A Minimal Gmail
April 27, 2019 10:39 AM   Subscribe

Michael Leggett, a former lead designer for Gmail and the creator of Inbox has made a Chrome extension that strips out the bells and whistles from Gmail's recent redesign: simple.fyi/gmail
Mark Wilson has a little puff piece about the project in Fast Company: "The former lead designer of Gmail just fixed Gmail on his own"
posted by Going To Maine (63 comments total) 43 users marked this as a favorite
 
Someone posted this in my work chat (I'm a ux designer) and I had to hold myself back from saying something about me making my own plugins to fix all the bad design decisions made by non-designers over my head in the stuff we work on.
I haven't tried this yet but I want to. Gmail is super over-designed and also now suffers from "Looking like it was designed in Sketch" disease, where everything looks HUGE because the designer can't tell what it will really look like once built.
posted by bleep at 10:43 AM on April 27 [9 favorites]


Just tried it and it looked terrible on my large-ish 27" monitor.
posted by NoMich at 10:45 AM on April 27


@bleep I love Sketch, but my very first thought was the same thing.

Designers and engineers need to collaborate more.
posted by zerolives at 10:46 AM on April 27 [2 favorites]


Oh, does this extension let you sort by subject or sender? No? Gmail ain't fixed, then. For all the nifty tricks Gmail lets you do - Snooze is nice, for example - I find the experience of using email with Web mail much, much worse than 10 years ago with something like mutt or claws. GMail particularly.

Fastmail's UI is better and more complete, and allows sorting by sender, etc. But it also suffers from the "you only want to read a single email at a time, right? Why would anyone need to see more than one email at once?"

Email is something where we've decidedly taken a number of steps backward in terms of practice and functionality. Don't even get me started on top-posting... ("Please see this thread for more information" - followed by 18 previous emails, all top-posted, where I have to work backwards from the bottom to try to decipher the conversation...)
posted by jzb at 10:54 AM on April 27 [25 favorites]


In my experience (when I raise these concerns with them) the designers just don't care about how it will actually look!
posted by bleep at 10:55 AM on April 27 [2 favorites]


This is worse: it preserves the idiotic tabs, but now the sidebar with the categorizations that I actually *created* are gone?
posted by kenko at 11:20 AM on April 27 [3 favorites]


They are recessed. If you press the hamburger icon at the top left you sikh be able to get them back.

The tabs can be disabled in gmail itself, via the settings. The extension accepts whatever the current state of the tabs is.
posted by Going To Maine at 11:25 AM on April 27 [1 favorite]


That's it, I'm switching back to Pine.
posted by grumpybear69 at 11:43 AM on April 27 [39 favorites]


Gmail is great...if you can get in. Gmail is eating our mail.
posted by JoeZydeco at 11:45 AM on April 27 [7 favorites]


Wait, you really can’t sort by subject or sender?!
posted by Celsius1414 at 11:51 AM on April 27 [2 favorites]


I mean I know alphabetization of a list hasn’t been a solved computing problem for the better part of a century now or anything. Imagine what we’ll be able to accomplish if they ever work that out!
posted by Celsius1414 at 11:54 AM on April 27 [11 favorites]


I guess I shouldn't have read the article, because I got to the part where it says "...before landing at Nori, a company addressing climate change with blockchain" and my eyes rolled so hard they exceeded the annual energy consumption of several European countries
posted by oulipian at 11:59 AM on April 27 [86 favorites]


Fastmail's UI is better and more complete, and allows sorting by sender, etc. But it also suffers from the "you only want to read a single email at a time, right? Why would anyone need to see more than one email at once?"

Right-clicking on any email in a Fastmail inbox and choosing Open in New Tab works for me. Does it not work for you? And its threaded-mails and quote-folding features work at least as well as Gmail's ever did.
posted by flabdablet at 12:19 PM on April 27 [2 favorites]


I've moved from Gmail to Fastmail, too, and from there it gets auto picked up and sent through the 'notmuch' database and then I use 'alot' to search it. It's super cool to have replaced Google so easily.
posted by odinsdream at 12:27 PM on April 27 [1 favorite]


I've been playing around with 'astroid' as a graphical front-end for the notmuch database. It's super cool to imagine how these tools can change the way we expect email to behave or be used.
posted by odinsdream at 12:33 PM on April 27 [5 favorites]


"The former lead designer of Gmail just fixed Gmail on his own"

Skinning new Gmail hideousness away has been done before; Google is pretty reliable about finding new and innovative ways to fuck it right back up again. I suspect that Michael Leggett has unwittingly signed up for more maintenance work than he will be able to sustain.

Still and all, if Google's regular Gmail fuckery is enough to persuade another batch of users to follow their gruntle over to Fastmail every time it happens, I guess that's no bad thing.
posted by flabdablet at 12:52 PM on April 27


Wait, you really can’t sort by subject or sender?!

I mean, I just search it...? In the very prominent search bar at the top? I have noticed that people who are used to more Outlook-like email systems get annoyed when I tell them to do that. I think annoyance with the unfamiliar is a really big factor in how every redesign is received. The best designed display in the world will still annoy me for about a week until I get used to it. (I'm not saying that I think Gmail's recent design hijinks are good, just that I forced myself through the adjustment period and don't notice it anymore.)
posted by grandiloquiet at 1:08 PM on April 27 [23 favorites]


Don't even get me started on top-posting... ("Please see this thread for more information" - followed by 18 previous emails, all top-posted, where I have to work backwards from the bottom to try to decipher the conversation...)Wait, you really can’t sort by subject or sender?!

I always just assumed this was the work of Russian neo-Marxist post modern leftist bots
posted by philip-random at 1:12 PM on April 27 [1 favorite]


If I recall correctly it started with Microsoft Outlook. That's the first email client I can remember using that defaulted to putting the cursor at the top, rather than the bottom, of quoted text in the composition window.
posted by flabdablet at 1:19 PM on April 27


I think annoyance with the unfamiliar is a really big factor in how every redesign is received.

I agree with that, and I also think that the vast bulk of redesigns of damn near anything offer nowhere near the degree of productivity improvement that would justify the lost time caused by annoying millions of users that way. Especially when it happens as often as Gmail redesigns do.

Familiar is good. Familiar works.
posted by flabdablet at 1:23 PM on April 27 [13 favorites]


I just installed this and see no difference at all between before and after. Even toggling back and forth I see no change. Also, the "options" menu item is greyed out.

On the designer's page, there's a shot of Gmail in dark mode. Would love to have that but don't see how to enable it.


does this extension let you sort by subject or sender? No?

You punch the sender name or email address or subject in the search box to only see emails from that sender/subject. Much better than hitting a tab at the top of the column and then scrolling to it.
posted by dobbs at 1:44 PM on April 27 [1 favorite]


Familiar is good. Familiar works.

"Familiar" and "working" have nothing to do with each other. Change is not inherently bad.
posted by IAmUnaware at 1:53 PM on April 27 [1 favorite]


I got to the part where it says "...before landing at Nori, a company addressing climate change with blockchain" and my eyes rolled so hard they exceeded the annual energy consumption of several European countries

So less than the monthly energy consumption of "blockchain", then?
posted by grouse at 1:57 PM on April 27 [2 favorites]


I've been familiar with both gmail and traditional email clients for as long as it's been possible to do so. Gmail's search and traditional sorting both have their uses. When I can't remember the right content words to search for, or when searching by names isn't enough, being able within seconds to sort by any field has been a lifesaver. In fact part of the reason I keep a traditional client around is specifically to be able to resort to it when Gmail search isn't turning up what I'm looking for.

(While we're at it, any chance he made searching by date less annoying? I keep having to re-learn the syntax. A good Gmail plugin would be one that made all the search operators immediately discoverable...)
posted by trig at 2:01 PM on April 27 [5 favorites]


As far as I understand, Nori has a valid use of the block chain (as a public ledger), but I found this post on when to use a block chain and now I can't even define a flowchart, so I dunno.
posted by the agents of KAOS at 2:05 PM on April 27 [2 favorites]


You punch the sender name or email address or subject in the search box

What does that mean? You mean I just put it in the search box and search, or is "punching" something special?
posted by thelonius at 2:18 PM on April 27


In the latest big update Gmail removed a sort by sender feature that only appeared when you hover over a contact's name and clicked their email. Sure you can search for the sender's name, but you used to be able to just click them. In my eyes that's a bad, backwards step that they had no reason to take.

As for this, I'd give it a shot but I use Firefox :( ... I hope to get something de-bloaty soon, though.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 2:22 PM on April 27 [2 favorites]


Change is not inherently bad.

It is unless the change is also a compelling improvement, which 90% of Gmail's UI changes have absolutely not been.
posted by flabdablet at 2:24 PM on April 27 [9 favorites]


As far as I understand, Nori has a valid use of the block chain (as a public ledger)

There's something a bit fishy about basing a climate change mitigation strategy on a technology that burns energy as fast as Ethereum does.

Far better just to run your public ledger on top of a centralized database that uses literally millions of times less energy while also scaling far more easily, and achieve the required level of global trust by basing the thing in a country where "regulator" is not a dirty word.
posted by flabdablet at 2:31 PM on April 27 [7 favorites]


You punch the sender name or email address or subject in the search box

What does that mean? You mean I just put it in the search box and search, or is "punching" something special?


from:x@y.com
posted by Going To Maine at 2:32 PM on April 27 [1 favorite]


I've never heard that! What a country!
posted by thelonius at 2:46 PM on April 27 [1 favorite]


I would say that there's a real software documentation and training crisis for web services, but I actually think that's presentism and it's just always been terrible.
posted by Going To Maine at 2:59 PM on April 27 [3 favorites]


Awww... just google it.
posted by sammyo at 3:45 PM on April 27


"Familiar" and "working" have nothing to do with each other.

They sort of do, though. Think of it in evolutionary terms: the familiar has already survived a test of fitness. People adopted it and stuck with it for a reason. Beneficial mutations are still possible, but they aren't easy to find; blind tinkering is, on the average, worse than neutral. And blind tinkering is what Google's UI changes often feel like.
posted by aws17576 at 4:21 PM on April 27 [8 favorites]


The familiar has endured because it is suffices, not because it is good or works well. And, in a monopolistic software environment where only one or two variants of an interface exist and are often picked by corporate mandate, the reason people stock with something may have a lot more to do with what's been purchased rather than what works.

The thing that stings is when a feature that you consider crucial disappears and it turns out that your dependency wasn't shared with millions of others.
posted by Going To Maine at 4:52 PM on April 27 [2 favorites]


The fight over top posting is lost. If I started bottom posting my replies at work I'd be the only one I've seen in years and email trails would be unreadable.
posted by deadwax at 5:16 PM on April 27 [9 favorites]


> The fight over top posting is lost.
Yeah but it would be nice if a modern mail UI helped you quote when replying, like I just did now.
posted by thefool at 5:59 PM on April 27 [3 favorites]


You mean I just put it in the search box and search, or is "punching" something special?

Depends on how you feel about the person who sent you the email.
posted by Greg_Ace at 6:01 PM on April 27 [5 favorites]


If your car suddenly had the steering wheel in a different place and the dashboard was radically reconfigured, that would be bad. The familiar is important because getting shit done takes priority over some UI/UX person's concept of interface purity.
posted by grumpybear69 at 6:14 PM on April 27 [4 favorites]


So the reasonable question is whether gmail is the same as a car. (I am being serious.)
posted by Going To Maine at 6:24 PM on April 27 [1 favorite]


As someone who occasionally tries to access gmail from a 3g connection on an older kindle [the browser is under something like 'experimental' in the settings] - does anyone know how to just get the html only version?

I can do it from a modern computer - the little link at the bottom while it loads does indeed get me to the html only page. I just want a way to do the whole thing [log in and read email] without having to load anything complex.

I used to have a link that worked, and then it didn't. Then another, until it didn't.

I understand that this can't be their top priority, and that it is just expected that I'll have a smartphone with a data plan, but...
posted by Acari at 6:26 PM on April 27


Does no one use a dedicated email client anymore? The idea of someone purposely subjecting oneself to Gmail’s UI boggles comprehension.
posted by Thorzdad at 6:38 PM on April 27 [1 favorite]


I just installed this and see no difference at all between before and after.

I had to close my GMail tab and open a new one to get the changes to kick in.

Anyway, I just want my fucking bundles back.
posted by tobascodagama at 6:55 PM on April 27 [2 favorites]


does anyone know how to just get the html only version?

I *think* this link should work? You need to be logged-in to Gmail first, otherwise you will just be sent to a generic Google page.
posted by jeremias at 7:06 PM on April 27 [1 favorite]


So the reasonable question is whether gmail is the same as a car. (I am being serious.)

Kind of, yes? I think when most people use email (or most software, for that matter) they're not so much interested in efficiency, and probably not interested in the concept of email at all. They just want to communicate with someone and the known path will probably get them there with the least fuss. Likewise, I don't think people are primarily interested in the experience of their car so much as the utility it provides: getting to work, or the grocery store or whatever. The level of habituation people have with interfaces should also be taken into account. It's true we get used to these sorts of UI changes over time but if someone came along and inverted the shift pattern on my transmission it'd be a problem. Sure, if I were mindful, I could probably drive around OK in short order, but it'd be weeks to months before I never made a mistake shifting. And it'd be even worse if I still had to drive a car with a traditional shifter periodically. I know I still have to willfully recall what "Add/Remove programs" is called these days- some of these habits get buried deep.
posted by wordless reply at 7:41 PM on April 27 [3 favorites]


This is EXACTLY why I use a dedicated email client. Webmail is a fallback, not the default. A local client has so many more features and ease of use. I see colleagues fighting with the web interface and can’t understand why they bother. I can have 3+ accounts open at once, as many simultaneous composition windows as a like, local drag-and-drop attachment handling, and instant access to full mail headers and source when needed. Plus encryption options, ability to move mail between folders (and between accounts!), and offline access to my full mail history. Yes, it’s gmail on the back end, but I don’t use their web interface unless I’m not on my own computer.
posted by caution live frogs at 7:56 PM on April 27 [5 favorites]


You punch the sender name or email address or subject in the search box to only see emails from that sender/subject. Much better than hitting a tab at the top of the column and then scrolling to it.

If I want to do this, one by one, with a bunch of different senders then... maybe? I don't want to do that, though. I want to go through my inbox or a folder by sender to deal with emails in bulk. Your suggestion works if I want to target a specific sender rather than, for example, just whittle my inbox down to a manageable size by culling things by being able to see a different grouping than quasi-chronological.

Don't assume that the way that works for you is the way that it should be done for everybody. That, really, is one of my greatest annoyances with Gmail. The "we've decided you should do it this way and won't even offer the ability to do it any other way.
posted by jzb at 7:57 PM on April 27 [7 favorites]


Does no one use a dedicated email client anymore? The idea of someone purposely subjecting oneself to Gmail’s UI boggles comprehension.

About every, oh, three to six months I get fed up with Gmail and revisit Thunderbird. And then little papercut annoyances / inefficiencies tend to take over and eventually I stop trying to juggle between Thunderbird and the rest of Google's suite. (My workplace uses the whole Google suite.) Until we adopted the Google suite I used Thunderbird or mutt, and only went into our old Webmail client to set up vacation autoresponders.

When your workflow depends heavily on Google docs, using another client is much less convenient. (e.g. "embedding" or attaching things from Google drive into an email response.)
posted by jzb at 8:14 PM on April 27 [1 favorite]


I can have 3+ accounts open at once, as many simultaneous composition windows as a like, local drag-and-drop attachment handling, and instant access to full mail headers and source when needed. Plus encryption options, ability to move mail between folders (and between accounts!)

This sounds really impressive, but also seems like a power user situation. As someone with pretty basic needs, all I want is:
* tagging
* simultaneous composition
* drag and drop attachments
* a good address book with autocomplete
* plain text messages, but it's not a hard requirement.
* "good" search.

The standard webmail client does all of this. It isn't potent, but I don't think it has to be. I'll miss bundle-in-Inbox forever, but that was something that seemed genuinely novel.

Like, I don't want to knock desktop clients, but the functionality of webmail systems is I think enough for most basic users and saves them from having to use up a lot of disk for a local mail archive.
posted by Going To Maine at 11:33 PM on April 27 [2 favorites]


My theory is that Google is trying to get us to just go away so they can drop the whole thing,
posted by a humble nudibranch at 1:00 AM on April 28 [5 favorites]


The familiar has endured because it is suffices, not because it is good or works well.

The idea that these are not the same thing is utterly alien to me; I am apparently on the other side of the satisficers vs maximizers cultural divide from you when it comes to technology.
posted by flabdablet at 1:37 AM on April 28 [2 favorites]


I can have 3+ accounts open at once, as many simultaneous composition windows as a like, local drag-and-drop attachment handling, and instant access to full mail headers and source when needed. Plus encryption options, ability to move mail between folders (and between accounts!), and offline access to my full mail history.

I still use Thunderbird with my Fastmail account to maintain my offline backups and exchange the occasional PGP-encrypted mail. I used to use it for everything, but since switching from Gmail to Fastmail on the back end I've drifted more toward using the Fastmail web interface for most of my day-to-day email needs, purely because it works so well. It smoothly handles everything in your list except for end-to-end encryption and offline backup. Easily the least friction of any webmail client I've ever used, and better than many desktop clients as well (*cough* outlook *cough*).
posted by flabdablet at 1:56 AM on April 28


What's all this about going back to mutt? I've never stopped using it since the mid-90s (I was a PINE boy before the UW got really obnoxious about their licensing).

I use pandoc to render HTML mails down to markdown, but prefer the text/plain portion in my mutt settings. It means I often catch mailers who send out new text/html payloads with outdated text/plain sides. I often wish those folks would just send straight text/html instead of multipart/alternative.

I also gave up on top posting when engaged in a thread. Top or bottom make no difference when you trim quotations (in which case "inline" was always the Correct Choice) but if you're going to just include a whole damn thread in your mail top-posting is the least obnoxious, because it was always frustrating when some UseNet newbie would reply to a 12-page post to write one line at the bottom. That behaviour is less annoying at the top where you can just skip past in an instant.

I love that the page commends users for being wary about privacy when installing extensions, when this is about GMAIL:the mail service that promises to read your mail!

posted by rum-soaked space hobo at 2:51 AM on April 28 [3 favorites]


I’ll have to see if this extension is blocked at work. This year, my company ditched Office for Gsuite, in the process ditching support for desktop email clients.
posted by emelenjr at 5:09 AM on April 28


That's it, I'm switching back to Pine.

I still have a license for Eudora...
posted by mikelieman at 6:51 AM on April 28 [3 favorites]


For years, I've just been using my Gmail via Apple Mail on my phone and Macs, and a while ago I had to use the web interface on someone else's machine and it was just... ugh. What happened?
posted by xedrik at 8:13 AM on April 28


mikelieman: Qualcomm Eudora was pretty great, and I was always impressed with its search. Couple that with the fact that backing up your mail was easy, and you could make a folder in the file system that was all your attachments, it really was a useful program.
posted by deezil at 8:39 AM on April 28 [2 favorites]


The idea that these are not the same thing is utterly alien to me; I am apparently on the other side of the satisficers vs maximizers cultural divide from you when it comes to technology.

O, I don't know. Perhaps we all start satisficing from a different baseline. I stopped using desktop clients years ago, in part because I didn't like the interface, and now I don't like the idea of sacrificing a bunch of space on a laptop hard drive for redundancy when prolonged network are a minor concern. Laptop hard drive space is a precious resource.
posted by Going To Maine at 8:58 AM on April 28


It's funny, earlier today I was complaining about the phenomenon of Googling for the solution to a software problem, finding just the perfect answer in some forum along the lines of "oh just go to 'settings > user preferences > configuration > project settings > advanced settings > formula alignment recombination > calculation mode' and uncheck the box labeled 'use legacy formula modes' and that'll fix you right up". Only their advice applies to AwesomeApp 2011 and I have AwesomeApp 2017 and all those menus and dialogs have been redesigned twice since.

Every single redesign loses a bit of UX from throwing away that cumulative expertise. It must give back more to even begin to be worthwhile.
posted by traveler_ at 7:16 PM on April 28 [8 favorites]


Only their advice applies to AwesomeApp 2011 and I have AwesomeApp 2017 and all those menus and dialogs have been redesigned twice since.

Oh lord, don't get me started!! I actually support an application like that, and not only are the menus and UI considerably different over each of 9 major versions, but so is the organization of the product documentation! And of course we have to support all those versions even though the older ones are 8-10 years out of development. Exasperating doesn't even begin to cover it.
posted by Greg_Ace at 7:32 PM on April 28 [1 favorite]


From the designer's side, I think the Dunning-Kruger effect plays a far larger role than most designers are willing to admit. As a retired software designer I know for sure that it has done so for me.

Let me explain.

It's impossible to know what's wrong with a design, really, until what you've designed has actually been built and you've had time to play with it yourself as well as observe and evaluate how it actually gets used by other people.

Every design has features that annoy some users. Many designs, once actually implemented, have features that annoy the designer. This applies without exception. But the only way to acquire the cognitive skills required to see what's wrong with your designs is in retrospect.

Before the thing is actually built, what you think of as a good design will appear in your imagination as this perfect, crystalline thing and you will push like hell to make sure it gets built as you've originally conceived of it. And this is Dunning-Kruger in full flight: the skills you would need in order to understand where you're going wrong as a designer are exactly those skills you don't have at the point where the design you have a burning desire to see built still seems to you like the height of perfection.

The only way to avoid this trap is to run your design ideas past people with more experience than you in constructing designs in your chosen space and get their advice and be willing to take it. And I have yet to meet anybody with multiple decades of design experience in any space who remains willing to argue in good faith that change for its own sake, in designs already in use by multiple millions of people, makes a net positive contribution to design quality.

If well-used, familiar designs are to be changed, they need to be changed in ways that save time and effort for significant numbers of users without costing more time and effort than that in aggregate, and it turns out that this is in general incredibly difficult to do elegantly. Which is exactly why the designs most widely used across the worlds of industry and commerce are, each and every one, complicated messy things dominated by backward compatibility and incremental, accretive design growth.

It's why more business is done in English than in Esperanto or Lojban, why more typing is done on QWERTY than Dvorak or Colemak or Maltron, and why xkcd's 15 standards cartoon has the ring of irrefutable truth.

It's also why the US going into Afghanistan, and later into Iraq, in order to "bring democracy" to those countries has caused suffering on a scale that none of the neocons who architected those policies could conceivably have contemplated before pushing for their adoption. But that's another discussion to be had in another thread.
posted by flabdablet at 3:25 AM on April 29 [4 favorites]


does anyone know how to just get the html only version? ... I used to have a link that worked, and then it didn't. Then another, until it didn't.

I'm not sure. I use this URL all the time on PC: https://mail.google.com/mail/h/

StackExchange says that's one of two URLs for the same thing.

I definitely remember having some weirdness about using a URL to access the "basic html" mode for a while, but that's stopped happening now. I don't know whether that means they fixed a bug, or if they have some magic flag that worked out that I keep doing this & it has stopped trying to nudge me towards the full-fat version...

It might have been something to do with me habitually logging out. I tried logging out & logging back in again now. I think they fixed the problem, because now if I log in through the URL for basic HTML, it gives me two buttons and asks if I'm sure I really want to use basic HTML :-). I don't know if there's a different code path for "mobile", that might trigger for a Kindle.
posted by sourcejedi at 5:06 AM on May 1 [1 favorite]


The extension page has a link for Firefox as well as Chrome. When Firefox switched to "WebExtensions", they matched the same format Chrome used. The don't support *all* the same APIs, but this type of extension (munging the code of the website) is really common / pretty straightforward to support.
posted by sourcejedi at 5:17 AM on May 1


« Older Bowing out   |   Killing Patient Zero Newer »


You are not currently logged in. Log in or create a new account to post comments.