DK the Human

Rethinking Settings

Today, I fixed two problems for my girlfriend involving Gmail:

  1. The Mail app on her iPhone wasn’t fetching mail from her Gmail account and kept complaining about having an incorrect password.
  2. Whenever Gmail fetched emails from her Princeton email address, it stored them in All Mail instead of Inbox.

For the first problem, we stumbled across the solution by accident – we had tried a million different “solutions” suggested on various forums and Google Groups and decided to change her password temporarily so that it didn’t take so long to enter her password into her iPhone every time we tried to link her account. I happened to see that she had 2-step verification enabled when we went to her Google Account settings (not her Gmail settings) and asked her to turn it off for the time being to see whether it fixed our problem. It did. It turns out that the Mail app on the iPhone can’t ask for verification codes and so Google generates application-specific passwords for your account.

For the second problem, I went to her Gmail settings and found that she had enabled the option to archive all mail fetched from her school email address. Boom. Problem solved.

Through this experience, I saw Gmail and Google account settings with fresh eyes and realized just how confusing and overwhelming they are for the average user. Gmail has many features, and every feature introduces more settings for the user to manage. Enabling 2-step verification alone forces you to manage 6 more settings! There are three settings for receiving codes (mobile application, backup phone number, printable backup codes), one setting for application-specific passwords, and two advanced settings for clearing the phone info and printable codes and managing trusted computers.

2 factor authentication

Oh, and you need to go to your Google Account settings to change these settings, even though it’s perfectly understandable why someone would look under Gmail settings. After all, if you’re unable to fetch email from your Gmail account, you would think it’s a problem with Gmail. As for turning off the option to archive all emails fetched from another address, it might be clear to power users that this setting would be located under Accounts > Check mail using POP3, but it wasn’t that clear to my girlfriend.

How can we make settings simple for feature-rich applications like Gmail without hurting the power users? Hiding the advanced settings in order to clearly show the most commonly used ones wouldn’t work because the power users wouldn’t be able to easily manage the advanced settings.

There’s a better way. A similar problem exists for application menus, and Mark Shuttleworth’s HUD offers a simple solution to that problem. Imagine having a similar look-ahead system for applications with a lot of settings. You would type what problem you’re experiencing or what setting you want to change, and the application would parse the query and display the pertinent settings. If you’re a power user who knows exactly what setting you want to change, the auto-complete would save you time by taking you directly to the setting instead of making you click around the settings page. With this system, you can skip the entire step of searching for solutions and know exactly which settings may affect the behavior you’re experiencing. For example, if my girlfriend were to type “iphone gmail incorrect password” into this settings query box, Google would know that 2-step verification could cause problems with using mobile applications and display the setting to add an application-specific password. This would provide a much better experience than searching through settings tabs and countless forums, hoping that the next random suggestion might solve your problem.