SMS From gMail Exists. Needs a Usability Improvement.

Closeup of Woman texting from Wikimedia Commons
Credit: Wikimedia Commons
When the hubby and I were first married and texting was expensive, we chose not to add that option to our phone plans. Incoming texts were free, but outgoing were something like $1.50 apiece. (This is around 1999/ 2000 when data plans were insanely expensive.) Hubby's job required him to be away from his desk and in front of clients all day long, so calling him to ask him a question usually meant that I got to talk to his voicemail, and often he wouldn't have time to pick these up until several hours later. Highly inconvenient.

But I soon discovered that Rogers had a webpage for sending text messages to a phone from a computer. This was ideal, since I could text him at no charge, asking him to call me when he was free or letting him know when/if I was (ever) leaving the office. (It was the tech bubble and I worked for startups which meant loooong days at the office.) Eventually, we both got Blackberries and relied on Blackberry messenger, so this site became much less important, although I must confess that I have used it occasionally when it was just easier than digging my BB out of my purse.

Which brings me to this past week. I was working on my computer, still on vacation and wanted to reach a friend who is basically only accessible via text during the workday. I know she is on Telus as am I, and I now have a plan that is text-friendly but to tell the truth I really didn't feel like heading upstairs to get my phone when I was so comfortable typing away in my big comfy chair. So off to the Google I headed, to see if there were any computer-to-phone SMS sites I didn't know about.

And then I discovered SMS in gMail.

Seriously. I have been on gMail for a decade and I honestly didn't realize that there is SMS functionality built right in. I blame my banner blindness. There are a lot of web design features that I just completely filter out: banner ads, recommendations floating in sidebars and links in footers. They just don't exist to me. So it actually never occurred to me to read the default text carefully in the right column of gMail, where my chat friends are listed, which clearly (now) states: "Search, chat or SMS". I just assumed that chat list was for, you know, chatting via Google Chat.

And here's where I noticed a functional issue with the Google Chat sidebar. When you look at the contacts list, it shows you who is currently online and whether they are available to chat. If you click on a name, Google Chat is the default function, so a chat window opens.

Google Chat Window
But what if you want to text that person? It's not listed as an option in the main menu. The icons shown are for switching to a video chat or a web call, or add other contacts to initiate a group chat. It doesn't even appear when you click the little down arrow in the top right corner. There, you can start a video chat, go off the record or block the user.

Where is the SMS option?

It took some clicking, but I realized that if I searched for a contact using the text field, the resulting contact listing included the options to email, chat or Send SMS.

Google Chat Contact Search Result
Buried.

Turns out, this is exactly how they intended the functionality to be used. When I checked the Google Forums for SMS, I found this process detailed in the instructions. They actually want you to have to type the user's name into the contact search to trigger the SMS option. It makes for a cumbersome and non-intuitive user experience.

Now that I know where to look, it's easy to access but it was hard to find in the first place. I really can't stand when companies hide functionality. I realize that Google isn't in the SMS business but they've put in a failsafe to prevent people from abusing it: it taps out after 50 messages, and resets within 24 hours. So you can't overuse it to begin with.

Why not just include it in the main functionality of the Chat sidebar? Well, to be cynical: because it doesn't make them any money and there is no way for them to run ads within SMS. Granted, they don't show ads on the chat windows to my knowledge but then again, I have hacked my gMail page so that no ads are shown on it anywhere. (Future blog post if you guys need it just let me know in the comments :)

Maybe this is just some random Google Labs feature that was never expected to take off. But I find it highly convenient as a backup option. Whether they kill it in the future or not, there you have it: computer to phone SMS in gMail. Handy, dandy and even a little kewl. And, like Waldo, obvious once you notice it :)