think about it, I understand the distinction–More Actions includes commands you might apply to multiple messages at one time, such as applying a Label, while the other one includes commands that only apply to a single message, such as replying. Completely logical; also completely unintuitive…at least for me.

Speaking of Labels: Gmail dispenses with traditional e-mail folders in favor of them. (Most of the rest of the world call them tags.) In theory, they’re better than folders–for one thing, you can apply multiple Labels to one message. But I continue to struggle with ’em for two reasons:

1) The commands for applying a Label to one or more messages lives in that More Actions menu, which sits at the top of your inbox. If you’ve scrolled way down in the inbox to find the message(s) you were looking for, you need to scroll back to apply the label. For me, at least, that’s more cumbersome than simply dragging and dropping messages into a folder, as you’d do in most other e-mail applications.

2) Labeling a message doesn’t remove it from your inbox, making it harder to impose good e-mail habits on yourself by dragging messages you’ve dealt with into other folders until your inbox is nearly empty. I think that this is at least kinda intentional on Google’s part: The idea is that Gmail’s huge storage and great searching eliminates the need to prune your inbox. Once again, it’s a great idea in concept that I find to be a challenge in the real world of everyday e-mail.

Okay, that’s the end of my griping. Very therapeutic!

I have no idea if Google will ever change any of the things about Gmail that frustrate me. I doubt they’ll change all of them; like I say, I have the sneaking suspicion they regard at least some of them as virtues. Hence the intervention I mentioned at the top of this post–which, if it happens, will be self-imposed. I could…

…dump Gmail altogether for something like Yahoo Mail (or maybe Apple’s MobileMe–once all the kinks are worked out, of course);

..try Zenbe, an interesting and elegant service that can, among other things, serve as a front end for Gmail;

…use Gmail’s IMAP access to route my e-mail into a traditional desktop client.

Either of those last two options would preserve my ability to use Gmail in some situations, which would be a plus; like I say, there’s a lot I like about it and I might be happiest if I could use it when I felt like it, but only when I felt like it.)

Your advice would be welcome–be it suggestions for other e-mail applications to use, workarounds for some of the issues I have with Gmail…



5 Comments For This Post

  1. Daniel Hollister Says:

    I don’t use Gmail anymore. I used it as my main address for a full year, and then ditched it. IMAP functionality is still weird (with multiple copies if your email and such), doesn’t support vCard, doesn’t place nice with OS X, remembers EVERYONE I email, not just contacts that I WANT it to remember…

    I use Fastmail ( and while it is not free and the web interface is far from beautiful, it’s great for me for many reasons. I do most of my email from desktop clients, and Fastmail works great on them, including supporting push-IMAP. Their servers are BLAZING fast. I have never had a single second of downtime. Their filtering and antispam features beat Google’s by far. Unlimited aliases. Multiple “personalities.” Good mobile options. SMS service. You can host your own domain(s) if you want. You can give your own custom CSS to make it look how you want.

    Gmail and other places certainly beat Fastmail in the GUI arena, but Fastmail’s still works (i.e. never breaks) and since I use desktop clients most of the time, it’s been the perfect solution for me. I do not plan on switching anytime soon.

  2. Steph Says:

    Interesting — one of the things I really really love about GMail is the conversations layout. I like having my e-mails in context. I like it when I wake up in the morning and have ONE conversation thread to catch up with rather than 10 different e-mails scattered between the Twitter and Facebook notifications.

    Labels should be tags. I agree they’re cumbersome to add. I’d like to be able to add a bunch of labels by typing rather than point-and-clicking (having suffered from RSI since 2002, I try to stay away from that pointy pointer arrow).

    One thing that bugs me that you didn’t mention is that you can’t choose your “default view”. See, I’d like to use the star to flag e-mails I need to act upon. So, my inbox would be unprocessed e-mail, and my starred folder would be my “next actions/to do” e-mails.

    Unfortunately, as GMail alwas shows me my inbox when I log in, once an item is starred and archived, it’s out of sight, out of mind. Whereas if I could configure GMail to show me my starred folder when I logged in, instead of the inbox… whee, I’d really get going on those e-mails I still have to deal with.

  3. Jay Harlow Says:

    Harry, I’m the user interface designer for Zenbe, thanks for the kind words. Indeed we’ve designed Zenbe to address many of the issues you mention above, such as easier tagging and more obvious access to controls.

    The Conversation view issues have also been on my mind a lot recently. As I type, we’re putting the finishing touches on a conversation view feature which is far less cluttered, much more intuitive, and much friendlier than Gmail’s. We also empathize with others who, like you, find conversation view hard to deal with, which is why we allow users to toggle between conversation and single message view.

    I hope you’ll continue to check in with us as we roll out new features, at

  4. totalpardo Says:

    Jay –

    A stronger privacy policy would be helpful. Your access to private emails for free use of the gui is not unlike a one night stand with the beautiful girl who steals your wallet.

    It looks great, but its a big trade off.


  5. csarak Says:

    The problem with conversation threads becomes worse when you interface with other clients that don’t use the same method (which is everyone I think?). You end up with every email that makes up a part of your thread containing all of the previous thread as well, even though you have all of that in separate frames, because other people’s email clients just append to the existing thread. After multiple people forward or reply to the same message, the result, on either system, is so convoluted so as to be unusable, if you want to look back through the history of the conversation.

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