GMail attachment hint has a misleading message


GMail has a smart feature that tries to help you not to forget attaching files. Here is how it works: when you’re done writing your email and press send, GMail scans your email for the word “attach” or “attachment” and shows you a warning like this:

GMail attachement error

GMail attachment error

Now why is it a problem? Because when the user is done writing their email and press send they consider it to be over. Any message that comes after it, will be considered as a disturbance preventing them from reaching their goal of sending the email. So the disturbance should be eliminated as soon as possible so there is a higher chance that the message will not be read. More often than not, people are so confident in their action that they don’t bother reading the dialog and just press “OK” saying “I know, go ahead” in their mind.

I have been in a lot of user tests and if there’s one thing I’ve learned about dialog boxes is that users rarely read them. For most users the default (highlighted) button is what they press by default because they trust the designer of the system with choosing the best default.

Let’s look at the interaction in slow motion. User is done writing and now their goal is to send the email. He presses the send button. He sees a modal dialog that says “Did you mean attach files?”. He’s like “Ahhhh! Oops! Yeah! Positive!” so he presses the positive button that reads “OK”. Ummm, wrong button! The email is sent! Time to write another email with the attachment! By the way “this is a great way of punishing the users who don’t read your message“. I’ve heard it from programmers with no sympathy for the user.

gmail attachment error oops

Essentially this smart GMail feature is useless in this flow. Except warning the user that the email was sent without attachment which is better than nothing.


The feature itself is smart, so I wouldn’t remove that. However, the message needs to be re-formulated to solve the UX issue and this can be done at least in two ways:

  • Formulate the first line to read like: “Send anyway“? And describe the issue in the message body. This is not the best because it assumes everybody reads the body of the message. But at least the buttons are the direct answers to this question.
  • Change the message to “Send without attachments?” and in the message body describe a little more why GMail thinks there must be an attachment.

Side note

If you’re going to fix it, please keep in mind that when the user sees the error message, he’s half way outside the door so let him send the message as soon as possible if he choose to do. After all computers are not always right! Put the user in control and provide these smart features just as a hint. I think it is a wise choice to have “OK” (for Sending) as default button on that dialog. Please don’t change that otherwise the interaction flow can be like this:

  1. The user is done writing an email with the word “attachment” in it.
  2. Upon sending, GMail stupidly complains about the lack of attachment.
  3. Pressing “OK” actually doesn’t send the email and annoys the user forcing him to read the message.

One may argue that reading a message is not such a big deal. Users are supposed to do that. Well, we are human and humans are a mess. If you want to create a great user experience, don’t ignore that! :-)

Finally it should be mentioned that one of the most important parts of every error message is to offer a solution. The current messaging doesn’t clarify what’s the action that needs to be taken. We may assume that everyone knows that is an attachment, but that assumption may not be true for people who don’t know English very well and for whatever reason they are not using GMail in their mother tongue.


2 thoughts on “GMail attachment hint has a misleading message

  1. Or, it is possible to go non-modal, and display a warning bar (with action buttons like “attach the file” and “ignore this”) as soon as one of the “attachment” keywords are detected (Thunderbird does that, IIRC). Far more likely to be noticed and not just clicked through.

  2. That’s actually a great idea. Do you mind if I put your idea in the post? I’ve contacted GMail team and they may see it.

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