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Often, the features we launch seem so simple that you might think they're the result of blatantly obvious design decisions. In fact, every feature is subjected to a healthy dose of scrutiny within the Gmail team, and usually that includes rapidly iterating on designs by collecting user feedback, learning what works and what doesn't, and improving on our work based on this knowledge.

Gmail chat is a great example of this: we went through handfuls of design ideas, from the tame to the insane, before coming up with the pop-up chat window (which is also called a chat "mole") that exists today. Here are a couple of the early ideas we tried out:
Chat within threads, making chats feel strongly related to the emails that may have spurred them:



Separate tabs for each chat conversation, which provided lots of space for chatting and kept these conversations separate from the inbox:

We took each of these ideas into the usability lab where users were asked to try them out and tell us what they thought. From these studies we learned that chatting was one of many multi-tasking activities that users performed, and that chats needed to be quickly available at any time, not just within a single email or on a separate page. So we tried a design reminiscent of a sticky note that stayed up on the page at all times:


Once again, we collected feedback on this design, leading to even more refinements. One of the biggest findings was that no one knew how to send a message because there was no Send button. Adding instructions (initially with a bright yellow background, and later with a more subtle design) made all the difference:


With chat and other features, collecting live feedback from real users helps evolve feature ideas into simple and more elegant experiences. These extra steps may add a little time to our development cycle, but they allow us to create a design that works well for the tens of millions of Gmail users.

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Last week we launched Gmail Labs, a way for you to test out experimental Gmail features before they're ready for prime time. This week, we want to show you what the most popular Labs features can do for your inbox. To use any Gmail Labs feature* visit the Labs tab under Settings, and select “Enable” next to each one you want to turn on. When you're finished picking features, click “Save changes” to apply the new settings. Here's a mini guide to the most popular ones:
Superstars: Adds new star designs to better differentiate important email.


After enabling Superstars, simply click on the star icon repeatedly to rotate through new star options. If you have shortcuts enabled, hitting the “s” key consecutively will do the same. There are more star designs then the ones set as default -- to select different variations, click Settings and look for the Superstars section under the General tab. Drag the icons listed as “not in use” to “in use” to make changes to your star lineup. Once enabled, you can use Superstars to help prioritize and manage emails. For example, you can add a "!" icon star on emails that have critical or timely information, such as bank information, or you can add a "✓" icon star to emails associated with a task you've completed, such as paying a bill online.

Pictures in chat: Adds your friends' photos to the chat window.



Make Gmail chat a little more personal. Now you can view a picture of your friends when you chat with them. (Tip: If your friend doesn't have a picture, you can suggest one by clicking on the placeholder picture in Contacts under your friend's name).

Quick Links: Bookmarks common Gmail views.



Quick Links allows you to create a shortcut to any bookmarkable URL in Gmail. Just click "Add Quick Link" to save a link to the page you are currently viewing. You can then jump to that page any time with one click. For example, you can add a link to a draft email where you keep your to do list, or an email with your frequent flyer information. You can also save a common Gmail search by conducting the search (let's say for "is:unread" -- which brings up all your unread mail) and then clicking "Add Quick Link."
If you have suggestions for ways we can improve any of the Labs features, or want to suggest a new one, please visit our Labs discussion forum. The engineers who built Gmail Labs features keep an eye on discussions, and your feedback will help them make the features great.

*Gmail Labs is currently only available in US and UK English and to Google Apps users whose administrators have opted in to new features from the control panel.

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We have a lot of ideas for Gmail -- many come as suggestions from Gmail users, many come from people here at Google. But there's only so much we can do at any one time.

People often ask how we decide what to build next. It's usually a mix of factors, like how many users are asking for it (think delete button, vacation responder, and IMAP, among others), how useful we think it will be (think chat, conversation view, etc.) or how much fun it will be to work on (this is actually really important). We have all sorts of debates about each option, we weigh the pros and cons, and then some of the time we probably make the wrong decision.

Gmail Labs is a way for us to take lots of the ideas we wouldn't normally pick and let you all (who use Gmail) decide whether they're good or not. When you sign in, you'll see a new page in Settings called Labs. It has a list of experimental new features, and you can enable or disable each one. Some of the popular ones will become core parts of the product, and we'll eventually retire the ones that don't get much use. We've put feedback links in there, too, so you can discuss a feature with other users and the engineer(s) who wrote it.


One of the things that we like about working at Google is that it lets us have a big, positive influence and at the same time experiment rapidly, getting ideas to users very quickly. That combo of size and speed is something we care about a lot, and we've designed a culture and company that makes it possible.

The idea behind Labs is that any engineer can go to lunch, come up with a cool idea, code it up, and ship it as a Labs feature. To tens of millions of users. No design reviews, no product analysis, and to be honest, not that much testing. Some of the Labs features will occasionally break. (There's an escape hatch.)

The result of this loosely-directed chaos is 13 Labs features, with more on the way. Some of them we've found really useful, like Quick Links, which lets you save searches and any other views in Gmail. Kai and Julie wrote Superstars, which gives you different types of stars. Dave wrote Old Snakey, which lets you play an old school style computer game when you press "&". I'm just going to go out and say it: Old Snakey is probably a bad idea. But Dave wanted to do it, so Dave did it and anyone who uses Gmail can use it. And now you can help decide whether it's a good idea. That's the kind of thing that makes a project fun to work on.

(If you want to work on Gmail, too, we're hiring. But you need an Old Snakey score above 150.)

Update: Labs is now out to all English users (US and UK), and administrators using Google Apps can choose to enable Labs by checking the "Turn on new features" box in Domain Settings.