I spent about ninety minutes helping an elderly relative out with their email today.
Their system of choice, like many of us in fact, is Google’s Gmail. As far as I understand it, Gmail’s philosophy differs (or, at least, differed in the beginning) quite radically from traditional email interfaces because it bases its ability to retrieve the information you need on the back of its built-in search engine.
Searching on the web is fine for everyone, of course. You think of something you need, and with greater or lesser skill, you eventually stumble across the page or pages you’re looking for. Sometimes you don’t know the name of the thing you’re looking to stumble across, but a bit of brains and lateral ingenuity is usually enough to sort things out.
Searching within email is a quite separate matter, though. Today, for starters, the problem was that my relative was using the basic HTML version of Gmail, which it would appear Google don’t care to update in order to keep buggy behaviours at bay. When he typed in the beginning of an email address in the “To:” field, for example, no matching examples would reliably appear. On moving over to the standard version of Gmail, this buggy behaviour disappeared.
Secondly, we had the issue that some of the email he’d been sending was not available in the “Sent” folder but, instead, the “Sent IMAP” folder. Of course, I first suggested, to retrieve the email he was sure he’d previously sent, searching in the search box at the top. The problem was that he couldn’t remember accurately enough, although the email had been sent only a few weeks ago, keywords that might help him find, using such search strategies, the document he was needing. Through prompting, it turned out that people’s names had been included in the email on a bulleted list: I suggested we key just four words into the search box – the names and surnames of two people eventually did the trick! – and thankfully, after eighty-five minutes of work and two sessions, one in person, the other over the phone, before and after his (though not my) lunch, we found what he was looking for.
This was when it struck me, and perhaps it’s already struck you too. Whilst search is great for people with great memories, it gets progressively more rubbish for people whose memories begin to fade.
The old traditional folders of early Windows’ times*, those hierarchies we struggled to create and maintain, are actually far more suited to a certain elderly kind of brain which responds effectively to visual stimuli and provocation but not so well to the need to spontaneously recall.
Has Gmail’s underlying philosophy always been one more suited to youth, then? I think it might have been; I think it is; and I think it’s hardly surprising that it’s probably the case. I assume, without any evidence to hand of course (I stand corrected if I’m assuming something which isn’t the case here), that most of the people involved in its design and development will have been – and continue to be – under the age of forty, not over.
An example, if true, of the need to ensure diversity exists at all levels and in all departments of organisations.
And where not true, a classic case of bone-headed philosophy and interface design!
* Footnote: oh yes, I know Gmail has labels, and these kind of act like folders if you push them, but if I remember rightly they weren’t there at first – and, what’s more, they sure as hell have never looked like folders!!!