A Few Quick Thoughts On Gmails New Labels

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Google just revamped their label system for Gmail, probably because only power users understood how to leverage their potential. The new system is more like Google Docs, which means labels now behave more like folders. Only, you can still file one email in two labels, which you wouldn’t be able to if they really were folders. The result is, as usual, interesting, so here are a few quick thoughts.

  • Labels (and tags, as they’re sometimes called) really do trump folders, but they’re also harder to understand (as I’ve written about in the distant past). It makes sense that Google wants to democratize them and make them apparent to everybody.
  • Because the labels now reside right next to your usual email folders — Inbox, Sent mail and so on — their use becomes more readily apparent to people who didn’t use labels in the past. It also becomes clear how married Gmail are to labels; inbox and sent mail are also simply labels that get their content from the all-containing “All Mail”.
  • There’s now a little handle to the left of your emails consisting of spaced dots in a grid. Which further solidifies that spaced dots in a grid are the international symbol for “draggable”.
  • Drag and drop seems to work as well as it should. Meaning, you can drag and drop an email on to your junk folder if you want. Or, you can drag and drop the junk mail folder on to the “more tags” folder, should you want to hide that section altogether.
  • By default, Google will hide your not-recently-used-tags. Or, if you haven’t really used tags at all, create four new tags for you: Personal, Reciepts, Travel and Work.
  • Normally, hiding stuff is the UI design equivalent of throwing in the towel. However, I feel this is one of the few situations where Googles solution is rather good. After all, labels do have more in common with folders than they do with main navigation and so they deserve to be tuck-away-able just like subfolders are.
  • Gmail now distinguishes “System Labels” (Inbox, Sent mail, Drafts etc.) from normal labels (or normies as I’ll call them from now on). Both are show-and-hidable.
  • The whole revamp of the labels system feels like a love affair with folders gone right. Except, there’s still no equivalent to the sub-folder. What if I want to group a chunk of tags? Or do I want that at all? Do we need to group tags? I currently have a total of 36 tags and sometimes I think grouping may be helpful. In the words of Radiohead, I could be wrong.
  • The fact that I can hide System labels has a few nice side-effects. While I love the fact that all my Google Talk chats are stored in my searchable Gmail, I’ve never actually used the menu link very much. So “Chats” goes in to the “More” box, along with Spam, whose perma-bold font annoys my eye.
  • Which reminds me again why hiding stuff in interface design is mostly a bad idea. It would be interesting to see into the deeply inner workings of the Gmail interface to get an idea when a tag is classified as not-recent, and specifically, when System labels are hidden. We all remember when Microsoft added application link hiding to their Windows XP start menu to clean up the clutter. It really didn’t work very well.
  • For users of the Gmail Labs feature called Go To Label which gives you a Quicksilver/Enso search box for going to a specific label, you’ll be happy to know that this features still works and also allows you to go to the Inbox, and other System labels. Maybe it always did?

Overall, the revamp is most welcome. We’ll see with a few weeks of use, if the hiding system really was a good idea. My prediction is: yes.