Feature add: Expanding the use cases for labels
Role: UX Designer
Duration: 12 Weeks
User Research
Lo-fi & Hi-Prototyping
Usability Testing
Interaction Design
“Best way to get out of a creative rut is to try new techniques and expand yourself.”
(Interview Participant #1)
Project Overview
Email management is a core part of the user experience in Gmail, one where even the smallest pain-point can have significant business impact. This project explores how users currently interact with their Email and what features can be added or extended to improve the experience of Gmail.
view live prototype
The Design Process
  1. Project Motivation - A love for newsletters
  2. Pivoting focus - Listening to the research
  3. Labels vs Folders
  4. Making a stronger case for labels
  5. Testing & Validation
  6. Reflection
Project motivation - A love for newsletters
Newsletters are a big part of my email use. Shouldn't the Gmail experience reflect that?
I love reading newsletters, I currently subscribe to about 10 or so covering a variety of topics like literature, design, creative thinking and art. I think they're a great way to catch up on current events, tap into internet culture, learn or just simply unwind. Because I read and subscribe to so many newsletters, I also need & want to organize and manage them effectively.

With my primary email client, Gmail, I sought to create a system using the features provided that could enhance my experience, but could never find something that worked well enough for me. Labels felt to rigid and clunky, setting up rules and filters didn't make much sense and I found Gmail's AI enabled categories (promotions, social...etc) wrongly categorizing my subscriptions to be quite frustrating. Due to this confusion I decided to take on Gmail as a design challenge and explore solutions that could make Gmail more conducive to newsletters.
Research & Discovery
Research consisted of 1:1 semi-structured interviews with Gmail users who subscribe to 10 or more newsletters. The main goals of the research project was to learn:
  1. User behaviour regarding email management & organization
  2. How users engage with their newsletter subscriptions (initial subscription, reading, organization & management)
  1. Newsletters are generally given lower priority in comparison to other emails.
  2. If the user feels the newsletter has perceived value it is usually bookmarked for later. If not, it is deleted.
  3. If newsletters end up in either the promotions or socials tab the likelihood they get read at all drops significantly.
  4. Referring back to an old newsletter can be hard especially if a user doesn't remember what to search for.
  5. Users may not engage with most of their newsletters if the content isn't easily digestible.
The research data provided several insights into a user's everyday experience of Gmail, specifically when it comes to organization and managing clutter. However, it did not provide much evidence to support a design of a newsletter management feature.
A full write up of the research insights can be found here.
Designing without research backed data
Despite not having enough research backed evidence for a newsletter feature I still spent some time exploring the interaction model in Gmail.
Snapshot of the proposed newsletter dashboard
Snapshot of the proposed newsletter round up
I opted to create a newsletter tab where users can add their on-going subscriptions, unsubscribe from current ones and read new issues. My research also indicated that users were more likely to read their newsletters if they knew it contained information that was of value to them. So I started exploring a design for a newsletter round up, which would scan through newsletters received every week and pick out articles, writings and links that matched a user's indicated interests.
Snapshot of the newsletter round up preferences menu
"These ideas are good but they stray too far from Gmail's core direction. How would you pitch this change to a business executive at google? What problem are you trying to solve?"
The quote above is from my mentor, the wonderful Flora Baik. Without strong supporting research I felt like I was going in circles, constantly asking myself "what problem was I trying to solve?". I had let my own needs dictate the design. Instead of paying close attention to the research and designing for the users, I was designing for myself.
Pivoting focus - Listening to the research
Going through my Miro board, I noticed a grouping I had previously ignored relating to Gmail's suite of organizational features.
Snapshot of the Miro board organizing in gmail grouping
A commonality amongst users was that they found trouble utilizing Gmail's primary organizational tools, which consists of both labels & the tab views. Labels especially were a particular source of confusion; users found it un-intuitive to use, redundant at times and occasionally restrictive.
The decision to address this issue can be summarized by the statement below:
Email management is a core part of the user experience in Gmail, one where even the smallest pain-point can have significant business impact. With all interviewed users indicating they practice inbox zero or some form of email decluttering technique, the need to address any roadblock associated with accomplishing these tasks is crucial.
For a user seeking to organize their email:
Labels vs Folders: Conflicting Mental Models
Labels are tags that you add to your emails to keep them organized in a certain way. You can use any name and color for the labels as you desire.
Folders on the other-hand are a mass storage/archival mechanism. Folders do not technically exist in the Gmail feature set, instead, they are replaced by labels.
In a white paper published in 2010 by Google called "Best of Both Worlds: Improving Gmail Labels With the Affordances of Folders" it argues that labels are more powerful and flexible than folders since it can be applied to multiple Emails. However, in order to accommodate existing users who are more familiar with folders, Gmail decided to merge folders and labels into a single feature set. In doing so they failed to account for the different mental models associated with the two. In Gmail's current design labels are a tagging system masquerading as an archival system.
Labels do not provide any support for hierarchy or grouping. Labels are a tagging tool used to assign further meaning or importance to an item.
A folder system holds value with or without any labeling in place due to the fact that it inherently implies hierarchy. Multiple labels may exist within a folder but the opposite does not hold true.
How do current Gmail users utilize labels?
Interviewed users perceive labels as folders and either try to use them as such or are put off by it's un-intuitiveness. The act of using labels is motivated solely by the need to archive emails into singular groups/folders rather than tagging them.
In the aforementioned paper, Gmail cites that the benefits of labels are: an Email can have multiple label assignments and labels allow Emails to be easily located within the inbox using the search feature. Comparing these points with observed user behavior I noticed that:
  1. Very rarely do users need to assign an email to multiple folders/labels
  2. Users interviewed did not realize that they could search their email using solely the label name to locate emails. Users even cited that emails became harder to find once they are moved to a label.
As an addendum to point #2 above, 'label and archive' is the Gmail proposed solution to filing in your inbox. User's however don't utilize the archive feature, stating they have no idea how it works, and are not sure how to find an email once it's archived.
A How Might We statement to summarize the problem space
Making a stronger case for labels
How can labels work better for the user?
My solution is to reinforce label's tagging & categorization features to truly make labels stand out and remove all ambiguity regarding it's intended use case.
To do this I define a set of user stories, to help imagine how a user would utilize labels in this redesign.
"Categorize & save content within emails like text, articles, and images."
"Create custom tabs that only show emails assigned to specified label(s)."
"Easily create rules that auto-assign labels to incoming emails."
"Easily group & sort their inbox."
For each user story I research & document how it's currently implemented in Gmail and compare that with my designed solution. The measure of success for each story is how well it performs against the existing method (if any exist) in terms of ease of use. I also assess a user's willingness to adopt that feature, it's perceived value & how clearly users understood how to use it.
User story #1: Saving content using labels
Content in this sense means information that's typically found in an email. The usual suspects here are important texts like quotes, passwords, to-do lists & links such as articles, videos, photos, etc. For my first round of designs, I started off thinking about how content once saved to a label will appear to the user. The final design direction needed to be flexible and congruent with Gmail's current visual & functional aesthetic.
V1 LoFi Components of the Content Cards
V2 HiFi Components of the Content Cards
V2 HiFi Components of the Content Cards
User story #1 Contd: Further iteration
The previous exploration would require a lot of functional changes to the Gmail eco-system, I wanted to avoid doing that if possible. Any new changes should have a low implementation overhead and shouldn't stray too far from the current visual language.
User story #1: Testing & Feedback
Based on interviewed user accounts:
Positives: 3 out of 5 users found it very helpful and were pleasantly surprised because they weren't expecting that this was something they would need.
Pain-points: Finding labelled content under the label was difficult. Not very discoverable when the CTA is collapsed as default.
Nice to haves: An easy way to go back/reference the original email.
Likelihood of user adoption: Likely but with caveats. 3 out of 5 users would prefer having this feature as a standalone and not coupled with labels.
Updates: Updated the labelled items CTA to default to open instead of closed, added a go-to-email button on labelled items component.
Updated component, featuring a prominent go to email button.
User story #2: Creating custom tabs
Custom label tabs are a reaction to Gmail's current fixed AI enabled tabs (social, promotions, updates). It equips users with the ability to create their own custom tabs with labels. User's can prioritize their most important labels by giving them heightened visibility.
V1 Custom tabs
Updated label menu showing system & user created labels
User story #2 Contd: Further iteration
The second iteration takes advantage of Gmail's current tabs design interaction model to ensure it was easy to learn, use and be highly discoverable.
V2 Custom tabs
User story #2: Testing & Feedback
Based on interviewed user accounts:
Positives: Easy & straight forward to use, clever and would add value especially for work.
Pain-points: User's wouldn't necessarily know what "Add New Label View" CTA means
Nice to haves: Including the Gmail label icon would help strengthen the association.
Likelihood of user adoption: Very likely. 4 out of 5 user's found this more accessible and useful than the creating multiple inboxes. User's understood they can prioritize their favorite labels, and loved the idea of having more flexible control over their inbox tabs.
Updates: Standardized label icons across the UI to improve the association between labels & Tabs, updated CTA copy to "Add new label tab".
User story #3: Creating auto assign rules with labels
Currently, the way to create a rule is through a filter using the search bar, a path that has been cited as un-intuitive and hard to discover from research. This feature explores how to make this easier to accomplish through the use of labels.
If the common need is to create a rule that auto applies a label to an email with the sender address being the determining criteria, it should be possible to give the user this option during the rule application process.
Label menu with an prompt to create a rule
On selecting a label in the menu, a prompt appears asking a user if they would like to create an auto assign rule based on their current selection. Users can also accomplish this task by dragging an email either into a label tab or side menu. In this case, the primary CTA appears as a snack-bar prompt.
Snack-bar for rule creation
User story #2: Testing & Feedback
Based on interviewed user accounts:
Positives: Intuitive, straightforward and easy to use.
Pain-points: Users had trouble understanding how rules worked. Wasn't sure what criteria was being used to set up the rule.
Nice to haves: User's want a way to specify that a labelled email should be removed from their inbox.
Likelihood of user adoption: Some fine-tuning may be needed since ruled are a very complex feature. Users specified they found it a less clunky alternative than filtering, and would use the dragging method more frequently.
Updates: Provided more context on the criteria rules are based on by changing copy of the CTA and added corresponding snackbar feedback.
V2 Label menu & Snackbar
User story #4: Grouping inbox using labels
There are no direct sorting/grouping features in Gmail. Users can opt into alternative email views, some of which offer a level of grouping but not much intuitive control for the user. Users can also utilize search to create grouping parameters (using: label:[label name] &/or label:[label name]). This feature is not very discoverable or easy to grasp for a majority of users. None of my interviewed users were aware of it's existence.
Grouping allows users to organize by status or by labels without shifting focus from the primary email view. Users can comfortably manipulate their primary inbox while still being able to easily to return to their preferred default state. This feature is accessed through a new icon on the primary tool bar to ensure it's visible and accessible to the user.
Grouping menu
User story #4: Testing & Feedback
Based on interviewed user accounts:
Positives: Easy to use, would be useful especially grouping by status, pleased with the way the results are presented.
Pain-points: Users were initially unsure of the icon being used but expressed that it's something they could easily learn with continued use.
Nice to haves: One user would have liked the option to choose between 'and' and 'or' operations when grouping by status. Other nice to haves were: mass E-mail selection and combining status selection with labels.
Likelihood of user adoption: Not likely, 4 out of 5 users cite that they don't usually have a need to group by labels and their label folders are sufficient enough for their needs. Grouping by status received more support than grouping by labels and could potentially be adopted by users but more testing is needed to verify this.
Updates: None
Making small changes for a big impact.
Gmail is a massive and complicated product with different types of users and behaviors associated with it. The ideas presented here are not perfect in any way shape or form, nor are they intended to be. To take this project further it would be helpful to keep testing with an even larger set of users and also do more segmenting of the research demographic to cover multiple user archetypes. I enjoyed working through this project as a thought exercise, and it's definitely sparked an interest in going further in interaction design.
While the end result of this project was definitely not as flashy as designing a full blown newsletter reader, it taught me the importance of "boring design". Boring design according to designer & writer Tobias Van Schneider means "focusing on the things that aren't seen or immediately appreciated, but can have an equal or even greater impact as "the cool stuff." Some of the most positively received features were the label tabs & rule creation features which involved small changes to existing designs. This project also taught me to think about the wider business and product vision and how to design in accordance to that.