Google Inbox – A Panoply of UX/Design Wins and Fails.


Some days ago, I got finally got an invite to try Google’s new email application – inbox! I had heard alot it within social media circles, and most evaluations of the product described inbox as visually appealing. Specifically,the material design paradigm  really did shine through! And thats where the praise sort of ends for me. For some reason, after installing inbox on my android device, I did not find it that easy to use compared to gmail. And I thought to myself … now why is that ? In this post, I’ll do a little design thought exercise by listing out the things I did like about inbox (wins), and the things that stumped me (fails). And what I might do .

========= The Wins========

It is beautiful

Everyone thinks so, and I agree. The blue color choice , flat design, mixture of straight and curved edges etc is visually pleasing. I like it! The alarms and reminder features are great too!

Machine Learning at Its Finest

The bundling of email based on content is really accurate for the most part. This google taking all those awesome advances in machine learning algorithms and putting them to excellent use here. Lets not also forget the excellent algorithms that keep us totally immune to spam.  Great job there!

========The Fails========

The Over – clustering or Over-bundling Problem


One key feature of Inbox is the ability to automatically cluster emails into groups, called bundles based on their content – thanks to the genius machine learning algorithms working behind the scene. For example,  However, it simply takes all my email from facebook, twitter, G+, researchgate, twitter, Meetup etc and puts them in a single line (Social, 25+) . Or takes all of my stuff from forums I participate in – AISworld, Google Forums etc. This is good, but  became a problem because I actually like to be able to see all or as much of my email in a single screen without having to click around. I guess the design assumption here is that the social and forum stuff are content that I am likely to ignore. Unfortunately, at this point in my life, forum and email list material are a HUGE source of information for me (jobs, opportunities, journal special issue notifications, conference deadlines,  call for papers etc). I normally don’t want to miss them. This problem has been mentioned here and here . Having to click and dig in each time made me uncomfortable. The same may be said for a few people who really care about their social media content too.

Potential Fix:
Adaptive Bundling :
So, the problem is that some of us may not want our content directly bundled such that we need to click open the summaries in order to view content. Why don’t we selectively summarize based on my behavior ? There may be a way for Google to log my behavior (if I regularly open forum emails , social media emails etc) and learn my preference i.e my interest in the forum email, and thus put it out for me without my having to click open the forum box.
There may be an option to view all email or view only the “good stuff” with the flick of a button. I am of the opinion that people who receive high volume email (Google employees being spammed for job inquiries , Professors being spammed for post-doc opportunities, recruiters etc) may need this filtering better than others. There may be a way to improve the experience for such people.

The Status Glance Problem


For some reason, I couldn’t extract meaning from my email at a single glance. Let me explain a little bit more. With the current gmail interface, I have developed a habit – which I call the status glance. First, I like to be able to look at my last 50 messages in one go, and can quickly decide what is urgent, important, or needs to be deleted simply by scanning email title and sender. After the status glance, I make mental notes or set  alarms/reminders. I guess with the appropriate training, I can learn to do this with inbox, but right now, it feels hard.

First of all, I find that I am fairly confused on what each row means. I am used to having each row mean an email. Now, it can mean both an email, a cluster group (e.g  a bundle of social emails or forum emails or finance related stuff), or a regular email with some new title (Finance, Air Travel , etc) .

Also, I expect to see the email sender on the left of each row, followed by email title and content snippet to the right . Takes a while to process the fact that some rows are actually groups/bundles whilst others are regular emails. When I tried the status glance described above, I got stuck at first at the bundle emails. For some reason, Social bundles were more obvious than Finance bundles (which i actually thought was a single email). It was not easy to distinguish bundles from regular emails. Yes, I know the bundles have specific icons for each bundle group, and that they can be disabled. But both of these need some effort from the user which sully the otherwise excellent experience. I would need to have gone through the tutorials carefully (which many like me dont do) in order to actually make meaning of the bundle icons.

Potential Fix
Bundles are good. But it doesn’t feel consistent to display them as rows in the regular email. More can be done to distinguish bundles .. e.g rather than white, a different background color can be used to highlight each bundle. Or a given text color (keep the different icons) can be used to distinguish all bundles so users can associate that color to bundles as opposed to regular email.

The “Shortage” of Email Per Screen Problem


Similar to the previous problem, I want to see as much email as possible in one single glance. Or one single screen. Adding the attachment preview (which can take up space for several email rows) detracts from the accomplishment of this desire, and means I have to scroll more.

Potential Fix
Stick to the attachment icon rather than showing bulky attachment previews. I’m not sure if knowing the content of the preview will change much of the users decision to view an email or internal mental model regarding the importance of a given email. True or not, I believe access to more emails per screen will likely be of more importance. (potential hypotheses for usability tests).


Perhaps, the issues mentioned above have more to do with the fact that this interface takes a bit of a leap from conventional email display to something more modern and future-looking. Its just that new stuff means new learning curve. But the leap is justified . In the age of internet bots, proliferated use of email, tremendous spam on a daily basis, there is a need for new approaches to email management. And I salute the Google Inbox/Gmail team for being pacesetters as always.

Knowing Google, they are constantly improving Inbox, and hopefully, a few of the issues mentioned here can be addressed.  Feel free to articulate any other concrete issues you have with the Inbox design.

About Vykthur

Mobile and Web App Developer and Researcher. Passionate about learning, teaching, and recently - writing.
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