Rob N ★ bio photo

Rob N ★

I do things. Mostly computer things. Sometimes I write about them.

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Lets imagine you have a giant button. Its easy to press. Almost all of the time it does exactly what you want. Every now and again however, if you’re not taking care, there’s a chance that its not what you want and it’ll take your hand off. If you’re paying attention though this this never happens.

Is it better then to keep this button nice and easy to use, or should it be slightly harder to use every time?

This is the question we’ve been trying to answer at FastMail for the last six months. The giant button in this case is the “reply” button, and we’ve been trying to decide whether or not the default should be “reply to sender” or “reply to all”. Yesterday we answered that when we made the default “reply to all”. Unsurprisingly, this was met with some amount of anguish from the gallery.

Its worth noting at this point that we’re only talking about the default. A separate “reply to sender” option is available from the message menu, and of course the recipient list can be edited before sending. So we’re only talking about the function of the “reply” button here, which is the easiest one to hit.

The FastMail web interface is built around the concept of a “conversation”. This isn’t a new concept; Gmail has had it since the beginning and existed in other clients even earlier than that. The idea of a conversation is its a single discussion topic with a fixed list of participants. If you come from it in that way, there’s rarely a case where “reply to all” is not what you want.

I was dubious at first, but I’ve been using this for a few months now and its very rare that “reply to all” does not do what I want:

  • In a one-to-one conversation, it does exactly the same thing as “reply to sender”.
  • In a multi-recipient conversation, everyone receives everything, which is almost always what I want.
  • When replying to something received from a distribution or broadcast list, it pushes the reply back to the list. This might be undesirable if its supposed to be a top-down broadcast list (eg the CEO writing to all staff) but the list address should then have appropriate policies set on it.
  • When replying to something received from a distribution list with some number of non-members CC’d, it goes to everyone. Again, nobody misses out.
  • When replying to something received from a well-configured list manager (ie the message has List-post: headers), the default changes to “reply to list” anyway.

The places where “reply to all” might not be what you want are still covered by using either “reply to sender” or editing the recipient list:

  • Tens or hundreds of people have been cc’d. Poor choices by the sender, who should have used bcc or a distribution list. We can’t determine that though, so you have to choose.
  • A “me too” or “thanks” to the original sender without including everyone. That’s what “reply to sender” is for.

These cases have proved to be uncommon in my experience.

If “reply to sender” is the default, then at least two of my five cases listed above don’t do the right thing and I have to go to the menu for the proper option. Meanwhile I am (slightly) protected form the two “dangerous” cases, but they don’t happen often anyway, so the protection isn’t especially useful.

I was actually surprised to see complaints at all, not because I thought everyone would agree but because I’ve been using this for so long that I’d completely forgotten about it. Reply now just does what I expect. Its only been a handful of complaints, so maybe nobody else is bothered by it either. It wouldn’t be the first time the internet’s wisdom of the ages has been wrong or at least outdated. I guess we’ll need more time to tell for sure!