Gmail: Power Behind a Simple Façade

Gmail, launched by Paul Buchheit and his team at Google in early 2004, was the start of a revolution in webmail. Offering 1GB of free storage when other providers were offering a paltry 25MB turned the webmail market upside down, and soon other providers were forced to deliver more to keep pace. As a Google software devotee I was quick to sign up for the beta, and I set up my first Gmail account in February of 2005 at the tender age of 12.

I’ve been using Gmail for nearly as long as I can remember, and it has scaled admirably with my needs; when I started using Gmail I received an average of 1 email per day, but today I receive over 150. It’s quite remarkable that a piece of software can handle such widely different use cases, and I believe this is a direct result of what I see as Gmail’s greatest strength: Gmail has almost perfectly melded configurability with ease of use, giving users both without significantly compromising either one.

The Gmail Front End

The main Gmail inbox view looks very simple and approachable:

Simple Gmail UI

There is a search bar at the top, a set of sections that can be viewed on the left, and basic email manipulation buttons in the middle above the list of emails in the center. I use a Gmail feature that allows you to have multiple inbox sections depending on the state of an email (unread, starred, or neither in my case), and because those sections are collapsed in the screenshot there aren’t any emails shown.

Gmail’s UI is visually simple and lightweight, but on top of this Gmail’s UI also performs incredibly well, further contributing to a feeling of easy and lightweight interaction for the user. Actions happen in Gmail nearly instantaneously (on the order of 100-300 milliseconds to open and display an unread email by my very coarse estimation), and performance seems to steadily improve over time. Though some have had performance problems in the past with very large mail archives in their accounts, my account has around 80,000 messages and 10GB of space used but still continues to perform well.

Gmail’s Configuration Options

Lurking under the surface, though, is a vastly more complex set of configuration options. Inside the settings option listed in the gear menu:

Screen Shot 2013-10-31 at 9.44.30 PM

Is this:

Gmail settings tab 1 of 12

Gmail’s settings system has 12 tabs full of options to configure (the “General” tab is pictured above). As a very heavy Gmail user I’ve pored over every single setting available and customized Gmail to my liking, but even I find the sheer amount of configurability available to be somewhat overwhelming. Gmail lets you configure keyboard shortcuts, labels, filters to auto-assign matching emails to labels, experimental “lab” features, themes, inbox sections, POP email accounts hosted elsewhere, and so much more.

Gmail’s more powerful features are all about embracing complexity to keep the user unencumbered; multiple labels can be applied to an email (unlike grouping via folder in IMAP or Exchange systems), multiple separate accounts can be hooked into a single Gmail account, and nearly everything about how the applications behaves is configurable, allowing users to turn Gmail into the application they want it to be.

But Gmail also goes to some length to hide this complexity. A user has to look inside the gear menu to see that a settings page exists, and in the gear menu the settings option is only given 1/4th of the space given to the buttons for setting the inbox display density. I remember very clearly when Gmail reorganized their menus to put the settings option here, because I couldn’t find the page anymore! I had to look up (on Google, of course) how to get into the settings page because it was so easy to miss.

Why does this matter?

By hiding the more powerful features under a separate page, the settings area, which is somewhat obscurely accessible, Gmail has been able to make the product visually simple and prevent users from being overwhelmed while still making those options available to users who want them.

People say that products should be as approachable as possible, and that simplicity and a highly refined small set of features are paramount in achieving that. But given Gmail’s ability to scale to a huge number of use cases and 425mm+ users, I now question this nugget of conventional wisdom. Gmail has embraced complexity in terms of the features and configuration options it offers, but it hides that complexity in the settings menu. So the product is still very approachable and feels lightweight and easy to use, even for power users, but the more complex configuration options that power users yearn for are also provided. Gmail has managed to get the best of both worlds; like the airplane cockpit pictured in the first article above Gmail gives users direct control over almost everything if they want it, but unlike the plane Gmail lets them fly without being aware of the existence of that complexity.

This combination is what makes me love using Gmail as much as I do. I can hop in and out easily because the front end is simple and lightweight, but I can also check the 4 other POP email accounts I have registered on other domains (including this domain), split my inbox as I please, and do much more. I’m confident that Gmail will continue to grow with me as my needs evolve over time.

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