Gathering Information with Outlook Voting Buttons

Voting buttons work in all versions of Microsoft Outlook to let you easily collect responses to questions (e.g., where to have dinner or which image to put on a T-shirt). Simply open a new message, click Options, and select the "Use voting buttons" check box. Although the adjacent drop-down list provides three choices for buttons--Approve, Reject; Yes, No; and Yes, No, and Maybe--Outlook doesn't limit you to these selections. You can type in any combination of choices, separating them with semicolons. For example, you can use Pepperoni; Cheese; Supreme; Anchovy if you're canvassing a group about their pizza preferences for an upcoming working lunch.

When sending voting-button messages, prefixing the subject line with "VOTE:" is a good idea. Otherwise, users might see the message in their Inboxes and click Reply, not realizing that they need to open the message and click a voting button.

After you send a voting-button message, don't move it from your Sent Items folder. If you move the message to another folder, Outlook won't be able to process the responses. If the original message remains in the Sent Items folder, Outlook will automatically display responses on a Tracking tab in the original message. Automatic processing takes place when Outlook is idle. If you're busy sending messages, Outlook might not get a chance to process the responses, but it can catch up while you're away from your desk. When Outlook has processed the first response, the sent message's icon will change to an envelope with a blue "i" to indicate that tracking information is available. To change the automatic-processing settings, click Tools, Options, E-mail Options, Tracking Options.

At the top of the Tracking tab on the sent message, Outlook maintains a running total of responses (e.g., Pepperoni 8; Cheese 0; Supreme 5; Anchovy 10). In the grid below that information, you'll see each person's response. Outlook provides no obvious way to extract voting-button responses from a message, but you can easily paste the information into an Excel spreadsheet. Open a new Excel spreadsheet, then open the voting-button message and click the Tracking tab. Choose Edit, Select All, then click Edit, Copy. Switch to the Excel spreadsheet, and click Paste. The responses paste into the spreadsheet in neat rows and columns, ready for further analysis or printing.

Voting-button messages have some limitations. You can't use the Options dialog box to create a voting-button message in Outlook 2000 or Outlook 98 in Internet Mail Only (IMO) mode. However, you can write code in Visual Basic Scripting Edition (VBScript) to add voting buttons to an IMO message by setting the message's Voting Options property to a semicolon-delimited string of button choices.

You can send voting-button messages over the Internet to other Outlook users who don't work in the same Exchange organization. The key is to make sure that the recipient address is enabled for Rich-Text Format (RTF). For Outlook 2000 and Outlook 98 in IMO mode, check the Outlook contact and ensure that the "Send using plaintext" check box isn't selected. In other versions, you can double-click the email address on the contact record to see whether the recipient is set for "Send using Outlook Rich-Text Format." If you're sending from an Exchange mailbox, the Exchange server must be set to respect the user's choice for mail format and not convert RTF messages to HTML or plaintext.

The next time you need an answer to a simple question, send a voting-button message. You can then sit back and wait for the responses.

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