Friday, July 10, 2009

Proper multiple email signatures in Gmail (written in the Style of Jerome K Jerome).

UPDATE - 11th November 2009
There is now a better way of having proper email signatures that allows you to format the content of said signatures. In Gmail go to Settings/ Labs and activate 'canned responses'.

Canned responses allow you to insert lumps of text in an email, so by creating a canned response for each signature you wish to use you are in effect creating multiple signatures!

The advantage to using Canned Responses over Shortkeys is that your signatures can travel with you (as canned responses are a part of Gmail), whereas Shortkeys is a bit of software that has to be installed on the computer you wish to use it on. So using Canned Responses makes you platform and location independent, and that's what we're aiming for!

Original article - July 10th 2009
Since I moved from Microsoft Outlook to Gmail my email life has taken on a sort of enlightened bent. The Gmail labels make sorting mail swift and easy, and the search facility beats the hell out of the lumbering inaccurate beast that is Microsoft’s half baked attempt at a search facility in Outlook. Of course the search in Gmail works well, Google are known to be fairly knowledgeable in the field of searching, and no jury would consider that statement less than previous to the pale.

However, there are a few Outlook features I must confess I do pine for somewhat. I have carefully considered the motivation behind this mourning for functionality loss, to ensure that the need to do things a little differently wasn’t the dark pulse at the heart of the matter, and it’s not. I have substituted folders for labels, and I have come to love the message string approach to email display, it suits so well the hundreds of round robin emails my friends fling around each day in an attempt to distract themselves from the fact they may have found themselves in a horrid job. I have even replaced the incessant desire to hit ‘send and receive’ in Outlook with good willed patience and a trust in Gmail that they will pass emails onto me the very moment they reach their hallowed servers.

The feature I find myself mumbling into my coffee about – mourning the loss of – is the proper email signatures that Outlook offered. Gmail does offer a signature facility, but insists on placing ones signature at the very foot of every message. When I say the foot I really mean it, for some reason the fine and knowing folk at Google decided we all want our signature to live at the bottom of each email, below all messages past and present! So when replying your signature is in effect below the message you are replying to!

The problem is somewhat compounded by the fact that (as I did in Outlook) I collect mail from three different POP3 accounts. To exacerbate matters further I have to use a different signature when dealing with emails from each of those three accounts. Were I the cap wearing type I would doff it to the creators of Outlook in recognition of the way it deals with this issue. Admittedly Bill Gates ET all would be unlikely to feel the full benefit of my headwear based gratitude as I work many miles from their headquarters in Richmond WA. Any doffing done would only serve to bemuse the cats and (if done with sufficient verve) clean swathes of dust away from my computer screen.

Outlook allowed me to set up three signatures, and those clever digitised pixies that control Outlook knew which signature should be used according to which flavour of incoming mail I was currently dealing with. Gmail’s single signature – placed inappropriately – doesn’t really cut the mustard when placed side by side with Outlook, in some sort of bizarre condiment and sword play competition.

Ah, but fear not, I have a solution! Gmail labs will undoubtedly come charging along on their brilliant white steeds before many Sundays pass and declare some clever solution to the issue, but in the meantime I recommend using a natty bit of free software called ShortKeys. I apologise to Mac and Linux devotees, for this solution is only valid for the reluctant disciples of Microsoft Windows. You’ll find your coats and hats at the back of the room, please return your cup and saucer to the lady at the rear of the room in the fetching pink gingham smock, and try not to let the door slam on your way out. You don’t have to head homeward, but your continued presence here would be reviewed by your peers as being somewhat unprofitable.

In a nutshell ShortKeys provides macro functionality, and when used on a computer becomes even more useful. ShortKeys allows you to set up lumps of text which are propelled into any document or program you are working on, triggered by a series of characters you assign. The screen grab below shows what I humbly suggest as the best way to set up each ‘ShortKey’.

As you can see, I have set said text to be triggered when I type ‘S0’. When (in any program) I hit those two keys the text you can see (marked as ‘Replacement Text’) spews forth. Make sure you don’t use a word that is in your common vocabulary; otherwise you’ll have big chucks of text popping up in the most uncomfortable of places. So for each of the three POP3 accounts I use I have created a different signature in ShortKeys. When near the end of the composing phase of a missive calling for the appropriate signature is simply a matter of hitting the appropriate ShortKey trigger; S0, S1, or S3. Of course this solution is only appropriate when one is using ones own computer - and is of no use when travelling or using the computer of an associate – but as my wife once told me as I took liberties while ‘tasting’ her pudding, “You can’t have it all”.

The usefulness of ShortKeys extends far beyond Gmail signatures; as you become more familiar with the software (which takes around 43 seconds) you’ll realise it can perform another marvellous time saving function. In the daily course of my work I repeat myself constantly in email replies, less because the people I respond with are simpletons, more because sometimes a nail must be struck a number of times before it can be nodded at by all present and declared driven home. I also send a lot of emails with the same content, E.G courteous and keen willed replies to initial enquiries for new business. By setting up the text I wish to use in a response as a ShortKey I save myself hours, and each respondent is assured that my heartfelt interest in their well being is proven by the full body of the response I send them.

While you are more than welcome to part with your hard earned guineas for a full version of ShortKeys, I have found the free ‘lite’ version more than sufficient in the many years I have joyfully been a user.

ShortKeys can be downloaded from here - This will only be a revelation to those of you as yet unfamiliar with the modern marvel that is the search engine. If you are in that number you find yourself already in receipt of my respectful gaze for managing to read this far (albeit out loud), and I feel confident that if you spend time with an improving book or two the gift of original thought can be yours.