Two User Interface Design Features That I Hate

I sometimes wonder if software designers really use their product, because there are some very bad interface designs out there. To be sure, what is “good” and “bad” is highly subjective, and my denoting something as “bad” is the result of my collection unique quirks and foibles, and perhaps there are many users who just love these design decisions.

This post looks two annoyances: 1) Gmail’s changing subject line and 2) Evernote’s note save alert.

As I planned this post, I was reminded of a classic Peanuts cartoon that I read as a child, in which Charlie Brown and Linus discuss the phrase “it is better to light a single candle than curse the darkness,” and Lucy strongly disagrees1.

Gmail’s Changing Subject Line

I’ve been a user of Google’s Gmail for too many years to count, and although it’s one of those things that people love to hate, I find that it has many useful functions that help me dig out the Augean Stables that is today’s email world. For example, the email categories (Primary, Promotions, Social, etc.) are essential.

In any case, I am probably stuck with Gmail, as switching to a new email service would be a months-long project to move my subscriptions, inform everyone, deal with the archive, and so on.

I hate that Gmail’s composition window doesn’t stay still. I start writing a new message with the To: block, next the subject line, and finally the actual message. While I’m writing the message, Gmail switches the subject line between what I originally typed and “Draft saved.” This happens at random intervals, perhaps based on the number of characters typed, or a time interval. It’s annoying.

When I’m drafting emails, I’m definitely not writing the Great American Novel or something that historians will study in the future, but I often need to concentrate. A blinking subject line doesn’t help.

I wonder: Do I really need such an alert that my message has been saved? Is the mighty Google and its Gmail team so nervous that I’ll lose faith in their product that I need to be bashed in the eyeballs so frequently2? Couldn’t it be a small graphical element that is green for saved, red for not saved?

The two annotated screenshots below illustrate this. (The screenshots don’t show another annoyance, where the subject line in the listing of Draft messages also changes now and then, something that is visible when I have a small message on the bottom of the screen.)

Two screenshots from Google's Gmail with annotations showing user interface design that I hate:  the changing title of the window as drafts are saved

If there is a “less screen motion” setting somewhere in Gmail’s long set of menus, I’d love to find it. In the meantime, a decent method is to pop out a reply, then view the draft in full screen mode, as this makes the blinking subject line relatively smaller. A better solution might be related to my recent discovery of Microsoft’s Power Toys application. One of the toys is “Always On Top,” which locks a window to the top of the ‘pile’ on your screen. I stretch a folder window so it is short and wide, use the “Always On Top” feature on that window, then put the window over the “Draft Saved” area.

Evernote’s Save Alert

Evernote is another one of my essential software products (and one that I pay for with an annual subscription fee). For many years it has helped keep me organized, free my mind of distractions (like shopping lists), record what I cook and bake, save random articles, and more. Evernote is great tool, but has design element that drives me crazy: the user is constantly reminded of the save status of the note, often every second or so, with alternating “Saving…” and “All changes saved” messages (in the Desktop and Browser versions). These are illustrated in the two annotated screenshots below.

This is especially annoying on the Desktop version, because the program has continuous access to a hard drive ready to save a zillion notes. There are almost never connectivity issues like a spotty WiFi connection.

As with Gmail, when I write on Evernote I’m not writing life-and-death legal briefs or the next great novel. But I’m paying an annual fee for the service and would like it to be less annoying.

As with Gmail, do I really need such an alert that my message has been saved? Is the Evernote team so nervous that I’ll lose faith in their product that I need to be bashed in the eyeballs so frequently? Some quick theories: this annoyance is created by the 20-something designers who are so immersed in digital technology that they don’t notice changing text; showing the current text is the easy thing, a few programming steps, compared with a much longer process to make something less noisy (plus updating the documentation to explain how the save alert works, e.g., “When the circle in the lower right is a dull yellow, it means that your changes haven’t been saved. When it is a dull green, the changes have been saved”).

I have searched the Evernote options many times, and have yet to find a “turn off save update” option. Perhaps I have missed it, and would love to know where this option is found. My current method of hiding the changing text is the following: 1) Settings…Notes…Note width – Optimize readability, 2) Make the Evernote window wide, 3) Move the Evernote window so that the update text is off the screen. The result of all of these changes is an Evernote window that has its annoying update message in a place that I can’t see (some virtual Windows screen). I hope that someday Evernote will change how message status is announced, and that I’ll be able to put an “Update” at the top of this section.


  1. The blog Quote Investigator has a piece on “better to light a candle” phrase, finding that the first appearance in print was in a 1907 collection called “The Supreme Conquest and Other Sermons Preached in America” by William L. Watkinson. The Internet Archive has a copy on-line, with the phrase found on page 218.
  2. As if there are any practical alternatives to an email address I have used for 10+ years…

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