Three of them are Inbox's best guess about whom I want to mail next. (I think Google calls this "speed dial") The algorithm powering this is terrible. For a while the guesses were ludicrously out of date and arbitrary - people I was writing with regularly but not for months. Lately they seem more chronologically correct but the relevance just isn't there. For instance, I wrote back to "R" today, in reply to a joke she sent me, and that was the only mail we've exchanged in probably a year. Sending her a new email is clearly not a priority in my online life.
In May I griped about this in the Gmail Forum where I was told they're "based on who I interact with most". The problem is easy to spot: the people I'm interacting with, I'm interacting with, replying-to, in pre-existing, long-lived email threads. A different criteria, say, "accounts I initiate email to", would be so much simpler and actually useful. (For example, I keep having to carefully retype my band's mailing list address, since the threading model wiggio uses hacks the "Reply-To" with a little postfix tag on the username... but I'm sure the no-tag version is the single most common email address I've sent to over the past few weeks, and having that one click away would save me having to wrestle with the recipient autocomplete.)
Then there are two other circles. The gold ticket is the "Invite to Inbox"- oddly overeager self-promotion. The blue finger "Reminder" is equally useless to me. I'm sure some people might try and use their email client for their general Todo management, but I'm certainly not one of them- it's a weird confusion of purpose, a reflection of that eternal goal of being "the program to end all programs" these things have. Zawinski's Law states
Every program attempts to expand until it can read mail. Those programs which cannot so expand are replaced by ones which can.Same thing here, I guess, but going the other direction.
All this stupidity would be easy to ignore, except for one thing... see how the "I" icon is next to the "close this email"? That icon is blocking the checkbox underneath. (This happens at certain browser widths.) No problem, right? Move the mouse away, the column of circles will collapse to the single red circle, and I can click? Afraid not... somehow, the entire column where the icons would be triggers the icons "helpfully" sliding back into place... the area over the checkbox is blocked, even though it looks clear. Here is a video showing it in action:
So, the 3 poorly chosen icon plus the "let us be your todo!" useless icon plus the self-promotional icon plus poorly chosen size defaults equals a terrible user experience.
I like the Inbox concept... its grouping by category like "Finance" "Purchases" and "Low Priority" is generally good, and it's cool to be able to sweep away a whole chunk of fluff mail with a single click. Still, sometimes I think its "expand in place" paradigm (vs Gmail's "new subscreen", modal approach) can be problematic as seen here. (Also, Gmail's classic approach is pleasant in a "now you're focused on this one thing" kind of way.)
UPDATE: the next day I wasn't reliably able to get the "hidden hover column" to recur; whether that's a fix or just an intermittent bug, I'm not sure. Without that bug, the gratuitous icons are much less of a practical problem