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."
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.
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.