Co.Design

How A Tiny New Compose Window Could Reinvent Gmail

Google’s smaller, simpler email compose box looks a lot like Gchat. And that’s no coincidence.

If you’re a regular user of Gmail, you’ll know why the bottom right corner of the screen is special. It’s the home of Gchat—a place where you don’t have to worry about email’s more formal etiquette or protocol. It’s a place where it doesn’t matter whether you sign off with "thanks" or "best." Most of all, it’s a place that’s fun, which is probably the opposite feeling summoned by the rest of your overstuffed inbox. But here’s where things get confusing: Now that little corner of the screen is where you go to write emails, too.

That collision of worlds came last week, when Google made its redesigned compose window the default for all Gmail users. You can’t miss it: Instead of whisking you off to the familiar full-screen affair, clicking the big red "compose" button now summons a small pop-up in that sacred bottom-right quadrant. The new compose window itself is a streamlined thing: there’s a line for your recipient, a line for your subject, a box below for the message, and little else. CC and BCC no longer get their own fields. All text formatting options have been relegated to a tiny button at the bottom.

What it looks like, really, is a slightly oversized version of Gchat. And that’s no accident. Google’s actively trying to make email less fussy and formal—or, in other words, to make it a little more like instant messaging. And as Jason Cornwell, Gmail’s lead designer, explains, one of the ways to do that is simply to "give you permission to write shorter messages."

That desire to let users embrace brevity stems from something we all feel from time to time—that email is just too much work. Which is a reasonable response, considering how much of it we’re inundated with every day. But it’s a feeling that also has to do with how email’s always been presented to us.

Picture the standard full-screen compose window. The one that gives you a dauntingly huge text box to fill and an array of options for formatting whatever you manage to put in it. What that really looks like, with its button-strewn toolbar, is an empty word processor—and according to Cornwell, what it communicates to users is this: "Write something long."

"It was a space that was sort of intimidating, I think, to write a message like 'Hey, wanna get lunch?'" he explains. "We wanted the new compose to facilitate these quicker messages. Or at least make it a space where that felt appropriate."

The new compose window came along with a streamlined reply box for email threads, too.

Of course, there are occasions that warrant a longer message, and there are times that benefit from formality. You wouldn’t want to start a cover letter with, "Hey, wanna interview me?" But at the same time, a massive, full-screen form that sets aside space for your blind carbon copy recipients just doesn’t feel like the right place to ask your friend if they watched Game of Thrones last night. And while Cornwell admits that encouraging too much brevity is "a delicate line you have to walk," there are reasons to push Gmail in that direction. It has to keep up with the times.

Five years ago, email only had SMS to compete with; now it’s up against things like iMessage and Facebook chat. In a recent Pew study, only 6% of the teenagers polled said they used email for talking with friends every day, compared to 29% who communicated through social media sites and 63% who sent text messages on a daily basis. So in a broader sense, you can see the redesign simply as a play to stay relevant.

The formatting toolbar is now hidden by default, a design detail informed by user data.

That said, the new compose offers some other, more immediate UX benefits. For one, it makes multitasking easier, leaving you free to search through your inbox for some scrap of information you might need to mention in the email you’re writing.

And it reduces visual clutter in a way that makes sense, given how we actually use email. "We know that a very small percentage of emails involve a formatting action," says Cornwell, an insight derived from Google’s famously vast trove of user data. "But if you use one formatting action in the email, you’re very likely to use a whole bunch of them." So while the new view hides the formatting toolbar by default, once opened, it stays visible for the duration of the message.

Still, what most people will notice about the new compose window is simply its size. It’s small. Shockingly small, you might think. And it can feel funny at first, in that holding-your-phone-in-the-wrong-hand kind of way. The first time you email your boss with it is a little bit terrifying. You’ll sense in some vague way that it didn’t come out quite right.

But I imagine it’s one of those things we’ll get used to faster than we think. And if it really does engender a better form of email in the long run—one that lets us feel okay about firing off a one-sentence note where we currently feel like we have to write five—then a few weeks of awkwardly abrupt emails right now will be worth it. In that case, I’d even forgive Gmail for the grievous offense it’s committing here: dragging my work day into the one place I could always go to avoid it.

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108 Comments

  • akgeorgeuiuc

    The gmail compose window is still terrible despite what this piece says. Too many things are hidden: the actual email addreeses of recipients, the bcc and cc fields, the frikking subject line. Each of these changes requires multiple clicks. I have been using it for over a year now and I still wish they hadn't changed it. In short. It really really sucks.

  • Dan

    It's awful. It's so awful, so much more confusing, and so much more unintuitive than the old version. I'm not even sure I've properly figured out how to control who my replies go to in long email chains, because somehow I managed to send a reply to the wrong person, which ended up being a total disaster for me.

  • macpro

    The article is nothing but a cheerleader piece for the small Gmail window. Email has always been about the full size window going back to Pine and even before. Succumbing to the thumb twiddling iPhone yankers is not the way to go with email.

    New Gmail Sucks.

  • Alex G

    Goddamn annoying is what it is.

    I want an email interface that looks like im sending an email. not a damn chat message.

    Has made me start considering other options on that alone.

    Its email. Dont make it fancy, just make it functional!

  • joebloggs4president

    The stupidity of the new compose is that you essentially have to configure the UX depending on what options you want to use, with mouse moves and clicks. And moving off a field hides the label. Or wanting to make use of Bcc or CC fields requires yet more clicks... all stuffed into a ridiculously small window for the purpose of WHAT? 

    To PISS US OFF. I have a business to run. I don't want to be a lab rat for some poorly thought out user interface.

  • Walter Adamson

    It's a pain in the butt. Yesmail now goes to a new browser window instead of inline. Spell check is two clicks away. You can't see how many attachments as they seem to be hidden, just sent an email with the attachment repeated because the first one was hidden somewhere. To me it is all extra work, getting in the way of a previously smooth process, it appears to be deliberately sabotaging other service providers e.g. Yesmail that we have chosen to embed in our email workflow.

    It's click click click and worse to do something which was simple before.#fail #total Google's geeks have done it again. Praise to the search gurus and their algorithms, they are the kings. But their UX everywhere always seems to fail the common sense test. Why don't they just get Freelancers to do something sensible for a minute fraction of the cost :)

  • Walter Adamson

    "But their UX everywhere always" should be "But their UX everywhere else always" ...

  • abeec

    Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes.  Art is knowing which ones to keep. -Scott Adams

    Please.  Be an artist.  Let the new Compose go.

    At least be an option only feature.

  • SemiFrost

    Was an appreciative Gmail user since beta launch. Recent days completed transition from Gmail to Outlook. Today again took note of auto-start Google Toolbar running -- the one you cannot shutdown in Task Manager. Killed that for good, closed Chrome and went back to Firefox. I'll still use Gmail -- for auto-forwarding. Thanks for that and the function of the past, Google.

  • Alex V

    "But at the same time, a massive, full-screen form that sets aside space
    for your blind carbon copy recipients just doesn’t feel like the right
    place to ask your friend if they watched Game of Thrones last night."

    That's correct, and that's why people use Facebook, Twitter, and text messages for everyday chatter. I hate this social engineering effort by Google. I spend most of my work day, and much of my personal time, staring at the Gmail interface to communicate with clients and customers. Google's recent changes have not made this any easier. I'd gladly pay for Gmail and be able to have a platform to complain from (i.e. as a paying customer) than get their service for free and be forced to accept whatever their designers think was a good idea this week. And I hardly ever buy software.

  • zxoiesru

    FUCK YOU FASTCO FOR ENCOURAGING THIS FUCKING SHIT!!!!!!!
    FUCKKKKKKKKKKKK YOUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUU!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    IT"S A FUCKING PIECE OF SHIT AND MYSELF AND MILLIONS OF OTHERS ARE LEAVING GMAIL BECAUSE OF THIS PIECE OF FUCKING SHIT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • El_Consul

    Sorry to say but it sucks!

    It is just not as usable as the original Compose. Besides all the extra clicks that I now have to do it also neutralizes everything else when in full-screen mode... and I hate that it blocks the Chat when doing so.

    So, sorry to say this simply sucks!!!

  • Bill

    Google is increasingly pissing me off, shoving downgrades like this down our throats even after we repeatedly tell them why they're a step in the wrong direction.  Why have they become so blithely arrogant?  Using Gmail is now more difficult and more time-consuming for everyone.  I can't wait for someone to out-compete them.

  • zxoiesru

     I KNOW, RIGHT? IT'S TIME TO FUCKING LEAVE GOOGLE ALTOGEHER!! THOSE PRIVACY COMPROMISING ASSHOLES HAVE ALSO TAKEN AWAY OUR USABILITY? IT'S THE ONLY REASON WE STAYED!!! FUCK YOU GOOGLE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Bill

    I wouldn't put it that way, but yes, they violate our privacy, shut down products that everyone loves in order to shove a new product down our throats that no one wants, ignore our requests for new features, and downgrade existing features for no obvious reason.

  • Jamie Dolan

    I have to agree.  The last 2 years it seems google has been slowly downgrading service in an attempt to force users to spend more time on their sites.  Home users may accept these changes (and may not even notice them).  However they are alienating there business and tech savvy user base.

    It's all so silly too; because all they had to do was have an option for an "advanced" version and maintain a bit of extra code.  It would have kept business users and tech users happy and they would have achieved their goal by pushing the new interface on 95% of users.

  • Fabio Cecin

    Why don't Google create a "hipmail.com" domain where they can put all the "cool" mail interface crap into and leave the conservative Gmail interface alone? Have them share the stellar back-end. Done.

  • Geekonomicon

    Dear Jason Cornwell,

    By some miracle of design, you've manage to hide 99% of all the functionality I use on a daily - nay, hourly - basis when I send emails.  I format my text, add bullet points, bold, italicise and underline text.  I add in links, CC and BCC people I know when I send out emails.  No every single one of those functions requires two or three times as many clicks to enact. 

    No love,

    David.

  • Ronna Harlow

    Jason Cornwell's girlfriend must be a 14-year old teenager.  lol.  Thanks for dumbing down Gmail compose just for her! 

    Bring back the smarter version of Gmail compose for the all the intelligent adults who use Gmail every day for more than just chatting!  

    **sigh**  I suppose we're not so intelligent, however, if we keep using Gmail ...