Normalcy for Gmail?

By  |  Friday, June 4, 2010 at 10:11 am

As far as I can tell, there are two kinds of e-mail users in the world: Those for whom bundling up a thread of messages into a “conversation” makes perfect sense, and those who would much rather have an inbox sorted in strictly reverse-chronological order. The Business Insider’s Henry Blodget among the latter type: Yesterday, he posted a testy item (one of several he’s lobbed) begging Google to let Gmail users opt out of conversation view. Then he followed up with good news: Two Google executives, who he refused to name, had written him to say that Gmail will get a “normal” view in the next few months.

I’m with Blodget on this one: The moment that Gmail gets a normal option, I’ll be there. For the past few weeks, I’ve been doing much of my e-mail in Threadsy, and returning to, um, an unconversational inbox has been a delight.

I once asked some members of Google’s Gmail team if the company would ever make conversations an option rather than the only available view. They didn’t rule it out. But they said it would be a major technical challenge. I got the sense that making the change looked like a challenge in part because Google is so confident that conversations are an improvement over old-fashioned e-mail. Undoing them feels like a pointless sop to newbies who would love conversations if they just gave them a chance.

Little by little, though, Gmail has gotten more normal over the years. Labels, for instance, started out as a feature that was “better than folders.” But so many people are so accustomed to sorting e-mail into folders that Google gradually tweaked Labels into compliance with users’ expectations.

Whether or not Google lets Gmailers opt for a normal view, here’s a change it could make to conversation mode that would make it a lot more palatable, at least to me: Give us the option of the conversations being sorted in reverse-chronological mode. Right now, when you click on a conversation to view it, the old messages are at the top and the latest one is at the bottom. The more I think about it, the less I understand the rational for doing this: It requires you to skim past old messages to read one that arrived more recently, and flips the reverse-chronological organization of the inbox itself.

So how about it, Google: Give people the choice of opting out of conversations…but also make conversations better and more flexible, so that even more folks will come to adore them?


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16 Comments For This Post

  1. tehpeng Says:

    I enjoy the conversation layout. I’ve had Gmail since it was in closed beta so I have conversations spanning YEARS. I don’t like making folders or organizing my inbox so it’s perfect for me.

    When I get a reply from a friend I last spoke to six months ago I can automatically see what we’d been talking about, or all my receipts from an online store in a neat row.

    I do agree it should be an option though, I don’t see any reason why Google wouldn’t let us turn it off if we wanted to.

  2. John Says:

    For me its a matter of context. I only use Gmail for my personal email and the grouping into conversations really works. However, I tried Outlooks equivalent with my work email and hated it. That being said I completely agree that the messages in conversations need to be in reverse chronological order.

  3. tehpeng Says:

    Actually John that’s a great point. I couldn’t imagine using Gmail for work… I have a folder for each client which amounts to hundreds of folders and sub folders.

    Would probably be a total nightmare without outlook.

  4. Paul Turnbull Says:

    I don’t use gmail but I live in threaded mode. It keeps relevant material grouped and helps me keep track of things. Of course I don’t keep old mail in my inbox so the threads don’t get out of control.

  5. Josh Says:

    I love threaded conversations. In most cases, it is a vast improvement over the old fashioned model which often left me digging through deleted e-mails trying to find out what I or someone else had said.

    But you don’t have to skim through the old e-mails to see the newest one. What interface are you using? Gmail automatically collapses the old messages, showing you only that they are there, and displays the most recent. I have always thought this brilliant.

    However, I have tried’s version of threaded conversations and I hate it, so it all depends on implementation.

  6. Stephen Turner Says:

    I don’t understand why you’d want messages in a conversation in reverse chronological order. As Josh has already pointed out, old messages are collapsed, so going to the first unread one isn’t a problem. If you sorted them newest first, you’d have to go to nearly the bottom, read down the last message, then jump up to the top of the penultimate message, read that, then jump up two messages worth again and so on …

  7. IcyFog Says:

    Conversation is the way I like it. To me this makes the most sense; it’s so logical.
    I just wish Gmail would allow me to add notes to my e-mail’s and conversations.

  8. Ernesto Arreguin Says:

    Soy Ernesto

  9. James Says:

    Conversation mode is fine for me until I get more than 5 messages deep in one email. And then it turns into a freaking nightmare. I can’t wait until they release the new view.

  10. Sonny Byrd Says:

    @tehpeng: I work for a company called that organizes electronic and hard copy receipts for you online. You may like it better than having your receipts mixed in your inbox. It’s free to try. Please contact us if you have any interest or questions at 888-369-4269.

    Sonny Byrd
    Marketing –

  11. Amit Says:

    Hai i am amit

  12. Esteban Says:

    I like the threaded conversations overall, but one feature I would like would be to manually tweak the threads. For example, I would like to be able to combine two conversations into one, or split one into two.

  13. Marc Says:

    @Stephen Turner
    “I don’t understand why you’d want messages in a conversation in reverse chronological order.”

    Maybe Twitter has conditioned some people into reading everything backwards?!

  14. Matt Says:

    I could not function without the conversation view, which I consider the greatest organizational tool to ever come to email.

    The way you talk about it, Harry, puzzles me. You say it doesn’t make sense to have the old messages at the top? Why is that? Don’t you want to see how the conversation progressed?

    Lets say you have 10 new messages. Why on earth would you just want to see the most recent one and start there? You would be seeing this conversation completely out of context. It’s like watching a season of TV on DVD, starting with the season finale.

    But really, you weren’t very clear here. When you say that the old messages are at the top, do you mean ones you’ve already read? If so, aren’t they compacted for you? For me, if there are new messages in an old conversation, the previous messages are compacted so that only their subject and the sender are visible. This makes it extremely easy to refer to previous comments in the conversation. So from there, all my old messages are compacted, and all the new ones are expanded, making it easy to pick the conversation back up again.

    The more I type about this, the less I understand the desire to eliminate the conversation view. Don’t get me wrong, I’m always a fan of options for users, and this would be a way to get more people into GMail and get them used to it, but I don’t see how the conversation view isn’t a better way of using email…

  15. Larry Magid Says:

    I totally agree as I blogged today:

  16. imnotrich Says:

    How many of these pro-threading comments were written by Google employees?

    When threading works properly, I can see how some people might find it useful. But when threading causes important mails to be lost, impacts productivity adversely, and groups totally unrelated e-mails together it's a TURKEY! And good luck finding old e-mails that have become buried in threads (especially if it was buried in the WRONG thread).

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