It looks like Google has finally pulled the plug on the old GMail UI. There’s no more “revert to the old look temporarily” button, so I guess they’re finally forcing us laggards onto the new theme. I’ve been a mostly happy GMail user since the very early days, but I strongly dislike the new UI.

As far as i can tell, this redesign is just change for the sake of change. I can’t see a single improvement! But I can spot three distinct un-provements *:

  1. The featureless white void: the old interface had colored borders and variations in background color which served to deliniate navigation from content and provide visual landmarks that helped me find my way around the page. It had visual ‘texture’. The new interface lacks that visual texture. Without borders or landmarks, everything blends together into a featureless sea of white and light grey. It requires more work for me to parse visually, to figure out what I’m looking at or to find the link I want to click.

    The old Gmail UI

    The new Gmail UI

    This is what happens when the cult of “minimalism” goes too far.

  2. The “importance” marker is now right next to the stars. I find the (algorithmically-applied) importance marker completely useless and would remove it if I could, but I use the stars quite heavily. In the old interface the importance marker was to the right, so I could ignore that column and scan the left column for stars. In the new interface, the two markers — being the same size, color, and location — blend together visually. I can no longer scan for stars; i have to look closely at each line to tell stars apart from importance markers.
  3. The new icons are inferior to the old text buttons. The text buttons were self-describing. The new icons are not. I’m not usually a fan of toolbar icons; they’re never as self-explanatory as their designers think they are, so they usually need text labels to be decipherable. At that point, why not cut out the middleman and just show the text label instead of the icon?

    Comparison of old and new Gmail toolbars

    But these icons are particularly bad. Again with the cult of minimalism: the icons are so streamlined and featureless that they all look the same: a row of meaningless, square, grey objects. When I want to mark something as spam, I used to be able to click the “spam” button. Now I have to mouse over each square grey object one at a time, looking for the one that pops up a “Report Spam” tooltip. (It’s the stop sign. Why a stop sign? I don’t know. Years of using GUIs have trained me to interpret a stop sign as an error message.)

Why were these changes made? I don’t know. According to the Gmail blog, the goals of the redesign included: to put mugshots of people into conversation view, to make the density adjustable, to make themes fancier, to make the left sidebar customizable, and to add an advanced search panel.

Assuming for the moment that these features were actually needed (which I think is arguable), the fact is that any of these features could have been added without making the interface a featureless white void or replacing helpful labels with cryptic icons.

Just today I read this blog post from a Google UX designer about “Change Aversion”, or the supposedly irrational tendency of users to fear change. The underlying attitude here is that users will like the new UI just fine once they try it, but they don’t want to give it a chance because they’re stubborn, like toddlers refusing to try an unfamiliar food.

I’ve certainly encountered this attitude before. Mozilla UX designers like to use the example of tabs-on-top: when we moved the tabs above the navigation bar in Firefox 4, many users balked at the change. But nobody could give a reason why tabs-on-top was worse — they just didn’t like it because it was unfamiliar.

The problem with this attitude is that sometimes the users may just be stubborn, but other times the users are encountering a real serious problem with the design; something they can feel is wrong, but can’t quite articulate precisely. Your users aren’t trained as designers, so they may not be able to argue their case convincingly in the language of design. If you dismiss all negative user feedback as mere stubbornness, you’ll miss important warning signs when you’re about to make a mistake. People have certainly been telling Google that they don’t like the new GMail interface, but it doesn’t seem like Google has been listening.

Change aversion might be a real thing, but designer arrogance is a real thing too.

* – “un-provements”: a word that I just made up because English lacks a word for discrete ways in which something has gotten worse. What would you say here? “three degradations”? “three backslides”? “three worsenings”?

EDITED TO ADD: GMail UX designer Jason Cornwell has helpfully provided an explanation of the reasoning behind the changes.

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