Tuesday, April 22, 2008


On replying to email

A couple of weeks ago, David Pogue posted in his New York Times blog a letter from a reader. It’s short, so here:

A Simple E-Mail Design Idea

A good idea from a reader:

David, I had the simplest of ideas for helping people avoid “Reply-All” nightmares (where you humiliate yourself by clicking Reply to All, blasting your response to a huge group, instead of just Reply). E-mail programs like Outlook or Apple Mail should just not put the Reply-All button anywhere near the regular Reply button!

Visually, when the two are so close to each other, it’s easy to mistakenly click the wrong one. But if you had to go down into, say, the bottom-right corner to find the Reply-All button, that would likely jar you enough so that you wouldn’t make an error.

Hope that someone implements this some day soon!

(To which I add: Or how about, at the very least, requiring that you press a key, like Shift, as you click the Reply button to change it to “Reply to All”?)

It sounds simple; it sounds nice; it sounds like it’d solve a lot of problems, doesn’t it?

The trouble with this idea, as with many of these sorts of ideas is that it’s not as simple as that. Oh, yes, people have thought of both the reader’s suggestion and Mr Pogue’s... and some mail programs do one or the other of them. Guess what: it doesn’t fix anything, not really. It only makes things a bit less convenient.

Some of the commenters have the answer too. And so... let’s look at my comments on it, and on what some of the other commenters say.

First, for everyone who says, “They should hide the ‘reply to all’ button, because it’s almost never what you want to do,” you can find at least one person who says the opposite, that “reply to all” is usually right and people don’t use it enough. The real answer is that each is correct sometimes, which is why both options are proffered.

When I send a note to, say, ten people, and you reply, the question really is whether you’re replying to me or to the group... whether everyone ought to see your reply or not. There really isn’t a way to know, in general, which of those is the case. We can infer the former if the group is large enough — it’s less likely that your reply ought to go to the group as the groups size increases — but deciding on the threshold isn’t easy. 100 probably qualifies. But does 10? I have certainly had group discussions by email with ten people at a time.

The consequences of not including the group on your reply are also not benign. It can confuse the discussion greatly when some people miss a sub-thread of the discussion, and it can make coordination difficult when different people are aware of different fragments of the situation. I was recently involved in trying to get four people to meet, when two of the people were replying only to the sender of each message... and it was horrendous.

So the answer isn’t to hide one of the reply options. The answer is to make it easy for the user to make the correct choice for this reply.

Most of the commenters agree, though, that the “reply to all” button should be hard to get to. They’re annoyed by “inane replies” when the wrong choice is made, and they’re not thinking about the times when they’ll be as annoyed, or more so, by not getting a critical reply that was sent only to one or two people.

One of the commenters, the first one, basically eschews the “WIMP” interface, saying that you should use the keyboard, and refuse to use any program that doesn’t make it easy to use the keyboard instead of clicking buttons. I have a lot of sympathy for that approach — I’m a big fan of keyboard shortcuts, and use them a great deal myself. But, hey, I’m a techie too. My mother is not likely to learn the keyboard shortcuts for every program — which are, by the way, different for every program.

Commenter 3 suggests a confirmation prompt:

“Are you sure you want to reply to all?”
press cancel or OK
There’re two problems with this. One is that by presenting a confirmation prompt for one option and not the other, you’re suggesting that one option is preferred (or, alternatively, that the other is so dangerous that it needs confirmation)... and you’ll wind up discouraging people from using the “reply to all” choice even when it’s the right one.

The other problem with it reflects one of my pet peeves about computer messages: the response choices don’t agree with the question. If you ask me a question for which the answers ought to be “yes” or “no”, make the response choices be “yes” and “no”. Not “OK” and “cancel”. Not “continue” and “stop”. Word the question carefully, and make the responses parallel to the question.

Lots of the comments point out that in many programs the user interface can be customized, and the reply buttons can be moved around. Again, as with the keyboard shortcuts, that’s a fine thing to have for those of us who’ll use it. Most people won’t.

So here’s a plug for the email program that I use, Mulberry. It was written by a friend and colleague, Cyrus Daboo, and it’s now out as open source. I’ve been using it for years. It’s not without its problems — no program like that is — but it has one of the best interfaces I’ve seen for replying to messages. It presents you with a list of all the addressees, showing their roles in the original message (sender, to, cc), and checked off as “to”, “cc”, or “bcc” for the reply. There are buttons to quickly select all recipients or only the sender, and it’s also easy to select just certain ones or eliminate certain ones (important when, say, an executive starts up a conversation, but the participants need to go off without her and have the discussion).

One commenter also points to a project called Kangaroo, which looks interesting:

Users occasionally send email to the wrong recipients — clicking Reply To All instead of Reply, mistyping an email address, or guessing an email address and getting it wrong — and suffer violations of security or privacy as a result. Kangaroo is an extension to webmail systems that aims to alleviate this problem by automatically displaying pictures of the selected recipients in a peripheral display, while the user is composing an email message. Kangaroo currently utilizes google images and facebook searches as techniques for obtaining faces from email addresses. Furthermore, it has the ability to discover mailing list memberships from existing web data sources, and a user interface design that keeps important facecs recognizable while scaling up to hundreds or thousands of recipients. Preliminary experiments suggest that faces significantly improve users’ ability to detect misdirected emails with only a brief glance.

I think I’ll try the Firefox extension, and see what I think.


Julietta said...

How about adding a graphic, like one round yellow emoticon face with Reply, and a multitude of faces in various colors next to Reply to All? You could still click the wrong one, true, but at least hopefully the image would impress you more than the word Reply, which is the same in both options.

lidija said...

Idiot-proofing email software seems just as easy as idiot-proofing your average group of people emailing each other.

Barry Leiba said...

Julietta: Yes, that'd probably help — images are quicker to recognize than words. The trick, of course, is picking the right images, and finding images that will work for most people (nothing will work for everyone). We have a whole branch of computer science devoted to that sort of thing (and they just had the CHI (Computer/Human Interaction) conference in Florence the week before last).

Lidija: Ah, yup. It's fruitless to try to make it perfect. But it's not fruitless to try to make it better.

Paul said...

I think lidija's hit the nail on the head. I am fond of saying that nothing is proof against a true idiot.

Ann said...

Nothing needs to be done. Just make the mistake once, learn it the hard way, and remember it forever.

The Ridger, FCD said...

Oh, Ann. I wish it were that simple. I suppose if the "hard way" is hard enough ... but I've seen mail servers crash due to a mis-sent message to a huge alias and dozens of people all hitting "reply all" to ask "why did I get this?" and then dozens more to say "stop replying to all you idiots!!!" more than once. Way more than once.