25 August 2016

Google Inbox: A classic Google product

My work domain (an EDU) recently had Google Inbox enabled so I had a good chance to try it out. My personal email is relatively quiet and, I believe, doesn't provide a good Inbox experience. Work is more active and requires actual management, something I've tossed many a tool at over the years. As part of my work life, I supported the Google Apps for EDU installation here and took a pretty extensive presentation to campus about how to manage large amounts of email.

Inbox is a classic Google product: the distillation of a number of excellent ideas into a set of half-complete features built for a use case most people don't meet. We've seen this in the past in products like ChromeVox, Google's Chrome extension for accessibility. ChromeVox works great on ChromeOS devices, but completely ignores the point that most users of accessibility tech (AT) don't have or want ChromeOS devices and come to services with their AT in tow. ChromeVox also ignores decades of convention in AT in favor of simplicity in interacting with Google's own products, allowing Google a quick exit from uncomfortable conversations. ("Google Sheets don't work great with Firefox and JAWS." "It does in Chrome and ChromeVox, use that instead.")

Inbox is also a classic Google product in that it purposefully ignores the successes of a previous iteration (*cough*Hangouts*cough) in favor of a new approach. This is a great strategy for innovation, but leads to frustrating user experiences, confusing messaging about product direction, and destroys confidence that products are built for purpose. Especially when dealing with something as common as email, the use case has to be rock solid before people will try something new. By way of example, let's talk about labels.

Labels were The Innovative Thing when GMail was released (that and storage capacity). They're an amazing management tool which lets folks manage their inboxes in myriad ways. They're flexible enough to allow other products to be built on top of GMail without ruining standard access methods. They provide context, metadata, and the ability to build complex workflows within your mailbox.

In Inbox, labels are far less useful. You can move a thread to a label, but you can't simply apply a label. Labels get used to create Bundles in Inbox, but lose the flexibility found in the standard GMail app to apply visible metadata to conversations. Inbox also does not show you if a label requires attention. For example, if you set up a filter in GMail (which you cannot do in Inbox) to route mail to a label, skipping the inbox, you are never informed in Inbox that the label now contains unread mail. There is also no acknowledgement that people coming from the standard GMail app may have leveraged its features extensively by providing a clear path from one tool to the other. Inbox requires that you manage your mail differently, but does not tell you how to undo your GMail workflows to slot into an Inbox workflow. I suspect Labels exist in Inbox because of someone's impassioned plea to keep them in, despite almost no attempt being made to make them functional.

Inbox also sorts mail into sections loosely based on time (Today, Yesterday, This Month, etc), and then groups Bundles into those sections. But, this model is kind of cheat as bundles within time-based groupings affect the inbox display. For example, anytime a conversation bundled into Low Priority is updated, the entire section moves to the Today group. However, if you expand the bundle, all of the messages are not from Today and the Bundle is sub-grouped by time again. If you clear out the message from today, however, the entire Bundle again moves back down to a time-based section of the last updated conversation. The effect is an entire block of email jumping around in your inbox.

Add to that all of the useful features in GMail lost in Inbox and you're left with a lot of great ideas that almost, but not quite, make a great client. Why, for instance, get rid of Priority markers? Or any of the Labs?  The ability to mark a message as unread? Change the theme in any way?

There are answers to all of these, but they all point back to requiring someone rip-and-replace their email workflow completely. GMail has never required that you do that with an app, and it makes it difficult to a) meaningfully test Inbox without destroying your GMail workflows and b) cleanly and easily commit to Inbox.

From experience, we know that Google will iterate on Inbox (although it's been slow to do so so far), but from a team that had a decade or more working with and designing email management tools, the tool is baffling. It is, by its own admittance, incomplete: a link to the standard GMail interface is a default, unhideable link in the top navigation items, allowing you to toggle back and forth between two tools managing your single mailbox. Things you do in Inbox are sometimes reflected in GMail (the default bundles in Inbox and the tabbed labels in GMail), but not always (Pins mean nothing to GMail).

So, where does that leave things? In typical Google fashion, it leaves you with the issue of deciding how to manage your experience. If you want things like Snoozed messages, reminders, and bundled messages, but don't need automation beyond default options, Inbox is great (Snooze is a wonderful feature; I hope they port it to GMail). If you need a labelling system, importance markers, and filtering, GMail is your app.

If you want a mashup of those features, however, you're stuck in the classic Google trap of an innovative-yet-incomplete tool versus a richer experience that misses out on new, useful features.

15 December 2015


Evernote, for better or worse, is the best note-taking service for my needs. It works across all my devices/computers/modes. It's fairly easy to get stuff into it. Hell, they even have 2-Factor authentication. The Windows app is a little clunky and my girlfriend and I have never been able to get shared notes to work properly (conflicted note! three times in the same grocery trip!), but what service is perfect? At least they have nice socks.

Everything, in fact, is pretty good as long as you don't screw up. And screw up I did. I'm not very regular about making backups, but I do make them every month or so. Once you figure out how to create a backup, that is.

There's a helpful Export Note option (which turns into Export Notes when you select multiple notes HINT). The export process is essentially opening All Notes, selecting every note, and then choosing Export Notes. Or something like that; Evernote never tells you, you're left to figure it out on your own. The file the process makes includes all the notes, tags, and media, but not your notebooks or stacks.

This becomes important if and when you need to restore. Why? Because what you've now done is create one, huge file with every note in your account but with no information about how those notes were organized. It's a fast and easy and repeatable way to dump data out, but not what you may want on the import side if you're restoring.

So, what have I done to myself that Evernote didn't anticipate? I divorced my work and personal life. I'd had 2 stacks, one for my personal notes and one for work notes. After a few weeks trying to make OneNote work, I decided I'd just go back to Evernote (at least until they go under) for everything.

So, that's an Import, right? But it's an import of that huge, single file you made a few weeks/months ago. Everything. There is no way to intake only a portion of a backup. You can't selectively import notes, notebooks, or tags. You also do not get back any of the structure your notes had at the time you made the backup.

Imagine if you backed up every file on your computer, but when you restored them, they all came back at the same, root level with no indication of the folder they used to live in. And you have to take them all, whether you have them on that computer or not. That's an Import in Evernote.

Import everything it is then. And deal with the consequences:
  • You cannot cancel an Import once it starts. Have thousands of notes? Get ready to wait it out.
  • Every note on and before your last backup is now a duplicate.
  • Every imported note is in a new notebook, not the notebook it came from.
  • If you're a Plus member and imported more than your 1GB of sync allowance, you immediately get this warning:

    This is not true. It will be true if you try to sync, but if you quickly delete everything before the sync starts, it isn't true. But you did get pitched the upgrade, so that's nice.
  • The modified date of imported notes is the day of your import, not the day the note was actually modified. This make sense from one perspective, but from a restoration perspective I didn't modify the note when the restoration happened, but when I last edited the note. This a) saves you when you figure it out because you can quickly delete duplicate notes made today but b) means Evernote can't tell if the note being imported is a duplicate of an existing note.

    (This is actually a more fundamental issue in that Evernote doesn't export the note GUIDs, so it's probably near impossible for them to tell notes apart.)
There's really no good way back from this point. Even if I upgrade, I can't sort notes back into their original notebooks with an import and manually sorting 3700+ notes.. yeah, not going to happen. So, I suppose I cut my losses and copy in relevant work notes and leave old notes in OneNote.

How to fix this? A more complete backup and restore process would be good:
  • Exports should include the notebook name at minimum, probably should include the stack name as well. These items should be restorable. 
  • The ability to specify a date range to restore. 
  • Duplicate note checking. GUIDs should be part of a backup.
  • The ability to cancel an in-progress import. 
  • A more accurate warning when you are about to exceed your monthly allotment. 
  • And finally, something that Evernote apparently used to do: ask if the newly imported notebook should be synced. I did not see this option on my import.
At least I've learned something. Hopefully others can learn from my mistakes.

11 August 2015

The Google Trap

In light of yesterday's abysmal experience with Google Photos, I've been examining how much of my digital life is tied to Google. It's a sobering list:

  • Mail
  • Calendar
  • File storage (mostly taken care of)
  • Blog
  • Chrome
    • Search history
    • URL history
    • Profiles
    • Bookmarks
    • Remote Desktop
  • Identity management on dozens of sites
  • Contacts
  • Chat
  • Map location information and saved addresses
  • Video search and viewing history
  • Social media (sort of)  (deleted) (spoke too soon; damn Youtube)
That leaves music, books, notes, and music to other services. I have had a Google+ account, but rarely used it even before Google started dragging Plus out behind the shed. I prefer to use Twitter, which comes with its own set of issues; that's a different day.

It's odd to contemplate a digital life without Google; I've had a Gmail account since at least 2005, but have imported email that goes as far back as 2001. The stuff I did prior to that have been lost, frankly, and I can't imagine losing more.

It's also odd to find the tendrils that have moved outward from my Google account over the years. Apple is a good example. When I bought my first Apple device, I was prompted to get an iTunes/iCloud/iSomething account and, naturally, used my existing Gmail address. Years later, that has now proven to be a somewhat permanent choice. I can change my ID to something else, as long as it's not Apple.

My approach to analyzing how to move away from Google products was to isolate the things I use to the individual service I get it from, as much as possible. The thought with Apple was to have a @icloud email address and do my Apple business under that. There goes that idea.

So, now I have to figure out what to do. Fastmail seems to be the go-to, for-fee service for mail, but I'm the jerk that wants a custom domain. So now I'm paying for mail hosting, a domain, and the headache of having to keep that working.

I get the value of Gmail and Google services; I'm a long-time customer. The Google Photos issue has shown me, though, that all that data in one bucket is dangerous and potentially increases my risk profile. I'm not sure I can accept that anymore. Now it's a value proposition against my own time and effort. At least Google has my laziness on its side.

10 August 2015

Goodbye Google Photos

Note: See the end of this post for an update

Posted on 10 Aug

Google recently split Photos off of the lumbering, zombied body of Google+ into a pretty slick Service. The iOS app worked great, uploading everything, storage was easy to stay under caps, the algorithms creating some interesting Stories. I was a happy user of a set-it-and-forget-it variety.

Until today.

Today, I logged into Gmail normally and saw 5 new notifications in the Google bell. Odd, I do have a Google+ account but on no day before have I had that much activity. I clicked the notification icon and see 5 new Stories for me to review from Photos. Still thought that was odd, but I did upload a bunch of old photos a couple of weeks ago, maybe the system finally got around to combing through them. My last name starts with "V" so I'm used to getting chosen late based on the alphabet (something I realize is funnier tonight than it would have been this morning).

And then it got weird. The first Story was a trip to Lake Tahoe. I have never been to Lake Tahoe, certainly never been in a proximity close enough to take pictures of the town. There are pictures of people I don't know. There are photos from someone else's vacation. And these photos are tagged as one of my Stories.

I click the next one, "A Trip to Watertown and Chelsea, MI". I get a little nervous as I just moved from Chelsea, MI. I have never been to Watertown, MN, certainly not the Mayer Primary School being pictured in the Story. And then I hit the moment when Google lost my trust. The Story transitioned from someone else's photos from Watertown to my photos taken in Chelsea, MI years ago. The Story showed a trip from Minnesota to Chelsea.
Google seems to think I travelled from Minnesota to Chelsea
Then I clicked in my photo stream. And there were more of someone else's photos. Lots of them: scans of old Polaroids, photos from a trip somewhere tropical, hotel rooms and restaurants I'd never been in.

Two stories have disappeared, but three Stories remain. All of them mix someone else's photos with mine, including our pets.
These are not my tools (although I wish they were)

This is my cat
So, I am now a paying customer of Dropbox, having exported all my photos from Google and transferred them to Dropbox. Now comes the decision of whether I leave the rest of Google's ecosystem. I am having a really, really hard time trusting my data to Google right now (and yes, I know the privacy/data ownership/blah blah blah argument you're about to make). If Google can't get something as simple as keeping my photos separate from someone else's, I feel like I need to move away.

EDIT (11 Aug)

Props to David from the Photos team for reaching out about my issue. They haven't found the source of the problem, but they are looking into it. I won't be going back to Photos, but I do want to credit the team for taking my random complaints seriously.

15 July 2015

Art Fair Bingo

Today starts the Ann Arbor Art Fair (technically a collection of 4 art fairs that intersect at various streets and NO ONE but the individual fair staff care AT ALL about that technicality).

Also, because Art Fair is essentially a people-watching event for locals, the inevitable scorecard emerged.

I haven't seen a new one in a while, but digging through my image backlog, I found an Ann Arbor Bingo Card from 2005 made by Jacquelene Steele. Enjoy. (Click to embiggen.)

Ann Arbor Art Fair Bingo Card - 2005

07 July 2015


It happened. We sold the house, we closed, we moved. Hard to believe it's been almost a month since we left Chelsea.

I don't miss the house at all. I'm sure someday I'll have fond memories, but it's a burden gone for the time being and I'm glad to have it behind me.

That said, selling a house is one of the worst experiences ever. Buying a car is a breeze in comparison.

I started a long post about the experience of selling; the terrible communication skills of real estate agents (every one of them, not just ours), the soul-sucking trudge of showings and open houses, the never-ending feedback we already knew. But, I don't have it in me. I don't have the energy to look back and document that period of time.

For now, I'm enjoying being a renter again. With a ticket, they came and fixed our washing machine, sink faucet, and removed a wasps' nest. That'll hold me for a while.

01 October 2014

House for Sale: Day 50

Our house is for sale (call our agent if you're interested!). This is Day 50 of it being on the market. We thought we had plumbed the depths of ennui before this process began but we were so very, very wrong.

To date, we've had about 12 showings, 2 open houses, and almost no interaction with our agent once she figured out we couldn't finance another family car. We had to drop the price on our home, which was something that had to be done Right Now because the new price had to fan out for the second open house. Except it didn't. The second open house was staffed by not-our-agent with not-the-right-price and barely signs telling buyers where they could find the house itself. (Yes, we drove around.)

It's a disillusioning process and experience for a house, frankly, we just want to be out of but can't unless the right price comes in. We expect to lose money on the sale. We expect pointed criticism about the house; hell, we'd provide it if needed.

What we didn't expect was the awful feeling of living in a house that is no longer your home. Our things, the comforts of our non-working lives, are stuffed in a 5x10 storage unit (to the ceiling) so that other people can maybe picture their stuff in our house. Our pets suffer because other agents can't be trusted (or, we're told, shouldn't be trusted) to either not let them outside or to not mistreat them in their own home.

Owing this home continues to be a terrible experience. I know there's some Dream That Must Be Had in owning a home. I don't get it. There's nothing particularly wrong with the house, but it's... I don't know... over? And it seems fitting that one of the most frustrating parts of owning it is getting rid of it.