What does a good out-of-office email look like?


25 Aug 2018827 Views

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Image: Joe Belanger/Shutterstock

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Have you been bombarded with out-of-office emails over the summer? UX expert Gareth Dunlop has some tips to keep yours short and sweet.

They say that in Ireland, our two favourite days of the year are St Patrick’s Day and summer. However, the Emerald Isle was basking in unseasonal levels of sunshine and heat over the past few months and, as a nation, we can’t get enough of it.

This unexpected heatwave motivated many of us to vacation or ‘staycation’ to enjoy the best of the weather and, like the good professionals we are, we want to make sure that people trying to contact us via email know that we’re not at our desks. The tried and tested method of achieving this is by setting up the dreaded auto-responder email.

I’ve been on the receiving end of many auto-responders over the years, good and bad, and have recently read some articles on the BBC and Daily Mail websites about some of the most ‘hilarious’ out-of-office emails doing the rounds. These experiences have motivated this already grumpy old man to consider how auto-responders can actually help the user when their point of contact is off the grid enjoying the sunshine.

Or, to put it another way, does user experience (UX) have anything to say about how to construct a good out-of-office auto-response email? Spoiler alert: yes, lots!

Let’s consider the heuristics by which we can assess the quality of the auto-response message. The person sending the original email has a number of needs and wants from the email bounce-back:

  • total clarity regarding the recipient’s availability/non-availability
  • concise and clear communication
  • information allowing them to assess the urgency of their need to keep them in control of how they respond (for example, wait until your return, contact a colleague in the interim)
  • timeliness, that is, it starts when you leave work and stops when you return
  • accuracy, that is, the dates cited are correct and there are no typos

The email sender isn’t the only actor on the stage and, like all design challenges, the solution needs to solve problems for the sender (user) and also the recipient (business). The recipient and their employer also have requirements from the bounced-back email:

  • it assists efficiency, it doesn’t hinder it
  • it doesn’t dump a load of low-level, non-urgent queries on the lap of some poor unsuspecting co-worker

So, in UX-best-practice fashion, having developed our problem statement in depth, allow me to explore what this might mean for the solution.

The email should be short. It should contain the exact time and date of being out of the office. It should be free of spelling mistakes. It should explain if the recipient is checking emails ad hoc or if they are entirely disconnected. It should offer alternative contact methods.

Considering the needs of the business, I am going to suggest that it shouldn’t contain the email address of any other colleagues, only names and phone numbers, just so that the sender has to think twice before getting in touch or not.

If you do all of those things, and you can write well, and you are funny, and you promise never to write any of the messages cited in the BBC and Daily Mail articles, then – and only then – can you indulge yourself in a joke.

Just make sure the recipient finds it as amusing as you do.

By Gareth Dunlop

Gareth Dunlop owns and runs Fathom, a UX consultancy that helps ambitious organisations get the most from their digital products by viewing the world from the perspective of their customers. Specialist areas include UX strategy, usability testing, customer journey planning and accessibility. Clients include BBC, Bord Bia, Firmus Energy, Kingspan, AIB and Tesco Mobile.