October 30, 2012

Changes To Gmail Compose

Please note that the "new compose" was introduced in 2012.  It's not new any more.  And while the information below is still valid, there would be very few people seeing the new compose for the first time to find this useful.

Google has released a significant change to the way the Compose, Reply and Forward operations look in Gmail* (http://gmailblog.blogspot.in/2012/10/introducing-new-compose-in-gmail.html). Functionally the process works the same as it always has.  For example Compose is still:
  1. Click Compose
  2. Add recipient addresses
  3. Add a subject
  4. Compose your message
  5. Click Send
But the look-and-feel of the interface is totally different now.

The most obvious difference is that the Compose frame now opens in the lower/right of the GMail window much like a Chat or the Tasks frames do. It does not overlay Chat or Tasks, but pushes them to the left in the same way as when one opens multiple Chats. The other large difference is that the look has undergone a major cleanup with all but the most basic operations now hidden from view. This means that it appears much easier to use for sending quick messages. But this comes at a cost of extra mouse-clicks to access the more advanced features. For those advanced features, the opportunity has been taken to group them more logically - the text formatting tools and the insertion tools have been split, instead of all being together in a single bar, and the cluster of blue links under the Subject box has been cleared away into the appropriate menus.

This means that users with more experience using the traditional use-model may be confused or at least surprised by the new model. The purpose of this article is to walk through many of these differences and attempt to address some of the problems/concerns of this new use-model.

As mentioned above, one of the key attributes of this new use-model is trying to keep the interface as clean and simple as possible. A person writing a simple plain-text messages has everything needed without the clutter of additional capabilities or functions they won’t use. This also includes a degree of information hiding. For example, when one is done filling out the To/Cc/Bcc fields and move on, they collapse to one simple line that lists the receivers. If one clicks on that line it again expands out to individual fields for editing.


When one clicks on the Compose button in Gmail, the compose frame opens in the lower/right corner of the Gmail window. It has the same basic look as a Chat frame or when one opens the Task list. And like Chat and Tasks, the Compose frame can pop-out to its own window. In fact, using Shift-click on the Compose button will automatically open the pop-out window form.

All the traditional functionality available for composing a message is still present, it’s just been re-organized to make the overall task easier for simple messages, and the look cleaner.

A - Minimize the compose frame to the bottom of the Gmail tab in the browser.
B - Pop-out the compose frame into one of three different forms.
   * Click - open in a larger frame centered in the browser tab.
   * Shift+click - open in a new window on the screen that can be moved around and re-sized.
   * Ctrl+click - open in a new browser tab.
C - Close the compose frame. Note: this does not discard the draft and one may find it in the Drafts label and resume editing at a later time.
D - Add one or more addresses to send the messages to. Clicking on “To” (as well as “Cc” and “Bcc”) will open the contact chooser window.  Once added, recipients can be dragged from one header to another, for example to move a person from CC to BCC.
E - Click to open a field to add CC addresses.
F - Click to open a field to add BCC addresses.
G - Click to select from multiple from addresses if they have been previously configured in Settings -> Accounts -> Send Mail As.
J - Enter the body of the message here. If a signature is configured it will already be filled in.
K - Click to send the message when it’s complete.
L - Click to open the rich-text formatting tool-bar with fonts, colors, styles, etc. Many of these have keyboard-shortcuts allowing access without the extra click to open the tool-bar.  To see the keyboard-shortcut, hover the mouse over a formatting control.  For example, Bold is Ctrl-B.
M - Click to attach a file.
N - Hovering the mouse over this spot will cause other attachment and insertion options to appear like insert from drive and emoticons.  Note that with the 2014 update to image insertion (The photos from your phone, now one click away) the camera icon has changed to a a picture icon (Adding Attachments to Gmail).
O - Click to discard the draft. Despite the trash-can icon, the discarded draft does not go to Trash and will not be recoverable.
P - Click for a pop-up menu with other options, like switching to plain-text or running spell-check. Note that the Canned Responses selection is only available if Settings -> Labs -> Canned Responses is enabled.  Also note that it is possible to add labels and stars while composing a message.

As the header fields are filled in and one moves to the body, the header fields collapse to a non-editable format. To make changes, simply click on the field and it will expand into the editable form again. As in the new Contact Picker, email addresses can quickly be removed from the recipient list by clicking their “x” box while you are in the editable view.

As mentioned above, there are three other forms available for composing a message in addition to the compose frame in the lower/right corner of the window:  a larger frame centered in the browser tab, a new window, and a new browser tab.  These are available from either the Compose button or the pop-out arrow in the small compose frame.
   * Click - open in a larger frame centered in the browser tab. The "Default to full screen" choice in the pop-up menu will make this the default format when clicking the Compose button.
   * Shift+click - open in a new window on the screen that can be moved around and re-sized. This also works with the Compose button.
   * Ctrl+click - open in a new browser tab. This also works with the Compose button.
   * d (with keyboard shortcuts enabled) - open in a new browser tab. This is nice because it automatically puts the focus in the new tab, and when you send it returns you to the Gmail tab.

Additionally, the format bar defaults to the open or displayed state for each of these cases saving a click each time one wants to use it.

Each of these formats is pictured below.

If you have turned on Settings -> General -> Send and Archive the bottom of your Reply window may look like this. Note that there is a default button for Send and Archive, and a second button for just Send.


While viewing a specific message, one may click the Reply button or link to open a reply frame inline with the message. There is also a drop-down menu option to pop out reply to its own window (see below).

The look-and-feel of the reply frame is very similar to the one for Compose.  But it is a little simpler since some of the information is already filled in since it is a reply to an existing message.

1 - The type of response: Reply or Forward.  One can also change the subject header for the message.
2 - The default address taken from the original message. Clicking on it opens all the recipient fields for editing.
3 - Enter the body of the reply here.
4 - Click the “ ... ” to expand the quoted text.  When you first open a reply, if you press the down-arrow on the keyboard once, the "..." will be highlighted allowing you to delete the quoted text with backspace.  But note:  this will also delete any signature.  If configured, the signature will appear below the quoted text. If the "Insert this signature before quoted text in replies..." (also known as Signature Tweaks) in Settings->General->Signature is enabled, the signature will be above the quoted text.
5 - All the same additional controls as available in the Compose frame (see K - P above).

Once the reply is complete and ready to send it might look something like the following.

Any time you want to verify the address being used for one of your contacts, just hover the mouse over the contact name to display the contact's information.


If one clicks next to Reply and selects Forward from the drop-down menu the result will be very similar to the above. As an alternative, one can always click Reply, and then use the control 1 (from the above picture) to change it to Forward.

The only notable difference with a Forward message is that instead of the quoted text being hidden, it’s all visible with the signature appropriately placed. All the same functions are available as above, and a completed message may look something like the following.

Edit Subject

In addition to Reply and Forward, there is a third option to edit the Subject header. The changed subject will cause this message to start a new conversation rather than be attached to the existing conversation.

Selecting this option will not create an in-line frame as Reply/Forward does. Instead it will act like the Compose function resulting in a new message frame in the lower/right. It will act like a Reply in that the To header and the Subject will already be filled in (with the expectation that the subject highlighted and ready to immediately modify). It will act like a Forward in that the content of the previous message will be included and visible just as it is in a Forward. The message body may be modified or added to, and sent when completed.

All the other aspects of the frame are the same as for Compose.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

Q. Why doesn't it work? I can't even click Compose.
A. The most common cause of problems is using an older, no longer supported browser. Updating your browser or install a supported browser should fix it.
Supported browsers: http://mail.google.com/support/bin/answer.py?hl=en&answer=6557

Q. How do I turn the new format off?
A. Start to Compose a new message or Reply to an existing one. In the lower/right of the reply frame is a pop-up menu that has the choice to turn off the new compose (labeled as P in the above pictures). This option will only be available until the final release of the new format.

Q. Why is so much stuff hidden requiring extra mouse-clicks to access?
A. It appears to be an effort by Google to keep the interface more clean and simple. For example, the majority of users don’t use text formatting in messages. So by hiding the formatting tool-bar it removes clutter for those who never use it. For those who do use it, keyboard shortcuts provide fast access to some functions without the need to open the tool-bar first.  Hover the mouse over the various formatting options to see what the keyboard shortcuts are.

Q. What are the formatting keyboard shortcuts?
A. You can hover the mouse over a control to see if it has a shortcut and what it is. Here's a list (subject to new ones being added):
<ctrl> + b              Bold
<ctrl> + i              Italics
<ctrl> + u              Underline
<ctrl> + <shift> + 7    Bullet list
<ctrl> + <shift> + 8    Number list
<ctrl> + <shift> + 9    Quote
<ctrl> + [              Indent less
<ctrl> + ]              Indent more
<ctrl> + <shift> + l    Align left
<ctrl> + <shift> + e    Align center
<ctrl> + <shift> + r    Align right
Q. Why are there no indicators for editable fields, I can’t tell where I can type?
A. This is to to keep the look clean and simple. Having indicators on editable fields when they are not being used just adds clutter to the interface. Most everything visible can be clicked on, so it doesn't also need an indicator to say “click here to edit” (for example). And one quickly because accustomed to what can be clicked on making any indicators no longer relevant.

Q. Why was the interface “dumbed down”?
A. Actually, the compose and reply functions still support all the functionality as before, it’s just that more of it is now hidden to keep things more clean and simple looking. It would seem that most e-mail messages are simple, almost chat-like. As such, the controls to change formatting or attach/insert other information are not used that often by the vast majority of people. So a simple interface is appropriate for them (at the cost of extra clicks for the rest of us).

Q. Why is the Compose message frame so small?
A. The frames start small for short messages, but expand as the content does. In addition, the initial size of the frame is related to the size of the browser window (if one uses a larger or full-screen browser, the frame will be larger). And if the box still isn't large enough for your message you can pop-out the window and make it as large as you wish.

Q. Why is the new compose format being released again?
A. For significant changes to products Google will often release them in phases. In October 2012 the new compose format was released as an opt-in feature. That is, you could switch to the new format if you wanted. Currently (March 2013) it is in an opt-out phase. That means all accounts are switched to the new format but there is still an option to return to the old format. Eventually the new format will be the only option available.

Philosophical Musings

So why did Google make this change? Unless you’re a Google employee and part of the Gmail team, it’s probably impossible to know for sure. But we can look at current digital communication trends and recent changes by Google to come up with an educated guess.

The past few years have shown the trend in digital communications to be shifting to shorter and shorter messages sent more often throughout the day. Consider how much time people spend sending/receiving short text messages on their mobile devices compared to how much time they spend reading/writing e-mail each day. The same behavior can be seen with people spending more time reading/writing short updates on social media sites compared to longer more time-consuming e-mail messages.

The trend is clearly moving away from longer e-mail messages to shorter, low-content, and almost chat-like communication. In the case of text messaging, it’s almost real-time (like a chat) with potentially only a brief delay as the receiver pulls out their phone to read and respond.

Now clearly there are people who still use e-mail extensively or even exclusively. But such users are becoming the minority when compared to the total population of digital communication users.

Digital communication is more and more becoming short interactive messages (possibly real or close to real-time) in collections or threads.

So what shifts has Google been making over this same time-frame? Chat has been around for a long time. Google Wave came (and went) as a product which was clearly trying to be a blend of real-time chat and non-real-time e-mail merged together into streams (conversations). And then there’s Google+ which is Google’s entry into the social medial space. Again, it’s primarily used for short messages collected in a topical thread-like structure.

Some may disagree with this, but when the “new look” for Gmail was introduced, one of the changes made was the removal of the outlines around and clear separation between messages in a conversation. In addition there were changes in the amount of header information shown along with more aggressive hiding of quoted content and signatures. All this together creates an impression that an e-mail conversation is more like a chat than a string of independent messages. It’s subtle, but it’s there.

Google’s implementation of digital communication is more and more becoming short interactive messages in threads or conversations (Gmail). There appears to be a pattern here.

This brings us to the recent changes in Gmail. Composing a message now opens a frame in the lower/right (just like Chat) which can pop-out to it’s own window (just like chat) and has most of the formatting and other controls hidden to make the interface very clean and simple (just like chat). Forwarding works the same way.

An e-mail Reply opens in-line in the conversation, and also has a much cleaner and simplified look (just like chat). Finally, the quoted text defaults to hidden under the “...” further adding to the clean/simple look.

One may not agree with or like the changes in Gmail to the Compose and Reply functions. It is also understood that these changes will require extra mouse-clicks to access hidden functionality like the formatting options. But an argument can be made that the changes are consistent with the trends seen in digital communication and one can therefore understand the direction Google seems to be going with them. They clearly aren't “changes for change sake” (as some like to claim) but are part of a larger vision that Google seems to be using in its product designs.

These changes (along with many others in other Google products) also show an ongoing move towards a more consistent look-and-feel both within a given product (like Gmail) and among the family of Google products and services. These changes can be disruptive to individual products (as the black navigation bar at the top of the window was when it rolled out) but the consistency these changes bring is generally positive.

* Gmail is a trademark of Google, Inc. This page is not sponsored by or affiliated with Google.

Images provided by "CWD" (http://gmail-miscellany.blogspot.co.uk/)