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A few months ago, Gmail gave us the choice to switch to a new UI, with many new features (...) including an "on-page-docked" window. I personally find this piece of UI very useful as it allows users to interact with the rest of the page and doesn't feel -to me- as obtrusive as a classic modal.

Why isn't this type of interface more popular in web applications?

We did some in-house user testing on our application and results showed that 90% of users found the "on-page-docked" window interface to:

  • be faster to process (lower cognitive load) and faster to use
  • create less visual interruptions

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Interesting, I find the "desktop metaphor" in a webpage disorienting... –  Austin French May 13 '13 at 20:03
Interesting test result. Personally I dislike them because they appear at an off-center location, and can't be moved (afaik). –  Marjan Venema May 14 '13 at 8:28
@MarjanVenema you can toggle the docking using the arrow icon at the top right of the new message window –  TotemFlare May 14 '13 at 14:58
Gmail's compose message interface is NOT modal. You can still use other parts of Gmail when composing a message. –  Aaron Kurtzhals May 15 '13 at 13:43
Just to note: I don't immediately see how the mock window could find out about the desktop's settings (focus-follows-mouse, decorations, etc) so the user now has two window-ish things that look and behave sightly differently. –  Ulrich Schwarz May 20 '13 at 15:07
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5 Answers

up vote 21 down vote accepted

I cannot comment on your user test results since I do not know your parameters and scenario.

But, talking about gmail's new email input method. The advantage which desktop email applications had over the web based ones was, while composing the email (in a separate window) you could freely browse older emails and look into content you might want to refer. (This was possible in web mail too by using different windows, but was not quite clean). With the new docked email method, you can keep typing your message and browse other content too.

Also, this is quite similar to what facebook does. If you look at the wording, it says 'Message' and not email. Slowly and gradually, mail is being merged with chat. The storage mechanism is same for chat and mail as is. In facebook, a message and mail are the same thing. When you use chat or mail client to contact the person, they end up in the messages inbox.

To answer the question as to why this is not a popular UI solution, you need to ask, in what scenarios is this a good solution? The answer is something like multitasking: focusing on a task while managing others in the same view. How many services do you think need such a feature? Many services already use pop-up windows to achieve similar results.

If used unwisely, this will amount to quite a lot of cognitive overhead for the user. On a streamlined app, it makes sense (like gmail).

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The critical point here: It's all about multitasking. To rk's point, not many people are building complex office-type apps. Gmail's use case is fairly unique in a web app. It's also worth noting that Gmail's users are probably a bit more advanced than the internet average. It's an unusually powerful web app. –  plainclothes May 13 '13 at 21:42
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The dialogs are not modal, so one can compose multiple mails in parallel by clicking Compose again. All parallely composed mails are auto-saved to drafts, they are undockable and minimizable in the window, so one can still browse and answer incoming mails in the also GMail-style "conversation" view.

As you see, these dialogs are quite powerful. The reason for them not appearing in other applications might be that working interruption-aware on parallel tasks within an application is often a rarely needed power-user scenario. On the other hand I am not aware of any sites or applications that had this form of dialog before Gmail. If I remember correctly, GMail got these around October/November 2012 which was just half a year ago. Maybe Google just invented these dialogues and the idea has not spread to other applications, yet.

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Answering to your question "Why is this not being used more widely?", I think it has to do not only with Google being the first one to do it, and do it right, but also with technology.

We have web applications that are still using tables for non-tabular data, applications that haven't changed in years. A dialog like this requires, at least, some Javascript. Re-designing a web app is a complex enough issue, my guess is that adding some 'modern' (with lots of '') functionality might not be considered top priority for some companies. It's a comfort zone that maybe has been around for just too long.

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There's one big limit to on-page dialogues: They're always going to be covering up part of the page.

Unlike having two actual windows, your dialogue can't be moved outside the browser chrome. You can't move them side-by-side (like the snap feature in Windows), for example. It'll always be covering something, somewhere. Arguably this can be more annoying than just opening the dialogue into its own tab or window - Gmail's aren't movable (except by minimize), anything underneath it can't be read without trying to resize and scroll your browser to see the hidden content. Using it to write an email whilst referencing another only works if you're not interested in the right-hand half of the last few paragraphs, or are content to repeatedly minimize/restore it.

Your standard desktop shortcuts and tools don't apply either - you can't alt-tab the message box into the 'background'. Clicking and dragging the header doesn't move it, it just minimizes. Having to pick up the mouse when focusing on a typing task always feels clunky and interruptive - I'm sure Google have probably thrown in some keyboard shortcuts to minimize / dismiss the Compose window, but since they're not the ones you're used to, it would mean finding the Help docs and looking them up. Which most users (and I) won't be bothered looking for.

Ultimately, the standard approach (new browser tab / window) is much easier to implement and more familiar to end users.

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you can pop out any chat/mail window(modal) in gmail. –  rk. May 22 '13 at 14:19
I assume you mean the diagonal arrow icon? This puts it into its own browser window, so it is no longer an on page dialogue once 'popped out' –  Kai May 22 '13 at 14:45
That was in response to your point 'Unlike having two actual windows, your dialogue can't be moved outside the browser chrome.' –  rk. May 22 '13 at 14:46
Ah, I see. The point was referring specifically to on-page dialogues - popping out gmail's makes it cease to be an OPD until popped back in again; it's just another browser window. Whenever it is an OPD, it can't be moved off the browser chrome and will always be covering a portion of the page. Pop-out also isn't always an option where OPDs are used on other websites. –  Kai May 22 '13 at 15:04
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Another aspect that hasn't been touched on is the fact that many designers are now approaching things "mobile-first," and being far more sensitive to designing responsively. Gmail's mail client is a decidedly desktop product: it relies on large windows, and to solve many of the UI challenges listed by other answerers, they need that space to ensure that users can accomplish other tasks at the same time. But designing for a small screen implies single-focus tasks: switching constantly between two contexts isn't optimal at all for user's attention. So designers who are influenced by mobile design are thinking more about interactions that are single-focus, and thus don't benefit from the UI and technical challenge of building these same-window dialogs.

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