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Monday, September 5, 2011

Google ruined "The Cloud" for me

I started losing faith in "The Cloud" last year when Gmail started changing in ways which were not compatible with me. UI elements were moved, or removed, or changed in odd ways. Links I used to use disappeared entirely. This really bothered me.

My Gmail work flow used to be approximately this: review whatever messages were visible on the main screen. The sender, subject, or possibly the first bits of text (the "snippet") would tell me if it warranted further attention. I'd star those. Then I'd go up and click the "select unstarred" link.

All of my messages without a star on that page would become selected with a check mark. Then I'd click [archive] and they would disappear. I could bash through hundreds of mails very quickly. It made me very happy. When I got to Google in 2006, I was impressed by this flow, since someone must have put some thought into it.

Then, during the summer of 2010, it changed. I had been on vacation for about a week, and it changed while I was gone. When I came back, I had a couple thousand mails waiting for me (mostly cruft to be ignored), and ... no more "select unstarred" link! In fact, *all* of the select links were gone.

Mystery meat UI They had replaced them with this mystery-meat UI element which looked like a hybrid of a checkbox and a dropdown box. It turned out that clicking the checkbox would "select all" while clicking the triangle right next to it would "drop down" a list (not really, but it looked like it) and you could find "select unstarred" buried in there.

My workflow went from this...

  1. Scan and star
  2. Click "Select unstarred" (the whole label was clickable - it was hard to miss)
  3. Click [archive]
  4. Repeat

... to this ...

  1. Scan and star
  2. Look for "select unstarred", remember that it's missing
  3. Go up to tiny little arrow thing on wonky UI element
  4. Hit just the arrow and NOT the checkbox next to it
  5. Move cursor down the list without dismissing it
  6. Click on "select unstarred" (thus having to hit a tiny vertical space instead)
  7. Click [archive]
  8. Repeat

I protested. I opened a bug. They told me and others who had received it already that it was The New Thing and would not be changing. There was no reasoning with them.

As a final insult, they whipped out some data and said "only 0.07% of people use that select unstarred link". Great. So I'm in a group of 0.07% of all Gmail users. Wonderful.

I wound up patching around it with a Greasemonkey script. This turned into a maddening series of patches and hacks over the year or so which followed. Every time they'd roll out some new UI abomination, I'd have to blow time with Greasemonkey and/or Stylish to get it back to how I liked it.

This whole thing taught me something crucial: don't trust Google with anything you want to stay constant. Products will be killed, and interfaces will be changed, and they don't care about you. If an employee with access to the internal bug queues can't get things changed, the rest of the world has no chance.

Incidentally, by the time I left, the only sites I needed Greasemonkey and Stylish on to make them not look horribly ugly were Google properties: Gmail, web search (disabling instant, then instant preview, then "+1"), Youtube, and so on. That's pretty damning.

So, use "The Cloud" if you want, but make sure you have a strong contract/API in place. That means accessing them via IMAP or SMTP, not HTTP, HTML and Javascript. It's harder (though not impossible) for them to screw up your IMAP+SMTP experience.

That's because IMAP and SMTP have to work a certain way or clients will break in a way that's obvious. But any idiot who thinks they know what you want more than you do can screw up your HTTP+HTML+Javascript experience, and there's very little you can do about it.

User interfaces are APIs between computers and people.