The Dumbest Implementation of a Feature – Bcc

Posted on Oct 26, 2010 | 56 comments


I’m working on a larger series on “scaling sales” that will drop this weekend or early next week so I thought I’d go for a more light-hearted topic today.  I’ve always thought about writing a few posts on features in products that drive me nuts.

I have a short list of what I consider the worst UX offenders and Bcc has got to top the list.

Let me be clear up front – I like Bcc.  I just don’t like the way it’s implemented and I think it leads to a lot of “email fails.”

We all use email in our daily lives.  For the most part you send emails to one or many people and you include them all in the “to” field.  Occasionally it seems more appropriate to have a few people in the “to” field and a few other in the “cc” field.  I tend to do this when I want to call out that the message is really intended for the primary recipients (to’s) but I would like to inform other people – maybe executive assistants or other staff who won’t be at a meeting, for example – and I’ll sometimes but them in the “cc” line in stead of “to” line.

cc stands for carbon copy and for those of us old enough to remember the pre-computer world, cc’s were common on memo’s back then and you had to know what all of these short-hand secretarial notations were, such as “encl” (enclosure).  I guess these were the short codes we all used before the text message / IM short-hand codes such as OMG, LOL or WTF? took over.

While “to” and “cc” are mostly treated the same (although newer productivity / filtering tools are starting to see them differently), the feature that really chaps my hide is “Bcc” – the “blind” carbon copy.

Let me explain:

Bcc’s function, as I’m sure you know, is to be able to write to people without other people emailed knowing that the blind copied people are on the distribution list.  Is this evil?  Naw, of course not.  Here’s where I use it:

1. Emailing a list for an event - When I email a large group I almost always use bcc.  The reason is that when you email a large group invariably somebody feels the need to hit “reply all,” which is a feature that should be rate limited, as in you can only use it once / week.  On group lists you often get 7-10 “reply all” responses and all of us sane humans get annoyed.  Or the quasi-sane people write a message to all saying, “please stop replying to all,” which, of course, is both ironic and annoying.  BCC avoids this all.

2. Emailing a list where disclosing other email addresses is not appropriate – There are also times where I’m running a group meeting and it may not be appropriate to share everybody’s email address with the entire group.  When you openly email people you’re giving a piece of private information out that you really don’t have the permission to do so.  For most of us this doesn’t matter.  I freely give out both my email address and my cell phone (which is on my business card) on the basis that most people know when it is appropriate to use these.  But not everybody has that same level of comfort with public information so I try to respect that.

3. Letting somebody know that I’ve completed a favor – I’m often asked for introductions or I’m helping one of GRP’s portfolio companies get intro’s to other investors or whatever.  I often don’t like to oblige the recipient to take the introduction but I do want the company asking the favor to know that I’ve actually completed the request.  Often times I will just send a separate email to the requestor telling them that said favor has been completed.  But if I have 10-12 emails to send out sometimes I will shorthand by just bcc’ing that person.  I will tell them ahead of time, “please don’t respond to the bcc request and please don’t contact the person directly.”

4. Bcc to keep someone out of scheduling followup emails – The case I’ve already written about where you drop the person who did an intro by “moving them to bcc” so they don’t see all back-and-forth emails.  I LOVE bcc for this.

So here’s the rub.

Sometimes people who are blind copied respond to the email.  In the first two cases it’s fine because nobody else is “copied” so it doesn’t matter.  But when people are actually copied and you are the “blind copy” then responding looks really bad.  It is what I call “bad blind copy etiquette.”

So if I wrote to a VC, for example, saying “have you ever met person X? I know he’d like to meet and he has these great skills” and then person X (who is blind copied) “responds to all” and says, “yeah, I’d really love to meet” then I look stupid.  I look really stupid.  The VC (or whoever I sent the intro to) will instantly realize that person X was blind copied because they won’t have noticed them on the original email list.

I only bcc people for harmless reasons and mostly to save me from a second email.  But why on earth would Microsoft and other email providers have allowed a person who is Bcc’d to respond to the email?  It would be such an easy piece of functionality in Outlook to simply disallow a reply in the case of the Bcc.  The person who responds often isn’t aware that they were bcc’d (either not paying close attention or on a mobile device) and would greatly appreciate an error message saying “you can’t respond to this message because you were bcc’d.”

So I’ve resorted to mostly bcc’ing myself and then forwarding emails to people in instances where the bcc may have been a better use of time for all involved.  It’s a royal pain in my arse. And I’m baffled why a product manager for Outlook or other email services haven’t realized this weakness.  I can’t think of a single “use case” where responded to an email where you are bcc’d would make sense.  If anyone knows one, please do tell …

[UPDATE – I totally forgot that I had once seen a company that tried to solve this problem.  It’s called Subtextual (but used to be called BCCThis).  I think I’ll check out their plug-in]

  • Joe

    Exactly right with the Bcc reply problem. If some people are copied and others blind copied, people rarely take the time to notice how the message arrived at their inbox.

    I don't know if it's the right solution to completely disallow a reply – at the end of the day, I would have a problem with Outlook denying me the ability to do something, even if that something is very dumb. But at the very least there does need to be a warning message that says, “hey buddy, you were lucky to be included on the e-mail in the first place. Do you really want to do this?”

  • http://stage.vambenepe.com/ @vambenepe

    Why do you need to bcc yourself so you can later forward the email? Why not just get it from your “Sent Email” folder and forward it from there?

  • Josh

    Well, you should be able to “reply” (that would just go to the sender, who obviously BCC'd in the first place). This is important in your example if the BCC'd person wants to say “Thanks for setting that up, I really appreciate it”. What you want to avoid is replying all.

    Either way, you are right. This seems like a flaw.

  • http://www.victusspiritus.com/ Mark Essel

    I would have thought mail UIs would have solved the bcc dilemma. Perhaps it's a pain point for you as a mail super user? I almost never use BCC unless I'm sending a group email for the same reasons as yourself.

    If I'm interested in spurring a conversation or discussion there are far better media than group emails: google groups is a first cut, wikis, forums, stand alone activity web pages with comments.

  • http://byJess.net Jess Bachman

    It would be nice to have some bcc (or other) syntax within the email, like:

    To: bob@firm.com
    From mark@firm.com
    bcc: joe@yahoo.com
    subject: intro

    [bcc] Joe, here is your intro, do not respond directly[/bcc]

    Bob,

    Let me introduce you to this guy I know….

  • Derek

    Sorry, I have a hard time finding fault with a feature that has actual value – for the reasons you stated, I use it in similar contexts – when the actual problem is with people not paying attention to where an email comes from and lacking the courtesy to think before hitting “reply all”. It might be a frustrating result, but it's the fault of the user, not the feature.

  • http://pikiquiz.com David Semeria

    Surely the person who is bcc'd could just send the mail manually to the people in the 'to' & 'cc' fields.

    Granted, warning someone they were bcc'd is a great idea, but it doesn't actually stop them from either reading the clear email addresses or replying to them.

    What you're suggesting is more akin to 'spectator mode'. All parties should be aware of any spectators on the list, but the spectators themselves should not be able to interact or gain any addresses from the main list. All they can do is, er.., spectate.

  • DG

    In the first case, the person who is bcc'd might actually want to reply.

    A warning message before a mail is sent would be more appropriate.

  • http://blog.calbucci.com/ Marcelo Calbucci

    Mark, I was completely lost on your “rant” until the second to last paragraph, which is not about BCC being bad, but “Reply”/”Reply All” not taking a BCC into consideration.

    I completely agree with you. This is a bad UX. At minimum, Outlook/GMail/etc. should give you a popup warning (I hate popup warnings, but this one seems warranted) reminding you that you were on the BCC. Technically, I'm not sure this is feasible though, because of distribution lists (like Google Groups). There is no flag on an email address that says “this is an individual” or “this is a group”.

  • philsugar

    I'm not in agreement with this one.

    1. Even if Outlook did it your way it wouldn't work for people like me that don't use Outlook.

    2. You are using the BCC to hide the fact that you just gave the person's email address and info to somebody that you don't think you should have. See your point 2.

    3. The real problem is the use/existence of the reply all feature. That is a much bigger problem. A good UI feature would be have an automatic filter which if you are included on a reply all would delete the email and send back a note to the person that sent the reply all a custom reply….like “I don't read reply all's asshole!”

    BTW the history of the BCC is how Telex's were setup. When I worked at Mitsubishi my bosses were BCC'd on my Telexes. That way I couldn't do a telecom (my department) deal that was above my level of authority.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    The “use case” of bcc is such that you almost shouldn't be entitled to reply because you weren't “copied” on the email so I'm not sure I buy that argument. Do you have a “use case” where it would actually be appropriate?

  • http://deano.com Deano

    Hrm. In your “bad bcc” example, it seems to me you had the wrong party on the BCC. Historically, BCC represented someone “higher up the value chain”… So, you'd want to BCC the VC, in a reply to person X who you are introducing.

    In context, though, it seems like outright laziness to me – why aren't you simply starting a new thread? Ask the VC if they're interested, and then separately loop them both in?

    Anyway, what it sounds like you're really saying is that since few email users are fully trained executive assistants, the email client itself should “fill the gap” and help prevent unwanted/ill-advised use of the BCC tag.

    This strikes me as the same kind of holy war/issue around “reply-to munging” for mailing lists… I'm on a dozen or so lists, and around half use reply to list (to keep the conversation alive), and half reply back to the post author ONLY (to prevent unintentional reply-all spamming).

    Rather than making things more confusing, and having interoperability issues between different mail clients/servers treating things differently, it's probably time to look into a non-email-based communication medium for this type of very focused (and critically important) interaction. Perhaps someone like LinkedIn could use this as a use case for their InMail product – “no more bad BCCs, ever!”… Or another step towards a day to day replacement for such an old standard (how many non-geeks are still struggling with FTP, after all)?

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Yes, I do that, too. Sometimes bcc'ing myself serves as a reminder to forward it. that's all.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    I would accept being able to reply to only the sender. That would be a reasonable solution.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Yeah, but in companies there are often reasons for bcc. You might send something to a client but you want to inform some people on your team that the email went out. Whatever. There are reasons for it (or it wouldn't exist or be used). But I tend to mostly use it in the way that I've described.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Actually, now that you mention it – I DID see a company that did exactly that! http://www.bccthis.com/learnmore.php

  • philsugar

    Appropriate Use Case:

    You are required to BCC your boss on emails because they want to see how negotiations/etc are going.

    When things get out of control/boss wants to exert control they do a reply all.

    This would happen to me on Telex's at Mitsubishi. Asada my bosses boss would weigh in and the argument would end.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    I like “bcc” – what I don't like is the ability for somebody who is “bcc'd” to hit “reply all” and write to everybody. That's what I'm annoyed about.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Well, I don't think that anybody who is bcc'd would actually reply if they realized that they were only bcc'd and if they understood the feature.

    But now that you mention it – somebody should build the ability to email people, bcc others and the email addresses are 'masked' so that the bcc person doesn't see them. that would be cool.

  • http://blog.daryn.net daryn

    Agree completely that there are a lot of BCC-fails.

    However, the actual recipients of an email are independent of what is in the to, from, cc, and bcc headers, so what you're describing would be pretty problematic to implement. The bcc header, in particular, doesn't make it past the sender – if it did it would kind of defeat the “blind”-ness. As a recipient, you have no way of knowing if you got an email because you were bcc'd, whether you were expanded from a 3rd party distribution list, etc. The best you can do is to see what address is on the envelope, but that doesn't have to match your vanity email address at all.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Yeah, but in the first case a response isn't a problem because it goes only to the sender. Somebody else said in the comments that the best implementation would allow a bcc recipient to respond but the response would only go to the sender.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Yeah, it was kind of a long walk to get to my point – sorry. Just had a limited time to get out post so probably didn't get to the point up front.

  • http://www.victusspiritus.com/ Mark Essel

    With products and technology, it's often the things you take out which define the value offering. You could be on to a different focused product. A status like update that communicates “Sent X,Y,Z the following message” and make that viewable/addressable to another group with no option for a reply.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    LOL, I love point 3.

    I would never bcc somebody on an email where I didn't think I could trust them to have the other person's email address. So I self filter.

    I would like it implemented in Outlook, Gmail and everywhere. Sure it never will be. So it was just a light-hearted rant about bad UX.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    re: laziness – naw. I often (in fact usually) do 2 emails instead of bcc. I'm just saying that when I get heavy volumes of intros / emails going bcc would actually be quite a time saver if I knew the recipient couldn't accidentally respond.

    re: using other means – I'm experimenting with some including Hashable.

    re: bcc for higher-up-the-value-chain people. I've never heard of that. And knowing many people who bcc I don't think it's an accepted norm even if bcc started that way.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    I don't think that's correct. The bcc is maintained on the recipient. I often see myself as “bcc'd” and I do believe blocking 'reply all' given I'm bcc'd would be easily implemented.

  • http://www.brekiri.com/blog/ Greg4

    I agree. The Bcc feature isn't technically broken, but it's basically guaranteed that people will use it in ways you wish they didn't. Maybe it should be replaced with something like “send separately” – everyone in the field gets an email addressed to them individually, with all other recipients removed. It breaks reply all, but for almost all of these use cases no one cares.

    Looking forward to the heavy-duty sales series, too.

  • http://blog.daryn.net daryn

    That is available sometimes, but the most common implementation of BCC

    is that it is expanded at the MUA (mail client) and then stripped.

    “There are three ways in which the Bcc: field is used. In the first

    case, when a message containing a Bcc: field is prepared to be sent,

    the Bcc: line is removed even though all of the recipients (including

    those specified in the Bcc: field) are sent a copy of the message. In

    the second case, recipients specified in the To: and Cc: lines each

    are sent a copy of the message with the Bcc: line removed as above,

    but the recipients on the Bcc: line get a separate copy of the message

    containing a Bcc: line. (When there are multiple recipient addresses

    in the Bcc: field, some implementations actually send a separate copy

    of the message to each recipient with a Bcc: containing only the

    address of that particular recipient.) Finally, since a Bcc: field may

    contain no addresses, a Bcc: field can be sent without any addresses

    indicating to the recipients that blind copies were sent to someone.

    Which method to use with Bcc: fields is implementation dependent, but

    refer to the “Security Considerations'' section of this document for

    a discussion of each.”

  • http://deano.com Deano

    The information is always there – some clients display that you are BCC'd, and some simply don't show you in the “To:” field.

    Mark's right, the feature wouldn'd be hard to do, it's the the breadth of clients and/or servers that would need to be changed to make this effective.

    I have a feeling it's an idea like gmail labels vs. folders – many would love it and get it right away, some would begrudgingly go along or not care either way, and a vocal plurality would refuse to play ball (largely based on misperception of what functionality is lost/gained, or just a reluctance to change). Not to mention, this would violate an RFC or two, so the standards bodies would be against it.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    maybe. my experience is limited to Outlook, Gmail and Blackberry. It is supported in these.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    already written. but being published by somebody else first so I agree to wait

  • B3nr0m

    Well said Mark and thank you for sharing. Being in IT for over 12 years I've witnessed countless (reply all) messages and annoys the @#$% out of me. Especially using productive work time to send an email wanting to sell something. Next thing you know you get reply alls up the ying yang. If it really get's me I just log in as the user and pull/retrieve the message and tell them not to do it again.=)

  • http://twitter.com/unabst Johan Miyanaga

    Just FWD the sent copy, don't BCC. Problem solved. Why even BCC yourself? It should be in your outbox.

  • http://www.aaronklein.com/ Aaron Klein

    BlackBerry used to put [You were BCCed] or [You were CCed] at the top of a message where that was the case, but they seem to have dropped that with BlackBerry 6. First bad feature reduction I've found. :)

  • http://david.ulevitch.com/ davidu

    Based on how SMTP works and how Mail User Agents interpret SMTP conversations and mail messages, it's not possible to do what you want. You could try and add logic to detect it, but it's hard. BCC is not an actual part of the mail exchange. It's something clients do and mail servers generally understand when injecting mail, to create a copy of the email to another destination.

  • http://twitter.com/anthonyonesto Anthony Onesto

    Having been in HR for my entire career I carefully avoided the BCC. I typically will take the email I just sent and forward it to the person I intended to BCC. This eliminates any chance of a BCC. Its an extra step, but worth avoiding the hassle of a reply all mistake.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    wish I could do that ;-)

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Yes, I answered that in the previous comments. I do sometimes forward the sent copy. I bcc myself to have a reminder in my inbox. It's a better visual prompt then going to my sent items. If I send one email – no big deal. but sometimes I do 10 in a row.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    yeah, you're in HR so you're smart than I am ;-)

  • MITDGreenb

    Two comments:

    1) The problem with bcc is a “Reply All” problem in all cases. In the case you outlined, you look bad if the favor requester hits “Reply All” (so the original To: person gets an email from the Bcc: person), not if they hit “Reply” (since only you would see the “Thanks for doing me the favor, Mark” email). Thus, your rate-limiting of Reply All should cut down the Bcc problem.

    2) There is one other case of good bcc use. Suppose I ask for an introduction. You send an email with both the person's address and mine in the To: field. I will then respond “Thanks, Mark. I've moved you to bcc so you don't have to see the remainder of my discussion with this person, including the details of our trying to schedule to meet for coffee at some point in the future.” Or something like that.

  • Joe

    I can think of one case, back when I was a praticing attorney, that we had tort litigation involving 20+ parties and sets of attorneys. Mass e-mails would go out to all counsel and the counsels' paralegals would get Bcc's. For whatever reason, only counsel wanted to be addressed on the messages – not any of their staff. But once in a long while the e-mails would have some major error, like a time for a scheduling conference, that really needed to be correctly quickly before the whole lot calendared it or appeared at the wrong time. So a paralegal or whoever noticed the error would “reply all” to the Bcc.

  • http://twitter.com/michaelshimmins Michael Shimmins

    Mark – this is such a great idea, I'm going to see if we can fit it in the development of the web mail client shipped in our product. If you're BCC'd you can only reply, not reply all.

    Thanks for contributing to our design ;)

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    I use that one all the time. I wrote about it here: http://www.bothsidesofthetable.com/2010/03/02/im-moving-you-to-bcc/

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    awesome!

  • http://www.AttentionHr.com Kirill Zubovsky

    Shouldn't a response to BCC simply go back to the sender, and sender alone? That would pretty much solve all of your problems.

    I was under and impression that's how Gmail does it, but I couldn't find any group emails where a BCC contact replied.

  • http://stickyslides.blogspot.com Jan Schultink

    I don't like using BCC, it is like hiding something from someone
    1) Big mailings go via MailChimp
    2) I will probably send that 2nd email, inefficient but transparent

  • edegolier

    I recently replied all to an email intro and reading your post made me quickly check to make sure I hadn’t just committed the same sin! It’s so easy to do, especially on a small screen, as you pointed out. Far too easy considering the potential consequences. Not sure about an outright ban but definitely a warning message. Subtextual looks good but I hate adding plug-ins for a feature I only use a few times a year.

  • MartinP

    Sure some of us are old enough to remember telex-speak. What is it about tech that makes each generation re-invent the wheel?

  • Dave W Baldwin

    Unfortunately, as we move up the tech ladder, there will be a lot of stupid shit that hangs on. Was helping kids with Micro Office and where you move the text from behind over to on top of the graphic, the illogical command is the right one.

    Then you make observation and immediately get swamped with the 'all you need to do is' stuff.

  • philsugar

    I really want to see that as well. I'm sure it will kick ass.