Gmail sort by sender — you can only search

Today I found myself digging out from two weeks of not reading/answering emails on my gmail account, which is publicly exposed and used for signups etc etc.

What I really wanted to do is this: sort by sender to see which newsletters/notifications are responsible for the massive bulk of unread emails, create filters/etc to deal with them, delete, move on. Nope! Not there. At all. Can’t be done.

It took me a little while to wrap my head around this. I’d always figured that the reason I couldn’t do it was that it was concealed functionality.

Where this really got interesting for me that if you look for ways to do this, you find that there many complaints about exactly this problem, and the conversations are fascinating insights into how usability fails. It reminded me of my job in many ways.

“I want to be able to do x.”
“Gmail doesn’t support that, but you can do a from:sender.”
“Yes, I get that. I want to be able to do this thing.”
“I don’t see why you’d ever want to do that.”
“I need to do this thing.”
“Have you considered up setting up filters for all your contacts and then looking at unlabeled emails?”
“I need to do this thing.”
“You can have all your gmail sent to somewhere else that supports sorting…”
“You’re not helping me do the one thing I want to do.”

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had conversations like that at work. It’s why use cases are so valuable in specs: “this user has to be able to accomplish this task” clearly sets out how someone needs to be able to do something and how. You get to argue that out in the definition and design phase, rather than after release.

Here’s the maxim of usability design I’d like to have drummed into everyone’s head:
No one’s intended use is wrong.

If someone’s on Expedia and wants to do a multi-origin, multi-destination search and we can’t do that, I can say “we can’t do that, for technical reasons that you don’t care about.” Or I can say “the best workaround we have is this, which takes extra steps…” Or “ah! I see what you want to do, here’s another tool that will do that.” And if their response is “that’s cumbersome” that’s their right.

No one should ever say “that’s a dumb thing to do.” It’s not. Someone’s trying to do it to accomplish something important, and they’re frustrated. They have a need that’s unfulfilled, and they’re asking for help. Help them, or acknowledge your failure. But mostly, help them.

4 thoughts on “Gmail sort by sender — you can only search

  1. Tim

    I’ve been using gmail as my main and almost only email for 2 years plus. I find it has fewer shortfalls than other email programs and fits extremely well with my world. That having been said, I see also a value to be able to sort in alternate ways, even if they could not be set as default. It is very short-sighted of gmail to not recongnize this type of idea and think they can bring everyone over. While in my opinion, the gmail method of organization is way ahead of others, they need to consider some options. Close mindedness is the beginning of decline and will almost guarantee them a niche market – not something I have so far associated with google. But the “we are the biggest and best so everyone has to follow us – we don’t need to improve” mindset has been the downfall of many who have gone from being in the lead to having only a cult following.

  2. Tim

    I couldn’t agree more. I have written countless posts on why sorting is essential as well as suggested the feature about 20 times. Finally I just gave up, forwarded all of my email to Hotmail and eventually closed my account.

    Google has some exceptional things, GMail however is not one of them.

  3. Tim

    Gmail is great because it:
    1. Is free,
    2. Has googly bites of storage,
    3. Is not associated with an ISP.

    As a chunk of a hard drive it’s fantastic. As a program, it sucks. It’s worthless. It’s usable only with a good email client. If the Gmorons ever see fit to listen to anyone who has ever gotten a piece of email, and provide a sort capability, then it would be usable as a web program. Until then, I can still use Thunderbird.

  4. Charles

    I have to disagree with the sentiment that GMail sucks and is useless. I used to think GMail was a royal pain until I saw the light and realized all the bad habits ingrained from years of using Eudora, Outlook Express, Outlook, and Thunderbird was the real source of the pain.

    I thought folders was a necessity to keep mail organized and easy to locate. But, folders is exactly the opposite of organized and easy to find! Labels in GMail IS the way. Once I latched onto this idea I was able to setup my Outlook to keep everything in my Inbox and use Categories to label my email. Then using Views I can filter my email as if I were viewing a folder.

    All this being said though, I do wish I could sort columns in GMail. Is it reason enough to leave GMail? No way!

    I now use GMail as a POP client to my other email accounts. GMail checks a few email accounts for me and I check GMail.

    I love GMail!

    – Charles

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