Why the Gmail ‘Undo Send’ feature spent six years in beta hell

Google kept Undo Send in beta for way too long. Here's why.

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Back in 2009, I was cranking out feature stories and writing blogs for Computerworld, reviewing gadgets and interviewing newly birthed startups in Silicon Valley, and trying to avoid getting crushed by one of the worst economic crises in recent memory. It’s sad to think exactly nothing has changed in my life since then. I’m still using Gmail, still processing way too much email, and still trying to recover from that economic crisis (and so is my house).

At the time, I remember seeing an interesting feature when I perused the Google Labs tab in the Gmail settings that allows you to recall an email. Usually, I find out about these things from blog posts, but this time I made a discovery on my own, one that involved an “undo” option -- one that saved my skin a few times.

The feature is fairly simple. When you send an email, you sometimes experience a pang of regret. You should not have called the boss a flipping idiot who wears a suit. You should not have sent the entire financial record of your company to a competitor. In most cases, a sent email enters a one-way information superhighway and goes from point A to point B without any pit stops. Outlook has a feature that allows you to recall a message, but when I used it back in the dark ages, it was always even more embarrassing because the recipient could see the message, then see that I was trying to recall it. It was like getting married, then having your wife see that you hired a divorce attorney on your wedding day. Not good. Also, not smart.

Undo Send saved me many times. The beta included a setting I’ll call the “idiot window” where you can delay how long it takes before you can realize you’re an idiot. It was 5, 10, 20, or 30 seconds. During that time, you can click cancel and Gmail won’t send the email. It will show up again as a draft email as though nothing ever happened.

I used it when I mispelled a word, crafted an email for the wrong person, didn’t include someone on a copy (or a blind copy), needed to correct a grammatical mistake, and in many other situations. We all rely so much on email as a primary form of communication that the Undo Send feature became, at least for me, a way of life. I needed it like I needed the undo feature in every other app. I wish there was an undo for Twitter and Facebook, and maybe for life in general.

This week, Google suddenly decided to take Undo Send out of the Lab and make it a legit feature, something you can find in the normal settings screen. Here’s my theory about why it’s not in beta anymore. I think they totally forgot about it. And I think I know exactly how they remembered.

I used to manage a team of IT folks back in my corporate days. I remember having frequent meetings with the Change Management group, which was similar to going to see the dentist but less painful and slightly more entertaining. This group managed change. That's it. They kept detailed records of code changes and tracked other software maintenance issues. Fun group! Back then, most of their work was highly automated, but the reality for anyone who works in a development shop is that you are still dealing with humans. Someone is coding, someone is reviewing the code, and someone is keeping track of the code.

I think when Google ported the Undo Send feature to Google Inbox, their more colorful but less useful email app that seems to be languishing in obscurity, the team noticed that Undo Send was still in the lab. Oops. After six years of beta testing, if you don’t know everything there is to know about a fairly innocuous feature that holds an email for a set time period, the app is not worth releasing. Feel free to correct me in comments, but I doubt anything needs to be beta-tested for six years. Not even an autonomous car. Not even an enterprise collaboration app. Nothing. Ever.

Is there a lesson here? Sure. Google needs to become a little better at tracking features people actually use, giving them a shelf-life for beta testing, and then managing changes. In some ways, they still operate like a Stanford startup that beta-tests features for years and almost forgets about them. One example of this, which is not exactly in beta, is Google Keep. I seriously think the search giant forgot they had made this rather weak and superfluous competitor to Evernote. They changed a few things recently, but it’s basically been ignored.

Kill projects that sit idle. Keep improving software during a testing phase. Don’t let your “light bulb moment” with software be the times you realize you forgot about a feature or an entire app. I’m happy the Undo Send has graduated to the big leagues. It seems like one of the last remaining vestiges of a company that doesn’t like to beta test new ideas as often. Heck, maybe they should have left it in beta just to prove they came out of a dorm room at one time.

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