Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Tech Column: The New Gmail Compose, Thumbs Down

by Bill Adler

I remember reading about experiments in which biologists gave LSD to spiders to see what kind of webs they spun. The drugged spiders made all sorts of fantastical designs, but none of the designs were useful as spider webs.

The redesign of Gmail's compose and reply layout reminds me of that experiment. It's crazy, bizarre. What were they thinking? Or rather, what were the designers at Google drinking?

The new compose format, which had been optional for many months, was rolled out for all Gmail users last week. It's no longer optional. (Though you can revert back to the old way at least for a little while; more on that later.) The essence of the new compose format puts the compose box in the lower right hand corner of your screen. Not where your eyes are, but over there. In a little corner all by itself. The compose box is also small; it's not full screen like the previous compose mode was.

Google says that this new layout lets you see what's in your inbox and other folders as you're writing your email. The new format lets you compose multiple messages at the same time. But your focus is off to a corner of the screen, which isn't conducive to, well, focus. You can pop out the compose window to fill your screen, but that takes two clicks: click the up arrow and then click the maximize button. Or you can hold the shift key while clicking on compose to have the window open in the middle of your screen. Gmail used to be equated with easy-to-use --you know, for actual humans-- but that thought is evaporating.

Replying in the new format is a little better. A little. At least the reply box doesn't appear off to a corner of your screen. But, as with the new compose format, getting to often-used features involves hunting for clues. Editing the subject line in the new reply format requires getting to a sub-menu of sorts. To make the reply box fill up your screen --something you might want to do if you are, once again, focusing on the task at hand-- requires that you first pop-out the reply, then press the centering arrow, then press the maximize button. Sheesh.

Features and controls that you used to be able to see or easily access under the old compose are hard to find or require multiple clicks. The actual email address of the person you're writing to, for example. In the new compose you can only see their name. If you use multiple From addresses, it's a chore to get to them.

Fortunately you can revert back to the old compose format -- at least for a while, sayeth Google. Look for the little down arrow in the lower right hand corner of the lower right hand corner of the little compose window. (If that sounds tricky, that's because it is.) Click on it, then select "Temporarily switch back to old compose." Google itself called Gmail a "beta" product for over 5 years, so there's hope that "temporary" can last a long time.


Bill Adler is the co-publisher of the Cleveland Park Listserv, www.cleveland-park.com. He is the author of "Boys and Their Toys: Understanding Men by Understanding Their Relationship with Gadgets," http://amzn.to/rspOft.  He tweets at @billadler.


  1. Well, then my relationship with Gmail is "temporary;" ending the day I can no longer opt out of this ridiculous "feature." Even knowing that Google is inclined to just mess with a product I use to make a living has me interested in alternatives. The shear arrogance of the message warning me that "I'd better get use to it!" No, Google, I do not. The only thing I'll be getting use to is a new email provider.

    Anyway, thanks for the insightful article and a place to vent.

  2. Yah, this change is hard to swallow.

    I hate how the quoted text is [...]; it's just not conducive to writing replies, with quoted text, for when it comes to using listservs that have rules about quoting and plain text e-mails.

    I also hate how it's in the corner of the window. I have not heard anyone mention that if you're in OS X full screen, and you pop open the compose window, a new window will open a new OS X full screen browser window. Annoying to say the least.