And Then Stuff Happened – Why Gmail makes me Cry

I hope everyone had a lovely holiday and that the rest of the year is lovely for you all. I spent my holiday working on Not Proper Enough. Full panic mode, which is why you’re getting a blog post. Because I’m all about engaging in avoidance behavior until there’s enough panic to shut off the critical brain.

Google Mail – You Make Me Cry

Until about 2-3 months ago I loved Gmail. In fact, over the last year, I’ve been moving a lot of my email-related needs to my Gmail account. No longer. Google “Improved” gmail and now it’s not just harder to use, it’s hiding things from me. I have a private, personal email that friends and family have. That account, as you might imagine, gets enough spam to fill the ocean. My writing email, which is plastered all over the web, this website, twitter, facebook, in my books, print and digital, gets less spam than my private email. Go figure. I use Postini (now owned by Google) for spam filtering on the email accounts that run off my web host servers. It’s a great solution. I have a yahoo mail account, too which I use for various and specific purposes. Yahoo and Gmail both do a great job of siphoning off spam, with very few mistakes.

Google allows you to create Alerts so you know if certain phrases are appearing on the web and getting indexed by the GoogleBot. Most writers create Alerts for their book titles which means you find out where you’re being pirated and when someone has reviewed your book or is just talking about you. This is occasionally informative and often hilarious, depending on the title of your books and, even, your name.

Shortly before the physical gmail improvements (about which I am very MEH) they also started tagging emails with labels like “Bulk” “Notifications” etc. The problem is that stuff I did not consider “Bulk” (such as my Google Alerts) were being tagged as bulk and, more or less, hidden from me. It doesn’t seem to matter how many times I unmark these emails and flag them as important, they’re always pre-tagged as bulk and they don’t show up in my in-box. Over the next month or so, I basically lost control of my gmail. Stuff was being tagged in ways I didn’t want it to be, emails I wanted to see were getting hidden from me, and clicking on labels didn’t seem to bring up any of the emails with those lables.

There was a period when I thought I was getting no Alerts at all, and my writer’s heart sank. No one was talking about my books, I thought. No one was pirating my books (ACK!!) If you’re not being pirated, your writing career is in serious trouble.

The gmail interface and the way the app now decides to tag and display or not display stuff is a gosh awful mess. I found that if I veiwed my gmail through the iGoogle gmail widget, I could see a chronological list of my emails which allowed me to see emails that WERE NOT SHOWN when I actually logged into gmail.

I took to clicking on the “Bulk” tag to see if I could find any alerts, but the interface showed an “In-Box” with a bunch of unread emmails I’d never seen with nothing labeled Bulk and hardly any Alerts. Every now and then I’d see an alert. It was like 1 or 2 would bubble up from wherever they were being held. But then then today I found them. I don’t know how or why or anything, but there they were. I’d missed several reviews of my books that I would normally have forwarded to my editor or added to my file of reviews.

More recently, emails that were correctly being identified as important stopped getting tagged as important and important emails were dropping out of my inbox so that I was spending far too much time trying to find them. My life is too overloaded to spend time on things like that.

At least yahoo’s email improvement didn’t break the actual user expectation of email – which is that you can see a chronological list of your received emails with a spam folder you know you can check for things that got flagged as spam that shouldn’t have.

I’ve now re-rerouted my Google Alerts to another email so they don’t go to my Gmail account, never to be seen. How sad. Gmail used to be great. Now it’s just awful. It reminds me of the “improvements” to the Blogger interface which has some useful changes, but has added several confusing steps that make it harder and quite frustrating to do blog posts. I’m very glad to have moved my blog to WordPress because the new blogger is also now less usable than it used to be.

So, I give up on Gmail. It’s now fundamentally broken. I don’t have time to waste trying to re-categorize emails that Google considers Bulk or a Notification that I don’t, because I’ve been doing that for weeks, and gmail is not learning (which I thought it was supposed to do.)

Here’s the thing: Making something look pretty is a skill. A valuable skill. Making a application easy to use is another skill. It’s very, very rare for someone to have both those skills. The holy grail is to combine beauty with usability. Apple mostly succeeds at this. (But not entirely) But Apple succeeds at it better than anyone else. Google is now failing on both points and that is not a good thing.



2 Responses to “And Then Stuff Happened – Why Gmail makes me Cry”

  1. Patti O'Shea says:

    Check under Mail Settings–>Labs for “Smart Labels” and turn it off. That’s what’s marking your emails as bulk, notification, etc.

    Also, I loathe the changes Gmail made. I don’t want my folders hidden from me, so I went back to the old version. I get a nagging message to upgrade to the new version, but I ignore it.

  2. Good luck with the deadline! I’m sending many good writing vibes your way!