Worst practices: Gmail Chat

Here’s a user-experience blunder that rather surprises me. Take a look at the Quick Contacts chat panel on your Gmail page, if you should happen to have one. You might notice that the name of anyone you’ve either sent or received mail from is listed there, with current online status indicated, just so long as they have a Gmail account.

This listing is clearly operating on the principle that people who send me mail should by default be considered members of my social circle, and should enjoy a status at least potentially akin to that of “buddy.” The primary problem with this assumption, of course, is that the set of people I correspond with via email is far larger than that of people I want knowing whether or not I’m currently online. A one-time connection of arbitrary shallowness strikes me as being rather insufficient to establish this kind of social linkedness, but in Google’s conception of things, this is precisely what apparently happens.

But there are other issues, as well. Like most people, I assume, over the course of a year I correspond with many more people than I can easily remember. Some of these are personal and reasonably persistent contacts, some of them professional and therefore with a duration best described as “project-based,” and yet others are one-offs, mayfly relationships called into being by a single set of email exchanges and never again activated. But all are treated identically by Gmail’s Quick Contacts module – and if I want to do something about it the onus is apparently on me to reach into the comprehensive list of my contacts and disable the offenders one name at a time. The result is a smooth and undifferentiated list of “contacts,” some of whom I don’t remember (and some of whom, frankly, I may not want to be reminded of – fallings-out being a social reality, but something rarely adequately provided for in social-application design).

This is why engineers should never design social systems alone.

4 responses to “Worst practices: Gmail Chat”

  1. Stephan Hugel says :

    It is exceptionally irritating. Rather than tediously crawl down the list, I have my online status permanently set to away, trusting that people who do in fact want to get in touch with me will ignore the stop sign, and the textual “xxx is busy, you may be disturbing” barrier that Talk throws up, either because they know that if they see the message at all, I’m online, or because they know I’ll see it later. “The internet routes around your…” &c.

  2. Klintron says :

    I think Yahoo! goes one worse and makes it possible for anyone, whether you’ve ever corresponded with them or not, to see your online status.

  3. David Ham says :

    I think there is a way to turn this off in Gmail. On the settings page, click on the ‘Chat’ tab. There should be this option:

    * Automatically allow people I communicate with often to chat with me and see when I’m online
    * Only allow people that I’ve explicitly approved to chat with me and see when I’m online

    It defaults to the first option, but it appears that they allow you to hide yourself.

    Like the new blog BTW.

  4. speedbird says :

    I guess my argument is precisely that Gmail should default to the second option – especially as that dialogue appears to be rather obscure.

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