The Re-Skinning of Our Tools (and why we don’t need a new Gmail interface)

 This morning, like every other morning, I woke up, checked the news sites and then logged into Gmail. Gmail is Google’s second most successful platform to date, and my online email service of choice. Sure, I have a Yahoo and Hotmail account, but they have been relegated to serving as spam catchers for any site (or person) I’m not sure I trust yet.  Gmail has become my central location for all things email and has really earned a spot near and dear in my heart.

Before I was able to read anything this morning, a message box came up and warned me that I was about to experience Gmail’s newly re-skinned interface.  Re-skinning is when a website adds changes to the overall style and functionality (for better or worse). I’d seen the new Gmail skin when it was first released as a preview, but I didn’t like how it spread out my subject lines and gave me less information per page.  I also wasn’t crazy about the subtler colors or general lightening of the overall experience, so I reverted to the old look.  I’d become a tech groundhog and in seeing the future, chose to hit the snooze button for a few months.  

We’ve seen all this before.  Every few months Facebook re-skins it’s home or profile page and legions of angry change-o-phobes storm Facebook decrying the changes.  They threaten to really leave this time, then go back to checking their statuses and have forgotten about it by the end of the next week.  Then it happens all over again.  This isn’t by accident. Anyone who’s familiar with Madonna’s constant personal reinvention can attest that it works to keep people from getting bored with the same old thing.  You might like Madonna’s old style (and have invested hundreds of dollars in rubber wristbands and fishnet headbands), but some part of you is grateful that she changed things up and isn’t still rocking the same style she wore in 1989.  The same goes for Facebook.  If it was still the same application you were using 5 years ago, you’d probably be looking for the door.  It would be drab and boring and oh-so-five minutes ago. People get tired of the same old thing, even if they don’t like to admit it, or even know it about themselves.  It’s a wife that changes her hair, a husband that start working out, or a kid that starts watching the discovery channel instead of Pokemon. In subtle ways it’s like moving on, without moving on.  

Why then, should we be so opposed to Gmail changing its interface?

Gmail isn’t a fashion or social application.  I don’t use it to show to mold my image online.  It’s a productivity tool.  I need it to work quickly and efficiently and then get out of my way.  The very things that we secretly need and desire from our social apps (newness, change), get in our way and slow us down when we’re trying to get things done.  It’s the same general frustration that many people had when Microsoft changed to it’s Ribbon Bar.  It wasn’t so much that they’d changed the look, but the location of certain types of functionality that made them almost impossible to find if the user had any familiarity with pre-2007 Microsoft Office.  Things that I could do in my sleep before, I now had to spend 5 minutes looking around for.  While Gmail’s changes aren’t so stark, they do cost extra seconds I could be using to do other things.  

So why is Google changing things up?  It turns out they’re adding a lot of new functionality to their user interface or UI, including new theming capabilities.  Let’s face it, cramming as much text together as possible is not conducive to displaying cool background images.  While this is important to some users, to people who need to be productive, it’s just a distraction.  They can’t be blamed for changing things up, but they’re doing it wrong.

It’s easy to understand why they start out by showing you the most extreme changes in their UI.  They’re trying to highlight them so that you’re aware they exist.  The problem here is that people are trying to be productive and they’re trying to show off.  It’s a plumber showing off his new suspenders when he should be fixing the drain.  (Sorry plumbers, somebody had to take one for the metaphor!)  After some searching, I was able to compress my subject lines back to where I want them and re-organize things enough to make it useful for me, but that took needless time.  It would have been better if, within their warning, they showed me where the settings button was in case I wanted to broaden my subject lines or add a giant picture of grass in the background.  I might have, at a later time, gone and checked out those features.  Instead, they thew me into the deep end and added a little frustration to my day that I didn’t need.  Productivity tools are supposed to be productive.  Make it hard to do that and I start looking for the door.

Will I go back to Yahoo or Hotmail?  Probably not.  Gmail still has many better features (labels instead of folders being my favorite) that break up some of the traditional mail concepts while letting the user interact with them in traditional ways if they like.  Next time around, it would nice if the introduction to new functionality was made easier for people who want to get things done, and don’t care if they’re looking good while doing it.

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