An utterly befuddling design choice by Gmail

I usually use a Gmail draft email as a tool to add some important details. Membership numbers of some websites, the process of some tasks, some user IDs, random thoughts, and so on. This draft is fairly old – been using and having it for about 10+ years now! So, the accumulated data was fairly long and important. Not critical and not impossible to find through other means, but still, this was a curated list of important things.

Yesterday, I ‘discarded’ this draft by mistake. I didn’t even realize that I had discarded it, but when I wanted to refer to it shortly after mistakenly discarding it, and went to drafts, it was missing.

The next logical step was to look at the trash folder to retrieve it. But it wasn’t in the trash! I frantically searched using some keyword I knew from that draft since I access it fairly often. No luck.

I then Googled to realize that Gmail DOES NOT move discarded draft emails to trash. They simply evaporate into thin air!

Now, I have tried all the shortcuts and options mentioned by many, many people online – no luck at all. I have lost that draft set of notes forever. I will get over it and live – not a problem.

But I’m really curious to understand the thought process behind this product decision. Even the very word for that act is ‘discard drafts’. What happens when you discard something in your home? You discard it to the trash can!

And what’s the icon that you click to discard drafts? A trash can! The same icon used to delete emails too! Both indicate, by use of the same visual icon, that they head to the trash folder. Yet, only the draft does not go to the trash can!

For comparison – I checked how Microsoft Outlook treats deleted drafts. It goes to the ‘deleted’ folder! But Yahoo works like Gmail – deleted drafts do not go to trash and simply vanish.

What prompted the Gmail team to bypass that flow and make the drafts permanently vanish? What was the logic behind this design choice?

I thought that it could be because people could store heavy attachments in drafts? But we’re not talking about drafts that remain, but drafts that are discarded! If a heavy attachment draft is discarded, and it goes to the trash, they become part of the will-be-deleted-after-30-days process like a normal email that has a heavy attachment! So, this cannot be the logic.

What else? I cannot think of anything meaningful! For a product with so much finesse and thought, this utterly baffling design choice is really, really odd.

It’s not as if people are not annoyed with this choice by Google. There are literally thousands and thousands of people online (across Google’s support forums, Quora, Reddit and you name it!) asking if there is any way to recover a deleted draft, in vain! And yet, for a seemingly simple and small incremental feature, Gmail has not done anything!

Why? What could be so complex/critical in not considering this simple feature even if it was not thought-through appropriately in the first place?

But a takeaway for you if it is not too obvious by now – do not use Gmail drafts as a note-taking tool. Use Google Keep or Docs/Word for that 🙂



9 thoughts on “An utterly befuddling design choice by Gmail

    1. Sure. But how does that explain not taking a draft to the trash folder? Does not moving a draft to trash somehow force people to navigate towards Keep/Docs? I mean, what are the chances that someone writes drafts… *AND* deletes it by mistake *AND* figures that it doesn’t get to trash… and then changes their behavior? Wouldn’t it be easier to just communicate the USP of Keep?

  1. Why are you using Drafts to save data? You are using the feature for something it isn’t designed for. I don’t see how this is Google’s design problem. They don’t need to (and shouldn’t) support all kinds of bizarre unintended uses of their features. That leads to bloat and it would instead be *bad* design.

    The draft is meant to save an email as you are writing it, and it is expected to be of short term use. If you change your mind about sending the email while you are writing it or if you want to start over, then you discard it. That’s what it is meant to do. In any case, it asks you to confirm if you want to delete the draft. That’s sufficiently good design.

    1. Aravind, you are not making much sense in your zeal to berate the user for using Gmail ‘wrongly’. Let me explain.

      1. When does a draft email add to ‘bloat’? When it remains in a user’s inbox, or after it is discarded? It’s the former. In the latter, after it is discarded for whatever reason, legitimate or by mistake, it does not add to bloat. So the bizarre, unintended use case logic doesn’t work.

      2. Does Gmail ask you to confirm if you want to delete the draft? No. Try it out. It just discards it, and only give you an option to undo the action, like it is for so many other actions on Gmail. So that ‘sufficiently’ good design logic too doesn’t work.

      3. My entire post is about what happens to a draft after it is discarded, not when it stays in an inbox. For comparison, try deleting a spam email. An email that has been auto-marked as spam, IS legitimate spam and you do not see it at all because it is safely tucked away under the spam folder. Go ahead and delete one such email. Where does it go? To the trash folder! An email you did not want, did not see, don’t want to see… even that pointlessly useless an email goes to trash *after* it is deleted. But an email draft that you have written yourself with some thought does not go to trash *after* it has been discarded. What explains that design logic? That is the premise of my post.

      1. 1. I didn’t say the draft email adds to the bloat, I said writing code to make unintended bizarre uses convenient adds to code bloat. Bloat is fairly commonly used in this context, I’m sorry I didn’t make it clear.

        2. Yes, it certainly does, I tried it before posting the comment. I wouldn’t post something like that without verifying.

        3. That’s not how software design or user interface design is done though. You don’t add all possible features and then remove what you don’t need.

        In this case, about 15 years ago, Google decided to start Gmail. Then someone realized they want to save the email before sending. Google’s design team evaluated the request and decided to support it. Thus the draft feature was added. They didn’t start by saying “Why isn’t there a draft feature?”.

        Now you say you want deleted drafts to go into trash. That’s your request, there’s nothing wrong with that. Google’s design team would evaluate it and if the benefit from it is worth the effort to implement it, then they will do it. It is also highly likely Google has already done that cost-benefit evaluation and decided not to provide the feature.

        Asking “why isn’t this feature already there?” isn’t the right approach. I could as well ask “Why doesn’t Gmail trigger an alarm if I write a time in draft?” Long story short, things don’t work that way.

        I don’t know if you have much experience in software design or user interface design. Seeing as my comments above don’t make much sense to you, I guess not. This is standard stuff I deal with on a daily basis.

        1. 1. Fair enough.

          2. Try it in the desktop/web version and not in the mobile version.

          3. Taking a discarded draft that you click on the ‘trash’ icon to the trash folder is not a ‘feature’. It seems like common sense to me. You are yet to give me one decent reason as to why a discarded draft goes to the Lotus Feet of Tirupati Venkatachalapathy and not to the trash folder. I had explained the context – even a completely unwanted, unseen spam email from the spam folder goes to trash when deleted. But a draft email doesn’t. I’m looking for a sane, logical reason other than, ‘take what they give you’, ‘cost-benefit analysis’, ‘UX doesn’t work that way’.

        2. I find the ‘draft’ feature argument unconvincing. The draft feature need not have existed when they started out. People could have used a word processor before sending the mail. Adding the feature would have been an ‘exciter’ at that point in time. After 15 years, the same feature is just a bare necessity.

          However, the problem of a discarded draft vanishing is dumb. It would make perfect sense if Gmail can move the draft to Trash or at least give a heads up before performing the Thanos snap. Features can be requested. This is just simple logic.

  2. Also, the functionality of moving to trash is already available on Gmail. In case, they want to implement the same on drafts it would be easy. In today’s world, no one writes the same piece of code in multiple places. Google can easily implement it if they wished.

    1. Correct. So all the more reason why I find this choice by Google baffling. Very curious to know the reason, or thought process behind this conscious decision 🙂

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