Using Smart Phones Means Stop Sending Stupid Email

Last Updated Sep 24, 2010 3:26 PM EDT

The old image of remote workers hauling around laptop computers is changing-- a rising number of us use our smart phones for simple, time-sensitive tasks like email, instant messaging and scheduling appointments. So, other than the ability to locate your people even when they're away from their desks, what does this mean to managers and co-workers?

If a recent article in the Chicago Tribune is any indication, we need to consider how people are using these devices and communicate in ways that allow them to be effective. There are some environmental factors that dictate people's ability to use the information you send. Someone waiting in an airport departure gate with delay announcements blaring probably will scan messages and read them with even less attention than they do now (if such a thing were possible). People stopped at red lights are glancing to see if anything important has come up (NOTE: we don't approve. We just know that, like Freshman drinking, it's a fact of life). People waiting for instant responses to requests for information have to realize that smart phone users probably don't have that 2-year old PowerPoint file at their fingertips.

Think about the ways people are using these Blackberries, iPhones and Android thingies, then ponder how they work well,and what will drive people crazy if we don't adjust:

  • Scheduling: On a regular, fully networked computer you can not only check your calendar, but even check out the calendars of your coworkers. This is trickier on smaller devices. Not only might they not have all the information they need, but constant back-and -forth is annoying and hard to track. If you want to nail down dates with someone on the go, either send an Outlook invitation that they can respond to (which will put it in their calendar with one push of a button) or give them a series of dates and times you or your team are available and ask them to pick one as soon as possible.
  • Instant Messaging: Many of us send Instant Messages because, well, we expect information to flow instantly. Would it kill you to establish that the person is in a position to calmly (and safely) give you the information before you just blast out your request? The fact they're trying to IM with their thumbs means they're probably not in a convenient location conducive to concentration and focused thought.
  • Email subject lines: If your email requires immediate response or very specific information the reader may have to locate, the end of a foot- long email is no way to let people who are looking at it through a 3-inch screen. Since the first (and often the only) thing smartphone users can see is the subject line, use it wisely. "Need critical information for today's meeting" is going to get better results than "re: thanks".
  • Bullet points and white space: the size and resolution of the screen (not to mention the limited attention of the reader) makes it hard to pick out critical information from a block of text. If you have three action items, make them separate (short) bullet points so the reader's eye instantly processes them. Use doublespacing to make key points stand out as well -- anything surrounded by white space is an eye-grabber).
As I look at this list, it occurs to me that none of these communication behaviors is unique to the smartphone environment, it just makes the issues more obvious. Maybe by thinking about those on the go, we can also help those on our teams that actually stay in one place as well.

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