Google to angry GMail users: we know better

Many people who thought they could get away with running the old GMail user interface despite contant nagging to “switch to the new look” have quickly discovered that the almighty Google has decided it knows better, and proceeded to force everyone to the new. UX designers are ‘humbled’, but not for long…

Nine months ago when the GMail New Look was being introduced, Jason Cornwell, UX designer for GMail said in his Twitter account that he was “humbled” by the response from users. If we take the dictionary´s definition of the word we get “Made low; abased; rendered meek and submissive; penitent”. Hmmm, in other words, it looks like an “Epic fail” to me. So, they learned from past mistakes, right? Wrong.

By August of last year the word was that the “old look” would be discontinued “by September”. After the general outrage, Google let everyone stay with the old look, with a notice indicating it´ll be eventually going away. By November the GoogleSystem blog said: “For now, you can switch to the old interface from the settings menu, but Google says that this option will be removed soon”. An outraged user from Hertfordshire UK replied – along a long list of other users´ complaints: “Please promise me one thing, we’ll avoid camping out outside of Google for three weeks and, instead, we’ll let the GMail team make the necessary tweaks in peace.”

Back in January James Fallows at The Atlantic wrote: “Some elaborate apologies from the GMail team on why they bothered to do this at all” and a flammable indictment “how they were first tested inside Google on the company’s own staffers, in accord with the “we eat our own dog food” principle. Googlers, you let us down! You could have refused to swallow this idea while it was still in dog food phase.”

And now, we´re back to the “New Look”, enforced for everyone, whether they like it or not. Does not look like they´ve learned, and the “humbling” didn´t last long.

GMail´s iconic and very white new look

Fog Computing

In the brave new world of Cloud Computing, you have no rights. That´s why I call the cloud “the fine art of separating people from their software“.

By buying into the cloud convenience argument and sales speech we – knowingly or not – gave away our rights to continue using old applications and upgrading at our own pace, if at all.

With open source software “running old versions” sometimes can mean “and get updates too”, the development model allows for criticism to be expressed via bug reports and RFEs (Requests for Enhancement), and often in some instances when you don´t like the upgrade path proposed, just revive the old version and continue developing it, just like some folks did with the Gnome 2.x desktop, revived as project “Mate“.

UX Experts in their ivory tower

Like in any other top-down decision making process, the potential for disastrous decisions exists. And in that sense, Google is not only a cloud computing service provider, they seem surrounded by their own cloud, unable or unwilling to cave in to the desires of many of its users who prefer -for whatever reason – GMail’s old look. Because they know best, or as fathers tell little kids when they refuse to swallow nauseating medicine, “it´s for your own good”.

And the experts in this case are the GUI designers, or, in modern parlance “User Experience designers”, or UX Designers, for short. One of them is Jason Cornwell, who if you look at his Twitter TL, he’s got to spend time defending GMail´s new look and telling users to ‘tweak’ the design to better resemble the old one.

According to, a Google “User Experience Designer” guru makes about $340K/year, and Gurgle has a lot of them. It’s like every product has got its own “UX designer”. Why do we mention this? Not to blame the employees, but with regards to alleged “high cost” of keeping running the old version that pleased many users, in parallel with the new one. Read on.

Jason Cornwell, GMail’s UX guru, told me :”Keeping the old UI running, keeping it secure, and updating the new version as well would cost us a lot”. Well, I disagree. I think the vast number of UX Experts at Google constantly fiddling with the service and annoying long time users is costing it a lot, not only in wages but also in users’ annoyance and dissatisfaction. But that’s just me.

At one blog, Ho-Sheng Hiao writes: “You would think with the number of people continually hitting ´revert to the old design´ would trigger a metric somewhere”, to which Jason Crawford, an engineer at Groupon, writes: “They clearly heard the feedback” but adds “that´s why they introduced the density setting and the high contrast theme. They know what the problems are. They just don´t want to admit that the new design is inferior and they don´t want to throw it out.”

What is wrong with ´new´? Plenty

Stephen Markley over here wonders: “I cannot be the only person irritated to the point of dementia by GMail’s new look”. Indeed, he’s not alone. Minutes after the forced change, Twitter began buzzing – pun intended – again against the forced change.

What you see below is the first wave of messages captured yesterday morning, in about 10 minutes.

People not happy about the new GMail look. Poor people, they don´t understand.

Didrik Madheden, a young chiptunes artist from Stockholm, Sweden operates the GCritic forum, and he has done a point-by-point rebuttal about the new GMail look, or “fisking” if you so wish, documenting with screenshots the wasted vertical space, the replacement of easy to understand words with icons, odd placement of other options, and more. The document is posted at his forum over here, and a copy has been made for archival purposes at Citebite, here.

New Look features a “Terminal” theme that is dark


but forces you to a white background to compose new emails


Problem? What problem?

Since Gurgle breathes and lives by metrics, let’s perform some: Google’s support forums are full of complaints. A simple Google search for “new GMail sucks” restricted to Google’s support site gives 2,000 results. The same search performed on Google Groups: 37,200 results. And what about blog posts? One Million, Seven Hundred and Eighty thousand results. And that´s just the English language web, imagine if we measured every single other language and word permutation for “New GMail sucks”.


Google´s supposed experts ended up annoying plenty of its users, and in a severe case of denial, their collective message seems to be that it was all for our own good, and that we need more time to truly appreciate it, or perhaps to watch some more videos explaining how it all made sense.

What this shows is the flawed Cloud Computing model where the user has little say, where consistent negative feedback is ignored, and where developers’ wishes in their own ivory tower weigh more than individual wishes – in this case, the wish to remain using the old version. Truth be told, my complaints to the GMail UX expert about the non-standard vertical scroll bars – CSS skinned to slimmer versions in the initial stages of the “new look” – apparently had some effect, as these are now gone from the new GMail design, but that is as far as things went.

A friend and colleague named John, tells me about the Google Way: “they do not have business cards, they do not have telephone numbers, they have a crapo form (sic) for media to contact the black hole of non-information. Another reason that I hate all the social media companies. They are unresponsive money suckers.”

It should also be noted that, yes, there have been third party “solutions” via the installation of browser “add-ons” to revert GMail to the old look, nothing guarantees that these will continue working forever, especially if Google continues fiddling with GMail’s interface for change’s sake and to justify the many UX Experts’ salaries at the firm.

In the meantime, besides fiddling with settings to make it look a bit like the old one, the only alternative is to keep bugging the “UX gurus” at Google’s ivory tower on every social network to get your message across.

Like in Stephen King´s “The Mist“, maybe together we can break through the fog “cloud” and the message will reach not only their ears but the product managers above them.