Five Ways to Improve Gmail for iOS

A native Gmail app on iOS had been anxiously awaited for years but when Gmail for iOS launched back in November 2011, it do so to much berating. The main complaint against the app is that it is basically an iOS wrapper around the standard mobile web app. Personally, I found the criticisms overall harsh but it does need to be improved. In no particular order, here are five ways to do that.

List Versus Back Button
SlideoutI recently wrote about slide-out navigation and Gmail for iOS has a nice slide-out nav implementation. But the use of a back button on the main screen, instead of a list or item button, just drives me nuts. The back button is completely fine to use, if and when, it’s actually returning a user to a previous screen. It should not, however, be used to trigger the slide-out. It’s visually ugly and functionally confusing.

Push
I’m a big fan of Boxcar and historically, I used it to manage all my notifications. Unfortunately, a major limitation of it, is that for email notifications, it cannot open directly to an individual message. If selecting Mail.app as the email app in Boxcar, a Boxcar notification for email will start a new email as the hack to open Mail.app. Similarly, for Gmail for iOS, it just opens the app without going directly to the message. This proves frustrating over time and has lead me to use the iOS notifications for email since the launch of iOS 5.

Right now, Gmail for iOS has a badge, but no push notifications. It’s unlikely Boxcar will be able to update push notifications for email to open to an individual message. So beyond Apple, Google is going to be the other provider that can provide a better experience by opening push notifications directly to its message. I’m surprised Gmail for iOS has been out this long without push notifications being added; Google has indicated it’s a priority.

Composing Mail
Composing an email in Gmail for iOS is a less than ideal experience. In fact, the compose view is one of the main reasons I don’t use the app.

I appreciate the larger composing area relative to Mail.app but the font is extremely small comparatively and not worth the tradeoff. Also, if the mobile signature is checked, a feature that was updated in the latest update, then it should show at the bottom of the compose screen, as with Mail.app.

Compose

Responding to Mail
A corollary to composing mail is responding to mail. I’m going to nitpick here even more but I really dislike the fact that Gmail for iOS doesn’t quote the response and instead, shows the previous message below a reply as plain text. This makes threads messier over time, as well as inconsistent, if composing mail in rich text in the desktop browser (where, in that case, the reply will be quoted).

Replym

Label and Move
Labeling and moving items in Gmail for iOS is extremely tedious. It takes no less than three taps to move an item and no less than four to apply a label. We might be able to live with with that number of taps but the label screen itself has not been thought out very well.

Scroll

For anyone who actually uses labels, it’s simply untenable to continually have to scroll through a long list of them to find the right one to apply. On the iPhone, one only needs to have more than ten labels to make the label view scrollable. Outside of redesigning the UX for getting to the move or label screen, there are several ways to streamline this particular experience:

  • A simple fix to a long scrollable list is filter them by adding a real-time search box at the top of the view that will start revealing related labels.
  • Divide that list into sections to show the most used labels at the top or even offer an option to users to customize an “Actively Used” labels section.
  • Respect the Gmail settings available in the desktop browser to keep hidden labels hidden, thereby shortening that list (not a great solution but still better than a list of all labels). 

Concluding Thought

I know many are looking for more advanced features, such as multiple login support, “Send As,” and similar kinds of items but the basics need to be covered first. Gmail may never feel as native on iOS as it does on Android but it still can grow into a great app.