Cloud

Gmail's new Compose Experience is coming

Gmail has announced and released a new Compose window that operates much like a chat window. Is this new feature really going to benefit us?

Google is known for constantly improving its services and releasing new features making our lives easier. With Gmail, Google set a new standard for how companies can update their web based products by rolling out changes and improvements on an almost weekly basis. Some are silently released and just appear out of thin air while the larger changes are announced as part of a release track. On October 30th, Google released on the Rapid Release Track a new way to compose and reply to messages that is meant to simplify the process and save time.

Initial reaction

While being a free Gmail user for almost six years and a Google Apps user for three, I've witnessed many Google updates. Recently, I discovered the "new compose experience" as Google puts it. This is the first time I've tried a Google feature that I did not like immediately. Why?

Well, it feels - unnatural. I feel as though I'm driving a car in England, you know on the wrong side of the road, and all the signs are in different places. Sure, I can stay in between the lines and not kill anyone, but it just doesn't feel right. So it feels with the new compose experience.

Google's big selling point with this new feature is that one can have the compose window open and still read email, reply to email, and search email. Ok, great. Will this new feature really be worth it? How will people in your organization react to it? Will they easily get accustomed to how compact the window is?

Even while writing this, I see certain people in my company with their glasses on, heads tilted back, and mouth slightly agape straining to see the compose pane and freaking out that the formatting options have disappeared. Granted these are the same people that think the CD-ROM tray is a cup holder. They do not deal well with change. Let's take a look at it so you can decide for yourself.

The new Compose feature

In order to try out this new feature, your Google Apps domain must either be on the Rapid Release track or you can use a free Gmail account. Click on the 'Compose' button and then the link next to the 'Labels' button (Figure A).

Figure A

The browser window will reload and the following appears (Figure B).

Figure B

This gives a brief overview of where the compose tools are placed. Click 'Got It' and let's examine it further.

Immediately, you will notice the window is very compact; it is like an oversized chat window that can pop-out, pop-in, and minimize. Gone are the toolbars and the ability to assign a label to the draft (which is a shame because I really liked that feature!). However, the new compose window does retain a lot of the capabilities the old one had.

There is an interesting change in the To:, Cc:, and Bcc: fields. These fields now have keyboard shortcuts (Ctrl-Shift-T, Ctrl-Shift-C, Ctrl-Shift-B) and when typing a recipient's name or email address, you are able to see their profile information and options for contacting that person (Figure C). Also, once you've select a contact, you can drag and drop the contact between the three fields.

Figure C

Down at the bottom of the compose window is where the formatting options sit. You'll notice the underlined 'A', which, when clicked upon, the formatting toolbar expands. Next to that are tools for attaching files, inserting images, and inserting links. Features such as emoticons and inserting invitations have yet to be built into this new window, but are coming soon. At the bottom right are additional tools for the message - discarding the draft, using plain text, printing the draft, selecting a canned response, and spell check.

After getting familiar with the interface, you can begin typing out a message. Google has designed the compose window to autosave much like document in Google Drive. Whenever there is more than a two second pause in typing a draft, autosave kicks in to save the draft. Prior, autosave would happen only every few minutes or the draft had to be saved manually. As the message is typed and becomes lengthy, the window grows to accommodate the text and eventually a scrollbar appears on the right side (Figure D).

Figure D

So the big selling point to all of this is the ability to start drafting a message and take a break from it while keeping the compose window open. I have to say, that is a good feature. Many, many times have I been writing an email and I need to refer back to something in another email. You know how that goes: save your draft, search for that email with data you need, copy the data, go to the Drafts label, open the draft, paste in the data. Now, with the new compose window, you save a few steps. If you decide to finish a draft later, you can keep it open and still read email or even compose another message in a second, third, or more, window. It can be minimized to get out of the way but still be there to remind you to finish it.

Conclusion

I began writing this about two days ago. Since then I've been using the new compose window and I will admit, it has grown on me. I have gotten accustomed to its size though it still does not feel totally normal. It will take a little more time before I'm fully comfortable with it.

The big question: How will your users react and adapt to it?

November 20th Google releases this to all Google Apps users and eventually it will become a permanent change in the way messages are composed. Google provides a guide and an email template to introduce this feature to users.

What are your plans for telling the people in your company? Will you just let it happen and let them figure it out for themselves? Or, will you notify them ahead of time? How many folks in your company do you think will struggle with this change? What will you do to help them with it?

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About

Tim Lange is an IT professional who, among other things, manages Google Apps for his company.

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