At the start of her career, bestselling novelist Amy Tan asked her business partner to let her create more copy for their technical writing company. Her associate, quite satisfied with the way things were going, told her that he was the better writer and that she should continue to play a managerial role. When Tan pushed the issue, so the story goes, the associate fired her. You know this by now: People are afraid of change, even if that change could possibly benefit them in the long run. Tan vs. her stubborn ex-partner is a good example, but a more recent one is Google’s email service, Gmail.
Last week, a little more than seven years after its initial launch, Gmail released its latest redesign. For the time being, users are still able to view their Gmail accounts in the old format—eventually they’ll be forced to change over—but for anyone who’s clicked the “Switch to the new look” box in the bottom right-hand corner of her Gmail screen, the fresh Gmail looks sleeker, more modern, and, for some, confusing.
There are a lot of independent guides online to help you better understand how to operate in the new Gmail, and Google itself offers a thorough tutorial on the updated look and features. Essentially, the new Gmail works like the old Gmail, it’s just a bit different aesthetically. But how the new Gmail works is a lot less interesting than why it exists in the first place.
In the world of the internet, some sites—Twitter, Gmail, Gawker—update every few years, while others—Craigslist, eBay—seem perfectly content to never change their look, or to modify them only slightly. In an academic exercise from 2009, Wired asked designers to update the very old user interface for Craigslist. SimpleScott, the former design head for BarackObama.com, wondered, "Craigslist is working, [so why change it?]" It’s a good question. Both Craiglist and Gmail are wildly successful at what they do, and they’ve both been good at what they do since they first started, so why is Gmail forever changing while Craigslist stays the same?
"I think this comes down to an identity question," says Agnieszka Gasparska, founder of Kiss Me I’m Polish, a New York City-based strategy and design firm. "We think of Google as an innovation company. They're all about technology and they're constantly coming up with new products and paradigms that are groundbreaking when first released. Hence, reinvention is deeply rooted in their personality, so they can't really stay the same."
Since the advent of the internet, the layman’s belief has been that any company operating solely online was a tech company. Craigslist, eBay, Slate, Twitter—they’re all tech companies because unlike, for instance, Walmart, they all exist only online. Gasparska and many of colleagues advocate moving beyond that primitive definition toward the understanding that eBay is not a tech company the way Google is a tech company.
Gasparska says that even when Google appeared to not be updating its design sensibilities, it always was.
"I saw [a Google] creative director giving a presentation at a conference once where she showed the evolution of the Google homepage over a decade and pointed out how, even though it appeared that everything was the same all the time, there were big changes being made—like a link being moved 20 pixels up or a subtle shift in color palette," she says. "The point was that they were thinking about design at a deeper level, deliberating over each detail so carefully it was almost imperceptible. To them the changes had to come from a deeper purpose and not from a whim."
Folkert Gorter runs Superfamous, an interaction design studio in Los Angles. He says another thing that pushes Gmail and Twitter to update is fear of competition. "I think one potential comparison is cellphone companies," he says. "At one point all cellphone companies were doing the same thing for years and years. But then Apple made the iPhone and all of a sudden everyone had to live up to that new standard. Perhaps eBay is in the spot pre-iPhone cellphone companies were in; it has terrible design, but it has no real competition and no reason to update."
Gmail is competing with Hotmail, Yahoo! Mail, AIM Mail, and others, not to mention people’s work email accounts—it makes sense for all those services to be frequently updating to try and woo users. Craigslist is almost the opposite. Because it has no worthy competition, and because of its "insane simplicity," as Gorter calls it, Craiglist has gone nearly 20 years with very few changes to its minimalist interface. In response, developers have taken things into their own hands, circumventing Craigslist’s stubbornness by creating apps to improve the site without ever laying a finger on its boring old text columns. CraigsPro+, for instance, allows users to search dozens of cities at a time for goods or services. Craigslist itself doesn’t do that, and there’s no sign it will anytime soon.
"Craigslist continues to be great as a service, but then it allows people to improve upon it. Maybe that’s what will happen more in the future," says Gorter.
Of course, just because change can be good doesn’t mean that’s what people always want. Gasparska notes that sometimes what people really love is things that stay the same, regardless of whether those things could work better. "We've been using [Craigslist] with all of its quirks and idiosyncrasies for over 15 years—it's become like an old friend that we know is not perfect, but they're always there and somehow, with everything else changing around us so fast, there is comfort in that."
Amy Tan’s old business partner probably hates Gmail.