I have never really used the labels in Gmail, and it was quite interesting to see the recent introduction of 'tabs' in Gmail. Even though the concept of folders has always been in the Outlook (which has a Category field similar to labels) and is also used in Apple (which uses the concept of mailboxes), Google always stayed away from this. Can someone point to the underlying philosophy for this, and whether this is some attempt to move closer to the mailbox or folder concept.

As the Gmail website says: "New customizable tabs put you back in control so that you can see what's new at a glance and decide which emails you want to read and when."

This would seem to be comparable to the folder/mailbox + filtering rules, or does it encourage some other behaviour? In fact how Google allows you to drag things to different tabs seems to be an attempt at creating rules based on user behaviour rather than having to set rules from the template like how Outlook or other mail applications work.

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  • 3
    "Can someone point to the underlying philosophy for this" have you not searched Google itself for this? It doesn't seem like you've actually done any research on this question, you've just posted it an expected someone else to go off and do the research for you. You need to demonstrate that you've researched a problem yourself first before coming here for answers.
    – JonW
    Jul 24, 2013 at 9:32
  • This feature was seen before in the new Alto mail (altomail.com).
    – Dvir Adler
    Jul 24, 2013 at 11:38
  • I'm not entirely sure what the question is. Are you asking what we think Google's intention was?
    – DA01
    Jul 31, 2013 at 18:35

5 Answers 5


It seems to be an attempt to :

  • reduce the need for labelling and custom filtering
  • allow users to process their emails faster (in a broad sense)
  • help users to focus on what they feel is important at the moment: checking regular emails, social networks chores and notifications, promotional emails, etc.
  • do you use Gmail? And do you think it has been a successful attempt to achieve those objectives?
    – Michael Lai
    Jul 24, 2013 at 5:29
  • 1
    I do for both work and personal matters. I personally didn't like this layout and a switched back to the priority inbox. I found that having to check several tabs takes longer than scanning a well organized list of unread, important, starred and everything else -emails. I do get roughly 20 emails a day at work and 10-15 emails a day on my personal account
    – SuperFluxx
    Jul 24, 2013 at 5:41
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    @TotemFlare Only 30-40 emails a day? Some days I can get ten times that, and over 100 a day isn't uncommon. I use labels extensively, but like you I don't use the tabs and have turned them off. Nor do I use the priority inbox. I want to see all the mail in one place (correctly labelled and priority-marked). Tabs don't help me process mail faster. Jul 24, 2013 at 6:11
  • @AndrewLeach We do use Jira and Confluence comments with Hipchat internally, that helps a lot :-)
    – SuperFluxx
    Jul 24, 2013 at 6:27

Gmail is opting for pre-organizing some of the information for the user to avoid clutter.

There are many emails coming from certain sources that will be read at a later date by the user but that maybe don't usually require immediate attention. Filtering or tagging helps, but a user still has to skim through their properly tagged emails from facebook, pinterest, tumbler, linkedin, etc.

If you're more interested, here is the blog behind this decision.


I hate the idea of tabs inside my gmail because of following reasons

  • With Tabs, you know the active tab is only showing you 1/3 of email update and essentially you need to check other two to know what you have received there. Thus a glance at my mailbox wasn't enough anymore and every time I check to see if there are any new emails, I would need to explore all 3 Tabs.

  • The placement of emails in Primary, Social and Promotional wasn't smart enough. One of my important email coming from PayPal was placed in Promotional tab even though it was a receipt of one of my purchases.

  • I have been using gmail since 2004 and I have resisted to any "new organizational approach" introduced since then, like Priority Emails and Email Tabs. Its not because I resist to change but because these changes lacked a reason for me to adopt them. I have been organizing my emails using existing features like Labels and Email Filters to categorize my emails automatically and more effectively than Tabs are able to do.


Can someone point to the underlying philosophy for this, and whether this is some attempt to move closer to the mailbox or folder concept."

I do not have any citations, but the following is what I believe is going on.

I do not believe this has anything to do with attempting to move a mailbox of folder concept for gmail, but rather, this is an attempt to deal with misclassification of certain types of email as spam. Notice that at this time, these tabs are not user-defined, but are pre-defined as:

  1. Social
  2. Promotions
  3. Updates
  4. Forums

These are the types of email that many users might consider spam but probably aren't technically spam (user has subscribed to these items, or otherwise approved its delivery).

By getting these emails out of the way in the inbox and providing official "homes" for them, I believe Google is telling its users that these items aren't really spam and curbing the number of users reporting these types of emails as spam.

This will allow Google's algorithms to work better on those items that are reported as spam or malware.

Each of these tabs are likely implementing an independent Bayseian (or similar) classification algorithm, which also helps Google better define these classes of email for each user and ultimately, for all of Google’s users.

The tab UI provides clear indication at the top of the screen of how many emails are unread of each type, while making a clear distinction from its labels or filters.


mkoistinen has a valid point regarding the automatic filtration of emails which could be regarded as spam but isn't spam.

It is interesting to note that these folders does however have a effect on open rates of email campaigns. mailchimp report on folders

I personally like the folders, if i'm in rush only need to check inbox, else when have extra time can see responses to forum post etc.

Some people don't even know about filters, this might be a subtle way of introduction.

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