Conversations in Gmail

This review is an analysis of how Gmail implements the Conversation Handling feature.

Gmail included a simple version of conversation handling in its original release. Since 2010, when an on/off setting was introduced (for the web app only) , there have been few updates to the feature.

It does not reliably identify conversations correctly, and offers minimal options for manually separating them. Since there is no option for disabling the feature in mobile apps, these issues are unavoidable and severely interfere with mobile productivity.

…Incorrectly Identifies Related Emails

Conversations are grouped by sender and subject line, which usually works fine. Gmail is even smart enough to ignore the “RE:” that shows up when the replies start bouncing around. But sometimes this happens arbitrarily – if separate emails from the same sender just happen to have the same subject, Gmail interprets them as part of an email chain.

This happens even if none of the emails have a “RE:” in the subject line. Despite the obvious indication that those emails are separate conversations with identical subject lines, Gmail groups these together.

Workarounds:

If possible, manually separate these conversations by changing the subject line.

…Lacks Crucial Individual Message Control

Unfortunately, Gmail’s conversation view severely limits the user’s control over individual messages in a conversation. Most message manipulation (archiving, deleting, moving to folders, adding/removing labels) can only be performed on an entire conversation. The only options available for individual messages are reply/forward and the “Gmail Star”. A messy workaround that allows users to split messages out of conversations is to manually forward the individual message to themself with a changed subject line (the subject line is used to group conversations). For heavy email users, this lack of control makes some productivity schemes impossible to implement. A couple of examples:

  • To-Do List Folders – many people use their email as a to-do list (if only temporarily). When a conversation contains a message with a “to-do”, they might need to move that message to the to-do list on it’s own. It’s possible that the conversation contains other to-do’s that have already been completed, or perhaps simply so many messages that the actual to-do gets lost.
  • Split Email Chains – in conversations with groups of people, chains can easily split themselves. For example, you email two people at the same time and each one responds to you directly, which you continue as two separate conversations.

Workarounds:
The best workaround for this issue is to directly disable conversation view in the web version, and to use an alternative app to access your Gmail account on a mobile device. Most email apps created by device manufacturers, along with many third-party apps, are able to display Gmail emails without conversation view.

…Incorrectly Removes Signatures and Other Valid Content

In the beginning of email, popular email clients included a feature for replies that echoed the original email back to the sender in your reply. Since complex UIs were difficult to create, most clients could only show a single email at a time. Duplicating the original email you were replying to was a favor to anyone who could only see that one email, since it would be easier for them to see the entire conversation at a glance.

With the introduction of Gmail’s conversation view, echoing the original email is unnecessary, and would even clutter the screen with duplicate text. Gmail’s conversation view includes a feature that attempts to cancel out the unnecessary echoing. In the Gmail Help Page for Reply to messages, they explain that “the previous text from the rest of the conversation can be seen by clicking the Show trimmed content icon” (a tiny button with three dots).

Gmail even takes it a step further by intelligently including signatures in the trimmed sections. In a long 1-on-1 conversation where both parties have a complicated signature line, it makes sense. After the first 2-email exchange, there’s no need to see the signature every single time – and hiding it in the trimmed content makes sense.

When this “show trimmed content” feature works, it’s invisible. But it doesn’t always work – and when that happens, those tiny little dots could be hiding significant parts of an email. There are probably a variety of reasons this could happen, so even if one is fixed, there may be others – it will be necessary for users to report instances through the app’s feedback channel.

Workarounds:
Hidden in the Signature part of the Gmail help forum, it describes a setting for automatic signatures titled “Insert this signature before quoted text in replies and remove the “–” line that precedes it”. Essentially, this option allows you to stop your automatic signatures from being hidden – but it does nothing for manual signatures, or for signatures others send to you.

In the Product Forums:
Trimmed signature???

  • In your signature box, under your complete signature, tap Return a couple times
  • Then type the universal signature indicator of two minus signs one after the other
  • Select them and colour them white so they are invisible
  • Scroll down and Save your settings.

…can’t be Turned Off on Mobile Devices

When conversation view was originally released, it was automatic and could not be disabled. User feedback (examples here and here) forced Google to introduce a setting that disabled Conversation View. Unfortunately, this setting does not exist for mobile devices, severely limiting mobile productivity.

In October 2014, Google released a new application for its Gmail accounts, Inbox (see our review). Unfortunately, it did not address Gmail’s conversation view issues. In fact, even the web version of Inbox doesn’t include a setting to disable conversation view. However, it did include a feature called “Bundles” that illustrate exactly how conversations should be handled. Bundles are a single row of your inbox that contains a group of emails, and once you open the bundle, you can manipulate individual messages with the same options as your normal inbox (as opposed to the limited options for a part of a conversation).

In November 2014, Google released an updated Gmail app using their new material design principles. It did not include any changes to conversation view, or any new setting to disable it.

LevenTech Recommendation:

Google should add an “unbundle conversation” option everywhere that conversation view presents (Gmail web, mobile, and the Inbox app). Conversations could like bundles in Google’s recently released app Inbox, with the ability to extract individual messages at will. Ideally, this would allow “splitting” and “regrouping” so that a single chain of 20 emails could be split into any number of chains, each containing any number of the individual emails.

Such an option would train Google’s algorithms to identify conversations better. It should IMMEDIATELY learn to treat groups of emails with no “RE:” or “FWD” at the beginning as separate conversations.

Without such an option, Google should at least expand the scope of the existing web-only conversation view setting. By allowing it to be disabled on mobile devices, users could avoid the conversation view mess entirely.

Trimming content in repeated messages is asking for trouble. Any time it doesn’t work right, valuable content could be hidden. To err on the safe side, manually typed signatures should never be hidden. Instead of hiding automatic signatures after two emails, Gmail should simply stop including them after two emails.

 

Our Official Product Reviews

Google Play (3 stars)
Good Integration, Unfixed Bugs: Smooth and easy to use app with helpful widgets. Unfortunately there’s no way to disable conversation view, which makes productive emailing difficult. Good for personal chats but not recommended for business usage.

iTunes (2 stars)
Mostly Functional, Unfixed Bugs: Acceptable mobile version of Gmail. Missing valuable features like widgets and the ability to disable conversation view, making productive emailing difficult. Good for personal chats but not recommended for business usage.

Company Response:

As of October 2014, Google has not commented on this issue, either to acknowledge its significance, or to indicate a fix plan.

Methods of communication we’ve attempted:

  • Google Product Forums
  • Android App Feedback
  • Google+
  • Twitter

 

Other Resources:

Google Product Forums For Trimmed Content Problems:

Active:

Inactive:

 

Google Product Forums for Conversation View Difficulties:

Active:

Inactive:

Related:

 

Third-Party Forums:

 

Facebook page started by a third party:

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