Gmail Inbox Update: Hopes And Fears

Gmail's new categorization capabilities bring optimism -- and apprehension -- to this email addict's heart.

Debra Donston-Miller, Contributor

May 30, 2013

4 Min Read

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My name is Deb, and I have a problem with email: My Gmail inbox currently includes more than 52,000 unread messages. I read what I need to immediately, and then get back to the lower-priority messages later. That's the idea, anyway.

Do I need all those messages? Probably not. Will I ever go back through them to weed out what I do and don't need? Highly unlikely. Am I proud of my situation? No, but I know I'm not alone.

Google is taking steps to help users like me. On the heels of its email composition update (which I love but others have expressed pretty strong dislike for), Google this week announced a big update to the Gmail inbox.

The changes are designed to put users back in control. "We get a lot of different types of email: messages from friends, social notifications, deals and offers, confirmations and receipts, and more," wrote Gmail product manager Itamar Gilad in a blog post about the update. "All of these emails can compete for our attention and make it harder to focus on the things we need to get done. Sometimes it feels like our inboxes are controlling us, rather than the other way around."

[ For more on Google's Gmail interface tweaks, see Google Gmail Gets Tabbed Inbox. ]

The biggest change this update brings is categorization. On the desktop, Gmail will now organize mail into as many as five categories that will appear as tabs (primary, social, promotions, updates and forums). Users can move messages among tabs, set certain senders to always appear in a particular tab and star messages to they appear in the primary tab. You can see how many unread messages you have in each tab, so you will be able to easily see how quickly they are piling up.

I have high hopes for this feature, but also a little fear. One of the reasons I don't do a lot of email message categorization now (or life categorization in general) is that things often don't fall into nice neat categories. That's also the reason I never used Gmail's Priority Inbox -- I didn't want Gmail deciding what was and wasn't important to me, because that can change from one day to the next.

In the past I have used products for Outlook that did the same basic kind of categorization that Gmail will now do, but with more user control of the categories. Using these products, I would often find myself searching through folders for where a message might have been categorized. Of course, part of the problem was me and the taxonomy I had developed, but I can't lie: Automated categorization scares me.

With all that said, one of the best things about using Gmail is its powerful search capabilities, and this may negate some of the categorization problems I've had in the past. (Of course, in some cases that will assume I know a message is there in the first place.)

The new Gmail inbox will also be available for Android- and iOS-based devices. On your smartphones and tablets, you'll see the Primary mail tab when you open the mobile app, and you can then easily navigate to your other tabs.

The new inbox will roll out gradually, becoming available within the next few weeks. To see if you can get it now, click on the gear menu and go to Configure Inbox in the Settings option.

If you try the new format and don't like it, you can switch back to any Gmail inbox type. (And I have to mention here that Google increased my productivity and decreased my frustration level exponentially the day it gave users the option not to nest messages.)

Will you give the new Gmail inbox a try? What is on your Gmail wish list? Let us know in the comments section below.

Follow Deb Donston-Miller on Twitter at @debdonston.

About the Author(s)

Debra Donston-Miller


Freelance writer Debra Donston-Miller was previously editor of eWEEK and executive editorial manager of eWEEK Labs. She can be reached at [email protected].

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