Analog Moment

by James Cox-Morton (@th3james)

Google inbox and the cost of not making decisions

Tech Crunch: Why Did Google Decide To Split Inbox From Gmail?

Gmail serves 2 groups of users:

  1. Normal people, who receive about 5, mostly non-actionable, emails a day.
  2. Hardcore users, including most Googlers, who receive around 4501 emails a day, and reply to many of them.

Originally, the Gmail Inbox was a redesign of Gmail targeted at user group 1, who presumably make up the vast majority of Gmail's userbase. However, when trialling the new design as part of internal dog-fooding, Googlers turned their noses up at the simplified redesign for lacking power-user features.

What Google did next is a little surprising. Rather than pushing forward with a simplified refresh of Gmail, they decided to keep the existing interface, hide some of the advanced features, and instead turn the redesign into an additional stand-alone product, designed for power users.

Maintaining focus when building a product requires difficult decisions. It's amazing to me that no-one had the authority or conviction to commit to the new design direction (or ditch it all together), and as a result, one of Google's flagship products will now have two interfaces.

I wouldn't be surprised if Google still intends to merge the new design direction of Inbox into Gmail, but the other thing I find strange is that they chose to focus the new product on power users. I can see the argument that because power users use Gmail more, there is greater space for improvement. But this focus is going to lead to a more complex product than most users need. And complexity, once added, is very difficult to take away (just look at what happened when they tried to take it out of the existing product!).

The other problem is that most pro-users have already designed workflows for managing email. Inbox will be competing in a well served niche. Dropbox's Mailbox is already popular. Personally, I do inbox-zero with an external GTD system. And products like Slack are trying to straight up replace the use of email in business.

Google had a chance to take a fresh look at Gmail, and make a simpler, cleaner product for most users. Instead, because they wouldn't make a hard decision, they might have missed that chance.

  1. This is an actual quote from the article. I can't imagine how anyone gets any work done if they're receiving and replying to 450 emails a day