The Little Things: Behind the Scenes User Experience

An example from the King of the Internet

The other day I was applying for a job using my gmail account. I had written a sweet cover letter, edited it and reviewed it a few times, and hit send. What happened next saved me incredible embarrassment and jumping out of my bedroom window: Google popped up from behind the scenes and told me I was an idiot.


No, do not send anyway.

I attached my .pdf, sent, and immediately went to all other mail clients I could find to see if this was standard operating procedure. It’s not. This is Google going that extra step and holding my hand to make sure I don’t fail at the Internet. I’ve never found a better example of having the users best interest at heart before, and here’s why:

1. It’s important

There are a lot of things out there that try to help you, but don’t really need to. This is all well and good but can get to be too much. We’ve all been on a website and by the end of our visit thought “Come on, I’m not a moron.” Having your hand held when you don’t need it can become frustrating, so when using a pop up you have to make sure that pop-up is needed and will be appreciated.

2. It’s completely user-centric

It exists for the sole reason of making sure you succeed at what you’re doing. There are no ulterior motives, it’s not “helping” you buy more products, it’s just keeping you from being frustrated and embarrassed.

3. It’s unobtrusive

They didn’t go the route of a message displayed to all users. It only pops up when necessary. They know that most people are going to remember to attach their file, so they only whisper to those who didn’t.

A mail client is something that’s hard to be good at. That is, it’s hard to be better than the others. You can simplify your interface, you can put important features in easy-to-find locations, and you can send the actual mail. But e-mail has been around a long time, so differentiating yourself isn’t easy to do. Most people try to add more features on the front-end to make themselves special, in any facet of business, but sometimes you need to step back and think about how you can help somebody who isn’t asking for help. Thanks for having my back, Gmail.

{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

Clive Walker April 25, 2010 at 10:40 am

Nice feature. Thunderbird 3 does something similar: it shows a message in the Compose Email window if you write “attached” in your email.


Sunny Singh April 25, 2010 at 10:49 am

That's a really cool feature, it wouldn't make me switch over from Yahoo! Mail (Gmail doesn't have tabs.. still?) but it's definitely something that everyone should look at and learn from.

Great article, I agree that small things like these are what makes a great website or application.


cooljaz124 April 25, 2010 at 11:51 am

Yes, That is a very handy feature in Gmail. I have such experiences myself also :)


fab April 25, 2010 at 12:02 pm

Simil thunderbird


matthewlyle April 25, 2010 at 12:03 pm

That's good to know about Thunderbird. I haven't used it in a few years but it might be worth checking out again.


Christian Jessen April 25, 2010 at 12:04 pm

That is indeed a very nice feature, and a good example of how you can never reach perfection; in every aspect of application, be it on web or software for your PC, I think you can always improve these small points of usability.

It is not only Google though, as Thunderbird scans your message for attachment keywords, so if you fx write CV in your email, it will show a bar in the bottom of the screen, asking if you want to attach a file or be reminded later. It is a bit more hidden that Google's popup box, but at least it can help you remember attaching those files.. (I don't know how many times I've forgotten to attach files)


jeff_dickey April 26, 2010 at 1:12 am

There's no technical reason why this sort of thing couldn't have been done by *everybody* for years. I've been raving about Macs for the last few years because they've got all sorts of little touches like this, compared to the user-hostility that typifies the Windows experience for most people. Moving this to the browser makes perfect sense… and I'm not at all surprised that Google is choosing human-centred function over techie bells-and-whistles (see the earlier comment re Yahoo! Mail). Better still that people have the choice.


Tim April 26, 2010 at 5:29 am

Doesn't anybody wonder how Google offers this “feature”? Nobody seems to worry about Google reading your mails!?!
For me this is just another proof of not using gmail! Quite scary!


matthewlyle April 26, 2010 at 9:17 am

Every program knows what you're typing in it. Adding a statement to check if you've said “attached” doesn't mean Google's reading your e-mail.


matthewlyle April 26, 2010 at 9:18 am

Exactly. User experience is not about technical features, it's about sitting back and figuring out how you can help.


Tim April 26, 2010 at 9:28 am

It does for sure! How should they know the word is in the e-mail?!
We are not talking about a program like Thunderbird “reading” a mail… it's an online service and it's called Google… nobody knows which statements also checking your mailtraffic…


Ninjami April 27, 2010 at 1:21 am

You can do a JavaScript code that checks if the word “attach” i contained in the text, and there is no need to communicate with the server about that function.


prolificliving April 28, 2010 at 7:02 pm

Google is BRILLIANT and it rocks. Yes that is one of many examples of common-sense, genius yet simple ways it builds loyalty and lots of love :) ! Thank you for the kudos to Google !!!


Chris Trude May 3, 2010 at 9:32 am

So you are also against spell checking of any kind? Same type of process in place. I'm fairly sure almost all webmail services offer spell checking, and even your browsers do it…Oh noes! firefox knows what im typing!


Chris Trude May 3, 2010 at 9:36 am

When you think about it, UX is simplifying the communication between the website and the user. Anything that you do to make that communication easier, improves the User's experience, and its usually the little things that help the most. (adding a a:hover change to your links so they more easily know what they are clicking on). Great post Matt.


Benjamin October 17, 2010 at 4:09 pm

What’s interesting about this feature is that it trickled up from the Gmail / Firefox user community. A google engineer did indeed notice it, but didn’t invent / discover it. Part of good UX is having a good feedback loop / system to recognize how users use and improve upon your services.

I remember this feature being made available through Google labs in 2008 — it was based on this FF extension:


Carl - Web Courses Bangkok October 20, 2010 at 2:23 am

Totally agree, I did the same thing and it is a fantastic bit of UX


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