Outlook’s Delivery Receipt and Read Receipt Features

Today I want to talk about Outlook’s read receipt and delivery receipt features, how they work, how to disable them and why you should.

I’ve been using Outlook, Microsoft’s email client, almost every day since 2005. Back then it was Outlook 2003, today it’s Outlook 2007. I know what you are going to say: Outlook 2013 has been out for a while now and you are still using the 2007 version?

What can I say? This is the speed at which things move in big companies. Upgrades come at a very slow pace and sometimes, some versions get skipped altogether. For example the company I work for went from Windows XP directly to Windows 7 skipping Vista.

The two features I want to address, read receipt and delivery receipt, have been part of Outlook since at least Outlook 2003. Let me briefly explain what each one of them does:

  • The delivery receipt option, if enabled, notifies the sender of an email message that his or her email has been delivered to the recipient’s mail box.
  • The read receipt option, if enabled, notifies the sender of an email message that his or her email has been opened by the message recipient.

Let’s take a closer look at how Outlook achieves these two features.

The Delivery Receipt Option

The delivery receipt option can be enabled for a new mail message by going to the “Options” ribbon section in the new message editor window and selecting the “More Options” command.

“More Options” command to access the new mail message tracking options

In the dialog window that appears select the “Request a delivery receipt for this message” option.

"Request a delivery receipt for this message" option
“Request a delivery receipt for this message” option

Then press the “Close” button, write up your message and send it as usual. Once the server delivers your email message to the recipient’s mail box, you will receive a notification in your inbox to alert you of the event.

Delivery receipt notification message
Delivery receipt notification message

This works pretty much as “advertised”. None the less, I believe it is a waste of time because, if the message cannot be delivered to the recipient’s mail box, the server will send back a delivery error message notifying you of the problem. So why waste the time to enable the delivery receipt option in the first place?

Delivery error notification message
Delivery error notification message

I recommend not using the delivery receipt option. Instead, unless you receive a delivery error message, just assume your message got delivered .

The Read Receipt Option

Just like the delivery receipt feature, the read receipt feature can be enabled by going to the “Options” ribbon section in the new message editor window and selecting the “More Options” command.

A quicker way to enable it is to directly tick the “Request a Read Receipt” check box under the “Tracking” section in the “Options” ribbon.

"Read receipt" option
“Read receipt” check box under the “Options” ribbon in the “Tracking” section

Now you can write up your message and send it as you normally would. After the recipient receives your message, the moment they open it, they will be prompted with a dialog box asking them to select whether to send back a read receipt or not.

"Read receipt" dialog prompt
“Read receipt” dialog prompt

The recipient can select either “Yes” or “No”. The “Yes” option is the default one so pressing the “Enter” key or the space bar on the keyboard would select the “Yes” option and a read receipt message would be sent to the sender, i.e. to you.

Read receipt notification message
Read receipt notification message

If they choose “No” then you will not receive a read receipt notification message in your inbox.

Please notice that the recipient is prompted to choose to send a read receipt notification before reading your message which means that they can press the “Yes” button without actually reading your message.

Which makes this a very unreliable way of knowing when your message has been read.

Emailing With Servers Other Than “Microsoft Exchange”

If you try to use the two features, delivery receipt and read receipt, while sending emails to servers other than Microsoft’s “Exchange” email server here’s what happens:

Delivery receipt and read receipt used with servers other than Exchange
Delivery receipt and read receipt used with servers other than Exchange

Above is the notification message I have received after sending an email from an Exchange server to a Gmail address.

The delivery receipt seems to kind of work but the read receipt does not work at all. Once I opened the message in Gmail I was not presented with any prompts to reply with a read receipt.

Why Would Someone Use The Delivery Receipt And The Read Receipt Features?

I have asked myself this question quite a few times now. Here is what I came up with:

Someone might want to use the delivery receipt feature when they must be sure that their message was delivered. Since enabling this feature for an outgoing message takes a little bit of time why not just assume that the message was delivered and that in case of an issue a delivery failure message will be received.

I want you to think now about the read receipt feature. Its purpose is to notify you when the recipient has read your message. So why would someone use it? I asked around and from the answers I have got I figured that people use this feature because they want to have proof that the recipient has read their message. In other words they want to cover their backs.

Although, we have seen that it does not actually work reliably as the recipient can reply to you with a read receipt without actually having read the message. Thus it makes for a very poor proof of the message having been read.

Conclusions

The delivery receipt option is redundant since the mail server already notifies you in case there is a delivery error. So stop wasting time enabling the option. Assume instead that your message has been sent successfully unless you receive a delivery error message.

The read receipt option is broken by design: it does not work as it was defined. It does not achieve its purpose in a reliable manner since receiving the read receipt does not necessarily mean that the recipient has actually read the message. It just means that they pressed the “Yes” option when presented with the prompt. Hence I urge you to stop using it. Instead, if your message is so important that you absolutely must know with certainty that the person at the other end of your email has read your message, then pick up the phone and call them or even better, walk up to their desk and talk to them face to face. They will appreciate you doing it.

In case you are one of the persons that use the read receipt feature to cover their backs, please don’t. Try instead to create a rapport with the other person. It will pay off in the long run. Besides, once you have a good working relationship with someone they are more likely to read all your messages as soon as they can and help you out the best they can.

If you find yourself on the other end of the read receipt option, i.e. you keep getting the prompt to reply with a read receipt for a lot of the emails you receive, then you have a very simple solution: choose the option to never reply to a read receipt request.

All you have to do is go to the “Tools” menu, then “Options”, then “E-Mail Options” and then press the “Tracking Options” button:

E-Mail options
E-mail options

Once in the tracking options dialog window, tick the “Never send a response” check box.

E-Mail "Tracking Options"
E-mail “Tracking Options”

This way you will never again be bothered with any prompts for replying with a read receipt. Also, people sending you read receipts requests will be under the impression that you don’t read their emails. Until of course you start talking to them about the contents of those emails.

Tell me, do you use the read receipt feature and to what purpose?

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