Why I Might Try GMail

So far, I’ve more or less avoided investigating Google’s new Gmail service. I just have too much on my plate, and an existing backlog of cool tools like WikidPad I really want to play with.

However, I just read an intriguing Boxes and Arrows article that’s moved Gmail up on my mess-around-with-it priority list. See: The Information Architecture of Email, by Dan Brown.

Brown observes, “Gmail revealed to me my e-mail behavior – something I hadn’t previously given much thought. By making certain things easier (and others more difficult), Gmail showed me how ‘typical’ e-mail applications weren’t necessarily designed according to how I used them.”

That thought resonates very strongly with me. I’ve forever been wrestling with my e-mail software, and it’s wearing on me. I’m pretty sure the e-mail software has been winning…

I WANT E-MAIL THAT WORKS LIKE MY BRAIN

I would love to find an e-mail package that handles messages in a fashion that more closely resembles the way people connect messages when they communicate and think.

Currently, my main e-mail program is Outlook Express. Yes, I’m ashamed to admit that I use this piece of user-unfriendly crap, but when you’re so enmeshed in e-mail as a way of life it’s drastically wrenching to make any change, no matter how necessary or postive. For now, I need to have all my messages in one place. That’s my current excuse and I’m sticking to it.

Since I am painfully aware of the functional shortcomings of Outlook Express, I was intrigued by the possibilities Brown described regarding these Gmail features:

  • Messages in threads: While most e-mail programs simply allow you to file messages by category and subcategory (like file directories on a computer), Gmail relates those ideas by bundling messages together in threads. This intrigues me because it seems to approximate more closely how the human mind works, as opposed to how a computer works. Brown notes, “In a sense, threading messages is like putting them in folders, with each folder being a different thread. Messages, therefore, are pre-categorized, removing that burden from the user.”

  • Packrat accommodation: “I’m a packrat, and e-mail servers and I have never gotten along because of it,” writes Brown. Oh yeah, that’s definitely me too. He explains, “Because there are no folders, Gmail’s inbox could easily become unwieldy, but a message in Gmail exists in one of two places: inbox or archive. For those threads that are no longer active, but you want to hang onto, you can archive them. Putting a thread in the archive simply puts it in storage and removes it from the inbox. If you get another message in an archived thread, the thread appears again in the inbox.” Hmmmm…. interesting. I’m a bit skeptical about how well I’d like that kind of paradigm shift, but I’m now intrigued enough to try it out.

  • You can still filter. He writes, “Like most e-mail applications, Gmail has filtering functionality, allowing users to apply rules to messages as they arrive.” Good. I absolutely need this. My e-mail world is very complicated, I definitely need to set priorities.

THE REAL PERILS OF BAD E-MAIL DESIGN

Brown has a lot more to say, so please peruse this article thoroughly. Most thought-provoking of all, in my opinion, was this part of his conclusion:

“As Gmail comes out of beta, Google may find itself with a product that users are slow to adopt. People may find the subtle change in the e-mail paradigm more dramatic than Google anticipated. Perhaps this speaks to the dangers of bad design: a bad product can just as easily become entrenched as rejected, such that when a better one comes along, users are reluctant to adopt it.

“It may be difficult to think of e-mail applications as ‘bad design,’ and before I started using Gmail it never occurred to me that they were. On the other hand, Google’s different approach to e-mail has led to some stark revelations about my e-mail behavior. At the most basic level, managing e-mail – an activity whose necessity rates somewhere between scheduled car maintenance and eating – requires too much thinking under current models. Users may be pleased to have to ‘think less.'”

Oh, I’d like to think less. My brain is tired! Fortunately, Gmail sounds like it might be a practical component for that backup brain I’ve been longing for….

UPDATE: Previously here I’d issued a plea for a generous CONTENTIOUS reader to send me a Gmail invitation. Many thanks to Tris Hussey and Constantin Basturea for responding so quickly! I now have two Gmail accounts, to allow me to experiment with various Gmail strategies and tricks. Here’s the address of the one I want to share with my readers: contentious@gmail.com