gmail

Why I’m Abandoning Google Inbox

There was much excitement last autumn when Google launched Inbox, it’s revolutionary new email program. It came with accompanying mobile apps, and the company implored you to fully immerse yourself with it. Like any new product, it required invites to get in and try it. It’s the cool new thing.

But having given it a few months, I’m going to have to abandon it – at least for the time being. I’ll probably check it out every so often to see if they’ve fixed some of my issues. Some of them are still unaddressed from my initial thoughts previously.

But it’s not all bad.

[Note: I’ll use a capitalised “Inbox” to talk about the Google product, and a lowercase “inbox” to talk about where my mail goes generically.]

Good Points

It’s a Google Now experience for your email. And that’s good. The program is pretty smart at identifying certain kinds of emails and dealing with them swiftly.

Signing up for a mailing list that uses MailChimp? It saves you even opening your email to confirm your subscription.

Bought something from Amazon? It embeds a little picture of your order from the confirmation email and delivers you an easy route to tracking your purchase.

There are loads of these little things where somebody has smartly identified a specific kind of email notification and provided you with a shortcut to dealing with it.

Bad Points

Sadly there are many more of these.

As I mentioned previously, it uses too much white space.

You can change the layout of Gmail to suit your purposes. For example, my work laptop’s screen is only 15″ and so I prefer “cozy” for the density of information. Not too busy, but not too much white space. Inbox uses acres of space, which is fine on a 22″ monitor, but terrible on smaller laptops (or Chromebooks!).

Labels, labels, labels.

I use labels. It’s one of the most powerful things in Gmail for organising your email. I use an extensive set of rules to categorise mail as it comes in. It takes a certain amount of work to do this, but it keeps your inbox in check to a much greater extent.

Certainly Gmail does a good job on its own identifying emails generated by your social media platforms – Twitter, Facebook, Flickr etc. But I can use labels to gather together less important emails into one place. Then I can check them out at my leisure. Inbox really doesn’t like that. It prefers that you undo all that “skip inbox” stuff and read your emails that way. Certainly it gathers them together well, but suddenly a relatively clean inbox gets busier again.

Mark as Read.

You just can’t do this. You have to open and close each individual email. Much marketing email falls into the category of “worth having, but rarely reading,” in the sense that occasionally there’s a useful sounding email from a business that you want to read. I’m perfectly capable of unsubscribing from those I don’t want at all.

And if you use labels, then marking emails unread becomes more important, because if you click on a label and find unread emails in there, you spend time looking at them again to see if you missed something important.

No notification for emails that skip your inbox.

This is another problem related to using labels. I tend to have interesting but essentially unimportant emails skip my inbox and put themselves neatly into what are effectively sub-folders. I do this because I know that the emails are essentially unimportant, but they’re interesting enough that I’ll go and read them from time to time. Some email lists and social media notifications fall into this category. But of course if you use this functionality, then you have no knowledge of the emails ever arriving. I don’t want a full notification on my mobile, but I would like a hint that a label contains unread email. Google has set Inbox up to cater for these emails, but it prefers to bunch them altogether as “Social” or whatever. I’ve got finer control and can better group similar emails.

Invitations just don’t seem to work properly.

This is a really bad one, and I just don’t understand what they’re doing. Inbox tries to be very smart. If you order some train tickets online for example, when the confirmation comes through, before you know it, Inbox has added the trip to my calendar. I’ve no problem with this. But one of my breaking points came earlier in the week when a friend sent me an email invitation via his corporate Outlook account. Here it is as it appeared to me in Outlook.

Inbox

The email appeared to me in Inbox as a completely blank email. I genuinely thought he must have done something wrong to be sending me these empty emails. But when I looked at my calendar, I discovered that the details had been dropped straight in. I hadn’t been given a choice – did I want to attend or not – it had just gone in.

Here’s that same email in regular Gmail.

Gmail

A date, time, place (yes – we’re really going there), and I’ve cropped it, but a Yes/No/Maybe option for accepting the invitation. I can’t for the life of me understand why this doesn’t work.

Links from emails – reset the email to the top.

This is harder to explain, but it’s incredibly annoying and someone must have purposefully programmed Inbox to do this.

If you get an email containing a number of links – from a news organisation for example – you can of course click a link and open it in a new tab. However when you return to your original email in Inbox, no matter how far through the email you’d got to before clicking the link, the email has returned to the top. For longer emails with editorial and links, that becomes ridiculous, and you waste ages scrolling back down to where you got to.

It’s completely pointless, and I don’t know why it does it.

It hides your spam.

Spam’s not good obviously, so why would this be a problem? Well it’s because Google’s spam filters aren’t perfect – they tend to be a little over-zealous if anything. So I tend to have a quick look at my recent spam every few days, just to make sure that something I wanted to see hasn’t been spam-trapped. It regularly misidentifies marketing emails that I’ve signed up for – not essential, but irritating. And curiously, some Facebook notifications get caught up too. Very occasionally, something more important finds its way in. I always “teach” Gmail that these are not spam emails, but it does mean that my vigilance is warranted.

You can’t find your contacts.

OK – this is pretty dreadful in Gmail anyway. For some reason Google makes it incredibly hard to get a page listing your email contacts. It’s there, but it’s hidden. In Gmail you have to click on the little down arrow next to the word Gmail in the top left of the screen. Contacts and Tasks are hidden underneath. With Inbox, I can find no way of getting to them. Tasks don’t really exist there either, with instead timings being associated with emails.

Summary

Look, this is a beta product. But I’m afraid it doesn’t work for me. Despite all that white space, it does look lovely. But the functionality means that I can’t stick with it.

I suspect I’m not the only one. Although Google implored me to jump fully in, I found myself having to go back and forth to regular Gmail. So Google started doing things to persuade me to stick with Inbox:

– “Let me turn off Gmail notifications that duplicate Inbox. You only need Inbox ones.”
– If you open Gmail in desktop browser, a little prompt reminds you that you’e activated Inbox and wouldn’t you prefer to go there?

Many of my problems with Inbox are because I’ve carefully tuned Gmail to my needs. I’ve used its filters and labels to carefully personalise it to meet my needs. But the “average” user probably doesn’t do that. They let Gmail sift email into the three or four generic bowls, and don’t do much beyond. They don’t care about read/unread/spam email. And I need to face the fact that I prefer order to chaos.

Only when Inbox has power-user controls to let me take more command over my email will it be ready for me.

I will give it a while, and come back regularly to see what’s happening. But for the time being, it’s back to Gmail full-time for me.

Inbox from Google – Quick Thoughts

I’ve been playing around with Google’s new email solution – Inbox – for a few days now.

As is usual with these things, it’s invitation only at the moment (and no, I don’t have any invites right now). But registering directly with Google doesn’t seem to take too long.

But what do I think of it so far?

Well I think that really depends on how you use Gmail, and this is a “Gmail” product. If you broadly speaking do nothing more to your inbox than Google does, then it’s probably pretty good. But if like me, you use a healthy number of filters to ensure emails skip your inbox and get nicely labelled, well I’m not so sure.

The design is very clean with few distractions. So no row of Google labels across the top (Social, Updates, etc), and no list of user defined labels down the side. No hint of any advertising.

The design is consistent between browser and mobile app. I’ve used it exclusively in Chrome and on an Android phone and table.

It makes adding reminders, and appointments spectacularly easy – you can begin to live your (non-work) life through it – assuming much of your life surfaces as email.

It smartly batches together similar emails. In “old” Gmail, you’d find the most useful stuff in your Primary tab, but you had to go hunting to see other email hidden within different top-tier tabs. Inbox gathers those other emails together and just politely reminds you that there is a batch of stuff there when you’re ready.

So overall I like it.

But there are some issues:

– It hides emails that you’ve filtered away from the inbox. For example, I still have lots of Twitter emails turned on. Twitter stopped them for me for a while, but I find them useful. I just hide them a little. Similarly, some discussion group emails I send direct to a folder to keep the discussions out of the way. There are various other regular emails that I similarly send away. Gmail lets you know because the folder name will turn bold and display down the left hand side – “You have new Twitter emails” it’s effectively telling me. But those rules with Inbox ensure that I don’t even know the emails are there. Clicking on the menu button on the top left will reveal your folders, but it doesn’t indicate if there’s any mail in any of them. I ended up going back to Gmail to see. You can then choose to break your filter and surface those emails in Inbox, but that means that a busy discussion group keeps your Inbox buzzing all day long, because while those emails remain labelled, they do return to your inbox. In other words, it’s worse than Gmail.

– One of Gmail’s worst features is Contacts. It does a decent job of storing your contacts, and of course they sync neatly with your Android device’s contacts. What I mean is that it is thoroughly unintuitive where to find them. I once had to ask Twitter to help me. In Gmail you have to click on the word Gmail and it’ll give you the option of going to Contacts. Very obtuse.

contacts

Still, Inbox is worse. I can’t find my contacts for the life of me. I don’t think they’re actually there.

– Marking as read. Maybe I’m just a bit OCD, but I like to mark my “done” emails as read. Inbox uses a tick or swipe process on mobile to mark an email as “done”. This effectively archives the email and hides it from your inbox. They might be done, but only if you’ve actually opened the email are they marked as read. The problem comes when you’ve used labels in Gmail. For example, I label any cycling related email as “Cycling”. That includes lots of marketing emails. If I use Inbox and swipe them away without opening them, as “Done”, they remain unread. So it still looks like I’ve ignored them. Such is the volume of marketing stuff I get, I regularly use the “Mark as read” functionality of Gmail. There’s no equivalent here. You’re going to have to either open every email or just accept that some will remain unread.

– More mobile alerts. Because of the issue with hidden/unhidden emails, you can end up with many more email notifications from Inbox than you ever had from Gmail. To be fair, you can go back and turn many notifications off. But it feels a little bit of a hassle.

– Spam is hidden by default. I hate spam. You hate spam. Who cares? Well I do actually. The problem is that while Google is pretty damn good at highlighting spam correctly it occasionally gets it wrong. The odd marketing email that I do want to see gets marked as spam (probably by other users) and I have to go and fish it out. Because Spam is hidden, I’m less likely to see or think of checking this folder.

– Screen resolution. This is an odd one, and perhaps more of an issue with my 15″ 4:3 radio work laptop than anything. But on a 1366 x 768 screen, when you actually open an email you don’t have a great deal of room to read the email. Gmail has some settings to change your “look” and make things more compact if that’s appropriate. I can find no equivalent in Inbox. Obviously this issue will lessen as screen sizes go up.

screendisplay

There’s a lot of grey space in that image above that I’d love to be able to utilise. Instead, I have to do more scrolling than I would in Gmail.

Now to be fair, Google suggests you go “all-in” with Inbox and replace Gmail completely. In an Inbox-only world some of these issues wouldn’t matter, although I still believe Gmail’s filters are very powerful, and depending on how you use email, and Gmail in particular, you might have a different Inbox experience.

Perhaps I’m being unduly negative, I know. Inbox is brand new, and there will be iterations. Inbox is cleaner, and it’s a lot smarter. It uses the power of Google Now to show you what’s important. I love being able to “Pin” emails to my inbox. For example, at the weekend I needed to use some details from an email several times on my phone. With Gmail, I’d have had to search for that email each time. Now it’s there at the top of my Inbox until I unpin and forget about it.

Although labels don’t seem to be relevant any longer (and can I emphasise that I love labels), you can still use the same search terms to find things using labels (e.g. “saddles label:cycling”).

But I’m not sure that I’m ready to fully ditch the Gmail app just yet.