Gmail is a great product; easily one of my favorites on the web. But it has an Achilles heel — well, actually it’s more like a bum leg: Contacts. Despite a solid contact area being a vital part of pretty much every email and productivity service, Gmail’s is awful. Or, it was awful. Today it’s getting a lot better.
Starting today, Google is rolling out its latest version of Gmail to users around the world. As you can see, it has been slightly redesigned to more prominently display both Contacts and Tasks. While you click on the link to go to the new Contacts area, you’ll notice that Gmail’s left sidebar transforms to show you labels for your various contacts. And the contacts themselves in the main view are now one big stream of names and email addresses — it looks a lot more like Gmail.
And it acts more like Gmail too. Clicking on a contact opens their card very quickly. From here you can easily edit information on the fly. There’s no longer a need to hit any “edit” and “save” buttons, all of this is done automatically. You’ll also notice a huge new area for Notes. Product Manager Benjamin Grol says this was one feature a lot of business users in particular were asking for.
Along the top of the new contacts cards, you’ll notice a drop-down menu for Groups. This is a key element to the redesign. By default, new Gmail users now have four groups that contacts can be placed into: My Contacts, Friends, Family, and Coworkers. The My Contacts group is the main one — these are the ones that are essentially your actual contacts. Google still keeps track of the people you email the most, but those are automatically added to the Other Contacts area below. If you wish to added someone to your actual contacts, simple label their card with My Contacts.
And, like Gmail itself, you can add you own custom labels to contacts. These labels are now shown on the right side of the main contacts area when in list view. And the labels are then added to the left sidebar for easy sorting.
Speaking of sorting, you can finally do that by first or last name. This is a must-have feature in many European and Asian countries, Grol says. But up until now you couldn’t do it.
Also new is the ability to use the same keyboard shortcuts that Gmail users are used to. This is a great addition for power users.
The two main themes of this redesign were simplicity and consistency (with the rest of Gmail), Grol says. From the looks of it, they’ve done a nice job. While it’s still not the prettiest thing in the world, it does look a lot like Gmail now, and the area is much easier to use. I’ve been playing around with it for the past day or so, and I’ve already done more contact organizing in that short time span then I have in the past several years.
Grol says that Contacts was easily the feature that users complained about the most within Gmail. People may have to find something else to complain about now.
Google notes that Google Apps users won’t see these new Gmail changes just yet, but they’re working on it.