How the ‘new Gmail’ rolled out in just 90 days!

You may have noticed the new Gmail that launched recently. The update touts letting users “do more without leaving your inbox.” It brings a new, fresher look while at the same time bringing over the best functionality (like snoozing and attachment previews) from Inbox, Google’s sister email product.

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Rolling changes out like these is no easy feat for a large-scale product like Gmail. With over 1.4 billion users, Gmail is the most popular email client on the planet. It’s not far behind Facebook in terms of daily active users. Not only that, but Gmail is a business product as much as it is a personal one. There’s over 4 million paying businesses that rely on Gmail as part of G Suite. So it’s a mixture of highly engaged personal users as well as businesses that rely on it for mission-critical daily operations. Even the smallest changes, can disrupt users that have been using it every day for the past 10 years!

Let’s take a closer look at how Gmail rolled these changes out.

Early access (not a beta)

On Wednesday, April 25, 2018, Google announced the new Gmail as part of a larger update to G Suite. As a product manager, I noticed a couple key points related to rollout:

  • Users are able to access the new Gmail immediately. This includes both personal Gmail users and business users (G Suite).
  • The update is not being forced on anyone. Not yet at least. It’s completely optional if you want to use the new Gmail.

Here’s how Gmail itself explained users could get access to the new update.

The all-new Gmail experience is available for businesses to start using today in the G Suite Early Adopter Program (EAP) and can be turned on in the Admin console. Read more detail on how to turn on the experience in this post. Heads up: you’ll start to see offline support, confidential mode (limited release), Nudging, high-priority notifications and unsubscribe suggestions appear in the coming weeks. Keep up with the latest news on these features in the G Suite Updates blog.

Personal Gmail users can opt-in to the new experience, too (Go to Settings in the top right and select “Try the new Gmail.”).

Finally, if you need help getting started with the new Gmail, check out this Help Center article or this cheat sheet on our Learning Center.

So business users would need to first enable access before their employees could opt-in to the new update. This makes sense as business users probably like to keep their users on the same version of Gmail. For all other personal Gmail users, they could simply opt-in to the new update like so.

The UX here is interesting. And I’m guessing very intentional by Gmail. As product managers, we often refer to changes not yet available to everyone as a “beta” release. But it’s interesting to note that nowhere does Gmail use the term ‘beta.’ I’m guessing that’s for a couple reasons.

  • Sometimes ‘beta’ can signal an unfinished product that is rough around the edges. This might deter some users from actually trying it out. “Try the new Gmail” is much more inviting.
  • Sometimes ‘beta’ can be interpreted as experimental or something temporary that might not actually happen. It’s clear Gmail didn’t want to give that impression

The phrases “Try the new Gmail” and “Go back to classic Gmail” are a subtle difference than using “Try out the beta”, but it reinforce the notion that “hey, we have this new thing. It’s not going away but you also don’t have to use it quite yet.”

This language percolates throughout the docs too. Google doesn’t use the term ‘beta’ anywhere. Instead they call this their “Early Access Program” or “EAP”. This sounds a lot more production ready that something that is in ‘beta’. I wonder if Google has an internal beta period or something they do with employees before it gets to this stage. Hmm.

You will be migrated…automatically!

It was easy to miss, but worth noting that Gmail did not mention any timelines in their initial announcement. I’m guessing this was very intentional to give themselves flexibility to a rollout schedule after seeing how users and the market reacted.

On Monday, June 4, 2018 (40 days after the initial announcement), Gmail published more details about the timeline for the rollout. Here’s a summary:

  • New Gmail launching to GA (general availability in July 2018). At this point, all personal users will have no choice but to use the new Gmail. However, G Suite admin users will have some options:
    • Transition all users to the new Gmail now or let users opt in and out at their own pace
    • After 4 weeks, G Suite admins will be forced to allow users to opt-in
    • After 8 weeks, all users will be transitioned to the new Gmail (but users can still opt-out)
    • After 12 weeks there is no more opt-out and anyone who opted out will now be transitioned to the new Gmail for good

It’s a fairly aggressive, but respectable rollout schedule. On Wednesday, July 25, 2018 (exactly 91 days after initial announcement), Gmail announced general availability for the new experience. This is when all personally users were migrated automatically. This probably when you noticed it yourself or heard your friends talking about it (if they notice those things).

The rollout is still going on according to the schedule above. Only business users can opt-out for the time being. On Tuesday, October 16, 2018 (174 days since initial announcement), that option will be fully removed.

So all-in-all, this was a 6 month rollout schedule. This was probably driven by some internal OKR to “Roll out the new Gmail experience to all users by 2018” or something. It’s impressive to see such a large company and a large-scale product move so fast. In just 3 months, the new experience was available to all personal users. And within 6 months, all business users will be migrated.

It would be very easy for a product the size of Gmail to not move this fast. And to cut corners and only launch something like the new Gmail to personal users, but forget about business users. It’s clear though that Gmail is very intentional that all business users should get the same experience as Gmail. There’s one product for personal and business users. Not two different products.

So next time you are rolling out your feature and wondering how in the heck you’re going to make it available to everyone by X date, remember that Gmail rolled out to GA in just 90 days. Consider using an opt-in / opt-out strategy. And it’s okay to have an aggressive timeline, as long as you are clear about it.


As a user, what did you think about the new Gmail rollout? As a PM, have you ever tried an opt-in / opt-out rollout like this? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!

 

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