Last week, ReadWriteWeb published “5 Problems with Gmail’s New Design,” a literal handful of complaints about Google’s new mail interface. The lede:
Gmail’s redesign may come with a bunch of spiffy new themes that look great in screenshots, but the actual usability of Gmail is in steep decline.
I’ll set aside the numerous issues I have with the article to focus on a broader point. It’s rarely a good idea to assess the “usability” of a new interface right after its release, as ReadWriteWeb has done. Here’s why.
4 Problems with “5 Problems With…” Posts
1. Where’s the data?
A very wise man once said about usability assessments, “Yeah, well, that’s just, like, your opinion, man.” Google collects vast amounts of data about the usability of their interface, both prior to launch and post-launch. Unless the author is a credentialed HCI type (and even then, treat skeptically), it’s unlikely that the author can offer much more than an “I don’t like this” opinion about a new interface. Sometimes, designs that seem like poor usability decisions actually turn out to be highly successful, like when Twitter added steps to its new user flow.
2. No context
Any conversation about a product’s usability must refer to the usability of a specific feature for a specific audience. RWW takes issue with the new Google UI styles, likening it to a Mondrian painting and claiming that “it isn’t actually that useful.” Not useful for what? Not useful for whom? In what context?
3. Long-term usage not accounted for
What looks like a usability issue at first might actually be a better way to operate over the long run. Users need time to acclimate to a new interface. My friend David Choi summarized the user research he did in support of GMail’s new design, specifically with regard to longitudinal studies (i.e., studies of usage over long periods of time). If designers have done their jobs, users will discover new and better ways to complete tasks which may not be obvious at first use.
4. Usability is not the same for everyone everywhere
“Usability” is not some single metric that improves or declines for everyone with each new release. Products like GMail serve many audiences, each with different needs and modes of use. Things I don’t like about the new GMail may well be things that help my mom use the interface. Usability rarely increases or decreases uniformly for all users of a system as vast as GMail.
So, while I share a couple of RWW’s concerns about the new GMail interface, I’m not about to claim that the usability of GMail is “in steep decline.” I don’t have anything but my own opinion to stand on to make that claim. What I don’t like about the new GMail may very well make email easier or simpler for someone else.