Monday, 22 November 2010

Gmail Priority Inbox - review & wishlist

This post gives thoughts, tips and suggestions on Gmail's newish Priority Inbox feature.

Google have provided a "Priority Inbox" feature for Gmail since they launched it in the late summer of 2010, clearly with their sights set on wooing over enterprise and SMB users (and educational institutions) to Google Apps, trumpeting the potential time savings and productivity gains - to some external coverage, and even available to a limited extent on Android phones.

It was highlighted as a new feature when you logged in to Gmail for a while, but not any more. From my experiences of using it, it's generally helpful - even though normally I'm a control freak who doesn't like anyone else, least of all software, automatically making decisions for me.

If you're a new Gmail user, or you didn't activate it when it was featured, this post gives an overview of this feature.

What does Priority Inbox do?

If you activate "Priority Inbox", you get a new Priority Inbox view which splits your incoming Gmail email into 3 sections:

  • "Important and unread",
  • "Starred" and
  • "Everything else".

The idea is that Gmail sorts and prioritises your email - the important stuff goes at the top so that you see it first. (See the Google video promo at the top of this blog post.)

At first, it guesses what to "file" under "Important" and what to put in "Everything else".

You "train" it by clicking icons to indicate an email is Important ("Mark as Important" has a + sign) or "Mark as not important" (- sign), so that over time it should learn and improve. There are icons both at the top of the Inbox (outlined in purple below) and also (outlined in red below) of the individual email, so you can "promote" or "demote" a single email or a selected batch in one go.

When you've read an Important email it goes into the "Everything else" section. Unless you starred it, in which case it goes into the Starred section. Or unless you archived it, in which case it disappears from the Inbox altogether.

How to activate Priority Inbox

Go to Settings (top right) and the Priority Inbox tab (or while you're logged into Gmail click this link).

Then select "Show Priority Inbox" at the bottom and click the "Save Changes" button.


The Gmail help pages have some further help and tips. Google have also blogged some specific tips.

Especially in the early days, be sure to check the "Everything else" section in case important emails get shunted there by Google. If an important email gets put in that section, use the "Mark as Important" icon to tell Google (and hopefully it'll do better next time with similar email).

Note that if you star an email it appears in the Starred section, but if you then archive it, it won't be shown there. Useful for keeping just the "star starred" items there and preventing less important starred items from cluttering up that section.

It's worth checking out your Gmail Settings for Priority Inbox (click that link only after you've logged into Gmail).

Do you find Gmail sometimes goes to the Priority Inbox, other times to the "normal" Inbox? Probably that's happening because "Default inbox" is set to "The last inbox I used". Really confusing and bad for usability. If people choose to turn on Priority Inbox, then this setting should default to "Priority Inbox". Change it to that, and click "Save changes" at the bottom.

For keyboard shortcuts fans - the g then i combo takes you to whatever Inbox has been set in the Default inbox section. So if you change it to "Priority Inbox" the combo will always go to that page, rather than sometimes one and sometimes the other.

Another tip - the Priority Inbox sections' Options let you choose how many emails you want to see in each section, and other options. For "Starred" I personally use "Show up to 10 items" so that the "Everything else" emails don't disappear too far off my radar.

Still too many starred emails in the Starred section? (even though only the latest 10 are displayed). Just archive the ones you don't need or want to see in that section.

Observations / suggestions

Personally, perhaps for cultural "left to right" reasons, I found it a bit confusing that the "Mark as Important" icon is on the left and "Mark as not important" is on the right. I keep expecting the one with the + sign to be on the right and the one with the - sign to be on the left, and had to stop myself from clicking the wrong icon to mark emails as important (or not) at first! I'd find it easier if they swapped the order of the icons.

A more important suggestion - I think that when you have read an email that's in the "Important and unread"section, it should NOT go to the "Everything else" section but should be automatically archived, so as not to clutter up the "Everything else" section and get in the way when you try to scan the emails in "Everything else". You've read it, you don't need to see it again.

So I wish Google would add an option in the Settings which you can select, something like:

When I read an email in the Important and Unread section:

  • archive it
  • put it in "Everything else".

But those are relatively minor, all in all I find Priority Inbox pretty useful to help me manage my email. I've even been able to use it to produce an "All unread email" view, which doesn't exist with Gmail. I'll blog about how to do that in a separate post.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Bloggers / tweeters - and libel / defamation

For anyone who writes a blog or posts to message boards or forums, or who tweets on Twitter etc - the Libel Reform Campaign have just published a new guide "So you’ve had a threatening letter. What can you do?" - a guide for bloggers (English law only, but of interest given that libel lawsuits tend to be brought in England even against non-Brits…).

I mentioned "or post to message boards" etc because the guide may be of use not just to bloggers but also to forum posters and Twitter users who get threatened with defamation actions.

However, the guide only deals with the situation where someone has complained or threatened legal action over a blog post you made or something else that you wrote yourself.

The guide doesn't deal fully with -

  • what if you just run a blog or message board, and the complaint is about someone else's post - not one you personally posted (then, issues about editorial control etc may come into it) - it happened to Mr Hilton and his site.
  • what if someone posts a defamatory comment on your blog - defamatory about you (self-help: delete it, or don't publish it!), or about someone else?
  • should you moderate posts on a team blog, or moderate comments on your blog, if so how? (probably not, in order to reduce the risk of being done for manually letting a libellous comment or post through - though I admit I myself do moderate for spam).

For more info you might want to see this post on defamation and other legal risks for bloggers (including on posting links to possibly defamatory material someone else wrote) - but be warned that while that post was up to date when it was written, some of it may have been superseded by later events.

If you want to defend your libel case (and bearing in mind that you can't get legal aid), see a note Legal help: where to go and how to pay - meant for MPs so it's worded quite simply! ;D

Like the guide, this post isn't legal advice etc either, of course.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Thunderbird: draft message "lost", or saved in or sent from a different email account ("from" address)? - possible fix

If you use the free Thunderbird email software, you may have found that a previously-saved draft email gets saved into a different account when you edit it, ie under the wrong "From" email address (so you can't find the saved draft at first, because it's in the wrong place).

Worse still, a draft email may even get sent to recipients "from" the wrong email address.

This annoyance (and possibly embarrassment, if work email gets sent from your personal email address) happens because:

  • you've set up several different email accounts on Thunderbird, eg one for personal email, one for work email
  • you open a draft email you'd previously saved into one of your accounts
  • meanwhile you selected a different account on the left, eg clicked on the Inbox for a different account than the one for the draft you just opened, to check emails for that different account
  • later on, you go back to the opened draft email and then you edit it and save it as a draft or else you send it - and it gets saved or sent under the currently selected email address, not the original one you composed the email under!

One fix that has been suggested is to add all your identities to all your email accounts in Thunderbird (here's how, see under "How to add another identity"), but if you have lots of accounts it's a bit tedious.

In my view, the easiest solution to this problem (noted briefly on the same page as the previous link) is the following tip or trick. Below I include a step by step for non-techies.

This fix should hopefully ensure that a draft email you're editing gets re-saved or sent from the original email address you created it under, and not some random email account that happens to have been highlighted on the left when you eventually save or send the draft.

  1. In Thunderbird go to the menu Tools, select Options, then click the Advanced button (with the cogwheel) at the top.

  2. Under Advanced click the General sub-tab if it's not already on that page, then click the Config Editor button

  3. In the about:config box that comes up, type or paste (without the quotes) in the Filter box "mailnews.reply_to_self_check_all_ident".

  4. It should now look like this - it will say "false" under "Value" in the "mailnews.reply_to_self_check_all_ident" preference (if it was set to "true", you shouldn't be having this issue!)

  5. What you need to do is to set it to "true". The easiest way to do that is just to doubleclick on the * line, and check that it now reads "true":

You can now close out of that box. Hit OK if you want in the Options window, but from what I can see it seems to save even if you hit Cancel.

From now on, Thunderbird should check when you save an edited draft email or send a draft email, and hopefully save or send it under the original email address! If it still glitches, raise it with Mozilla

Monday, 15 November 2010

Gmail: "Loading", can't reply or compose email, chat not working in Firefox? - possible solution

Is your Gmail stuck or hanging on "Loading…" in Firefox? Gmail chat not working either? The issue of Gmail freezing in Firefox seems fairly easy to find the solution to online, but given its huge annoyance factor here's step by step answers to help non-technical users to fix the problem.

The Firefox browser and Gmail don't always work well together. I've had previous experiences of Gmail being unusable for a while on Firefox after an upgrade to either, until the other caught up.

This particular problem seemed to persist however. (I used Internet Explorer or other browsers for Gmail, in the meantime.)

If you started getting this problem after upgrading Firefox recently (probably to version 3.6.12), one possible tip to solve the issue is this (it certainly worked for me!):

  1. In Firefox, go to the address bar and type "about:config" without the quote marks and hit Enter.

  2. You'll get the warning below, just click "I'll be careful.."

  3. Now you'll get a window that looks something like this:

  4. In the Filter box, type (again without the quotes) "" and you'll see something like this; note the enabled line which I've outlined in red:

  5. Now doubleclick on the "" line, outlined in red above, so that under the "Value" column it now reads "true", like so:

  6. You can now close out of that tab, and try Gmail again.
If it still doesn't work I'm afraid the problem is something else and you'll have to try more troubleshooting. But it might well work - it has for lots of people.

Clearly Google are now using DOM storage for Gmail in Firefox - and you have no choice but to enable it if you want your Gmail to work properly. A stage on the way to full HTML 5, I suspect.

Saturday, 6 November 2010

Telephone banking, NatWest and fraud

In these days of increasing fraud and theft, it's very worrying that - in perhaps a misguided attempt to be "friendly"? - a major UK bank should stupidly make it much easier for criminals to snaffle its customers' bank account details.

Take this (nearly word for word) transcript of a call which a friend made to NatWest:

Ring ring.
Hello? Hello? Who is this? Is this NatWest Private Banking?
Yes it is. May I have your bank account number?

What's wrong with that picture? Here's what it used to sound like:

Ring ring.
NatWest Private Banking, John Smith speaking, how may I help you?
Hello, I'd like to make a payment please.
Yes. May I have your customer number?

So if you dial a wrong number and a bad guy answers, you're stuffed basically. They can get all sorts of info out of you and you'll be none the wiser.

My friend said, "Never in my life have I encountered a business or professional firm which tells its staff to answer the phone by saying 'Hello'! Surely it is good commercial practice as well as common sense to identify yourself and the organisation you represent. Too much informality doesn't improve customer service but rather damages it." (Aside - I don't like companies that presume to call me by my first name without asking me if they can, either. Maybe I'm old fashioned but it smacks of disrepect. I'm the client, I'm the customer.)

UPDATE TO CLARIFY: Flabbergasted at the phone call being answered in this manner, my friend ask if their procedures for answering calls had been changed and was told that they had. On subsequent calls, unfortunately the experience was little different. My friend ranted to me first, hence this blog post; the next time, it's going to be a request to talk to a supervisor to ask them to change their procedures back.

Why on earth should the customer be forced to take steps to check with their bank that it is indeed their bank that they are speaking to? What's worse is, on different occasions subsequently different NatWest staff were found to answer in different ways too.

Not identifying yourself and not being consistent in how you deal with customer phone calls is not just disconcerting for customers, but creates unnecessary risks of fraud and theft.

Banks shouldn't be creating risks. Banks, of all institutions, should make it very very clear who they are. It should be banks' responsibility to do all they can to minimise fraud and crime.

This sort of thing isn't helping. In fact, quite the opposite. I trust no banks other than National Westminster Bank are doing it, and let's hope that NatWest sees the error of its ways soon and goes back to the old "script".

Of course, banks have a history of not doing the most sensible things when it comes to technology, to put it tactfully (and yes I count telephones as technology). Though it's usually consumers rather than banks who end up paying the price. So maybe we'll be hoping in vain.