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Gmail’s New Conceptual Model

Transforming Gmail into a communications hub that integrates chat, video, email, and more.

Yesterday, Google announced an upcoming Gmail redesign. Here’s an overview:

As you can see, these aren’t cosmetic tweaks, but significant changes to Gmail’s structure. Where previously the app aspired to be a great email client, now its stated goal is to be “your new home for work.” This goal reflects three fundamental premises:

  • Much of what many of us do for “work” consists of coordinating with and informing each other
  • Most of these communications happen over digital channels (especially now that many of us are working “remotely”)
  • Email is no longer the only (or even primary) channel for these communications

This redesign reframes Gmail, transforming it from an email client to a communications hub that integrates chat, video, email, and documents. As an article on The Next Web points out, such a transformation would make Gmail more competitive with Slack, which already integrates chat and video. (But not email.) Such a significant change in system goals requires radical changes to the system’s conceptual model and navigation structures. Evidence of both is visible in the video above. Inevitably, this results in greater complexity.

When Gmail launched, I was exhilarated by its simplicity and speed. At that point, I’d been using email for over a decade. Before Gmail, processing email required managing folders. Gmail’s primary innovations (for me, at least) were its powerful search engine and ample storage space. These capabilities liberated me from having to categorize email, making me more efficient.

Even so, Gmail’s conceptual model was familiar. I was still dealing with individual messages as the primary objects of interest. I could read these messages as threads. I could archive messages, reply to them, compose new ones. All of these actions and objects were available in prior email clients. The one major change: instead of offering folders as the primary organizing mechanism, Gmail provided tags.

Gmail’s conceptual model has remained relatively stable since then. A few new features (such as different inbox types) have complicated things a bit. But for the most part, users are still dealing with emails and threads at the core of the experience.

That changes with this new design. Now users will have to deal with several different object types. These object types have different organizing frameworks. (Including, intriguingly, “Rooms.”) Search will work across object types so that results can return both chats and emails. These sound like powerful features, but they ask that users keep a lot of stuff in mind.

I’m a fan of the “small pieces loosely joined” approach exemplified by the UNIX operating system. Such a system provides functionality in small, single-purpose components. The system specifies mechanisms for those components to interoperate. This framework is powerful and resilient: users can assemble configurations of components that suit their particular needs and replace individual components as they see fit.

The new Gmail is the opposite: it aims to consolidate functions into a single system. I can see why Google would want to do this, from a competitive perspective. But as a user, I’d prefer a more modular approach that allows me to pick and choose components for each functionality and integrates them at a higher level.

For example, I expect to continue using Slack and Zoom after this Gmail redesign launches. I’d love for a system that would let me keep using the tools I prefer, but allow me to search across them so I can find my content regardless of where it’s stored. That’s the promise of OS-level search, such as Spotlight on the Mac. Alas, Spotlight can’t “see” inside some of these applications.

The Gmail redesign comes shortly after the release of HEY, a new email application that I’ve written about before. Both suggest that our understanding and use of email is evolving. However, I see them taking different approaches. Where HEY is tweaking the conceptual model to better fit with how we use email today, Gmail is changing it to acknowledge email is but one of several communication modalities — and for some people, increasingly not the primary one.

Introducing your new home for work in G Suite

2 replies on “Gmail’s New Conceptual Model”

No mention of Microsoft Teams, which has been a huge boom to unify our domain communications and collaborations. Why?

Dennis, I suspect you’re right in that MS Teams also fits into this category of “kitchen sink” communication system. I didn’t write about it here because a) the TNW article I referenced focuses on the comparison with Slack specifically and b) I don’t have much firsthand experience with Teams.

I’d like to hear more about your experience with this modality of working. It sounds like the integration has been positive for your team.

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