Bear with me for this somewhat long post, ‘cause I am not only discussing the sweeping changes Gmail made today, but in the end will also tell you what they are going to do next year – or perhaps after that.
The Gmail label changes announced today and to be released to accounts slowly (you may not see them yet, I only have them on one account) are ones that I’ve long been waiting for, and that most reviewers seem to underestimate, thinking of them as mere cosmetic or usability changes, i.e. “drag and drop”, “right-side labels retired”..etc. We can always trust good old Lifehacker to call it what it is: Gmail Gives Labels the Folder Treatment.
Folders vs. Labels
Because they are. Folders, that is. Just very few people realize that. The Folders vs. Labels debate is older than the tenancy debates we discussed recently, with two deeply religious camps (apologies for the extreme characterization):
- Those who “just can’t live without folders”, mostly legacy users of Yahoo Mail, Hotmail and mostly Outlook. They are used to folders and won’t learn new concepts, don’t want to change, but are happy spending their life “organizing stuff” and even feel productive doing so.
- The productivity-oriented, innovative types, who switched to Gmail exactly for this reason (labels, conversation threads) and who don’t want to go back the “old way”.
Folders are a very old metaphor, as old as email and documents are. Early email systems physically kept folders in separate files, and even when they were no longer separate files, basic functions like sort, search were limited within individual folders. We got boxed in. We also got used to some of the standard folder features, like drag-and-drop, and the fact that the are listed in the left column – so when Google updated their Docs & Spreadsheets UI about two years ago, the consensus was that the champion of labels reverted to folders.
Folders are Labels
Few realized these were one and the same. The new “folders” were multi-assignable, they behaved like labels. Google was using Folders as a metaphor, but under the hood they continued to use the label mechanism. So let’s clear this once and for all: Labels are really more flexible Folders, with two key criteria:
- They allow multiple assignments (same email may belong to several labels)
- They are purely logical, do not involve moving items (email or documents)
Now, just because I said they are the same, we still tend to use them somewhat differently – we’ve been conditioned to do so.
Label usage really depends on the individual, but when used very intensively, it can get very low-level, granular, and heavy users can accumulate hundreds of labels, even though some of them may be for ad-hoc grouping only. Of course that leads us to the third name for the same thing: tags. Just think of tagging of your photos, or the long list of tags at the bottom of this post.
With such numbers it would be unpractical to display labels / tags in the left sidebar, folder-style, like Gmail does – or it did until today. In fact this has been the very reason why I limited my labeling in Gmail, now wanting to see a jungle in the left column. For a large number of tags / labels, it may be better to display them in a “cloud” that’s scrollable, selectable, and of course searchable. (Note: I have yet to see a really good, find/retrieval oriented tag cloud representation – most are dumb displays.)
Folders, or what we traditionally mean by folders re typically used more sparsely, a user would not have more than a dozen or so, so they can easily be listed in the left sidebar, traditional Outlook..etc style. They would be used passively: click, display, sort, scroll. We tend to think of them as major categories, and often use auto-filters with rules to assign email (or documents): one for the Boss, friends, family, a few for ongoing major Projects…etc. You could not possibly have auto-rules for the hundreds of labels / tags you may want to use.
Not all Labels are Folders
So yes, I admit there is a logical split, but it would be a really bad idea to force users make a decision early on, i.e. when to use folders or labels, because this would result in having to re-organize data later on, when they change their mind or their needs change. Here’s my personal example:
Picasa, Google’s photo management product had had both Folders and Labels from day one. I started organizing my old photos in Folders, since I was conditioned to (that was the Windows legacy for years back), than slowly discovered how much more I can do with Labels – especially when they got enhanced and renamed Albums. But by then half my old data was in Folders, and I never went through the pain of re-organizing my photos.
To avoid the confusion / re-organization, and recognize that folders are really labels, a more refined approach would work:
All folders are labels, but not all labels are folders.
This relationship may be explicit or implied. The explicit relationship means a Folder is essentially a promoted version of a label, getting higher visibility and direct clickability at the left sidebar. The implied relationship, which I think is messier, but exists in systems means the user indeed sees two different entities, in fact still creates Folders and Labels as separate steps, however:
- All Folder names should also be displayed as labels in the cloud / list, and searchable, too
- When a new Folder is created, and the name already exists as a Labels, entries labeled with that name should be assigned to the Folder
With promotion comes demotion: some folders are temporary in nature. For example we’re preparing for a major industry conference on the Fiji Islands (where else) and in the months before and after collect all relevant info under the “Fiji” folder. However, 6 months later the “Fiji project” is no longer high priority, displaying it in the sidebar would be wasting screen real estate. The Folder should be removed, but those items should still be grouped together under the Label Fiji. (Folder got demoted). Again, all folders are labels, but not all labels are folders.
Now Bring Some Goog-ly Smartness
The promotion / demotion process is what Gmail now allows by letting you pick which labels you want shown / hidden from the left sidebar. But why do all this manually? Why not bring some algorithmic smartness in the process? Your email / document management system could not a number of auto-promotions. For example:
- x (configurable) number of the most frequently used labels get listed as Folders on the left panel
- x number of most recently used …
- mix of the above two
- not a mix, but the user switch between most used and recently used Views
- not limited to x number, but the entire list of
labels, sorted according to the above two criteria – essentially
the same effect, since rarely used ones will drop off the page
The demotion process could also be partially automated, but would require more user control, e.g by showing the aging of folders (i.e. no more active/new items assigned) with a different color, fading …etc, so the user can notice and remove them.
This isn’t fantasy-land. Think about it: Google has it in their DNA to dissect and analyze everything you do. It already has all the above information, and they love algorithms.
Care to bet how long before we have Intelligent Folders? My take: before the end of 2010. 2009.
Update: Just as soon as I posted this my main Google Apps account got updated. Playing with the new features it appears that the initial selection of labels to be displayed is based on the most used labels – so Google is already applying some of the algorithmic smartness I am talking about.
Update #2: For a little demonstration of what kind of chaos you can get into, try adding tags to your Google Reader items, only to find out later you were in fact creating Folders. A major mess
- Labels: drag and drop, hiding, and more
- Google Moves Gmail Labels to The Left, Jettisons Right-side Labels
- Gmail’s Labels Are More Customizable
- Google Enhances Gmail Labeling With Drag And Drop Feature, Retires Right-Side Labels
- The evolution of Gmail labels
- Gmail’s Labels Now More Like Folders: A Good Thing?