Sunday, January 29, 2006

Gmail Delete Button, Revisited

On his ack/nak blog, Bob Corrigan wrote about how Gmail has at long last added a delete button so that you can delete e-mails you no longer want to keep. I've implied in the past that Gmail's lack of a delete button was actually the result of a great requirements insight.

However, so many users have demanded the delete button that Google finally added it to Gmail. It's an interesting case, though, because it's likely that the vast majority of users who clamored for it have no concrete and practical reason for it. For example, Corrigan doesn't claim that the unnecessary e-mail affects his ability to find wanted e-mails or have caused him to run out of storage space. Instead, he writes vaguely that he doesn't want unnecessary e-mails "in his stack" and even that he may be a little compulsive about it.

I do believe there are some practical reasons for the delete button, such as keeping e-mail from exes out of sight from current significant others who may have access to your e-mail. Nonetheless, in the end, Google had to accept that largely emotional (perhaps even irrational) factors affected the usability of their e-mail product.


bob said...

Nothing vague about it, actually. I don't like vendor clutter in my inbox. It's like sand in the vaseline. Or, hmm, like hay with your needles. Choose your favorite "bad" mixed with "good" simile, they're all good.

You could, correctly, find me guilty of an over-fondness of oblique, vaguely obfuscatory language, which could also be referred to as vague.

Except as it relates to my lack of fondness for expired mailing list messages from the likes of United and their ilk. Even if I could store, say, untold thousands of them and never know better. Because I would know better.

Honestly, though, we have better things to be writing about. Like why I can't get the last link on your Google PM series to resolve correctly. . .

Roger L. Cauvin said...

Bob, thanks for your comment and for your original point about Google's humility.

You're right that your objection to clutter is in one sense straightforward. In another sense, though, it's mysterious.

"Even if I could store, say, untold thousands of [expired mailing list messages] and never know better. Because I would know better."

Why does knowledge of the messages bother you if it doesn't affect any practical goal (e.g. find wanted messages, avoid running out of storage space) you want to achieve? Part of a product manager's job is to understand root causes so that we can frame problems in such a manner as to liberate us from traditional solutions (like delete buttons).

bob said...

You've asked an important question. Sometimes, our customers' perceptions of and use of our products defy logic. When faced with this, we can either choose to defy back, or embrace that subjective evidence.

As a PM meself, begorrah, I look for feedback at a variety of levels, including the emotional. Ask any of your user experience designers about how end-users react to products, and they'll bend your ear about how people "react" to products. If a user can connect to a product at both an intellectual and emotional level ("it feels easy", "I like the way it looks", "the colors are very pleasing"), then you've got a user that will be hard to pry away from your product.

Since I bet they track how often every element of Gmail is used, how often each menu item is clicked, Google saw that people were deleting a lot of email. Did that make "sense" to them? Probably not. Did they respond to it as an emergent use-case that customers wanted? You betcha.

I know my reasons for deleting email are different from other folks' reasons. In the end, the use-case was there, and Google reacted even though it was contradictory to their core positioning of Gmail ("you don't have to throw anything away").

That's humility, in the best sense, and I like to see that in a software company.

Roger L. Cauvin said...

Bob, I agree. As product managers, we must do everything we can to understand why people want features and why certain things bother them. Often, what may seem purely emotional or irrational on the surface actually has an underlying practical rationale. But when it doesn't we still have to accept it as the will of the customer (if they are customers we choose to target).