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Finally! Gmail allows conversation threading to be turned off

OK, ladies and gentlemen.  I said when it first came out, and I still maintain, that Gmail (and Google Apps) web-based email, while powerful and very advanced in some ways, began and remains with one of the worst user interfaces I've ever seen.  From the start it was confusing, disorganized and inefficient.

"Hey, Don, don't hold back; tell us how you really feel!"  you might say.

I have watched the evolution of the Gmail web interface over the past couple of years as it has moved ever-closer to what people are used to, toward a more efficient, intuitive interface.  Pushed aside is the original avant-garde concept of "don't delete anything; just remove the 'Inbox' label instead and keep it forever" (and in Google Apps, this filled up more one user's mailbox in the process, with no abilty to obtain additional space, even if one is willing to pay, still!).  The buttons and actions on the main email screen have gradually been altered to be more "normal".  How many people really want to add multiple labels to a given email?  Not many.  Read/Reply/Forward/File/Delete.  That's what people do with email.  Concocting elaborate tagging schemes for email creates the same tangled and inconsistent mess that so many people who created hundreds of folders in Outlook created for themselves. 

Now, some say this is a concession by Google.  I guess I agree:  it's a concession to years of user interface design evolution that made email clients better.  Something Google initially just decided to throw out.

Enter the latest:  the ability to turn off threaded email.  Now, I don't mind threaded email: for some select situations in which it makes sense, like discussion groups with long back-and-forth discussions on which I might not keep up on a regular basis.  But for regular email the Gmail interface for threaded conversations (the only view available) is cluttered and confusing; has led to people forwarding or replying to the wrong "place in the thread"; is less than stellar.  In the vernacular: it sucks. 

Google has finally decided to let us turn it off.  This feature (really an anti-feature, I suppose) will be rolled out over the next week or so.  See the Google Help posting, below. 

Now, before anyone describes me as an Anti-Conversationist, let me say that I actually like the way Outlook 2010 shows threaded conversations.  It's not the function, it's the interface.  Until Google morphs the interface for conversations into something clearer, less cluttered - you know, better - I'll stick with unthreaded, thank you very much!

Here's the Google help page:


Gmail groups all replies with their original message, creating a single conversation or thread. In other email systems, responses appear as separate messages in your inbox, forcing you to wade through all your mail to follow the conversation. In Gmail, replies to emails (and replies to those replies) are displayed in one place, in order, making it easier to understand the context of a message -- or to follow the conversation.

When you open one message in a conversation, all of your related messages will be stacked neatly on top of each other, like a deck of cards. We call this Conversation View. In Conversation View, each new message is stacked on top of the ones that arrived before it, so that the newest message is always the one you see first.

To see all the messages in a conversation, just click Expand all. Note that a conversation will break off into a new thread if the subject line of the conversation is changed, or if the conversation reaches over 100 messages.

If you'd like, you can change this setting so that replies aren't threaded into conversations, but appear as individual messages in your inbox. To do so, go to the Generaltab of your Gmail Settings, and select the radio button next to 'Conversation view off'.

We're in the process of giving users the option to turn Conversation View off. Everybody should have this option within a week or so.

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