Thursday, June 12, 2008

Tagging blues

Recently I asked a non techie friend of mine for his email id and I was surprised to know that he used Rediffmail as opposed to Gmail which I thought had become ubiquitous in today’s times. I asked him

Me: Why don’t you use Gmail. It’s superior to any other email

Friend: I do have a Gmail id but I don’t find it useful.

Me: Huh? What do you mean? I thought it was the most useful of the lot

Friend: There are things which I can do in Rediffmail but not possible in Gmail

Me: Like what?

Friend: I organize mails by putting them into folders in Rediffmail but it’s not possible in Gmail
I understood his problem. I later on explained in detail the funda of labeling in Gmail and how he can use it to organize his mails in better ways than Rediffmail. In the end of the discussion he was like

So all this while I didn’t know how to use Gmail?
I just smiled at his question. But this is a genuine problem faced by users not only by non tech users but also to an extent people who are power users of internet. I remember once when I was interviewing a candidate for our product design team, when asked about Gmail (Yes it’s my favorite product design topic) she mentioned that she found labels in Gmail useless. It seemed that she had always labeled her mails with keywords hoping that it would help her to search for them later just to be ended up with a huge list of labels which she never looked at or searched after that.

I think Labels in Gmail is one of the best features of it but at the same time the worst designed feature. Of course it’s a breeze to use the feature once you get to know how to make use of it but the UI does nothing for you to understand how well you can do it to organize your mails.

There is a very important aspect of interaction design which says

The computer, the interface, and the task environment all "belong" to the user, but user-autonomy doesn’t mean we abandon rules.

Give users some breathing room. Users learn quickly and gain a fast sense of mastery when they are placed "in charge." Paradoxically, however, people do not feel free in the absence of all boundaries (Yallum, 1980). A little child will cry equally when held too tight or left to wander in a large and empty warehouse. Adults, too, feel most comfortable in an environment that is neither confining nor infinite, an environment explorable, but not hazardous.
As labelling was a new concept in Gmail, they should have tried to make the use case simple enough for the users to understand. Applying labels not only made the mails stay in the inbox but also gave the idea of applying keywords visually by showing small text on the inbox UI. They should have stuck to the tried and tested folder metaphor and could have introduced a new funda that you can put the same mail to multiple folders. Like that they could have introduced a new idea but also define a premise for the users to play around with the feature in the right context.

They have actually tried this funda on the UI level in Google Reader. The reader items actually appear as if they have been shown out of a folder. And every feed can be a part of multiple folders. But I don’t know why in the management screens they are still called labels. May be they just wanted to convey that the folders you see in the front end is actually labels in the backend. :-)

The recent move of Gmail making the labels show up in color coded boxes shows that they are actually going in the folder direction keeping some kind of a balance between the label and folder. It’s just a smart way of making people reuse the existing labels and also discouraging them to go berserk by applying multiple search keywords to mails.
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