David Louis Edelman David Louis Edelman

Why Is Gmail So Irritating?

I switched over to Google’s Gmail about a year and a half ago from Yahoo! Mail, mostly because I wanted a change. I’m on Gmail about half of the time now, while the other half of the time I use Microsoft Outlook 2003.

I like Google. I have great faith in their ability to bring new technology to the masses in an intuitive, highly functional package. Google Maps quickly supplanted MapQuest as my street directory of choice when it came out. And I’ve got high hopes for Writely, an online word processing application that Google bought earlier this year and promptly rechristened Google Docs & Spreadsheets.

So why is Gmail so irritating?

Gmail logoGmail should be a slam-dunk for Google. After all, I can build a simple POP3 application on a ColdFusion web server in a couple of hours, and that includes time for me to consult the Macromedia documentation to fix my mangled CFML syntax. I’m not saying that that’s all there is to it, of course. (If you want to see a ColdFusion-based application gone horribly awry, look at all the flaws in MySpace.) But I don’t have some of the world’s best developers and billions of dollars in cash lying around either.

Here are my major problems with Gmail:

  • Gmail breaks the browser Back button. To me, this is an absolute cardinal sin. Yes, I understand how difficult it is to make a functioning web application that obeys the Back button in a stateless environment like the web. But certainly Google can do better. I back up into blank, non-functioning pages at least two or three times a day, usually when following links from the Gmail module on my Google home page. And when Google isn’t breaking the Back button, they’re opening up new and unwanted tabs in my browser.
  • Gmail breaks the Reload/Refresh button. Try opening an e-mail message, and then hitting your browser’s reload/refresh button. You get taken back to the list of e-mails. I get hung up on this several times a day too.
  • The interface is very, very slow. I lose patience very easily with the “Loading” messages that pop up at the top of the screen — there are actually two different messages, one that appears in the top right and one that appears in the top left — and they’re up there a lot.
  • No folders. Google assumes that we don’t care for the convention of filing our e-mail into different folders. Therefore Gmail does away with this metaphor altogether in favor of its own Label system, which I can’t seem to get used to. Couldn’t they at least give you the option of using folders, even if it’s not set by default?

  • What’s with the Reply textbox? There’s a textbox at the bottom of every message that suddenly expands into a full-fledged e-mail reply once you click on it. It’s very bizarre and counterintuitive, considering the fact that the e-mail reply looks nothing like the textbox.
  • Gmail thread exampleThreaded conversations are just confusing. Message replies and forwards are all tacked on to the original e-mail to form one long chain of messages. It sounds like a good idea to have a record of the entire conversation in one place, but in practice things get very cluttered very quickly. When conversations start to branch off into multiple threads, it’s almost impossible to keep track. Furthermore, threaded e-mail conversations cause messages to jump around in chronology. That message that used to be halfway down the page suddenly jumps to the top of the page, rendering any attempts to order your messages useless.
  • Why can’t I easily sort? Every other e-mail program in the world — hell, just about every other program period — lets you sort objects. Usually by clicking the header at the top of the column. Gmail doesn’t let you sort messages at all. What if I want to view all messages to or from a specific person? You need to type that person’s name into the Search box. What if you want to view e-mail in reverse chronology? Sorry, can’t.
  • Gmail doesn’t play well with POP3 clients like Outlook. Sure, you can easily download messages to Outlook — which is more than you can say for some webmail clients like Microsoft’s own Hotmail — but Google renders some of most effective POP3 management tools null and void. Messages you’ve downloaded into Outlook don’t automatically get marked as read in Gmail. And Gmail doesn’t obey the standard POP3 setting allowing your client to automatically delete webmail messages after x days on the server.
  • The “Compose Mail” link is hard to find. Maybe it’s just me, but I find it difficult to remember where the “Compose Mail” link is. Yes, it’s right there in the top left under the Gmail logo, but after using the program for a year, I still hesitate a second or two every time I need to use it. That’s generally a sign that there’s a serious design flaw at work.

There are all kinds of smaller problems too. Why, when you click on the “New window” link, is the new window too narrow to see your entire e-mail message? Why are message threads sometimes collapsed and sometimes not? How come clicking on the paper clip icon doesn’t take you to the message attachment like it does in every other application? In fact, why do you need to scroll all the way to the bottom of the message to download attachments?

The main problem with Gmail is one that I’ve started to see too much at Google: product arrogance. It’s the attitude that Google knows what’s good for you, and they’re going to proceed with their internal logic despite what the usability standards say and what the customers think. It’s the same Achilles’ heel that Apple has suffered from for years. (Why did Steve Jobs wait until 2005 to finally ship a mouse with a right-click button and a scroll wheel?)

There are some things I like about Gmail’s interface — the autosave, the fact that sent mail downloads to your POP3 client, the e-mail RSS feeds — but generally they’re outweighed by the annoyances. Enough that I’m seriously considering switching back to Yahoo! for my webmail. Their new interface is supposed to be very nice.

Comments RSS Feed

  1. Josh on December 20, 2006 at 4:52 pm  Chain link

    I started using Gmail mostly this summer, more as an official, business oriented address instead of a personal one. Maybe I just don’t use all its features or go as in-depth with some of its options to see the frustrations…but aside from the backspace getting broken, I haven’t had much trouble with it. No spam. Able to archive and retrieve whatever I want and track exchanges. Not that it’s perfect…just different standards, I guess.

  2. Peter on December 20, 2006 at 6:13 pm  Chain link

    No spam??? Just you wait!
    Thanks, David – fascinating discussion, and you’ve pointed out a whole lot of annoying things about Gmail that I didn’t really know (I have a Gmail account as backup if my own server goes down but otherwise I use IMAP4 with Thunderbird at home and Squirrelmail (fairly ugly but it works) when out. Oh, and Chatter Email on my Treo :)

  3. David Louis Edelman on December 20, 2006 at 8:38 pm  Chain link

    Re the spam: I find that I get pretty good results by having two spam filters in place. Gmail does the first round of filtering, and then Outlook does another round of filtering when the messages get downloaded. It catches hundreds of spam e-mails a day, and not very many false positives either.

  4. John Joseph Adams on December 21, 2006 at 11:50 am  Chain link

    Dude, you are *crazy*. Gmail is totally the best email application EVAR. No, seriously. Yeah, it has its downsides as you outline above, but to me its pluses far outweight its minuses. I’ve never loved an email system like I love Gmail.

    I do agree with you on some of its problems though. I don’t like the label interface either; though instead of folders, it would make more sense to me if they used tags. It’s not a whole lot different than the label format, but most sites that use tags, like del.ici.ous, make it much easier to actually tag things.

    As for the threaded conversations — they take getting used to, but I find I much prefer them than the standard way. I agree that it sometimes gets confusing when you have multiple people involved in a conversation.

    As for Yahoo mail — last time I tried using it, it sucked big time, and I’ll never return to it. Let me tell you why. When I was in college, I was using Yahoo mail as my primary email account, and one day, out of the blue, they cancelled my account without ever telling me why or giving me any warning. I’ve still never found out why. I just went to log in one day and couldn’t access my account.

    I went to the support forums, and the only theory anyone was able to come up with was that I had somehow violated the TOS. How, I don’t know. The theory was that because I also had a geocities account, which was linked to my Yahoo account, I could have violated the TOS of Geocities. On that site, I had a page about MP3s (no actual MP3 downloads, mind you, just about MP3s), and so people supposed that that somehow violated the TOS.

    I still hate them for that. Though I do like the customizable My Yahoo page.

  5. David Louis Edelman on December 21, 2006 at 12:01 pm  Chain link

    JJA: I know lots of people seem to like it. There was an article in Techcrunch recently calling Gmail the perfect email app. I guess you have to give Google credit for innovating, when nobody else building email apps is. I just wish they gave you the option to use a more traditional UI. Of course, that’s probably unrealistic.

  6. christopher on February 28, 2007 at 9:36 pm  Chain link

    it’s always fascinating to see another person’s take on a tech. i love gmail. yes, there are some annoying interface problems, but overall i’ve totally bought hook line and sinker into the new paradigm of conversations, searching/labeling instead of foldering (you can label conversations and search by the labels, which is a similar idea to folders).

    but above all it’s what you mentioned, the sheer newness and innovativeness of it. that’s what i love. it’s a completely different way of looking at a common app and if you go with it, it really works.

  7. Richard on July 27, 2007 at 12:56 am  Chain link

    I totally agree with you that “Compose Mail” link is hard to find! I thought maybe I was the only one.
    I remember when I first started using gmail, I couldn’t believe that I couldn’t find how to simply create a new email, and now have to consciously look for it above the “Inbox” link.
    Apart from that I find gmail great.

  8. Harold on August 14, 2007 at 5:22 am  Chain link

    I enable keyboard shortcuts, which makes it quick & easy to do many actions, such as “c” for compose message, “r” to reply to a message, “u” to return to the Inbox, etc. Some of the shortcuts aren’t so intuitive, like “j” to move message pointer up, “k” to move down (unless you’re used to the vi editor!)…
    But I do find having to scroll down to the bottom of the screen to find the download button annoying!
    & it *would* be nice if reading messages in Outlook could mark them as read in gmail!

  9. Ryan on July 25, 2008 at 10:40 am  Chain link


    Gmail does break the back button but that’s not such a terrible nuisance. It’s a very very good way of ensuring that after you have logged out of a computer in an internet cafe, some nice gentleman isn’t able to “back” into your inbox. The Web is full of much worse solutions to this problem – check how Hotmail does it!

    Yes, folders must have been an option. I personally dont like all mails showing in one place, even if they are tagged different.

  10. Ismael Nirvado on April 9, 2010 at 7:08 pm  Chain link

    GMail is the most confusing email EVER. The best & most easy to use is Apple’s MobileMe considering it’s slow compared to Yahoo and Hotmail. Yahoo & Hotmail are the best out there so far but every message you receive or send in GMail always appears in inbox and outbox. Google- Learn to be simplistic like APPLE.

  11. Scott on July 7, 2011 at 10:32 pm  Chain link

    This thread is breaking a record for being “old” and “bumped” hope you don’t mind. I personally can’t stand it when admins complain about “bumping” “old” threads (in contrast the benefit is, that even over a period of years, the dialog/info stays in one place). Regarding gmail, here are a few BASICS that are missing/wrong, a deleted draft doesn’t go to trash (violation of a practically-expected-standard), You can’t set the autosave frequency (could do this in other non-google products 10+ years ago), you can’t adjust basic UI screen-wasters i.e. can reduce the space between the email-from-noun and email subject, can’t specify to display the ACTUAL email from addr instead of noun (that I know of), there’s all kinds of wasted screen space near the top where they COULD place items on the same line, UI selection-element grouping has become an epidemic where it used to take one click now it’s 2 or 3 for any given action, “look what’s new” etc. type messages from gmail/google IN RED that won’t go away and there’s no “X”, Contacts and Tasks which I never use are at the *TOP* left and can’t be moved that I know of, to name a few. I’m talking about basic capability that gmail should provide, not the deep-end of add-ons etc. for firefox to accomplish some gmail UI tweaking, but what google should do. Arrogance, being impolite, non-listening are pretty accurate ways to describe the gmail team – sorry to say.

  12. Anthony Hoffman on June 11, 2013 at 1:37 pm  Chain link

    Why is it impossable to perm delete gmail, it should be an easy function but what happens is I wind up chasing the mail from one folder to another total BS what the hell is the problem? I should be able to delete no matter what folder im in. I know im just a user and google couldent care less about me but this issue is going way to far!

  13. Kimani Wairagu on April 27, 2016 at 7:20 am  Chain link

    Gmail is so annoying. In case someone logs in into a computer they have never used before, one has to provide too much security info (e.g. most used email ads, last time one used some services, phone number). I find that very irritating because I can’t remember most of what they need.

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