I noticed that Gmail's conversation interface has a bent arrow icon for back-to-inbox and a very similar button for reply.

Below is an image of the interface with the two buttons highlighted in green. Isn't this generally considered a design flaw? I would think similar icons with very different meanings, especially on the same page, would be an obvious no-no.

Does anyone have any insights, such as principles that would back up Google's design decisions?

gmail conversation with back-to-inbox button and reply button highlighted

  • In its current state, the question will only raise opinionated answers without any fact/references. Only the designer who worked on this can answer this efficiently, rest of us will give speculations. – rk. Jun 28 '13 at 2:00
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    @rk. I am not looking for why they did it but rather principles that would support making such decisions in general. I will rephrase the post. – Austin Henley Jun 28 '13 at 2:19
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    +1 Great question. This is the kind of questions we need here. It builds to our knowledge base! – Benny Skogberg Jun 28 '13 at 6:52
  • +1 I used to love Google's icons and I thought they were very skilled at creating legible icons, but ever since the recent redesign where they introduced these newest icons, I can't figure out any of them besides Reply, Reply All, and Delete. – sacohe Jun 28 '13 at 10:23

This can happen to a product that goes through a long and gradual evolution, where the changes may seem subtle, and subsequently are not properly vetted out.

If you look at the old Gmail's icons, there was much better distinction between Back and Reply buttons.

This is how the "Back" Button looked like in 2011 Gmail.

enter image description here

And this is how the "Reply" icon looked like in 2011 Gmail.

enter image description here

As you can see, the distinction between the Back and Reply button was clear.

Things were even more clear in 2009, when they actually spelled out "Back to Inbox".

enter image description here

Anytime there is any change, however benign it may seem, we should take a few steps back, and re-assess. Because a series of benign changes can add up to a major problem down the road. And that's exactly what happened in later 2011 when Gmail completely eliminated text-based labels for all their buttons and used only icons. The changes were net well received.

I've personally worked on several applications that gradually evolved over 10 years, and have witnessed the same type of problem. In a large organization, it is extremely difficult to have a process in place that ensures periodic re-assessment, because it is hard to justify the cost due to the fact that the process itself doesn't yield direct financial benefits. And the process can also be rife with politics.

  • Missing from this answer is consideration of whether GMail's decision is actually a problem. I have never confused the two. It seems to me that the location of the buttons provides context that removes any ambiguity. (Of course, maybe I am just used to it as a long time user. But it's not obvious that this is actually a problem. I think that needs to be established with evidence. And the assumption that Google didn't properly consider and test this change is likely wrong.) – user31143 Nov 8 '14 at 7:19

'Very Similar' is subjective. The arrow styles are different, even they point the same general direction. Google probably felt that the icons were different enough, and in different contexts on the page so that most users wouldn't get confused.


In a sense, they are very similar actions as well. The back button at the top leads you back to the list of e-mails in your inbox. It’s also clearly outside of the context of the current e-mail through white spacing and a horizontal rule moving across the entire viewport.

The reply button may look similar (not equal), but it is within the context of the current e-mail. It’s inline and the meaning of the button is also back to in the sense of reply back to the sender. Having the arrow in an e-mail going the other direction (to the right) means forward. Again standard since the beginning of time (i e January 1st 1970). For reference, take a look at Original design choice of back and forward directions?

This is not an error, or false implementation breaking user experience guidelines. But I can agree to that it’s a bit unclear in the standard setup of GMail theme. Looking at my GMail theme – this is not a problem:

enter image description here

  • I can relate to how the positioning of the back button could cue that it's not a button which is directed towards the email in question, but it doesn't really apply in this case though. The back button is today ordered adjacent to Archive, Report as spam, Delete, etc. These are all actions directly linked towards the email in question, throwing Reply in to the mix would not be far fetched. I've personally both accidentally clicked wrong and been mentally halted a number of times in the past just to make sure that I'm clicking the correct button. In my book this is a bad design choice. – AndroidHustle Jun 28 '13 at 6:59
  • @AndroidHustle I couldn't agree more, but that's another story. On outlook.com I can hit the delete button on my keyboard to delete a mail, which is not implemented i GMail yet. Frustrating. Still I changed my theme to make it easier for me. – Benny Skogberg Jun 28 '13 at 7:14
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    Ohh yea... I've reacted to that as well. Outlook on the other hand I often find quite buggy, and the sync is often lost for me so I have to refresh the site. As with most stuff, each has their own drawbacks.. =) However, I think the back to analogy in your answer was really cleaver, even if it's not optimally executed in reality, so you have my +1. – AndroidHustle Jun 28 '13 at 7:22

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