Tuesday, 11 December 2012

I was working late in the Labs one night..... or how to tune up your Gmail experience

For many years I had been a die-hard mail client user. For me, web based mailers were an impoverished relative with reduced functionality, and a very distinct lack of aesthetic appeal. But a few months ago, as part of my involvement with promoting the use of Google Apps at the University, I decided to take the plunge and and give Gmail  go from within my browser.

There's a host of good reasons for doing this, as Sarah pointed out in a previous posting.  But it’s also fair to say that using the out-of-the-box version can be a bit of a raw experience - so here’s a few things I’ve found to make it a bit more like your favourite client....

1 - Get yourself a shiny new browser.... 

Ok so not strictly a Gmail-specific recommendation per se but worth a try. Google do suggest slightly mysteriously that “not all features” of their Apps will work on other browsers, but they don’t say which ones. However, given that pretty much all the other suggestions I have from now on are from what Google call their not fully supported Labs features, it might be a good place to start...... *

2 - The Preview Pane.

One of the first things I disliked most about Gmail’s default appearance was the featureless list of messages. The Preview Pane allows you to combine viewing a list of messages, and reading individual ones too, without having to double click on messages to view them. It makes it much easier for quickly switching between related but separate messages. You can choose between having a horizontal or vertical split of your mail window, and swap between them whenever you wish.

3 - Right-Side Chat. 

This enables you to move the chat “tool” to the right hand side of your Gmail window, leaving space for a few more goodies which I’ll mention below. I’d personally like them to add a “get rid of the chat tool altogether” feature as I detest it intensely - so if there’s one out there somewhere that I’m missing do please let me know.

4 - Canned response.  

Google’s description of this as “email for the truly lazy” is arguably a bit harsh. These are email templates by any other name, and are invaluable if you find yourself repeatedly having to send  the  formulaic “Dear Dr xxx, as previously noted, you really will have to turn the podium mic on in order to convert the pressure waves that come out of your mouth into the kind of electrical waves that the lecture capture system uses to record your lecture” type  responses to routine enquiries. Pretty basic functionality really and kind of makes you wonder why Google didn’t include it by default.

My customised Gmail view, with Google Docs and Calendar preview on. 

5 - Google Calendar and Google Docs Gadgets. 
These are both separate features but do pretty much the same thing - they show a miniature version of your Calendar and Docs list in the left hand side of your mail window. Yes that’s right - in the space you recovered by moving the crappy intrusive time-bandit chat window to the right-hand side as suggested in (3) above.

6 - Google Docs preview in mail. 

This one’s pretty handy for getting to see a Google Doc inline with an email message, and includes Spreadsheets and Presentations as well as standard text Docs. It also includes a link so you can open the Doc in a new window.

7 - Create a Document. 

This one is actually one of my favourites, and is really useful when you’ve received a chain of correspondence relating to a particular project you’re working on. This one provides a another small arrow on the top of the message window that slightly confusingly looks exactly the same as the arrow that opens the message in a new window, so  maybe a small amount of interface development for you folks over there at Google?

8 - Undo Send. 

Let’s imagine a hypothetical situation whereby you accidentally send a frank and forthright appraisal of a certain “leading provider” of learning technology products to a national list of professional colleagues with over 1,000 subscribers by mistake, and rather wish you hadn’t. Get the picture?  You’ve got 10 seconds..... 9....8....7.....

9 - Send and Archive. 

This is one that I think has graduated into the core product, as I know I installed it as a Lab feature but isn’t listed as such anymore. If you’re ever in that situation when  someone sends you a message that isn’t quite irrelevant enough to ignore and delete, yet imponderably seems to defy being sufficiently important to warrant filing away, then this one’s good. Politely reply and then it’s gone.

10 - Being able to click and drag a group of selected messages onto an appropriate label on the left hand side. 

This clearly isn’t the name of the feature and I think like 9 above it’s not in the Labs list anymore. I doubt you need me to explain what it does now, but it’s worthy of note because (a) you might not know it’s there and (b) drag and drop functionality is something often missing from browser-based mail interfaces.

* Labs features can be accessed by going to your settings, and choosing Labs from the horizontal menu. They have many useful features, and quite a few totally naff ones, some of them graduate into fully-fledged default Gmail features, and some are so obvious they should have been there from the start  They are unsupported, and can “change,break or disappear at any time” according to Google. But then again, so can many other things in the computing industry......



  1. Nice list Graham, I also rather like 'mail Goggles', which forces you to complete some basic arithmetic after a certain time of night before letting you send an email. This is to prevent you sending any emails while horribly drunk :-)

    Another plug-in (not technically a lab feature) is Boomerang (http://www.boomeranggmail.com/), which allows you to schedule emails at a particularly time/date. You get a certain number free but you have to pay if you want to send more than the allotted amount.

  2. Turning chat off is easy Graham: Setting, Chat, Off :D

  3. Thanks Graham.
    My inbox is creaking with lots of unread messages, and it wasn't immediately obvious how I could get gmail to show me these. All you have to is enter "is:unread" (without the quotation marks) into the search box at the top and hit enter. You then see all your unread messages in all their unread, nagging glory. And using the "Quick links" thingy in google labs, you can create a link which goes straight to your unread emails. But I guess this wouldn't be necessary if I had enough time to read them all as they came in, decide whether to delete, archive, etc. etc. Funny how email can dominate working practices... But gmail does seem to have some functions which help to keep on top of it all.

  4. Chris, you may have come across this before - but there are a whole host of search shortcuts you can apply on your mail - http://support.google.com/mail/bin/answer.py?hl=en&answer=7190

    I just need Google to have semantic mail, where it starts to understand the one's I don't read and delete, and do it for me before I log in ;-)

  5. Thanks for these extra tips folks - I'm especially liking the chat.. off......

  6. Thanks for the hint about "quick links" for the is:unread (or even l:^u which apparently has the same effect, if you can only remember it!)

    As to the chat, I find it very useful for online meetings with distance learning students. :) Gives you a nice transcript so you can email it back to them to remind them of what was said. (While, 99 times out of 100 I'd rather a face to face meeting - online ones make note taking *so* much easier!)

  7. Google apps always very impressive apps. I like this all time. Thank you for very wonderful post.



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