My Two Cents about Google Chat’s New UI: In-Line Threading

Achintha Isuru
7 min readSep 4, 2023
Photo by Josh Appel on Unsplash

Google Chat is a secure communications tool designed to provide easy business communications within the Google Workspace ecosystem. It facilitates seamless business interactions, enabling teams to collaborate effectively through text, shared documents, chat rooms, presentations, and web conferences. Its integration with other Google services like Docs and Calendar further enhances its utility.

Background to what happened.

A space organized by conversation topic(left), A space with in-line threading(right) [1]

A significant shift occurred on October 18, 2022, when Google introduced a new UI display method for messages — in-line threading [1,2]. While users had the choice to opt out of this method while creating new spaces until recently, as of March 13, 2023, all newly created spaces in Google Chat now use in-line threading [3]. It’s worth noting that the older conversation topic method is still available for existing spaces, though Google has indicated a future transition to in-line threading [3]. With this context in mind, let’s delve into a comparison of the new in-line threading and the older conversation topic UI display methods from a user experience (UX) standpoint.

In this article, we’ll explore the impact of this transition on user experience, examining both the benefits and potential drawbacks of the new in-line threading approach in comparison to the previous conversation topic organisation. This evaluation aims to shed light on how Google’s UI evolution has influenced the way users engage with Google Chat.

Why Google Adopted In-Line Threading

Google’s decision to implement in-line threading in Google Chat can be attributed to several strategic considerations. One major factor is the competitive landscape, which features key players like Slack, Discord, and Microsoft Teams. Notably, these platforms have already embraced the in-line threading model. Google’s move to align with this UI approach serves a dual purpose: consistency and user experience enhancement [4*].

[4*] — Jacob’s Law: Users spend most of their time on other sites. This means that users prefer your site to work the same way as all the other sites they already know. [4].

Slack(left), Discord(right)

By embracing the in-line threading model, Google Chat creates a sense of familiarity for users transitioning from rival platforms. This consistency transcends the UI’s appearance, impacting how conversations are structured and presented. Users accustomed to in-line threading on other platforms will likely experience a smoother transition to Google Chat. This strategic alignment not only positions Google Chat as a viable alternative for users of other platforms but also mitigates the friction typically associated with transitioning between communication tools.

Furthermore, this move directly contributes to reducing the learning curve for new users engaging with Google Chat. By leveraging an interface model that’s widely adopted, Google facilitates quicker user adoption and increased satisfaction, as users can seamlessly apply their existing knowledge of in-line threading to navigate Google Chat.

Other than that there are some inherent advantages of in-line threaded messaging itself, they are listed below [1],

  1. Answering questions with in-line replies, while not disrupting the flow of the main space.
  2. Starting a break-out discussion for topics that may not be of interest to everyone. By default, replying in-line will notify the original poster and those who have either been @ mentioned or replied in the thread. Other users will have the ability to subscribe to the chain by opening the in-line replies and selecting “Follow.”
  3. Replying to an older message when the main discussion has moved on to a different topic.

Has Google Neglected Their Current Users?

A pressing concern arises here: Has Google inadvertently shifted its focus towards new users and consistency while sidelining its existing Google Chat user base? Drawing from my personal experience, until recently, the vast majority of us were unfamiliar with Google’s inline threaded spaces. We had grown accustomed to the conversation-based spaces, which had been available since the previous October. Remarkably, we had never utilised this new approach in new spaces until it was forcibly imposed as the sole option for creating new spaces.

This issue, in my view (and shared by many others), constitutes a significant leap in user experience. When this topic sparked discussions within our office, I compared the two systems, uncovering potential pain points that I think are affecting the users. I’ve outlined them below.

  1. Ordering of Threads: In the previous conversation-based spaces, conversations were ordered based on activity. This approach allowed teams to promptly identify ongoing topics within spaces, and contributing was as simple as joining the conversation. However, the new UI doesn’t organise threads based on thread activity; instead, it relies on the time the primary thread was initiated. For instance, envision a daily morning meeting thread — users now need to scroll to locate the primary meeting thread for access. Admittedly, there’s a ‘threads’ button situated at the top right corner to navigate threads, but, in my perspective, this imposes additional complexity, leading to extended decision-making time [5*].
  2. Navigation Complexity: Furthermore, in the new UI design, messages within a thread open in a side panel. This setup necessitates users to traverse a certain distance on the screen, diverting their focus. In contrast, the previous design displayed messages directly below, reducing this travel [6*].
  3. Difficulty in overviewing the space: Another aspect of the old UI design was its ability to offer users an immediate overview of the chat space’s ongoing activities. This feature is particularly vital in spaces dedicated to knowledge sharing. Users can swiftly glean interesting information from the chat, without spending excessive time in the process [5*].
A space organized by conversation topic(left), A space with in-line threading(right) [1]

As a consequence of these changes, what has become common practice within the new in-line threaded spaces is that users rely on the main chat for communication, rather than actively creating threads. This shift, in my view, might diverge from Google’s original vision for this new UI system.

[5*] — Hick’s Law: The time it takes to make a decision increases with the number and complexity of choices[5].

[6*] — Fitts’s Law: The time to acquire a target is a function of the distance to and size of the target[6].

Finding a Balanced Solution

Given the highlighted concerns, finding a middle ground becomes imperative to address these challenges effectively. From my perspective, Google needs to reconsider how they implement in-line threading within Google Chat. While it’s essential to align with industry trends, a direct replication of competitors’ approaches might not be the best strategy. Here are some potential steps that Google could take to tackle these issues:

  1. Reordering Threads by Activity: Google should consider prioritising the ordering of threads based on activity rather than the time of the primary thread’s initiation. This approach would ensure that the most relevant and ongoing discussions are readily accessible, improving the flow of conversations.
  2. Unified Interface for Threads: Instead of opening threads in a separate side panel, integrating them into the main interface would significantly reduce the distance users need to traverse to access thread content. This change would enhance user engagement and streamline interaction.
  3. Multi-Thread Expansion: Allowing users to expand multiple threads simultaneously would be a valuable enhancement. The current restriction to opening only one thread limits users’ ability to swiftly explore various discussions. Enabling users to glance at multiple threads and join those of interest can improve efficiency.

These solutions, in my assessment, represent a few avenues through which Google could enhance the user experience of Google Chat. While these are the approaches I’ve identified, it’s important to note that there might be additional methods worth exploring as well.

Conclusion

Today, we’ve explored my perspective on Google Chat’s new UI system: in-line threading. It’s essential to remember that these thoughts are my own and may differ from others’ opinions. I’ve compiled a list of resources I used for this article, which you can find below. I encourage you to share your thoughts on this topic as well. Stay tuned for more tech blogs in the future. Until next time!

References

[1] https://workspaceupdates.googleblog.com/2022/10/in-line-threading-in-Chat-spaces.html

[2] https://workspaceupdates.googleblog.com/2023/02/new-google-chat-spaces-will-be-in-line-threaded.html

[3] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i7_5Zh3zLlM

[4] https://lawsofux.com/jakobs-law/

[5] https://lawsofux.com/hicks-law/

[6] https://lawsofux.com/fittss-law/

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