Setting reply expectations

This blog is part of a series called Challenging Communication Norms

Reply expectations are a key issue for users. Outside of Plum Mail there are no good ways to communicate to someone how quickly you expect them to respond to your email.

Not knowing how to act when you receive an email causes anxiety. If you assume every sender expects an immediate response this also creates unnecessary pressure.

If we can solve this problem, the communication experience for both sides is greatly improved.

If all the emails you recieve include a consistent reply expectation you can immediately make an informed choice about which messages to deal with first. This removes the guesswork.

A reply expectation can work both ways too. The sender can set one, say 'this week', and the recipient can set one too, say 'next week'.

In this scenario, the sender knows the recipient has the email and each other know a reply is in hand and can be expected 'next week'. This removes all the anxiety, insecurity and guesswork. It also removes the need for those pesky 'just bumping this to the top of your inbox' emails.

In order to make expectation setting useful, we need to change user behaviour.
In other words, we need to encourage users to start communicating their reply expectation when they write or receive an email.

We are doing this in a few different ways:


As the sender writes we simply ask: 'how quickly do you need a response from this person?'

We can apply this to individual questions in an email or the whole email itself.
If the user doesn't want to communicate an expectation, that's fine, no action is needed.

To encourage the recipient, we ask another simple question: 'would you like to let know when you expect to reply to this email?'

Natural Language

We are using natural language for our prompts and the actual expectation setting. These are the options available:

This natural language allow the user to communicate as one would in person.
This makes it easier to decide what is appropriate because we already use these phrases in every day life.

By replicating existing real-world behaviour in Plum Mail, nudging users to use the feature should be easier.

Staying Relevant

Anything related to time naturally expires. For example, if you set a reply expectation of 'today' but the recipient doesn't read you email today, we have a problem.

In order for users to want to change their behaviour, reply expectations need to remain relevant.

Therefore, any expectation set in Plum Mail adjusts itself according to the time at which the email is actually read.

If an email arrives 'this week' with a reply expectation set of 'next week' but is not read until next week, the reply expectation will automatically adjust itself to say 'this week'.

This helps ensure the reply expectations accurately reflects the wishes of the sender at the time the email is read.

Similarly, if the sender's expectation needs to change (perhaps the issue is no longer urgent) they can update the reply expectation so the recipient is not madly trying to respond to an email that no longer needs such an urgent response.

To encourage a move toward exchanging reply expectations, the technology must never introduce more problems than it solves.

Perceived Benefits

If used, reply expectations will improve communication dramatically for everyone involved.

You can remove the guesswork and set the tone for a conversation easily. The feature creates a simple formula for effectively communicating what you need without having to type it out fifty times a day or think of ways to ask.

As these benefits become apparent to users, we stand a good chance of helping users form the expectation setting habit.

The more users make use of the feature, Plum Mail can also start to generate some useful data on how long different users wait before replying and how often they meet or exceed the expectations set.

If you're writing to someone who receives a lot of emails, they are likely to reply less quickly. Plum Mail has the potential to forewarn you of this fact, using previous experience, and encourage you to set a realistic reply expectation.

This is a powerful way of managing a user's expectation to avoid disappointment and manage anxiety while they wait for a reply.