April 17, 2002

Dead men don't read email
Recently on SIGIA-L I got involved in a little debate over the value of e-mail auto-responders. My position was that auto-responders, when used properly, can add a lot of value. From a usability principles perspective, an e-mail telling you your order has been received provides a certain amount of system feedback and status. My feeling is that auto-responders should be used to provide additional information and value to users. For example, rather than just telling a user that their order was received, an auto-response can inform the user how to check on their order's status, when to expect a shipment, etc.

After reading The Case Against Autoresponders, I think it's time to clarify a few points about auto-responders:
  1. Auto-responses and the processes around them must be designed well like any other customer-facing content or system.
  2. Just because you can take some humans out of a process by automating some customer interaction, don't forget that there's a human on the receiving end.
  3. Processes should allow for a way to prevent the auto-response. Designers should allow for manual intervention to take the place of automated processes -- acknowledge that exceptional situations happen, like the death of a customer, and provide a way to handle those situations individually. Not all situations can be anticipated and some communications shouldn't be scripted in advance.

Autoresponses, if used well, can strengthen user trust in a company or site. If used poorly, they can make users feel like just another number -- another email address in a huge spam-sending database. Many companies talk about "building relationships" -- but the last few lines of the GrokDotCom article emphasize how superficial so many of these "relationships" are:

"My friend conscientiously sent emails to a number of online businesses who regularly sent both email and snail mail to her mom, requesting her mom's name be removed from their lists. Only one replied."

Clickz does a great job of explaining how to deliver value along with strong branding and marketing messages via email and auto-responders:

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