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Why Did Google Decide To Split Inbox From Gmail?

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Editor’s note: Marat Ryndin is a UX/visual designer, writer and app/tech/soccer/music junkie. He worked for Google and various startups and climbed to Everest base camp.

A couple of years ago, right around the time Google’s Gmail team decided to start working on a standalone email app — the recently announced Inbox — a major redesign of Gmail was launched. As is the case with all Google products it was first released internally as “dogfood” to let Googlers themselves digest all the new features, or as was the case with this particular redesign, the removal of most of the advanced features.

The Gmail team did not have to wait for the reaction for long. And it wasn’t very “googly.” It caused an uproar teeming with disgust for just about every decision the Gmail product/design team made. Phrases like, “You guys just completely destroyed Gmail!” and “What are these crazy designers doing over there?!” were everywhere. From being spoken at many of Google’s cafes to every internal online forum.

Google engineers, in typical OCD engineer fashion, wrote long internal Google+ and forum posts detailing every single use case that was no longer supported, no matter how obscure. Hell hath no fury like a product team removing a feature an engineer had been using on a daily basis. Add to that the decision to turn words into icons and add white space between rows and Google engineers were ready to storm the Gmail product/design team office with torches, swords and in full knight armor (you’d be surprised how many Google engineers own that stuff).

In response, the head of the Gmail design team made a presentation entitled “You Are Not the User.” If you were not lucky enough to witness the carnage in person you could view its archived version on the internal Google+.

The presentation detailed the reasons behind every decision the design/product team made showing gobs of usability data supporting the decisions to remove advanced features that the overwhelming majority of Gmail users were never using. These features, it was argued, were unnecessarily complicating the user interface when most people just wanted a simple email client.

All of the decisions revolved around the central fact that a typical Gmail user was receiving only about five emails per day, most of which were of promotional nature, and as such, required no response. This was in contrast to a typical Googler who received an average of about 450 emails per day, many of which were important to at least read, with a good chunk of them requiring a reply.

Despite supplying a large amount of concrete data supporting the Gmail design/product team’s decisions the presentation did not quell the criticism, but rather stoked the fire even more. Even its title was called “purposefully inflammatory” and further upset Googlers who, like many techies, were using every possible advanced feature to deal with the daily onslaught of email.

Finally, a compromise was reached. Gmail would stay streamlined and optimized for its gigantic user base (hundreds of millions of monthly active users) while still keeping some of the more advanced features (now well hidden) for those who really needed them.

In parallel, the Gmail team would begin working on a standalone product specifically designed from the ground up for advanced users who have to handle a firehose of incoming emails every day. And that’s how Inbox was born.