Webreakstuff blog

Colored labels: small change, major difference

Gmail colored labels What a difference a small change makes. Gmail launched what has probably been my #1 wanted feature since I’ve started using it: colored labels. Labels were useful already if you wanted to archive content meaningfully, but without a visual cue their impact on the inbox wasn’t really significant.

Colored labels however, make a huge difference. If you’re smart about the way you use labels, you can create a system for your email to prioritize conversations, organize a task list, or go all out and build a proper GTD system out of it – all with the visual cues of colored labels, because they allow you to at a glance understand what email belongs where without reading the subject or even the label text.

What to take away from this

Minor differences like these visual cues are some of the things that define application experiences, and frequently (and unfortunately) are forgotten by developers and people building products. Products that are meant to help people manage assets in their daily life in particular deserve this special caring eye on them.

People building web applications need to ask themselves “How can I provide meaningful cues to help my users?”. These things (like the need for cues) are not found by chance – people do express the need for cues and helping paths all the time, we just need to care enough to listen and make changes.

  1. Víctor E. Esteve says: December 4, 200712:47 pm

    Of course you write about your experience as user, but in Information Visualization the use of color should be done when it adds to the entire visualization of the information in this case, a list of e-mail conversations. This use of color, and the way it’s implemented it does not add info, it just confuse and distract the eye from the e-mail abstract, wich has a dull color scheme.

    By the way, gmail implements labels in a really bad way.

    Hope it helps.

  2. Fred Oliveira says: December 4, 200712:53 pm

    I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree on this, Victor. I’m actually talking from a User Experience perspective as much as an information visualization perspective.

    In my opinion, it does add value and does add information in the sense that I don’t need to actually read, but glimpse at, a list of emails to know which I should care about immediately or not. It boils down to how users use the labels and the coloring in the labels, but if they’re smart about it, using the inbox as a starting point for work can go from 10 minutes of reading all subjects and asserting priorities, to a quick glance and just going for those emails marked in red.

  3. [...] Google and of Gmail, but still. Adding coloured tags? I know that Fred Oliviera thinks it’s a big deal, and MG Siegler at ParisLemon seems similarly excited, but still. Colour me unimpressed. [...]

  4. Armando Alves says: December 4, 20071:54 pm

    I guess it all comes to Design for flow”.
    If visual cues don’t get in the way of getting your job done, or increase your experience. And more important, it provides users a sense of personalization that exceeds the downside of information overload.

  5. András Kardos says: December 4, 20072:23 pm

    My #2 feature request: Would be much more interesting/useful to label contacts, not only messages. Labelling all family-related, work-related, etc-related contacts would mark all work related mail with one label & color. Contact groups are not that useful – they can’t be used with filtering. #1 is using the nick I give to my contacts in the message list, not what they specify.

  6. Matthew Griffin says: December 4, 20073:33 pm

    You’re right in saying that it’s easy to gloss over the little things like this when you are the one building a site. After testing and retesting for months we forget that our guest won’t be a familiar with the interface as we ar. I guess Google finally let a designer give them some pointers.

  7. Jeremy Horn says: December 4, 20073:36 pm

    This is an awesome new feature from GMail. It’s making me play around with it again and start to enjoy my ‘play time.’ I hope this is a sign of things to come with Google’s products and Gmail — more user experience improvements… please. ;-)

    Jeremy Horn
    The Product Guy

  8. André Luís says: December 4, 200710:45 pm

    It’s not the color, per se.. I’d venture to say it’s the lack of contrast throughout the rest of the interface that makes the labels stand out so much. The fact that you can recognize easily each “topic” without having to read the messages can indeed be a great plus.

    Actually, allied to a great set of Filters to set labels left and right, you can come up with a pretty self-prioritizing inbox.

    Distracting? I understand what you’re saying, but I don’t agree. I guess it depends on how you use your inbox. I receive a lot of log/event emails generated by some of my websites, so this allows me to categorize them _visually_.

    Me likey. :)

  9. Andy Davies says: December 5, 20079:25 am

    I don’t like them – tried them for a while but they jump out too much, capturing the eye and distract from the task in hand.

    The subtle colours are too subtle for me to notice them!


  10. Víctor E. Esteve says: December 6, 20076:05 pm

    I’ve write about coloured labels just when they saw light. But now I’ve been using them and I stand up an say: it sucks.

    As Andy Davies said:”they jump out too much” and “The subtle colours are too subtle for me to notice them”; this is because the color scheme on gmail, it’s obviously that gmail people is a completly different group than “label” people ;) as the coulored labels don go with the “gmail flow”.

    Besides, the little box with the arrow next to the label on “label lists” rest a lot of space cutting some labels (or the number of unread messages) down.

    Using color is great, as the design of this site (like the ose of that nice orange to capture reader’s eye), but in gmail labels it’s mistaken.


    Víctor E. Esteve

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