Why The New Gmail Interface Is So Bad

I’m reading Steve Jobs’s biography, and though I’ve heard many of the Apple stories, it’s amazing to me how involved he was in fine details of Apple’s product design.  It reminds me that details matter, great products are about details, and great products will make great companies.

It also helps me understand why I reacted so negatively to Gmail’s new design.  It’s easy to trash changes (complaining about Facebook UI tweaks is practically a national sport), but I’m trying to put my finger on why it’s so bad.

There are some nice usability improvements, such as the ability to reply by just typing into a box.  But by going “cleaner”, Google eliminated many of the subtle but essential visual clues that defined page elements.  Consider the old design:

Now, look at the new design:

Note how the most important part (the message body text) gets more “lost” in the page.  Button coloring and shading is now too muted, losing important navigation hints.  The rounded box around messages is gone, causing more work to figure out where messages end and begin (and it’s even worse when messages contain quoted replies).  Sender names are no longer colored, making them harder to find as well.   (And themes don’t address the problem — that just provides color and highlighting on the top and left bars).

Considered together, these changes force the user to do much more “visual work”.  For an email app, which is often used in a scanning or skimming mode, this is a critical issue.   It’s also my biggest problem with many UI designs:   most designers do not undertand how our eyes work.  They frequently focus on “aesthetics”, and miss important contrast, color, grouping, layout, and flow details.

I hope Google lets us keep the old design!

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