Gmail Koan: When Is a Folder Not a Folder?

July 2nd, 2009  |  Published in etc

A: When a Google employee calls it a label.

So, Google has tweaked Gmail’s labels such that you can now drag and drop a message onto a label in the sidebar, which will apply that label to the message (or messages … you can select several and drag all of them at once). The motivation for this comes down to users not using labels very much, evidently because they don’t really know what they’re for.

As Michael Leggett explains in his blog entry on the new UI:

Making the interface mimic things you interact with outside the computer can sometimes improve ease of use.

Right. When you drag a message from the inbox into a “label,” it disappears from the inbox and appears under that label. If you click on a sidebar label to look at all of its messages, any messages with a single label act the same way: If I’m in the “work” label and drag a message over to the “writers” label on the sidebar, the message leaves the “work” label and joins the “writers” label.

I wonder if I can think of anything I interact with outside the computer that these actions mimic?

Folders, perhaps?

No! Wrong! Because if a message has two labels (e.g. “writer” and “work”, then dragging it from its list to a third label (e.g. “NitpickingBlogEntries”) means it remains in “writer” and “work” and gains “NitpickingBlogEntries.”

Whatever else folders do in real life, they do not retain things within them that have been moved outside of them.

So here’s the mental map I’ve created to help me understand labeling in Gmail:

  1. If it has no label and I drag it into another label, then labels are folders.

  2. If it has only one label and I drag it into another label, then labels are folders.

  3. If it has more than one label and I drag it into another label, then labels are labels.

With the exception of getting to cling to the “label” nomenclature, I’m not sure how this is less conceptually cluttery than having “folders” and “tags.”

Leggett’s blog entry says label uptake has increased mightily with the interface changes, but that seems like only half the story:

By making it more evident that you can do something with a message, you may get people to do that thing, but I wonder what happens next, when people who’ve been treating labels like folders (because that’s how they act initially) run into the behavior where labels act more like folders that insist on retaining a copy of their contents. Especially when dragging a double-labeled message from within a label into the Trash “label” in a desperate attempt to get it out of that label deletes it from every label.

One thing that’s sort of nice about Gmail’s labels, in a way, is that they enforce a disciplined approach to message organization. It takes effort to create one, and you can’t just create them on the fly. So a year from now you’ve got a better chance of having a single label, e.g. “work” vs. having a bunch: “work”, “Work”, “Jupitermedia”, “JUPM”, “job”, etc.

That’s why I’m not in a great hurry to say Google should just pare down the number of states a label introduces to a message to one and start calling them “folders,” then introduce free-style tagging. Friction, in this case, is probably good for those of us who aren’t really organized.

A CMS I deal with has tagging for articles, and it has a level of friction where tagging is concerned that I was uncomfortable with until people started talking about the pain normalization was going to create. Now I wish it had a bit more friction, too.

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