Gmail Settings and What it Tells us about Google

Ahh Gmail. It takes me back to 2004, and I remember bugging a friend at Google for an invite early on. It was really an eye opener because it signaled the transition from "managing" your mail, archives, and staying under some arbitrary limit, to free unlimited storage. It's hard to remember but most mail application storage was measured in MB, even on a corporate system at the time my mailbox was limited to 500MB, and the constant rotation of archives was time consuming. I still use Gmail today, though I've mostly moved away from the Google web interface into a series of slightly dissatisfying native mail apps.

So it's great to hear and start to see that Google is doing a big refresh on Gmail's UI. For me this news came at the same time I was happening to set up email for partialSignal, I decided to use Google's suite of products on the domain as an easy way to get email and other services. It took me to a screen I hadn't seen for a long time. Settings.


So that happened, and it's just the General tab, there are eleven other settings screens... I want to say tabs, but that would probably be generous. I wouldn't be surprised to find out that the last time someone looked seriously at this page was a lot closer to 2004 than 2018. It's a nothing page just settings right, but Gmail boasts 1.8 Billion users, so surely it should be someone's job? What does the fact that such a heavily utilized product could go run for 14 years without a major change to an interface like settings without cleaning it up tell us about Google.

Back at Microsoft the running joke about college hire PMs would be that your first job would be PM on the about box for something in Office, and once you had shown your talent you might expand your scope to the print dialog. It was a joke, but underneath the joke was the idea that everything you put on the screen matters to someone. That might be a thankless job, and in some cases it didn't matter that much, but there was dev/test/pm on everything at least to some extent.

Google famously allows almost unlimited mobility for individuals to work on things they want which is great if you are an employee, but less great if you are a customer expecting some bit of odd functionality to just work, or be discoverable. Things like settings are often low glamor but high need. When you need to change that setting you have no choice but to interact with a complex and cumbersome UI.

From the people I know there I have no doubt that Google has a very talented set of employees, all working hard on what they think is most important. User experience however is only as good as the worst part of your ecosystem, these gaps and drop offs around the edges indicate clearly what Google does and doesn't care about. Glue features, like settings, I don't want them to care about that much, but not at all is clearly too little.

My Gmail account hasn't yet been turned on for the new design, but who wants to bet that we will get a brand new mail experience, but the settings page... Same old same old?

The cost to re-design and rebuild settings for gmail is probably not trivial, I can understand how a company might not do that for 14 years. Especially a company with what people would describe as an inattention to detail. Systems however often find their way into product experience in this way. Google's system prioritizes employee interest over customer experience. Until those come more into balance, customers will need to learn to live with rough edges. I know that within the giant staff at Google, there are people with the skill set and mindset needed to take all these edges and make them smooth. Even keep them that way for the long term. What is it about Google's system that keeps those people from being able to, or perhaps wanting to make that happen?