At some point, you or your end users will need to poll other employees to gather data on the number of people who use a certain type of software or maybe to find out what kind of activities employees would like to participate in. There is usually little trouble manually counting the votes and determining the winner when the number of voters is in the single digits. But when the number of votes is more than 10, counting becomes a greater pain and the possibility for error grows.

Those who use Microsoft Exchange Server and the Outlook client can easily set up the built-in voting feature to create custom voting buttons and tally the results automatically.

Help desk uses

Some support-specific ways your help desk could use the voting feature include:

  • Testing end-user knowledge on program functions or file share locations.
  • Quizzing end users on security or other policies.
  • Finding out which instant messaging program users would like to use.
  • Rating end user satisfaction with help desk response.

Just set up a mail message with customized buttons, and then collect your responses.

Consider the number of responses first
Creating an e-mail message to conduct a vote is fairly easy, but getting the results can take a bit of preparation. If you’re sending a message to a lot of people, your Inbox could be flooded with responses, so you may need to set up a separate folder for the results.

For example, at TechRepublic, a question was sent to a distribution list that contained roughly 115 people. When the sender received about 50 responses, he manually moved all the responses into a separate folder, thinking this would make the tallying process easier.

When he went to the original message in his Sent Items folder to get the results, he was surprised to find only one result tabulated. To get a proper total, he had to open up every response and close it before the totals were tallied in the original message. Not a fun thing to do.

To avoid such a problem, first have the poll conductor make a new folder under his or her Inbox folder for the results messages to be collected in. Call it something easy to remember like “Vote Results.” This location will be specified when the sender creates his or her poll message, but the folder must exist prior to sending the message.

Second, the poll conductor must go to Tools | Options | and click on the Preferences tab. Click on the E-mail Options button and then the Tracking Options button. Check the blank box next to Delete Blank Voting And Meeting Responses After Processing (Figure A).

By default, Outlook will place all the results in the original message and the replies in the Inbox. By selecting this preference, all incoming results will be processed and deleted automatically; those responses with messages will be saved in the Inbox.

Figure A
Responses that don’t have comments will be deleted if you select this option.

Setting up the voting message
The process of setting up a message with voting buttons is fairly easy. First, open a new message. Fill in the To field with the distribution list or names of the intended recipients. Enter the actual question in the Subject field.

To turn the message into a poll, click on the Options icon in the toolbar or go under the View menu to Options (Figure B).

Figure B
Options is located in both the toolbar or under the View menu.

When the Options window opens, there will be a check box under Voting And Tracking Options that is called Use Voting Buttons, and a blank box to the right of it. After you select the check box, a few default options will appear in this blank box (Figure C).

Figure C
Three default options are presented. Note that a semicolon separates the choices.

Most users will want to make their own voting button choices instead of using the default options. To set up your own choices, simply highlight the text in the box and type in the voting button names. Each button name should have a semicolon without spaces following it. You can see how this is done with the default buttons in Figure C.

Then, in the same Options window under the Delivery Options heading, you’ll see a check box next to an option that says Save Sent Messages To. The default is set to the Sent Items folder in Outlook, but during our preparations above, we made a special folder in the Inbox called Vote Results.

To designate a different folder than Sent Items, click the Browse button. It will show a tree-view of Outlook folders. From that tree, pick the appropriate folder (Figure D).

Figure D
Be sure to select both the Use Voting Buttons and Save Sent Message To check boxes.

Recipients of the message will find voting buttons just under the menu items across the top of the message window. A yellow box will appear above the message header fields, directing the recipient’s attention to the buttons at the top of the message. It might be a good idea for the sender to also include text that instructs people to actually open the message; if you just view the message in the preview pane in Outlook, you won’t be able to see the voting buttons.

The results are in
The beauty of using voting buttons is that very little is required of the voters. They get a message and all they must do to exercise their democratic prerogative is click on the button of their choice.

If the procedures have been followed exactly, the votes will be tabulated in the original message, which the sender will find in the Vote Results folder. When you view the vote results message, you will see a little message icon will have a circle with the letter “i” in it.

Opening the message brings up the original message with the voting buttons and two tabs, labeled Message and Tracking. The Message tab shows the original message, as the recipients would have seen it.

Click on the Tracking tab to see the voting results (Figure E). Note that the results are tabulated in the yellow area, and each individual vote is listed below that.

Figure E
The Tracking tab leads to the voting results.