Co.Design

Gmail's New Tabbed Inbox: An Automated Cure For Email Overload

The revised Gmail helps users manage a new breed of spam: the endless stream of semi-relevant deals, newsletters, and social media updates that pour into our inboxes every day.

As developers continue to give us smart new tools for managing our unruly inboxes, Google has turned its attention to the root of our email woes. The problem? We get way too much of it. Google’s solution, or at least the latest version of it? Tabs.

But the new system isn’t just about keeping your inbox organized. It’s a recognition of the simple fact that all emails aren’t created equal--and, more important, an admission that some might not be worthy of your inbox in the first place.

INSTEAD OF ONE INBOX, MANY

The new inbox, which will roll out to users in coming weeks on both the desktop and Gmail mobile apps, puts a row of big, chunky tabs atop the standard list of messages. There are five in all. First is the "primary" tab, which is essentially your main inbox. There’s "social," which includes all things related to services like Google+, Facebook, and Twitter; "promotions," where email blasts from daily deals sites get shuffled; "updates" for receipts, bills, and other unglamorous but important digital documents; and "forums" for groups, discussions, message board and the like.

Google touts that the new inbox "puts you back in control using simple, easy organization." But the tabs don’t really involve much organization on the user’s side at all. With tabs enabled, the corresponding emails are routed automatically. When you get a message from Groupon, say, it automatically gets deposited in your "deals" tab, never once passing through your inbox proper.

You can drag and drop messages between tabs, sure, and you can decide which ones you want to use. But by and large, the tabs are an automated, fixed affair. You can’t customize them with your own parameters, as you would with a label. Nor do they just serve as shortcuts to subsets of messages, like labels do. The tabs are wholly separate from your inbox--they’re specialized repositories that exist independent from the standard list of emails you revisit throughout the day.

In that way, the update is a fairly radical one, at least in terms of how we think about our inboxes. Until now, no matter what system you used for sorting emails, the inbox could be counted on as the one place where you could find them all. All emails were equal in that sense. The tabbed inbox does away with that. But it makes sense. All emails aren’t equal.

THE NEW SPAM

Back when Gmail first was introduced in 2004, spam was the scourge of the inbox. Thankfully it was a fairly binary problem--an email is either spam or it isn’t--and thus a straightforward one to solve. Over the years, with complex filters and sophisticated algorithms, Google has done a remarkably good job of getting it under control.

Today, though, our inboxes are choked with a different sort of spam. These aren’t scams and supplement ads but messages we might actually want to read at some point--things like newsletters, catalogs, daily offers, and social media status updates. They don’t require our immediate attention, but they may be of value to us. This isn’t spam, exactly. In many cases, we asked to receive it. And it’s not entirely useless stuff, either--among those dozen unread Living Social emails, there’s a chance that there might be a really good one. Which is precisely why we leave the things sitting there, unread, to be processed later.

Still, these messages aren’t as important as emails from friends, family, coworkers, and other actual people. Worse yet, they make a mess of our inboxes, crowding out more time-sensitive messages that might require action on our parts. What this subclass of messages is, really, is clutter. It’s the stuff sitting on your desk taking up space--the stuff you don’t really have a place to store but doesn’t yet belong in the trashcan either. With tabs, Gmail automatically grabs all that stuff before it has the chance to clutter up your real inbox and neatly tucks it away in so many digital drawers.

The main, crucial consequence of this is a more relevant inbox, in addition to a far more accurate count of how many unread messages you have at a given moment. When you’re thinking about getting your inbox under control, seeing that you have 782 unread messages to sort through can be a huge psychological hurdle. But when 500 of those have been automatically distributed to their respective tabs--turns out 300 of them were daily new Twitter follower alerts!--you’re left with a much more manageable situation.

FILTERING THE BAD, RATHER THAN IDENTIFYING THE GOOD

To savvy users of existing Gmail features--things like filters, labels, and stars, as well as the priority inbox--the new tabs system might seem redundant, if not actively disruptive to whatever system you’ve already got going. But the tabs mark a fairly significant shift in Gmail’s approach to inbox management. Namely, that it’s easier to figure out what’s not important to an email user than to pinpoint what is.

The idea behind the "starred" message was to let Gmail users manually flag the messages that required their attention. The "important" message filter automated the process. With tabs, Google’s tackling the problem from the opposite end. It’s not looking for what’s important and setting it aside; it’s looking for what it knows isn’t important--all the junky inbox jetsam we leave unread for later, but never return to--and setting it aside for us.

The way tabs are deployed, though--as separate inboxes instead of subcategories of the same big one--has some powerful implications. Stars let us mark important emails amidst a sea of unimportant ones. Tabs comes with the implicit suggestion that maybe we shouldn’t be thinking of those unimportant emails as emails at all. As John Herrman points out over at BuzzFeed, in reality, these types of updates are more akin to a feed than anything resembling two-way correspondence.

Taking a step back, though, you can also see the new inbox simply as a reflection of how Google’s changing more broadly as a company. When Gmail first came out, it gave users unlimited storage space and an all-powerful search bar for sifting through it all. The promise was that you never had to delete an email again. Gmail was like your own personal Google. Total knowledge, total recall.

These days, Google is much less focused on the scope, breadth, and size of search. It’s more concerned with making search relevant, automatic, and predictive. The tab model is, in a sense, just a shrewder attempt at bringing that type of automated relevance to the inbox. Figuring out what emails a given user wants to see can be tricky. Figuring out what ones we don’t need to be looking at all the time is considerably easier.

Read more about the new inbox here.

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10 Comments

  • Benmclaurin

    Without being able to create your own tabs makes this feature is pretty well useless. When I got it recently I thought it was a good idea right until I saw the configuration options. Each tab on or off.

    I honestly think there is a group of of people at Google sitting around a table laughing their asses off. This has to be some sort of joke.

  • guestlooking

    The issue isn't Google's (or anyone's) tech prowess to provide tech solutions to tech problems, it's that they forgot to mention these "improvements" to their users, before implementation and forgetting to allow users any way to opt out. Usually gmail will ask "Maybe Later".. not anymore. Can anyone think of any other tech companies in the past who took the "shoot first, asked questions later" model? 
    If you're interested go to Google Product Forums/Gmail/How to remove Labels I never created in gmail.. How did this happen?

  • Shannon Little

    I think it would be more effective if there was still a tab that had everything in it, along with the 4 other categories. Let people choose how they want to utilize their Gmail.

  • Alfred Ingram

    I get over 3500 emails per month in my gmail account. I belong to Linkedin, Google+, Flickr, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr.  To shorten a long story, it isn't going to work or as we say in Chicago, "It ain't going on here."

  • Brandon Weidema

    I currently use 2 email addresses, one is for the sole purpose of dealing with newsletters, etc. I'll have to see how effective this is for me to possibly close one of my emails down.

  • dlavenda

    Problem is that filters are not static; what's important to you changes over time. Maintaining email filters or routing rules is also a pain. How many of us actually spend the time to update them? I have created filters for Twitter and email, but never updated them. They have become stale over time. It just seems to take less time to do mass deletes each day than deal with the managing rules. This will only become easy once there is some automated contextual way to dynamically manage rules and filters.

  • Reina Carpeso

    I like it. My Gmail account for work and personal use so this would really help a lot. :)

  • Guest

    Aol included this feature in its Alto mail service.  Granted nobody is using Alto, but not sure if "the update is a fairly radical one" 

  • Another Guest

     I think you're confusing the word 'radical' with the word 'original'.