Auto-reply? More like auto-fail

Smarter autoreply

Millions of us use these annoying robo-responses. Why? Because email is the primary communication channel for business, and because we want to appear attentive to customers and colleagues. We figure that it’s better to hackily and immediately “respond” than to leave important people hanging. The makers of PIM tools (Outlook, IBM Notes, Entourage) obviously don’t care why we use auto-replies; if they did care, we’d have tools that actually support what we want to do.

Let’s end this little charade

Our primary business tools can do better than asynchronous notes telling us that we’ve failed. Many of us set a variety of statuses during the course of a day, and good tools bring critical contextual information to us.

Smarter autoreply - 1
Let’s say that someone wants to send me email. (It happens from time to time).

Smarter autoreply - 1
Once the sender’s PIM tool recognizes who I am, it could quickly ping the address.

Smarter autoreply - 1
Let’s pretend at this point that I have told my PIM tool that I will be out of the office. This is immediately reflected in the sender’s tool.

Smarter autoreply - 1
That’s not good enough, though, because the sender needs to know that there is some kind of recourse. What if the tool could politely indicate where the message was going?

Smarter autoreply - 1
Even better, what if I could create a special VIP list who would immediately be forwarded to me?

Google Wave may make this argument irrelevant over the next few months, but until then, I offer the above, inspired in parts by Facebook, the real-time elements of the Google Wave demo, and a conversation with Jared Goralnick. Jared’s service, AwayFind, provides a nice way to get around Outlook’s blunt, siloed approach to business communication. Check it out.


James Christie
Nice idea, especially since I seldom get a bounce message nowadays if the email can't be delivered. There's no way of knowing if it was never delivered or if the recipient ignored it. However, I think you nailed one good reason why it's not going to happen. Till the implications of Google Wave become clearer I'm not sure anyone would want to invest more money in enhancing what might soon be pretty obsolete tools.
Dorian Taylor
Was this post brought on by the IAI-members mailing list? ;)
Interesting. It somehow reminds me of social awareness systems, such as described in this paper: [Ed.: Thanks for the reference. Just shortened the URL to ensure clickability.]
Jared Goralnick
Hi Doug, Great's something that (shudder) Microsoft Live Communication Server essentially does...but that's not really why I'm chiming in. After all, no one has really suggested presence awareness in the addressing process, and I like that! As for AwayFind, our next version will address many of the things you're looking for here ; ). Thanks for the plug and always enjoy chatting. Cheers!
Doug LeMoine
Holy crap! You're right, Jared. I just looked through the Communicator 2007 product guide, and it looks like they've essentially implemented what Notes has offered for a while. (I may, of course, be missing some of the nuance that would be unique to MS's solution.) Still, it doesn't appear that they've made things easier. It just looks like more stuff to manage, and more information to process. The reason why I picked on "Out of the office" auto-replies is that it seems like a perfect candidate for bring an appropriate bit of information to the sender. I don't need all status information all the time, I just would like to be notified of a major impediment to communication. It's interesting: The core element of Wave looks a lot like what Notes (at first) and then Groove were supposed to be: specifically not "great email" tools, but environments that facilitate and simplify the collaboration constantly happening in business. I'm especially intrigued by the "real-time" element of Wave; it's a way to represent "status" in a very immediate, actual way. Whether it just gets in the way is really a matter of design.
Mobile phone addressbooks should pull in status information too. It's a no brainer.
Disclaimer: I work for Microsoft though not on this particular product. Office Communicator and Communication Server actually handle presence information in email quite elegantly. As soon as you enter the person's name, an icon indicates if the person is online(green), away(yellow), busy(red) or offline. There's an asterisk hovering over the icon that displays the person's out of office text on mouseover. I agree, it's an additional product, but it does integrate smoothly into Outlook as a plug-in.
Doug LeMoine
Hi, Ajay. Thanks for your comment, and I appreciate that Microsoft has already implemented something like what I've suggested. What is especially interesting to me is that it sounds as if the Office Communicator treats the "out of office" indication as a special kind of status. I very much support this. I think that the green/yellow/red status indications can be helpful in decision-making about how to contact someone, but "out of office" can be a major impediment in communication and it should be manifested to reflect that.

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