Design Case Against Gmail Tabs

Gmail Tabs was meant to handle email clutter in the primary inbox and optimize the email experience. Surely enough it was an exciting news for Gmail fans, and before I knew I had activated the feature on my account. So now I had five tabs (or inboxes) in Gmail where emails from different sources were automatically redirected into Primary, Social, Promotions, Updates or Forums tabs. You could also drag an email to any of the tabs, so that Gmail could recognize and deliver future emails to its respective inbox tab. And I was happy with this arrangement until I realized it had started to cause me inconvenience in managing different tabs or inboxes at the same. Using the Gmail app on iOS correspondingly was even more annoying because it increased my time (tap ratio) to reach specific emails and take action. As time went by I cared less about prioritizing my emails and more about organizing my emails. In fact I lost complete control over my emails and conversations and decided to do something about it.

There are email updates such as newsletters and account details, new sign ups, login notifications, verify email address, et al., and social media messages such as Twitter and Facebook notifications and then Spam, they all could be deleted or preserved (labeled appropriately and/or Archived) depending upon the value of the information.

In that sense Gmail Tabs brought a behavioural change in email interaction. There was a logical movement of the eye (scanning) in the traditional email list navigation model following a Receive > Read > Act > Delete/Preserve task flow. In other words conversations were easily identifiable through a comprehensive visible list of messages.

Traditional Inbox

Traditional Inbox with Email Listing (in red)

When Gmail Tabs introduced several inboxes within a large mailbox scanning became a matter of choice. And since each tab represented an inbox with emails delivered in volume at the same time, the focus shifted to reading emails in the Primary inbox (since they tended to represent real email senders), while taking it easy on the rest of the tabs. So when tabs presented multiple choices to the user it inhibited the person to make a decision.

Priority Inbox Feature

Gmail’s inbox feature with tabs (& unread emails)

Here’s why I believe Gmail Tabs was a design failure over the traditional Inbox design. This feature by its inherent network of tabs hid information and persuaded users to ignore emails and not motivate them for further action. For example receiving email in any of the tabs other than the Primary mailbox would either be read or ignored but never deleted. And storing all those trivial emails not only bloated my Gmail account it also overshadowed important conversations and added to the clutter.

For me nothing works like the original inbox mail listing feature now that I’m using it again. I can now control whether emails stay or go to the Bin the minute I receive them. The list design pattern provides early clues on information and doesn’t afford for conversations to hide behind tabs. Now that the original Inbox listing is back for me I noticed a ton of unread emails. So excuse me, while I clear this email mess!

Usability vs UX

The web is abound with discussions on “user-experience” design mostly revolving around the concepts of ‘delight’. Let’s look at the definition for ‘user experience’ which I found from Google:

The overall experience of a person using a product such as a website or computer application, especially in terms of how easy or pleasing it is to use.

The simplest interpretation of the word pleasing would be creating delight while using the system (or any other product). Some would define UX as the emotional aspect of a product while Usability tends to deal with the physical facets of software — the Look versus Feel scenario. Here’s how usability is defined on Wikipedia:

Usability is the ease of use and learnability of a human-made object. The object of use can be a software application, website, book, tool, machine, process, or anything a human interacts with.

The ease of use and learnability aspects are striking in the context of UX because both are emotional connotations for delight. So what exactly separates UX from usability? While much has been written about UX the more you indulge in its multifarious definitions, the more confusing the interpretation becomes in the context of general design. Thus I have come to conclude that applying the principles of usability in product development consistently derives long-term benefits in user-experience design.

Usability Engineering in context with software design is defined as Human-Computer Interaction or HCI although its principles have been employed in several key areas such as the aviation industry much before the first computer screens flickered on the horizon. Usability is broadly a set of principles specifically laid out through continuous user research that aims to bring the human viewpoints of psychology and physiology into consideration while designing a user-friendly product. The principles of Usability as defined by ISO cover learnability, efficiency, memorability, error handling and satisfaction for software development. Satisfaction — isn’t satisfaction a subset of delight or user experience? So if a design process exploits these usability principles and creates a user-friendly environment for usage, the outcome should naturally provide for a good user-experience for its customers.

I believe that usability has an overarching effect on products — be it on an enterprise-level application or a mobility app, or even a ubiquitous product such a chair, the principles of usability are relevant and are bound to affect humans emotionally as they interact with the object frequently. So while summarizing how usability can provide delight or how UX is intrinsically linked with classical usability, let’s take the example of a coffee-maker in context with the usability principles we discussed earlier:

Learnability: the product being designed must be easily comprehensible (affordance) so as to reduce the learning curve and meet the set expectations or user goals. For instance, a coffee-machine which can make a cup of coffee for the consumer quickly and with fewer button clicks, and without having to read the manual (actually why would anyone need a user manual for using a good product?).

Efficiency: if the product is learned easily and quickly on repeated use it naturally affects the efficiency of its users in a good way. Making that first cup of coffee on a new machine took some time than let’s say, preparing the tenth cup.

Memorability: Once a user has been educated it raises his/her awareness about using the product features and increases the level of memorability (designing for recognition over recall). This makes the user confident, bestowing a higher amount of self-esteem from each usage. And eventually raising the product brand value as well. So now you are so confident in making coffee on the new coffee-maker that you no longer require to focus your mind and energy on the buttons or the flashy lights. It just works magically! (or so your brain starts to believe!)

Error Handling: Once a product has reached a high state of awareness within its user base and the brand worth has been attained, the effective rate of error recovery would normally be reduced. Or discovering newer ways for product upgrade through user testing and feedback, and design iteration during product development lifecycle. If the coffee-maker beeped previously to signify an error consistently, what can be done to reduce that occurrence by bringing a change in product ergonomics?

Satisfaction: having met the expectations of the user, and an increased brand worthiness through design rationale, the overall experience is thus deemed pleasurable for the user. In other words, the goal for good user-experience design has been achieved so far.

While we know that usability for software is quantifiable through an expert review or usability lab testing. At this point I have mostly found testing metrics for user-experience design referring back to the usability engineering testing tools and methodology which is rather disheartening. So while we continue to build products focussed on UX I would also be keen on strengthening my knowledge and skills substantially in usability engineering studies and research papers. After all, a product which addresses the mental model of the audience succeeds in providing a delightful experience.

Apple Reinvents the Pencil

Apple’s Chief Design Officer Jony Ive was in conversation with the Editor-in-Chief of Wallpaper magazine Tony Chambers on Apple Pencil, and spoke at length about the design of the device as well as Apple’s design philosophy in general.

I had declared before that the Pencil was going to take the world by storm with its innovative UI and multi-functionality design along with the iPad Pro. At the core of the design philosophy for Pencil, Jony says, was the ability to use a device to paint and draw:

What we found is that there’s clearly a group of people that would value an instrument that would enable then to paint or draw in ways that you just can’t with your finger. And I suspect that this isn’t a small group of people. I don’t think it’s confined to those of us who went to art school.

For some time after the Pencil’s announcement the world was up in arms quoting Steve Jobs on introducing a so-called “stylus”.  Apple was fundamentally violating a design principle because Steve Jobs famously considered using a stylus as a sign of product “failure”. In reality the Pencil augments the finger as Jony Ive describes it vividly in this quote:

the Pencil is for making marks, and the finger is a fundamental point of interface for everything within the operating system. And those are two very different activities with two very different goals.

Suggesting that the Pencil is more than just a stylus and not replacing the finger interaction which Steve Jobs implied. The Pencil is in fact a successful merger of human dexterity with innovative technology. In which the Pencil not only identifies hand pressure but also the tilt angle on the screen to offer a seamless screen interaction. We often discuss Apple being an organization in the forefront of using design-thinking methods for developing innovative products:

We do this a lot when we are working on things like the trackpad or new keyboard on the MacBook. To develop those sorts of devices requires an incredible amount of observation and measurement and it means that you need to ask the right questions and know what to focus on. This is part of the value of being a design team that’s been together for many years. We’ve been working on these problems for 20-plus years, so it’s an interesting area. And I think we are gaining experience, we are learning.

Jony also brought up Apple’s design method which does not involve Focus Groups which is a well-known fact again. Here’s his take on whether the feedback from his young kids proved useful in the design of the Pencil:

Apple does not do Focus Groups – So far, anecdotally – you know we don’t do focus groups – but anecdotally, certainly from what I’ve seen, with my children and friends’ children, they are captivated.

And finally, he left a valuable tip for aspiring designers to inculcate design culture in their work:

The design team at Apple uses sketchbooks and do lot of sketching – Yes, we all do. The whole team use sketchbooks. I think it’s a mixture of drawing either by yourself or when you’re with people flitting between conversation and drawing.





iPad Pro and Apple Pencil – First Impressions

With loads of emotions, I had been awaiting the iPad Pro and Apple Pencil launch since Apple announced the breakthrough products in September 2015. The day finally arrived last weekend when I visited the Apple Store.

Disappointingly, my first impression when I held the iPad Pro was it just felt like a normal iPad! It wasn’t anywhere closer to the picture I was harbouring in my mind, of a large sheet of fine glass and slightly bulky device. Somewhere that tweet about the iPad Pro form factor feeling like an iPad Air 2 came true. Or maybe what I was feeling with the iPad Pro was a victory for Apple’s ingenuity in industrial design! Making something as powerful as the iPad Pro and letting the ergonomics sync with the present generation iPads. The new Smart Keyboard as well is a well designed and an exclusive accessory for the Pro. On the flip side we will have to wait for the next iPad Pro version to see the breakthrough 3D Touch technology at work which made the iPhone 6S series special in so many ways.

The Pencil’s story is quite different. I had used the FiftyThree Pencil last year but wasn’t too happy with the pressure sensitivity and the woeful response of the ‘stylus’ on the iPad. It required me to hold the tip in a certain way to touch the screen to draw something. The tip was rubbery and basically the experience never felt closer to a real pencil which I was initially expecting when I bought the product. The Apple Pencil feels every bit like the real stuff. The tip is hard and sensitive and detects the pressure points quite beautifully. It works even when you tilt it. The Pencil and iPad Pro combination is exciting – both are meant to work together actually, and a perfect platform for artists or architects to run their imagination wild. I’m already foreseeing a new genre of digital artistic wave being generated as a result of this innovative product from Apple. Now with Evernote supporting Apple Pencil it’s no doubt a fantastic device for everyone (and doodling takes a whole new meaning). I can’t wait to see what the upgrade for these devices has to offer.

“We didn’t really do a stylus, we did a Pencil. The traditional stylus is fat, it has really bad latency so you’re sketching here and it’s filling the line in somewhere behind. You can’t sketch with something like that. You need something that mimics the look and feel of the pencil itself or you’re not going to replace it. We’re not trying to replace finger touch, we’re complementing it with the Pencil.” – Tim Cook

Understanding Designers

I received yet another email today from a recruitment agency for a ‘UI Developer’ position, and lately I have begun to doubt the industry’s understanding of the difference between ‘designers’ and ‘developers’. It’s also discouraging when recruiters email you saying “Hey, I have this great position for you…”, only to be left disappointed when you go through the job description which clearly mentions programming skills as a prerequisite! Especially when my résumé or online job profile does not even mention the word ‘developer’ anyplace, I can’t figure out how those emails land in my inbox. Obviously there are some recruiters acting under professional compulsions and fulfilling a different criteria. But merely having an understanding or liking for a programming language doesn’t turn me into a developer. So I take this opportunity to explain about the Designers as I know them in some detail here. 

Designers imagine to create things, and developers engineer to make them work.

Designers apply visual talents in their methods to bring an idea to life while developers apply their mathematical acumen to make that idea work. Even if these roles appear to be similar for some individuals, it should now be clear from that simple description how their responsibilities and perspectives are poles apart. For instance, designers thrive on user insights, picking or rejecting ideas intuitively depending on what would and wouldn’t work for the product. Empathy comes naturally to them because without knowing who to design for they can’t begin to imagine and create visuals. Or even if they do create something just out of their imagination it may not work well with the intended audience in the market. This is quite different from the painters or fine artists who use their vivid imaginations, colours and forms on the canvas to express their inner feelings and thoughts. On the other hand when you empathize with your users you stand in their shoes to feel their physical and emotional needs and pains. Designers have an inbred mechanism which helps them translate those inert perceptions into tangible creations making use of design-thinking tools such as prototyping, iteration and design. When you remove these cherished elements from a designer’s inventory you risk losing the overall individuality of the product itself.

Why is a designer so important? Designers represent the uniqueness of the brand. They breathe, drink, sleep; basically exist emotionally with the brand while integrating it into their personality, and hence are able to imagine countless possibilities for the product. Having empathized with their product’s core value they are able to distill rationale through the quagmire of scrutiny. Good designers are an invaluable asset to the organization because they can transform a product’s narrative with their creativity and design leadership. So when designers are reduced to being just an ‘apparatus’ to fulfill short-term goals, it hurts the business objectives and sabotages the future growth of the brand conclusively. In fact, the best organizations in the world value the contribution that designers bring on the table. They are nurtured not just as employees but as the ultimate custodians of the brand’s ethos and sanctity.

Designers do not automatically become developers if they develop an understanding of how things work. In fact that signifies they are smart enough to cross over (empathy) and comprehend the challenges of the developers which is an advantage for organizations who are dealing with complex big-data and large IT transformational projects. It’s important to bear in mind that customers are no longer satisfied with systems that simply work, rather they are habituated to a continuous rush of apps offering delightful experiences. A user’s expectations to reach a certain level of gratification has already reached manic proportions which can only be delivered through a good design strategy. In a fiercely competitive industry riding on the theme of customer experience, designers are the only individuals who can technically connect the dots, unify the aspirations of product teams into a single sequence, and filter the undesirable perceptions to form a substantial product strategy. To expect them to do anything else but design is quite honestly, suicidal.