The dreaded OOO. You've probably already gotten one today. The tone is usually perfunctory, most likely generated by a bot, or a bot-like impulse on behalf of the sender, who is hastily trying to sign off before that vacation, workshop, excuse to get away for five minutes of uninterrupted peace.
When we get an auto-responder, the feeling is generally one of mild disappointment, indifference, or doom, depending on how urgent your request was.
If I took the time to compose something better, I wondered, would anyone take the time to read it? Was there a way—an opportunity, even—to shift the entire auto-responder interaction from one of scarcity (nobody’s home) to abundance (well that just made my day)?
The question became:
"How might we take one of the most automated voices we still offer to the world and make it more human?"
I started to experiment:
"I will be in a workshop this week rendering response time erratic and unpredictable. I apologize for any inconvenience this may cause and invite you to celebrate this moment by testing the varied edges and new limits of patience this may evoke. Who knows where it may lead? I will be back to you as soon as possible. I promise. Thank you!"
Then got a little bolder:
"I will be impossibly slow to respond today as I am currently seated deep within the bowels of our criminal justice system doing my bit as potential juror #xxxxx for Kings County. I urge patience and self management, and that's just for myself.... I apologize for any inconvenience this may cause."
Today you will most likely receive:
"I am abroad with the most inconsistent wifi I have ever experienced. It's the substantiation of mindfulness, the invitation to a million moments paused in the belligerent now. I will pick up with you again on July 10th when I am back in New York where the data flows like a subterranean stream and the hours are neither here nor there. Thank you for your patience in the meantime."
People responded. They read them. They liked them! And the fact that they got a momentary zing out of these absurdist missives did much to relieve my guilt over dodging people's requests. I also learned a few things along the way.
3 design principles for how to write a better OOO:
Insert an element of surprise
Moments of surprise in the mundane matter exponentially. I have received many many bemused responses. From close colleagues to clients to absolute strangers. It instantaneously bonds us and shifts the exchange from “I have a request or need” to “I see and hear you.” When I eventually return and execute on that request, there are new connections, filamenty kinship has grown between us through humor and surprise. From that foundation we accomplish more, usually with speed, which is ironic when you think that the communication started with a stunting. Not particularly auspicious. This creates space for possibility.
Do not concede to the bot!
Bots are helpful, available, and dare I say it, adorable at times. But to compete with them we must use our all too human, weird, silly, grammatically inconsistent voices. Besides, if they are learning from us anyway we may as well give them some good material to work with.
Upend expectations by being yourself
I work in leading talent for IDEO. I'm proud of that craft. But I’m also an MFA, a poet, and you may be able to tell, a bit of a weirdo. The moment I gave myself permission to be myself in all of my communications with people—even the dryest most official ones—people started responding in kind. Free yourself and the rest will follow.
We all operate in a world where we bump up against other’s expectations or assumptions of who we are on a daily basis. Those assumptions don't change on their own—that's your job! And it's as easy as writing a good OOO email! I am not HR, I’m HCH. Hello.
Heather Currier Hunt
Global Director of Learning & Development
As a lifelong learner and passionate advocate for IDEO's people, Heather designs the supports necessary to grow the existing, emerging and potential leaders in all of us. When not in transit you will find her staring at a painting or listening to trees somewhere near you. Feel free to join.