FWD: Microsoft Acquires Acompli

Written by , December 1, 2014

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I’m incredibly excited to announce that Acompli has been acquired by Microsoft. Our team and products will become part of Microsoft’s ambitious effort to reimagine productivity for the mobile era.

18 months ago we started building a team and a product around the idea that we could make mobile email better. Today that journey continues as part of a larger organization with the technology, talent, and market reach that will help us take the vision of Acompli to hundreds of millions of mobile users across the world.

A lot has happened in the last 18 months. We started as a small team huddled up at Heavybit, quietly juggling the balancing act of delivering a reliable email service while creating a fundamentally new mobile email experience. With the amazing support and patience of our early users we got to a usable email app. Soon after that we were able to show more people what Acompli was and everyone started getting excited. We then launched and earned the love and support of mobile users around the world who both showered us with compliments and also told us (sometimes quite candidly) what we needed to do better at.

Soon after launch we started working with a number of enterprise IT departments who believed, like we do, that great products need to be “Loved by Users, and Trusted by IT.” Right around this time we began conversations with the folks at Microsoft about how we could go farther by integrating the capabilities of their Office 365 platform into our product while continuing to provide amazing support for email and file services from Apple, Dropbox, Google, and Box. Those conversations led to today, where we have decided the opportunity to join forces in pursuit of a better, faster, more powerful email experience is something we can do better as one company.

Over the next few months, we’ll be sharing more about the exciting product plans we have as Acompli becomes a part of Microsoft. We remain committed to the original Acompli vision of making the best mobile email application on any platform and across all services. Your app and accounts will continue to work and the team will continue on our fast pace of improving and adding new functionality every couple of weeks.

On behalf of everyone at Acompli, I want to thank our users, partners, customers and friends for all the support and feedback you have provided us so far. We are excited as ever to have a huge impact as part of Microsoft. You can read more of Microsoft’s thoughts behind the acquisition on their blog.

Tips to Manage Holiday Travel with Email

Written by , November 25, 2014

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With the holiday season on the horizon, even the Scroogiest among us probably have some travel planned. But as delays pile on and family members pester you for travel updates, while your boss asks for the latest draft of the big presentation, managing your holiday travel can become a bit of a nightmare.

Fortunately, the shift away from travel agents and printed tickets to mobile-first check in and documentation is almost complete. Here are a few simple tips and tricks to help you make the most of your travel experiences, right from your email inbox and mobile device.

Keep a lean inbox

BruceLee

Use a smart email filtering system, such as Acompli’s Focused Inbox or Google’s new Inbox, to help keep the clutter out of your inbox. That way, any new email notifications about flight delays, gate changes, or inclement weather will get to the top of your inbox and attract your immediate attention instead of being bogged down under Black Friday marketing messages. Also consider flagging or “pinning” your relevant travel emails to the top of your inbox, or otherwise marking them (perhaps with a “travel” label) so you’ll have your boarding pass, rental car reservation information, and other crucial travel documents handy on your phone. (No more writing down numbers on scraps of paper you’re prone to lose while navigating through a maze of TSA agents.)

Get it on the calendar

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Keep your complete travel schedule in your calendar, including everything from flight times and gate numbers to rental car pickup confirmations and relatives’ addresses. That way, you’ll always know where to go when, and can share the information with others as needed. In a system that integrates email and calendar, like Acompli does, you can easily shift back and forth between your calendar and email to find out precisely when you’re scheduled to land or what your hotel address is, rather than making a not-so-educated guess. Having travel plans on your calendar is also a good way to let work colleagues know when you’ll be unavailable.

Keep folks informed

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If your flight is delayed or the rental car lines are longer than your kid’s ambitious Christmas list, keep your phone close at hand to email colleagues, friends or relatives with proactive updates on your progress toward your destination. Acompli now has smart autocomplete that even works offline, so you can address emails to important contacts whether or not you have a signal (like on the plane), and send the messages when connectivity comes back. (At times, you may not want your in-laws to know exactly where you are, but that’s another matter altogether.)

Try an app for that

AppForThat

If managing your email is still too much for you even with all the assistance available, try a travel app like TripIt. Just forward your travel-related emails to plans@tripit.com (or set up automatic email integration with the app) and TripIt will organize them into a neat itinerary. This is a good option for those who can’t quite get their inboxes under enough control to find relevant travel files when needed, even with automated assistance.

Take advantage of context

Mobile is moving toward contextual services like Google Now, which can make the most of information about where you are and what you have planned to serve up important news that affects you. Whether it’s a traffic accident en route to the airport or a flight delay caused by a blizzard, Google Now or Siri are worth asking for the latest updates on your travel routes.

Bring backup batteries, chargers and converters

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It’s an unfortunate fact of mobile life, but being dependent on your phone for information also means you’re dependent on its battery for power. When you’re traveling, GPS and weak signals can quickly drain your battery and leave you stranded at crucial moments. To save battery, always switch your phone into airplane mode when in the air or driving through remote locations where cell signal is hard to detect. Remember to bring a car charger to use while driving, and take advantage of wall outlets whenever possible. If all else fails, make use of a portable battery or battery case to juice up your lifeline.

Snap some photos to commemorate the moment

DefLeppardPhotograph

You work hard all year, managing your communications and work on the go. During the holidays, you deserve to take a bit of a break and spend time with family. So don’t just use your phone as a taskmaster to herd your colleagues or family members from place to place. Take a break, enjoy the moment, and snap a picture to remember it later. We can get into all the ways to edit, store, and share those photos in the cloud later on. For now, enjoy the moment.

How to Get People to Open and Reply to Your Emails

Written by , November 22, 2014

TracyFlick_Election

If you’re like me, you get a lot of emails. The emails I tend to answer are the ones that follow a set of best practices around a descriptive headline, being specific and letting me know exactly how I can help and by when. Here’s a list of tips to help you get more people to open and reply to your emails.

1. Keep It Short, Keep It Specific

Probably the best place to start would be to acknowledge that your emails shouldn’t read like novels. In fact, if you can’t reasonably condense your message into something that would fit on a post-it note, you’ve probably said too much.

For most people, 2-3 short paragraphs usually work the best. But brevity isn’t the only factor; you also need to keep specificity in mind.

Robert Sutton, a psychologist, reminds us in his book Good Boss, Bad Boss that most people tend to respond most favorably, and will be more likely to help you out, if they’re given a very clear indication of what’s expected of them.

That’s where psychology comes in; the mind seems to naturally rebel at being given a task to perform, but you can help things along by leaving no room for misinterpretation or confusion. It’s a fine balance, to be sure: if you’re too direct, your email will sound like a strongly worded directive rather than the beginning of a productive dialogue. Feel free to keep things conversational, but remember to keep that conversation focused on the task at hand.

2. Choose your subject line carefully

I don’t know about you, but I tend to leave the subject line for last. It just feels more natural to wait and see what form the email will take before I start thinking about how to present it.

The subject line really is a strange thing. It seems only to exist in email; instant messages don’t require a subject, and neither to personal letters. Email seems to be unique in the world of communication in that it requires us to, for lack of a better word, package our correspondence intelligently and succinctly.

And that packaging will either elevate your message or doom it to failure.

In an Inc.com article from earlier this year, Jessica Stillman suggested that the ideal length for an email subject is 6-10 words. She’s not the only one, either; this seems to be a near-universally recognized practice.

According to the research, we’re “only” talking about a 21% open rate here, but that handily outperforms shorter subject lines (<5 words) by about 5% and longer subject lines (11-15 words) by about 7%.

Email subject lines are a necessary evil. Nobody likes blindly ringing a stranger’s doorbell and asking them if they’ve heard the Good News; emails can feel equally unnatural and stilted. With just a little bit of patience and a lot of practice, though, you’ll master this surprisingly difficult art in no time.

3. Keep your promises

I’ve signed up for quite a few newsletters in my day. I don’t do it lightly; I know that the time I have to spend tidying up my personal inbox is at a premium most days, so I don’t go looking for ways to complicate that process.

So when I do provide a company with my email address, it’s because they’ve made certain promises that I’ve agreed to hold them to. They may have promised exclusive discounts or first looks at upcoming news. Whatever it is, I always find myself hoping that I’ll get a return on my investment of trust.

Lots of companies put plenty of work into their newsletter landing pages, telling would-be subscribers about the treasure trove of information that’s coming their way. But the reality often doesn’t live up to the promise.

Sometimes this comes about because companies slowly realize that they don’t really need a newsletter – possibly because they use social media to break news first or because they find they just don’t have that much to say. In either case, it’s frustrating for the customer and a waste of time and effort for the company.

That covers marketing emails, but what about personal messages or inter-office communication? Promises are important there as well.

Don’t tell somebody in an email that you’ll act on something, only to forget about it a short time later. And don’t fall behind on your unanswered emails, either. Exchanging email addresses with someone else constitutes a sort of tacit agreement that you’ll be attentive and communicative. Anything less is at least a mild breach of trust, and one that will likely lead to your own emails being unceremoniously ignored.

4. Express your gratitude

Some of us were lucky enough to have mothers who were militant about good manners. For others, it may be a more difficult struggle.

But no matter who you are or how you were raised, it would be difficult to understate the importance of being grateful and polite.

For marketing emails, gratitude might go something like this: you offer discounts to loyal customers or provide them with advance notice of upcoming products or promotions.

For every other type of correspondence, showing gratitude is actually quite a bit easier. Maybe you run a company or oversee a team; in either case, sending emails to thank team members for their unique contributions should be a regular part of your day. That said, it would be pretty easy to fall into a routine where your emails begin to sound rote or impersonal. To avoid that, keep things brief; nobody needs you to go on and on when you sing their praises.

But don’t take my word for it; there have been plenty of experiments done about the role of gratitude in email exchanges. One such study involved a student who was seeking help with their job application. The student used two different approaches:

  • Option 1: The student acknowledged the feedback and then asked if they’d help again in three days’ time.
  • Option 2: The student added some well-chosen words: “Thank you so much! I am really grateful.”

You probably don’t need me to tell you which one worked better. With Option 1, 32% of respondents agreed to help the student a second time. With Option 2, the response rate doubled to 66%.

The clear takeaway here is that if you take the time to acknowledge how those around you have made your life easier, they’ll be even more willing to give you a hand next time you ask for it.

5. Respect Above All

Email is a great tool, but it does make some demands of us in turn. The more you send emails to colleagues, asking them to answer questions or send you files, the more you’re possibly distracting them from other work. So, also think about how many emails you’re sending to people. Spamming your colleagues’ inboxes with 15 messages a day is a surefire way to destroy some good will you may have accumulated.

In other words, email is all about respect. Now, having said all of this, try not to get too distracted with the psychology angle. In practice, things are often quite a bit simpler. If you start to think of email as a stand-in for personal conversations, you’ll quickly realize that the only real key to success is to speak to people in a natural and compelling way.

Business Emails That Close

Written by , November 21, 2014

There are many articles on how to write better email, but most miss the mark. While being polite and using proper punctuation are fine recommendations, the real goal of most business emails is to get the response you want from the recipient. Email is part of communication, and effective communication at work should encourage groups to make decisions, take action and move forward.

With that context in mind, here are some tips on how to better make that happen.

Reply to a Previous Email

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In social psychology, the notion of reciprocity creates a sense of obligation to return a favor. By doing someone the courtesy of responding to their message, you can unlock their desire to reply back to you, too. Jumping on someone else’s email thread can make that person look smart for raising an idea, and puts you on their side as someone moving that notion forward. Plus, it keeps the conversation in context and avoids re-starting old discussions from scratch.

Ask Questions and Set Expectations

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The best emails make it really clear what they want from the recipient. If you need approval, ask for it. If you need information, ask for it, and be specific about the information you need: not just “the sales report” but “last week’s sales on Widget 8340B.” Include a direct, detailed request for what you need, and set clear expectations for the timing of a response: “I’ll move forward with this plan if I don’t hear back by noon ET on Friday.” Hold yourself to these standards of specificity and timing with your own email responses, too: ask questions when things are unclear, or set a timeframe for your own response if you can’t get the information immediately: “I’ll get you the report by tomorrow evening.” If someone doesn’t stick to a deadline you set, point to your earlier message as your foundation for moving forward. And if you miss your own deadlines, thank others for holding you accountable.

Offer Something Useful

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Research shows that giving is rewarding, and that those who give go far. By giving something when you’re requesting something, you move colleagues’ work forward and win their trust. If you do have a demand or request, provide sufficient context to show why your request is important, and why honoring it is important for your correspondent as well as for you personally. Additionally, sharing useful information can establish your credibility with others.

Use Bullet Points, Lists and Links

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It’s important to be thorough, but there are few things more daunting than a wall of text, especially when people are pressed for time. So, keep your emails short and to the point – using lists and bullet points, if you can – and link to separate documents or repositories for the information that needs review, rather than storing crucial facts in the body of an email. This approach separates communication from documentation, and makes the message about what you need, not about the content itself. Using bullets can also help you stick to the facts, rather than embellishing with lots of filler words like “I think,” “probably,” “maybe,” or “possibly.” Your email should focus on what’s happening and what you want to happen.

Lighten Up

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Too often, in our quest to seem professional, we descend into stilted communication and unnecessary industry jargon. But it’s important to be human, too. This might mean saying “Hey” at the beginning of your email, offering sincere thanks for your colleague’s time, or even including emoji if you have the right relationship with your correspondent. But don’t take it too far, and always use proper grammar and spelling. While your email has a goal – to move work forward – it should also be used to strengthen relationships.

These are just a few of the many tips for writing a great business email. But because they make a point of considering the person with whom you’re corresponding, they can prove especially useful.

Keep Your Boss in the Loop to Get Ahead

Written by , November 17, 2014

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We’ve all been there, in those tricky situations where your boss doesn’t need to know until she needs to know. When your boss doesn’t hear from you, she likely assumes the corporate machines are humming along nicely, without a glitch. While that may seem nice, it also means you only get in touch with your boss when something goes wrong. This increases your association with big issues and makes your boss dread hearing from you – exactly what you don’t want to have happen.

To break away from being the bearer of bad news, you need to take the initiative to keep your boss informed about good things as well. Here are a couple of tips for keeping your boss in the loop in ways that will make you look smart, reliable, and – above all – promotable.

You Aint Got No Problem

Offer Proactive Updates

The stereotypical image of a boss is someone who periodically peers over your shoulder to checking whether you’re making TPS reports or posting on Facebook, then occasionally calls you into the office for an awkward chat about all that Facebook use. But most managers don’t really want to spend their time spying on your activities. They have enough of their own responsibilities already.

To build a better relationship with your boss, start by relieving her of the perceived need to monitor your every move. Do this by sending proactive updates about what you’re up to. There’s no need to compile a creepy minute-by-minute accounting of your time from bathroom breaks to coffee runs. Just offer an overview of what you’ve been up to in specific areas, how it’s working, and what’s keeping you from moving forward. By telling your boss what’s going on, you can highlight your own accomplishments and also help her look good by sending positive news up the chain of command.

These updates can take many forms, but one approach is the format “last week, this week, and next week.” Summarizing what you did last week keeps your boss informed of your progress, talking about what you’re working on now shows what’s keeping you busy, and giving a preview of next week offers your boss a chance to refocus your efforts as needed.

Over time, these reports also give your boss a good idea of your time management skills and workload. That is, if the “next week” category never changes, either too many new things are coming up to let you move to new work, or you’re taking too long with your current tasks. By proactively offering this type of information to your boss, you make her a partner in your success, and let her help you avoid failure – for yourself and your team.

Be Honest

Some of the biggest troubles at work will come when you tackle more work than you can handle or have an inkling that a project may be going off the rails, but don’t tell anyone about the problem until it’s too late. Then, the report won’t get finished, the project gets blocked, the app gets released with bugs, or whatever other worst-case outcome – and you (and your boss) look bad for not knowing about it or doing something to stop it.

Rather than feigning ignorance, it’s important to be honest when you get in these situations, and proactive about preventing them. For example, keep your boss in the loop with a simple CC when you ask for the project update that never comes, and make a point to follow up a week later to tell everyone involved – including your boss – that the update still hasn’t come through. The project may still get pushed back, but you and your boss can work together to find ways to push it forward.

Never take it all on yourself to make everything happen, or get bogged down in situations you don’t know how to handle. Instead, learn to let your boss know well ahead of time when a project isn’t progressing as you’d like. She or he can help you find a way to get out of the weeds and deliver on time, or adjust expectations accordingly. That way, you both win.

Actively Seek Feedback – and Offer It

It can feel daunting, but it’s important to actively seek input from your boss. Ask her when she’d like to be included on communications, and what kind of information you can send her to help her do her job better. This may not seem necessary in a small organization or startup, but it becomes more so in bigger companies where everyone’s work is less transparent. Even if your boss says she doesn’t want to be kept in the loop, at least you’ll be able to point out that preference when she asks why she didn’t know about something until too late. And by periodically asking for updates, you can strengthen your relationship with your boss – something that can matter just as much as your work. Who knows, next time a promotion’s open, you’ll be the first name that comes to mind.

Career Limiting Email Mistakes to Avoid

Written by , November 7, 2014

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Just like there are things we wish we hadn’t said, there are emails we wish we hadn’t sent. The difference between what we say and what we email, however, is that email creates a permanent, shareable record. And when we’re talking about work email, it can hurt your professional reputation. In certain cases, email mistakes can limit your career, which include getting you fired.

Take David Brandon, University of Michigan athletic director, as a cautionary tale. He was forced to resign earlier this month amid growing controversy over his attitude toward fans, with ample proof in emails. When confronted by a fan via email, Brandon replied: “I suggest you find a new team to support. We will be fine without you. Have a happy life…” His trail of incendiary emails helped lead to his ouster.

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Now think about an email you wish you hadn’t sent. I know I’ve sent my share. Imagine re-reading that email right now. Would you wince? That’s definitely an email mistake. You might wonder what the [bleep] you were thinking at the time you sent it. You may have felt angry or threatened, or simply didn’t care about the consequences of your behavior. Or you may have simply been too careless.

Providing an almost startling level of convenience, we also tend to send emails quickly and without much thought. The offenses can range from sloppy typos and poorly developed ideas to ill-advised rants and flexing of ego. To be sure, there are literally dozens of unfortunate blunders and faux pas that most of us will admit to experiencing at one time or another.

Here are the top mistakes to avoid if you want to be seen as a consummate professional – as well as remain gainfully employed.

Don’t Send Emails When You’re Upset

Going to work for eight or more hours every day can be fatiguing, no doubt about it. Many of us don’t have the luxury of working in a stress-free environment, which means the very real danger of letting your emotional state influence how we interact with our co-workers.

There’s probably no end to the number of horror stories out there about sending angry emails. We’ve all probably had experiences with regrettable text messages, but emails can be even more damaging, and even damning.

Thomas Jefferson once purportedly suggested that, when we’re angry, we should count to ten. And if we’re really angry? Count to 100. I don’t think he meant for us to take it literally, but the sentiment is a good one: take some time to get distance from the issue, then come back to it with a fresh perspective.

A regrettable part of the human condition is that we’re more-or-less guaranteed to be offended on a regular basis. We’re also guaranteed to get into arguments from time to time, particularly in a high-stress work environment. You might feel like you have to respond immediately, but trust me when I say you can take your time getting back to them; high-stress email exchanges are one situation where a timely response is not the best course of action.

Time and distance might not heal all wounds, but they’ll probably help you avoid saying something you’ll regret.

Don’t Click ‘Reply All’ Casually

You Don't Need to Reply All

It might sound like a rookie mistake, but it still happens more often than we’d like to admit. In reality, you should use Reply All sparingly. Before responding to an email, ask yourself whether you everyone else on it really needs to hear from you. Always be aware of who is on the thread and don’t use Reply All as a stage to score visibility points. And always be aware who is on an email thread before you reply. Being careful, you can save yourself from two different kinds of embarrassment:

  • Offending someone: Look, I get it. There’s politics at work in every office. Maybe you have some private nicknames you save for those special occasions where middle- and upper-management really ruffles your feathers. I’m not saying it’s right, but the Reply All button is not your friend if you use it to vent, or regularly refer to other employees in email with anything other than their given name.
  • Inconveniencing everyone else: Lots of people play fast and loose with CC’ing other people on their inter-office communications. Maybe you think it’s helping you get noticed, but it’s a better move to remove anyone who’s not essential to the conversation. Nobody likes watching their inbox explode with email conversations that have nothing to do with them.

Don’t Get Sloppy with Spelling and Grammar

The occasional typo is forgivable – expected, even. But consistent and habitual skewering of The King’s English will do you no favors.

Whoops

The best comparison I can come up with is using your turn signal when you’re driving. Look – I understand that there are times when flicking on your signal feels redundant or unnecessary. Maybe you’re the only person on the road, or the nearest car is an eighth of a mile behind you.

But I don’t care. Signaling your intentions should be muscle memory, just like applying the brake or checking your rear-view mirror. You shouldn’t even have to think about it. Just do it.

Grammar is the same kind of thing. You should simply be in the habit of writing professionally, no matter how brief your exchange might be. There’s little doubt in my mind that your co-workers are picking up on your grammatical carelessness, whether they say something or not.

A quote from a certain bestseller comes to mind: “Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much.” Your grammar is something “very little” that can speak volumes about your attention-to-detail.

Don’t Take Take Forever to Respond

Can we agree that one of the most beautiful things about email is the ability to “do” it from just about anywhere? But that does bring certain expectations; namely, unless you’re dead or dying, there’s very little reason to go more than 24 hours without responding to a given piece of correspondence.

In our personal lives, unanswered emails are a minor stumbling block only; we can follow up with a text or even a phone call if it’s something more pressing. But when you’re at work, you’d better get used to answering your supervisors’ emails in a timely manner, or you might find yourself looking for a new job. This is true even if the email isn’t terribly time-sensitive. No matter who you’re talking with, they’re going to want to know that you got their email. Just a quick acknowledgement is all you really need.

And can we talk about read receipts? Personally, I don’t use them; it just feels like you’re adding an additional layer of stress and expectation. At best, they’re simply unnecessary; they serve a function that a simple reply can do just as well, and in a more personal way. Don’t lean on them to indicate when you’ve received an email; use your words like a big kid.

Don’t Abuse Your Attachment Privileges

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No doubt about it: email is a wonderful tool. It not only lets us exchange words with other important people in our life, but also files of just about every type.

Just remember that attachments are a privilege, and it’s very easy to abuse that privilege. Most email providers will give you a maximum file size that you can attach, but in most cases it’s something extravagant like 20 megabytes, as is the case with Outlook 2013.

With more and more of us managing our inboxes on the go, it’s more important than ever to use attachments only when they’re absolutely essential. Emails get exponentially more difficult to open and manipulate if there’s a huge attachment in tow.

The much better solution is to make use of any of the 900 cloud providers out there. Acompli lets you connect your email account with the most popular ones (Dropbox, Google Drive, Microsoft OneDrive), which means you can send links to your colleagues instead of attachments.

When it comes to collaborating, this also makes it quite a bit easier to keep track of changes after a document changes hands.

Don’t Use Email to Ask Obvious Questions

Asking questions is generally seen as the mark of a conscientious employee. But asking the wrong questions will make you look like anything but.

Think of it this way: email is a two-way street. It might not take much time to fire off an inquisitive email to a friend or co-worker, but those couple of paragraphs inevitably create work for the recipient. Maybe you’re asking for an update, or you need a quick answer to a random question. Whatever it is, they’re going to have to open your email, hunt down an answer for you, and then write a reply.

Creating unnecessary work for somebody else is one of the fastest ways to do whatever the opposite of ingratiating yourself is. This is one reason to take advantage of your email provider’s Archive feature; this gives you an extensive, historical record of past correspondence to search through when you need a quick answer.

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But for everything else, the Internet is your friend. If somebody responds to your email with the phrase “Here, let me Google that for you,” you know you’ve screwed up.

Beyond Etiquette

There are too many self-styled and self-righteous etiquette experts in the world. They’ll tell you not to put your hands in your pockets during formal gatherings, or not to put your elbows on the table, and they’ll get bent out of shape when you use the wrong fork at the dinner table.

Email is a world unto itself when it comes to etiquette. The only difference is that email is one aspect of our lives where etiquette is not just something we do for the heck of it; in some cases, it can actually shape our future as gainfully employed individuals.

I’ll say it again: pay attention to the little things and, eventually, people will trust you with the big stuff.

Do You Take Your Job Too Personally?

Written by , October 29, 2014

ItsNotPersonal_ItsBusiness_TheGodfather

When you’re emotionally invested in your work, it’s a great motivator. However, sometimes the more invested you are, the harder it is to take feedback objectively. And now that we work together so much digitally, interacting in-person less than ever, our emails, instant messages and texts can be easy to misinterpret. In particular, email continues to be the communication medium over which professionals make the most mistakes. Once you send something via email, it cannot be taken back and it’s easy to forward. It also can be found easily later, say, when you’re supervisor is preparing for your review.

Checking your emotions at work is a critical skill. The consequence of getting too emotional at work can compromise your effectiveness and credibility. When highly emotional, you can exercise poor judgment and create unnecessary conflict with the people with whom you need to collaborate. It can make you ineffective, unhappy, cost you a promotion or possibly even your job.

This all creates a great career paradox: your rational self tells you that you shouldn’t take work too personally, but your emotional self derives real self worth and identity from your job. Just think about it; when you spend 50 or more hours at work every week, more time than you spend doing any other activity during your waking hours, work can start to feel very personal. We all share emotional highs and lows with colleagues and would like to feel accepted and recognized at work. So the advice you’ve probably heard that you shouldn’t take work personally because “it’s business, not personal” might not be realistic or even true. With that in mind, here are some strategies you can employ to help stay passionate and focused, but still avoid taking things too personally at work.

Adjust Your Perspective

NewPerspective_DeadPoetsSociety

We might think taking things personally means we’re simply sensitive, but it can actually mean we’re being self-centered. Intensely personal reactions show we’re thinking about what our work says about us as individuals, and that we process feedback as a comment on our personal character rather than a reflection on the work. A better way to react is to considerwhat the feedback suggests about the work itself, or even about the person providing it.

Leadership expert Tara Mohr says, “feedback is useful because it provides insight about the people we want to reach, influence and engage.” In other words, your colleagues’ feedback can demonstrate more about how they think and what they find important than it does about your work. So if you’re busy composing a defensive response about how much time you spent researching a project and how much effort you put into the work someone else critiqued in a way you found harsh, step back and think about what the feedback you’ve received says about the person providing it, rather than your work. You may find the fresh perspective you need to write a more reasoned response.

Take Your Time

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The fast pace of the modern workplace can lull us into the rhythm of responding instantly to every missive. When our email is constantly available on our phones, we have limited excuses (other than sheer overwork) for not responding to messages in a timely manner. But firing back a fast answer can be a sure-fire way to take things personally – and to escalate the emotional element of the exchange. Sometimes, you need a few hours or even a day to think things over, calm down, and re-read an email (or even a chat message). Don’t worry, the offending email will still be there waiting for you when you’re ready to answer it.

Another approach, suggested by venture capitalist Anthony K. Tjan, is to respond quickly, but use that first message simply to set a timeframe for a more detailed response. This allows you to remain responsive while buying more time to compose a reasoned reaction without leaving others in the lurch.

Focus on the Ideal Outcome

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When sending an email, don’t worry about negative or critical responses; think: “How do I want the recipient to respond to this email?” If the answer is “with approval,” do as much as possible to make approval easy for people. Anticipate and answer questions, provide all the information needed (in links where appropriate, to keep the message short), and do everything you can to succinctly convince your colleague that your proposal is valid.

Art Markman, professor of Psychology and Marketing at the University of Texas, Austin, suggests focusing on the ideal outcome as a great way to reduce stress in the workplace, and it can be particularly useful for emails as well. By thinking about your recipient instead of yourself, you can also proactively fend off potential issues with taking things too personally. And, of course, if the approval is very important and requires some conversation, consider first trying to set up a face-to-face meeting.

Seek Another Enclave

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If you’re repeatedly running into problems with taking things personally at work, it might ultimately be an indication that you’re in a company that isn’t your ideal cultural fit. Some companies encourage you to take chances and make mistakes, while others demand perfection at all costs. You may find that one culture is generally more positive and supportive while another is more critical and correcting. You may like to brainstorm and collaborate with colleagues but your company may value a “divide and conquer” approach where coordination is minimal, and you’re expected to

When it comes to separating your personal and professional lives, there are companies where you can have a real work/life balance – one that doesn’t involve always putting either part of your identity first, but rather creating a workable blend. Consider exploring one of these for your next gig but don’t take it personally if you’re not hired by the first place you apply.

Is Work Communication Becoming too Casual?

Written by , October 22, 2014

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As the workplace has become less formal, the boundaries between personal and professional behavior have blurred. In an HBR piece entitled In Praise of Boundaries: A Conversation with Miss Manners, an interview about these changing boundaries accurately portrays the complexity this creates in how we interact. On the one hand, our relationships at work might be too distant to effectively solve interpersonal issues. On the other hand, the idea that a boss might say “we’re like a family” on one day, but then have to fire employees on another is a contradiction that most employees resent.

Communication Technology Explosion

Over the last 20 years, several advances in communication have combined to make our working environment more casual than ever. Starting with adoption of email in the 90s, the formality of letter writing diminished. About 10 years ago, instant messaging and mobile text messaging took off. Both of these allowed for quick one-line notes or informal quick “pings” to get answers to questions.

The launch of the iPhone in 2007 ushered in the boom of the mobile age. Since then, mobile text messaging and email are virtually omnipresent, including business communications. Using mobile for work has been both a blessing and a curse: with mobile devices, employees are able to keep up with the office while on business trips, in between meetings at the office or during their commute. Unfortunately, the challenge of writing longer notes on mobile has helped contribute to an increased acceptance of typos, short responses and more casual language.

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Additionally, because we now answer work-related texts and emails more often on evenings and weekends, we tend to be more relaxed about our communication. The seeping of work into our personal lives is having its impact. The standards for grammar, spelling, formatting and how formally we address each other have all declined. After all, if you’ve been hanging out on your couch all Saturday playing Clash of Clans or Candy Crush, you might not be in the correct headspace to issue a flawless reply to an urgent work email about a quarterly report.

Now consider one of the greatest catalysts of increasingly informal behavior over the last decade: social networks. In addition to our personal relationships, we now manage and drive professional relationships through services like Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. As a result, we’ve entered an era where the individual builds his or her own brand independent of the company. This allows you to craft your own publicly facing persona as well as carry relationships more easily from organization to organization. For example, Google now considers Author Rank in addition to the relevance of a company’s website in its search algorithms and LinkedIn has an “Influencers” blogging program were notable individuals share lessons and observations to the broader LinkedIn community.

Like smartphones, social media at work is a double-edged sword: while it may lead to increasingly casual and sometimes unwanted behavior, a recent study of white-collar workers by a professor at Warwick Business School in the UK found that “employees who used various types of social media and digital modes of communication were more creative and collaborative at work, and thus more productive.” Simply put, using social media equips people to cope with the digital interactions that increasingly take place in the modern workplace. One consequence of this is that employees may be more inclined to transfer this casual behavior over into areas that require more professional behavior, such as in business email.

The Millennial Workforce

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As a new, digital-native generation enters the workforce, they are changing the nature of relationships further (by 2020, about 46% of the American workforce will be millennials, the generation born between 1982 and 2004). Just as slang gets absorbed into our spoken and written language over time (e.g., the Oxford English Dictionary recently added “twerk” and “selfie”), this new digital generation is accelerating the introduction of digital, mobile and social networking communication, and related behavior, into the workplace. Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) policies, which allow employees to use their own smartphones and tablets for work communications, may exacerbate relaxed personal standards, because those devices are used for a variety of communication that is both personal and business-related. Without a clear boundary between which device is used for each kind of communication, the standards, practices and mores that accompany each type are bound to be relaxed (and probably not towards formality). Analyst firm IDC recently released research claiming that, by 2016, about 310 million smartphones will be for BYOD work situations. The trend is not going away, which will require raising your personal standards for all work communication.

Your Expanding Digital Reputation

Managing your professional reputation in a decreasingly formal workplace with exploding communication technology that exposes your every move is tougher than ever. As social norms change at work, we will collectively continue to experience confusion about how to behave. The entrance of a large, young and digitally-savvy generation into the workforce, enabled by new technology that breaks down personal and professional boundaries, is decreasing workplace formality faster than ever. And while our savviness, informal attitude and technology enablement may be creating the most productive modern era the world has ever seen, restraint is still prudent. Don’t be tempted into over-sharing or being so casual that it adversely impacts your own credibility and influence in the workplace. Also remember that your reputation can now be affected more than ever by an increasingly larger, digital breadcrumb trail that you automatically generate across email, mobile, IM, the Internet and social networks. Many of these cannot be erased, especially in a time where things can go viral instantly. Some mistakes can follow you around for a career. When it comes to email, your primary form of professional communication, remember that it will continue to make up the largest part of your professional identity. Stay positive and helpful in your communication, don’t email angry, keep communication succinct, and mind basic grammar and punctuation. And never send emails you’ll later regret.

I’d love to hear your tips for how to navigate our new world of pervasive digital communication in an increasingly casual workplace. Until then, I’ll see you on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn or maybe over email, IM or text message. You know, all the usual places.

Image credit: Viacom (Comedy Central, Workaholics)

Overcoming Offices That Kill Productivity

Written by , October 17, 2014

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I just read a piece about the World’s Coolest Offices in Inc. These impressive spaces boast many distinctive features, from composite tree-stump seating (Wieden + Kennedy) and bright pink elevators (Lyft) to a living wall covered in moss (Zendesk) and an honest-to-goodness water park–style tube slide (at Google, naturally). Despite these unique touches, a quick scroll through the photo gallery shows an overwhelming sameness in at least one regard: all of the offices, even the runners-up, are totally open. That means no cubicles and no walled offices, just open spaces with desks or tables for working, and a couple of conference rooms for meetings.

“Open” dominates today’s workplace layout, supplanting the dull cubicles and stuffy closed-door offices of old. But various research studies have found that marked declines in employee satisfaction and internal motivation can accompany open floor plans, showing that there are hidden tradeoffs behind the seemingly sunny concept. Moreover, the issues with the open office tend to contradict many stated goals of the “open” office movement, which typically include increased communication, collaboration, and transparency at work. In this post, we share some of the potential pitfalls of a more open office, and discuss how to avoid them.

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(Don’t) Turn It Up to 11

As coworkers grapple for Spotify dominance and gab about their next project (or their weekend plans) with gusto, they may inhibit others’ productivity. A survey of over 40,000 workers found that “more than half of the occupants in open-plan cubicles… expressed dissatisfaction with the condition of sound privacy.” Another study determined that people “remembered fewer words, rated themselves as more tired, and were less motivated” in noisy surroundings, raising alarming implications for the productivity of open office workers.

nigeltufnel11The good news is that noise pollution can be easy to counteract. Various techniques can help reduce noise, such as using headphones, adding soundproof panels (or living walls), or establishing “quiet hours” without music, open meetings or phone calls. Companies can also encourage workers to use conference rooms for solo work when they need silence, if other meetings are not already scheduled. By proactively acknowledging the situation instead of leaving workers to muddle through the noise, companies and workers can maintain productivity in open arrangements.

Make Privacy a Priority

Productivity researchers Anne-Laure Fayard and John Weeks identified three P’s that help make open offices work for employees: privacy, proximity, and permission. Proximity to colleagues is important for sparking conversations, but so is privacy. You might work right next to someone or run into a colleague at the water cooler or coffeemaker regularly, but if too many other people (including your boss) are around, you might hesitate to bring up a topic that’s been bugging you.

Ironically, “Because open spaces reduce privacy, they don’t foster informal exchanges and may actually inhibit them,” say Fayard and Weeks. Urban researcher Greg Lindsay adds, “Higher engagement is typically accomplished not with open social space but with tight, walled-off workstations and adjacent spaces for small-group collaboration and interaction.” To encourage employee discussion in open offices, companies should group teams in more intimate areas, and create spaces where people can interact privately, such as alcoves. Companies can also encourage people to take walking meetings with coworkers, or jump into meeting rooms for informal chats. People will feel more comfortable bringing up sensitive issues when they’re not within earshot of everyone, and giving explicit permission to go on a walk with a colleague or duck into a meeting room can encourage productive interactions.

Formalize Feedback and Withhold Evaluation

Screen Shot 2014-10-17 at 3.17.04 PMA lack of privacy at work can inhibit both casual conversations and more formal knowledge sharing that could potentially benefit the entire organization. Another researcher, Ethan Bernstein, found that a lack of privacy discouraged people from sharing useful practices:

…individuals and groups routinely wasted significant resources to conceal beneficial activities, because they believed that bosses, peers, and external observers who might see them would have “no idea” how to “properly understand” them.

So not only are workers in some open spaces not sharing their innovations, they’re actually expending great effort to hide them – exactly the opposite of the desired effect of openness. To make sure that everyone can find out about helpful innovations, companies can formalize a process for sharing new ideas throughout the company, rather than requiring individuals or small teams to speak up independently in front of everyone else – a daunting task for many. Bernstein also suggests encouraging feedback by removing the “evaluation” component. That is, ideas and information should be welcomed first, and evaluated for general workplace adoption later. This can help encourage people to share ideas without fear of judgment.

Lay Down the Law (Loosely)

While it can seem like disruptive companies need to be “anything goes” in terms of workplace interaction as well as product vision, creating a totally laissez-faire environment may not always be the best idea. Miss Manners herself advises, “Setting formal limits to behavior reduces the chance of conflict from the outset. Rules decree whether or not you can play music or take personal calls in open space. We need such limits to keep people from upsetting one another unnecessarily.”

But rules don’t need to take the form of a fifty-page employee handbook. A few small guidelines can go a long way toward giving people some framework for how to operate in open spaces. Whether the rules cover using headphones for music, taking long and loud conversations into private spaces, or moving desks for collaboration, they give people something to guide their actions, which can help reduce interpersonal conflicts.

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Ultimately, the real problem is not open offices – it’s a lack of rules for how people should behave within them. By leaving employees to figure things out on their own, companies become vulnerable to more situations where its people don’t come up with the right solution. The best way to combat this is not to create lots of unnecessary structure, but simply to create flexible guidelines that people can use to direct their own behavior and give feedback to others. A few small suggestions can go a long way toward preventing big blowups in the end. And that way you can enjoy your award-winning office space all the more.

When to Team Up or Go It Alone at Work?

Written by , October 13, 2014

When to Work Alone

I spent most of my day today forwarding files to people, writing email introductions and meeting with colleagues to understand upcoming product changes. It didn’t feel like the most productive day, since I would have preferred to spend time some quiet time planning an upcoming launch campaign. Fortunately, at our company, we keep meetings to a minimum.

In environments where there are a lot of meetings, it can seem like all you do in the office is add more collaborators to projects, creating an endless chain of people who are dutifully plowing through their inboxes to stay up to date on the latest information, but not doing much actual work. We end up talking about the work versus doing the work, and sometimes simply have “too many cooks in the kitchen.”  At its worst, it can lead to procrastination, time wasting and groupthink.

There are, of course, legitimate times when collaborating with colleagues is important. We might need to brainstorm what to do as a team for next quarter, share timely information and stay aligned in our respective efforts, especially in fast changing environments. The trick is to know when to work in groups versus when to work alone. And in both cases you can get it wrong. There are times when getting together with the right colleagues could save a lot of time or improve the quality of the work. Other times, dividing and conquering is the way to go.

So how do you decide when to get started on a project on your own, and when to involve others? I like to think about the African proverb that says “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” If time is of the essence, you may need to go it alone, but if you want a viable long-term solution, many heads may be better than one. To help you navigate some tricky aspects of teamwork, here’s some tips I assembled by talking to some colleagues.

When to team up

Don't Go Alone

1. When the project is too complex or large for one person to handle

When it takes many hands to complete a task, meetings are usually a worthwhile investment. For me, a major product launch is a good example when I have to work with many groups —  meetings become an efficient way to focus our efforts and stay on track. For example, if I’m running the launch myself, I will likely work with a designer, web agency, PR agency, video producers, and more. If we then layer on a large advertising spend, I will have to do a lot of early work to get buy in and approvals along the way, typically from the CEO. And since I’ve worked in software for a while now, both the ship dates and what features end up in the final product move around a lot. At a minimum, this means that “staying close” to the product and engineering teams is important. It can affect what an army of us “downstream” end up doing. If I can get that status from one key person who is in the loop and a decision maker, all the better.

2. When someone can learn in the process

Collaboration isn’t just working together – it can mean learning together, too. People learn approximately 70 percent of what they know about their jobs on an informal basis from working with others. When you collaborate on a task with coworkers, you share knowledge that can empower others to go it alone next time. Teaching something can even enhance your own skills – a great bonus. This is especially a good tactic when a more senior decision maker needs to work with someone to whom she will hand over the day-to-day execution of the work. By including the more junior person early in the process, the hand-off is easier and the employee feels more empowered.

3. When it will make a difference

Leadership researcher Alexandra Michel has observed that, too often, “the powerful [individuals] invite others to share in a decision making process, but only grant them voice, not power.” Feedback should always be solicited with a genuine intent to improve. Otherwise, you’re delaying the project and wasting time for the people whose input won’t be implemented. Practically speaking, especially when I’m in larger organizations, I have two sets of people from whom I seek feedback (in addition to customer feedback). The first are real decision makers from whom I need buy in and have formal authority. At a minimum, this is usually my boss and a product owner (e.g., head of product or engineering). Then there’s everyone else. Some may have a lot of ability to disrupt or veto, so I might keep them close to avoid surprises. And then there are people who are very good at giving feedback and always add value. I explicitly look for those who give excellent feedback and informally loop them in at key checkpoints. In any event, while I graciously accept any feedback people might want to give me (and marketing is used to getting a lot of feedback volunteered to them), I only proactively seek out feedback from people that can or should influence the outcome of the work.

When to go it alone

1. If it’s clearly up to you

Apple is famous for assigning a DRI – Directly Responsible Individual – to move projects forward. The DRI doesn’t have to get everything done, just oversee the process. Appointing someone to delegate tasks for a project can help avoid an unfortunate phenomenon called “collaboration fatigue,” where progress is stalled by a lack of clear authority. Put someone in charge and watch the productivity increase. Earlier in my career, I learned quickly to avoid letting a conversation end with my boss say something like “you two figure this out.” I like things clean, and with one owner – and most bosses do too, so they only have “one neck to choke” if things go wrong, as they say. That’s not to say I wouldn’t help if I was placed in a situation where responsibility wasn’t clear. In my line of work, being a team player is necessary for survival, and frankly I like to help. What I don’t love is when each of us might think that the other is handling the task but then neither ends up doing so. That’s a fail. So in this case, unless the two of you are the dynamic duo, figure out who really owns it. If that’s you, then own it like a champ.

2. When all you need is a first draft

Sometimes a concept is nebulous in everyone’s mind and there’s no good way to move forward without a prototype. This doesn’t mean you should lock yourself away for a month until you come up with a brilliant idea. Simply sketching out a quick wireframe for a product, a few bullet points for messaging, or key statistics for financial planning can be all that’s needed to move forward. By inviting input from others, you begin to make the prototype better without delaying the first iteration further. Developing an imperfect first draft is favorite technique of Meg Selig, who’s written a book on creating change in organizations. Also, from my marketing research experience, it can be very hard to ask someone to tell you what they want in a vacuum. Instead, show them something to which they can react. So if it’s a new idea, I will often to a rough mock up myself so I can first get my own head around it and and then later drive a productive conversation with others.

3. If there’s nothing else pressing

Sometimes, efforts toward collaboration can turn into a unique form of procrastination called “precrastination.” This means doing small tasks, like CC’ing others, setting up meetings, or forwarding emails, before they really need to be done, instead of making the time and effort to tackle a bigger project. We all have a natural impulse to take care of small things now so we don’t have to remember them later, but the type of work associated with precrastination doesn’t always increase productivity. “People who are checking things off the list all the time might look like they’re getting stuff done, but they’re not getting the big stuff done,” Alan Castel, an associate professor of psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles, told the New York Times. Instead of continually checking in with others, setting up meetings, or sharing information, try to move forward on your own when you can.

As we’ve discussed previously, more work doesn’t always equal better work. New tools are making it easier to collaborate with others, but there are times when going it alone is the right solution. What are some of your techniques for focusing on work, not just working together?

Image credits: Heineken International (Dos Equis), Home Box Office (Eastbound & Down)

Technology: How Humans Communicate

Written by , October 7, 2014

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Can you imagine a more ambitious undertaking than categorizing the history of technological advances in communication? We’re talking thousands of years of advancement, from the earliest traces of written communication all the way to our convenient pocket-sized computers.

Technology is perhaps the most important catalyst for human improvement. Technology provided us a way to give up our nomadic lifestyle, give us reliable ways to purify our drinking water and raise our life expectancy to an all-time high. Arguably, all of this progress was enabled and accelerated by advances in communication, which allows greater collaboration to drive breakthroughs.

Our best guesses suggest that human beings have existed in their modern form for about 200,000 years. When you consider that the printing press – easily one of the most important inventions ever conceived – is just 574 years old, you start to get a better sense of just how much has hinged on humanity’s ability to communicate effectively. In just a couple hundred years our world has seen such rapid growth that even communication methods like instant messaging, introduced just 17 years ago, start to feel quaint.

Communication and the Beginning of History

Some 3,500 years ago, the Phoenicians became the first people to develop a written alphabet. It’s difficult to imagine, but your “ABCs” weren’t always something you could take for granted.

Going back even further – say, to 33,000 B.C., you can see that without written language, we have a murkier understanding of this period; primitive cave paintings are among the only records that remain. Written communication has helped us create a “memory” as a race, accelerating our ability to advance from generation to generation.

An early form of real-time communication, at a distance greater than you can hear me shout, was the smoke signal. In the grand scheme of time, it’s a fairly recent innovation, with the practice emerging around 50 B.C. Those 30,000 years between cave paintings and smoke signals contained little innovation around communication.

However, once smoke signals paved the way, new methods of communication followed more quickly, such as handwriting (~300 A.D.), carrier pigeons (1150 A.D.), the printing press (1440 A.D.).

Communication and the March of Progress

Beginning in the late 1800’s, the march of progress got a bit of a spring in its step; technological innovations – and therefore our ability to communicate – would go through a rapid series of transitions. Here’s a quick look at the major ones:

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1867: The Typewriter

1867 saw the introduction of the first typewriter, and 1876 gave us the first novel written with one: Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Like the printing press before it, the typewriter would pave the way to even more significant innovations. The Western World replaced the typewriter soon enough with the word processor and the personal computer, but in some parts of the world – India included – the typewriter is still a very commonly used appliance.

The relentless march of technology and communication also manages to underscore the fact that the world is still a big enough place that development can happen at different speeds in different places. Personally, I think it’s a little bit reassuring that some technological innovations take longer than others to permeate the fabric of society. It means that the idea of identity – even and especially national identity – is alive and well.

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1876: Telephone

It wasn’t until 1876 that the world truly began to shrink as a result of our quickly evolving methods of communication. Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone that year, and for a short time owned the only functional telephone in the entire world. These days, some 4.16 billion people own mobile phones. If you do the math, that works out to about 58% of the entire world’s population.

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1920: Radio

Commercial radio was brought to the world with the first ever broadcast of Richard Wagner’s opera Parsifal in Buenos Aires. The broadcast reached, quite literally, only about 20 homes in Buenos Aires; these were the only households that had the equipment necessary to pick up the broadcast.

TV

1925: TV

Radio’s time in the spotlight was over rather quickly, although it still remains one of our most convenient ways to quickly digest important information, even if it’s primarily used in our cars rather than our residences. Today, there are still about 44,000 radio stations in operation throughout the world.

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1960s: The Internet

This is the big one, folks. It’s hard to imagine, but the Internet has only existed for about 50 years.

The Internet came about largely because the government saw the potential in linking computers around the world. And who could blame them? Until the Internet, existing communication methods simply didn’t offer the flexibility needed to oversee the increasingly difficult job of governing the entire civilized world.

In other words, communication has, at least so far, been about immediate, practical needs. The advancement of technology, after all, is largely about solving problems, rather than simply amusing ourselves.

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1993: Email

You probably saw this coming, but one of the most important milestones in the development of modern communication was the email. The earliest email systems required that both participants be online at the same time in order to exchange communiques, but this barrier was very quickly overcome with the introduction of mail servers.

At some distant point in the future we’ll lose the last person who’s older than the Internet. Until then, it will remain the single most important innovation we’ve ever stumbled upon, and the bringer of both success and doom for entire industries.

The Next Watershed Moment

I claimed earlier that communication technology has advanced only as far as it’s needed to in order to address our present shortcomings. In other words, it’s not so much about looking ahead as it is about answering our present needs. But let’s try to predict the future anyway, shall we?

2015 is going to see the release of what will almost certainly be the most popular wearable communication device: the Apple Watch. It’s sure to become a favorite status symbol of the well-to-do, like the iPod and iPhone before it, so I suspect it’s going to be a non-essential luxury item for several years.

The neat thing about the Apple Watch – and wearables in general – is that they seem to exist outside of the established pattern of communication innovation. They don’t seem to have been designed to address any specific problem or shortcoming; they don’t really do much that our existing devices don’t already do, and in some cases, they do a worse version of those tasks. So why are they so exciting?

Apple_Watch

I’ll tell you my theory. Apple’s demo of the watch showcased the ability of users to almost effortlessly exchange multimedia messages, drawings and even their heartbeats. This seems to be the emergence of a communication method driven not so much by necessity, but by a desire for closeness.

Instant messaging and, to a lesser extent, email, have already come and – if the rumors are true – gone (although we disagree about the email bit). I don’t remember the last time someone asked me if I was “on AIM” or if I had an email address.

These days, communication seems to have become quite a bit more, well, trivial. We collect friends like trading cards on social media sites and we seem to dumb down the English language in a bold new way every day.

But the idea of exchanging heartbeats and suggestive doodles with your friends and loved ones using your wristwatch is still, somehow, a comforting one. What it tells me is that we’re still looking for ways to reintroduce a little bit of humanity into our communiques.

I know it’s a bold thing, this suggestion that the ability of technology to solve problems is slowing down. After all, Henry Ellsworth famously told Congress, way back in 1843, that human improvement was already at an end.

I’d argue something a little different. I’d argue that the role of technology now, where once it was simply to bring us closer together, has done its work and we’ve come out the other side a little less human. Sure, we’re more “connected” than ever before, but at what expense? There’s a reason we claim the Internet is made of tubes instead of the milk of human kindness.

These days, technology is turning back to the task of bringing us together, but not in a literal sense; neither Facebook nor the Internet constitutes “togetherness” – we’re connected, but we’re not together.

Harmless trifles like the Apple Watch, Google Glass, and every other “futuristic” gadget might seem like gimmicks until you realize their real purpose: to streamline communication and ultimately to remove as many barriers as possible between people. Whether they succeed or fail remains to be seen.

I spoke of watershed moments at the beginning of this article, and it leads me to my last question: what will be the next one? The printing press and the Internet are, in the grand scheme of things, ancient history. Where communication goes next is one of our most exciting unanswered questions.

Why Silicon Valley Should Quit Banking on the Demise of Email

Written by , September 30, 2014

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I was in my local Best Buy a few weeks ago when I happened to overhear a conversation between a customer and an employee. The shopper – a middle-aged man – wandered up to the associate and asked him, without a trace of irony or embarrassment, where he might find the floppy disks.

I chuckled to myself before moving on, but I wondered for about an hour what kind of ancient machine this man was using that still had a floppy drive.

Technology moves fast, doesn’t it?

Chris Weston posted a similar experience on LinkedIn this past June: he wrote about a man who’d been helping out his son’s football team and who, when he announced that he’d be using email to keep each family “in the loop” about upcoming events, received a response that was tepid at best and condescending at worst. Evidently the rest of the people in attendance were surprised that he’d opt for such an “ancient” communication method. Good thing he didn’t try to fax them.

The question of email’s relevance has been the subject of quite a bit of inquiry and prophesying over the last few years, and the phrase “dying but not dead” is a popular one. That is, if you believe the doomsayers.

But I can see where they’re coming from; social media, instant messaging apps, and even good old SMS messages seem to account for the majority of the communicating we do lately. Heck, even old-fashioned phone calls seem pretty far down the list of things we use our smartphones for.

But I’d argue that email is probably destined to become one of our most enduring methods of communication, no matter how much “evidence” you might hear to the contrary.

Email Is Dead

Okay, so why all the doomsaying about email lately? Let’s start with the numbers.

Back in 2011, research from comScore indicated that webmail usage had fallen by about 6%. When the younger demographics were isolated, the decrease was even more obvious: email usage among the 12-17 year old crowd dropped by a much more dramatic 24%.

And we shouldn’t be surprised that this hip, tech-savvy generation is leading the apparent exodus from webmail; they’re the ones that popularized social media and, like it or not, they are the driving force behind many tech trends these days. It’s all about the youth vote, after all.

But while these are certainly interesting statistics, they’re far from the complete picture. You’ll notice that the research above specifically calls out webmail usage. So what about the other kinds of email access?

To find the answer, we’ll once again call on the Radicati Group’s excellent email statistics. The number of worldwide email accounts has risen from just shy of 4 billion in 2013 to nearly 5 billion in 2014.

We’ve also seen a significant uptick in mobile email usage – a trend we can attribute to the relentless adoption rate of smartphones and tablets. As of Q2 2014, Android phones were at the top of the list for time spent viewing emails; desktop had slipped to number two, but was followed very closely by Android tablets.

Movable_Ink_US_Consumer_Device_Preference_Report_Q2_2014

So it would seem, perhaps, that the death of email was slightly exaggerated. Email is changing, certainly, but it’s definitely not going anywhere for a while.

Long Live Email

Remember when Facebook defeated Gmail back in 2010 with its email service? Neither do I. Facebook seemed to believe they were on to something; they even gave their effort a portentous name – Project Titan – but nothing much came of it.

Actually, nothing came of it; back in February, Facebook decided to shutter its email service entirely and began forwarding any errant emails to the accountholder’s primary email address instead.

Facebook wasn’t the first to try to provide a new way to “do” email and they probably won’t be the last, but their failure is a keen reminder that people are slow to abandon what already works. This is the very same reason why Facebook users didn’t flock to Google+ when it opened for business; they were perfectly comfortable where they were and had no real reason to make the switch.

It’s also the same reason why email as a whole is destined to endure, and the reason why, if Silicon Valley is still waiting for the Next Big Thing to unseat email as the king of correspondence, they should move on to more worthwhile endeavors.

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Meanwhile, Facebook has been doubling down on its instant messaging platform, going so far as to purchase rising star WhatsApp for an unprecedented $19 billion earlier this year.

So on one hand, Facebook is already looking at new avenues to get us to a post-email future, but on the other hand they acknowledge that people are unwilling to migrate from their existing email services.

Paul Berry, former CTO for the Huffington Post, has a unique perspective on the state of email as it applies to social media: “As much as we’re told email isn’t sexy, no one sends more email than Facebook or Twitter.”

And it appears he’s right; I feel like I have to turn off a new kind of Facebook email notification every single week. Facebook, for all of its confident startup-buying and insistence that we migrate our Facebook chats to an external app, still targets email by default when it wants to get our attention with something important or, more frequently, something inane (I still get the occasional email notification that I’ve been Poked).

And, since Facebook has essentially become, for better or worse, one of the most important tastemakers of our time, what they do or don’t do will continue to be a driving force in the tech world.

So while some in Silicon Valley seem to believe that social media is about to become the heir apparent to email, it’s clear that the two are not quite as interchangeable as some would like to believe.

Simply put, social media – despite the fact that it’s “always on” at the periphery of our lives – seems better suited to brief, jump-in-jump-out experiences; we check our Facebook feeds while we’re in the waiting room, while we’re on our lunch break, and, well, a bunch of other times when we’re sitting down.

Social media is always on, yes, but it’s almost never urgent. Email still seems to be the go-to communication method for something that’s time-sensitive or of singular importance. Digg’s general manager, Jake Levine, would agree: “Twitter and Facebook are both streams, products where you accept that you’ll miss certain things. An inbox is the complete opposite.”

Dick Costolo of TwitterWhy Email Will Endure

And that, really, is the crux of the argument here: email isn’t going anywhere because it’s still the absolute best communication solution for a very wide range of uses. Here are just three reasons why this is the case:

Email is universal. Everyone and their grandmother knows what email is, even if they don’t understand the finer points of how it works. It doesn’t require much of a learning curve, and it works more-or-less seamlessly across different countries and cultures.

Email is asynchronous. Unlike chat apps and text messages, email doesn’t require that both users are online and active at the same time. Email clearly has the advantage when you want to be sure that your message will be kept safe on a server until the recipient can retrieve it. Almost every other available communication method is quite a bit less reliable in that respect. For example, unless you’ve weirdly decided to turn on read receipts for your iMessages, you’ll never know when the other party has opened it – or even if they have.

Email is feature-rich. Perhaps most importantly, email is far and away a more complete communication method than anything else we have right now. The leading mobile operating systems have been jamming more and more features into their instant messaging apps, but email still offers the most robust suite of features including advanced formatting and multimedia attachments.

Having said all that, likely the biggest reason why email is going to stick around is the business world. Email marketing in particular has yet to find a successful analogue in another communication medium, and as of earlier this year, 54% of all business emails were sent for marketing purposes. Email marketing also has a virtually untouchable ROI of about 4300%.

With very few exceptions, it seems that the average business is exceptionally unlikely to turn their back on email – or even to scale back their use of it.

What this means is that we need to stop thinking about replacing email and start thinking instead about ways to revitalize it. It’s here to stay – along with its unique disadvantages and frustrations.

After all, when I say that email is here for good, I’m not saying it won’t continue to evolve. That’s Acompli’s entire raison d’être, after all: to improve on an already universally recognized platform. If you haven’t already, stop by our main website to see what you can do with email that you’ll never be able to do with one of Facebook’s $19 billion boondoggles.

Header Image: Illustration by Sam Manchester / The New York Times

5 Bad Email Habits That Ruin Your Productivity

Written by , September 23, 2014

Office Dog

We talk a lot about how much smaller the world is thanks to the Internet. What we usually mean is that it’s made communication nearly effortless; just a few seconds after you hit the “send” button on that email, a chime goes off on the recipient’s mobile phone, tablet or laptop – and then you’re off to the races.

Or are you? I ask because, for the most part, all of this “convenience” actually constitutes quite a lot of behind-the-scenes work, doesn’t it?

For starters, it’s pretty easy to forget that email is a two-way street. Sure, you can land your message in somebody’s inbox, but the part of the process that’s only too easy to forget is that then they have to reply – and you have to wait for a response.

In fact, it’s hard to think of “doing” or “checking” email as a single task when every email you send is essentially an entire process unto itself – a series of different steps that can take many times longer than just clicking (or tapping) the send button.

So it’s no wonder that email can be a huge siphon on your productivity, particularly if you’ve picked up some bad habits along the way.

Well, we’re going to dive into a few of those habits here, and hopefully help you toward your goal of inbox greatness.

1. You Make Email Your Life

Yes, we all know how important email is to the average professional. It’s pretty hard to forget, all things considered: Radicati Group, in their 2011-2015 Email Statistics Report, indicated that, in 2011, the average business email account send and received 105 messages per day. By 2015, that number is expected to rise to 125.

So, yeah, it can start to feel like email is all there is.

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I’m going to come clean about something: I’ve turned off push notifications for email on all of my devices – my phone, my iPad, all of it. There are very few instances where I’m hitting refresh waiting for a priority email to come in, so why do I need to be watching my inbox when I’m (for example) reading the latest David Mitchell book on my iPad, checking prices on Amazon, or doing any number of other things that have nothing to do with email? Or with my livelihood, for that matter?

Anyone who has ever written about email productivity always reminds readers to set time aside every day where email is simply not allowed. It can be the first hour after you wake up in the morning, or in the evening after you get home from work. Just walk away; those emails begging you to come back to the Columbia House DVD Club will keep ‘til the morning.

Why is this important? Because email can be stressful. We’ve already acknowledged that it’s a process, rather than a single task, and more importantly: it’s a task that will never be completed. How’s that for depressing?

Once you’ve plugged yourself into the World Wide Web, there’s no going back again, and the demands of your inbox are the keenest reminder you’re going to get of that fact. And now that you have email coming into your iPhone, iPad or favorite Android phone or tablet, email can reach you better than ever.

So turn it off for a few hours every day. You’ll thank me (and yourself) later.

2. You Avoid the “Delete” Button

I made a startling discovery recently: I realized that I hardly ever used the delete button to deal with my email. What this means is that every incoming email was added to a never-ending pile, each of them either demanding my attention or sulking because it’s been neglected.

As Merlin Mann sagely pointed out back in 2006, every email that you leave sitting in your inbox effectively “incurs mental debt on your behalf.” He’s also the one who introduced the phrase Inbox Zero – a concept that, if you’re not already familiar with it, you really need to check out.

And the delete button is at the heart of Inbox Zero; after you get back into the habit of using it, you’re probably going to feel like a weight has been lifted; I know I did.

I am Merlin Mann, Inbox Zero

Want to know the secret? It’s almost startlingly simple: delete anything that you don’t need to deal with right that second. And if you do need to deal with it? Well, then, just deal with it. If it really requires more time and doing so right now is not ideal, you can keep a folder for tasks to complete by the end of the day.

And that’s the funny part: the delete button, while it might feel like a cop-out, is actually one of the single biggest boons to your productivity that you currently have at your disposal. It introduces a kind of binary response that can really help you whip your inbox into shape: Delete or keep. Act on it, or decide no action is necessary. The delete button is your reminder that procrastination is only going to make the herculean task of inbox management that much more difficult in the long run.

As an alternative, consider at least sending the message in question to the Archive. This route is ideal if you’re simply not sure whether you’ll need an email again in the foreseeable future, which definitely happens from time to time.

Archiving is pretty easy to do with just about any email client, web-based or otherwise. The advantage of the Archive method is that it removes the email from sight – this is one instance where the axiom “out of sight, out of mind” definitely holds true – but still keeps it around in case you need to refer to it at a later date.

Just don’t abuse the Archive; it’s not a second inbox for you to toss stuff that you don’t want to deal with right away. Think of it instead as a filing system for things you might need to refer back to later on.

3. You Use Email When You Shouldn’t

I’m not talking about sneaking off to answer your correspondence when you’re supposed to be having a romantic dinner with your long-suffering wife. No, this is about how email has so successfully infiltrated our lives as a cure-all productivity tool that we’ve even started leaning on it for things that are much more efficiently done via other methods.

One of the best examples I can think of is setting up meeting times. If you have more than two parties who are trying to agree on a time to meet, and you’re exchanging emails to do it, you’re going to have a bad time. This is like trying to get a Friday night movie outing together with your friends: what should take two minutes can take an entire afternoon if you don’t communicate effectively.

Email is a wonderful tool, but it’s not a cure-all; email is best left for more deliberate and perhaps even long-term responsibilities. For everything else, you’re going to find that a phone call or even a text message, if you’re on really good terms with the other parties, is the way to go.

Because when you get right down to it, email is inefficient in a lot of ways. Understanding the limitations of email is extremely important if you want to get other stuff done throughout the day.

4. You Ignore Common Courtesy

Okay, so we’ve already talked a little bit about how email is a mutual responsibility and a two-way street. Let’s dig into that a little bit more, shall we?

Part of the reason why email can be a stressful and unproductive experience is that we’re all guilty of lapses in common courtesy and etiquette. In fact, Emily Post’s Etiquette, the celebrated book that’s been demystifying our individual roles in the social contract for over 90 years, now covers topics like “netiquette,” cell phone usage, Internet dating, and, yes, email.

While I’m as saddened as the next guy that etiquette has become so neglected in these modern times, this is as good a chance as we’re going to get to remind people that common courtesy shouldn’t get thrown out the window just because we’re not dealing with someone face-to-face.

But what does that have to do with productivity?

It’s simple, really: it comes down to the way that we compose our emails. Using the wrong approach will only make the response take longer, digging you an even deeper hole to bury your productivity in.

So how do you write an effective, courteous, Emily Post-approved email? Here are the basics:

  • Make it obviously actionable if you need something from the other party. Use clear and concise phrases like “quick question” in the subject line if you’re not making a big request. For everything else, be very obvious about what it is you’re expecting them to do.
  • That said, make sure you’re polite. Email doesn’t necessarily have to be formal, in the strictest sense, but it also shouldn’t be terse or standoffish. Write using the same voice you’d use with a co-worker you’re comfortable with.
  • Keep it brief. Nobody wants to slog through a wall of text when they click on your email; it’s going to make them a lot less likely to click the next time around. The ideal email should be scannable, written with short paragraphs.
  • Whenever possible, cover just one topic at a time in an email. Think of it as a conversation: you want to exhaust one topic before moving on to the next. Keep it organized.

5. You Forget That It’s an Ongoing Battle

If there’s one takeaway here – and I’ve already said this once or twice – it’s that email is a bit of an uphill battle. A key to retaking your inbox – and your productivity – is to recognize that battles are won in a day, while the war could last a lot longer.

So take it one day at a time. Put these things into practice today, and then do it again tomorrow. Like it or not, email is here to stay, and the sooner we start taking it seriously, the sooner it becomes a natural communication tool rather than a demanding and unpleasant chore.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: Balancing Your Email Needs for More Focus and Productivity

Written by , September 18, 2014

You probably found your way here because you’re interested in ways to improve your email productivity. What you may not know is how even something as simple as email can impact our mental and physical well-being.

The “how”is pretty simple: just as our increasingly sedentary work lives have taken their toll on our bodies, so too have our familiar routines taken their toll on our minds.

And email is one of the worst offenders.

If you’re like many working professionals, you send and receive a lot of high-priority emails throughout the day. As a result, “email stress”has become a bona-fide psychological phenomenon. For many of us, it might even feel like email is our job, or at least the activity that seems to account for most of the time we spend at work.

Dr. John Grohol, in an article for Psych Central, lays out the situation pretty clearly and offers a number of helpful suggestions for combating this emerging source of stress. He’s drawing on research that found that some professionals check their email as many as 40 times every hour.

I’m not going to go over each of his points in detail here; suffice it to say that there are a number of simple ways that you can get your inbox –as well as your mental well-being –under control.

If you want to dig a little bit deeper into the reasons why email has so entangled itself with our health and sense of self, it’s time to take a look at Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

The Motivations Behind Our Email Needs

Dating back to a 1943 paper called A Theory of Human Motivation, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is a psychology theory that helps to frame the process of human development and growth through a better understanding of human needs.

So, at its simplest, it’s a way for us to better understand our motivations.

At its most complex, however, it’s a tool we can use to more objectively appraise both our personal and professional lives.

Maslow's Pyramid

The Hierarchy of Needs pictured here is drawn like a pyramid –not unlike the Food Guide Pyramid that you may be familiar with from childhood–but with one important difference. Whereas the Food Pyramid features fats and oils at the top –the delicious stuff you’re supposed to avoid –Maslow’s pyramid puts the most specific, and therefore arguably the most important, needs in that place of honor. Every step of the pyramid leads us one step closer to self-actualization.

So how the heck does this apply to email? Let’s take a quick look at the five levels of the pyramid to see what they might mean for you, your workflow, and your own process of self-discovery.

How Email Can Cause Physical Symptoms of Stress

Just like the grains section of the Food Guide Pyramid, physiological needs rest at the bottom, serving as a foundation for the rest of our mental and physical well-being.

How our email habits translate to the world of physical needs is probably not immediately obvious. To get a better idea, let’s turn our attention to the science of stress.

As you may already know, stress and anxiety are more than capable of expressing themselves in the form of physical and emotional symptoms. Stress has a tendency to cause:

  • Restlessness and difficulty sleeping
  • Headaches
  • Muscle and chest pain
  • Lethargy

Recent studies have revealed quite a few ways that email can wreak havoc with our bodies. One such study, performed by U.S. Army researchers and the University of California, Irvine, attached heart rate monitors to their test subjects and then forbade them from reading their email for a full five days.

So what happened when they finally got back to their inboxes? Their heart rates settled into a constant rhythm that indicated a “high stress”state.

On the days when they had to stay away from their correspondence? Their heart rates were back to “healthy”levels.

How Email Plays on Our Fears

The next step on our way up the pyramid is safety. In the context of email, safety might refer more to our mental and emotional safety than anything to do with the body. This type of safety can refer to morality, job security, property, and overall health. In many ways, it’s more about our perception of safety than it is about safety itself.

You’ll notice that job security is on the list, and rightfully so; our jobs seem to occupy more and more of our time, with reports of the ever-longer work week surfacing daily.

In other words, more and more people are taking their work home with them by answering email after they go home for the day, during the weekend, and even while they’re on vacation. And why wouldn’t they, if job security is so frequently cited as a major “safety”concern?

Our goal should be – barring any unusual circumstances – to create boundaries for ourselves where the stress of the work week is not allowed to intrude. At the very least, do your best to set aside pre-determined times during the day to check your email. You’ll thank yourself in the long run for compartmentalizing the stress that comes with it.

How Email Does (And Doesnt) Helps Us Engage Emotionally

On the third tier of the pyramid is love and belonging. This includes friendship, family relationships, and sexual intimacy.

You’re on your own for that last one, but for the rest of it, it’s only too clear how email fits into things. Have you ever tried to express love, sarcasm, or disappointment in an email? It can’t be done –at least, not very well.

Email, for all for all of its convenience, makes it difficult to engage emotionally with anyone. It’s the reason why email marketers keep coming back to the same overused buzzwords: they only have so many words at their disposal to capture somebody’s attention.

If I were to suggest something actionable, it would be simply to remember that there are other ways to communicate; save email for those situations where only email will do. For everything else, consider a phone call or even a face-to-face meeting.

How Email Can Threaten Our Self-Esteem

Next up on the pyramid is esteem.

It’s probably not a stretch to suggest that the compulsive checking of our email has its roots in esteem issues. What did my boss think of that proposal I sent this morning? What is the client going to say?

Like it or not, email can really get under our skin and make us doubt ourselves. The thing to remember here is that allowing yourself periodic breaks from email can do you a world of good: it gives you the time to focus on your other projects, and it lets you forget about even your most high-stakes email exchanges – and, as we’ve established, allows your heart rate to level off again.

How Email Can Help Us Realize Our Potential

That brings us to the top of the pyramid: to self-actualization.

Self-actualization is becoming what we were always meant to be. Vince Gilligan, creator of Breaking Bad, has been asked frequently since the show wrapped whether Walter White was always Heisenberg, or whether he actually changed that dramatically over the show’s five seasons.

His answer was that Walter White, in the show’s pilot, was a block of marble; the events of the show chiseled away at the marble until we were left with the “true Walt.” And when all was said and done, he didn’t like what he saw when he looked into the mirror.

Why? Because he’d taken all of the best and most admirable motivations in life and warped them into something monstrous. He paved his private road to hell with good intentions.

Our careers can be the chisel that shapes the marble of our own lives, but if there’s one thing that every professional should bear in mind, it’s that neither email nor our careers are who we are.

If that sounds like a pretty grand statement to make in the context of email, I can only agree. But maybe I’m more than a guy who promotes an email app for a living. And maybe you’re more than just a cipher reading just another online article.

Tame your inbox, tame your mind

What we’re trying to do here at Acompli is bring about a paradigm shift in the way that each of us thinks about how email is currently done, and where it might go in the future. It’s about simplifying the way we work so that we can more thoroughly focus on the time when we’re not working.

Even if you’re completely comfortable with your current email solution, remember Maslow’s pyramid next time you sit down to check your correspondence. You’ll be surprised at what you’ll accomplish with a more thorough understanding of why you do what you do.

The Psychology of Ignoring Bad Emails

Written by , September 16, 2014

We’ve all received – and maybe even sent – tersely worded emails that imply someone else is dropping the ball, missing the point or worse. Equally unhelpful are emails that answer “yes” or “no” to an either/or question, ask for attachments that were already sent, or otherwise add to our inbox unread count without adding anything to the conversation.

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Addressed one by one, emails like these may not seem so bad. However, consider that you already spend more than two hours per day dealing with work email. Now consider that your volume of work email is going to grow by nearly 20% over the next few years and that you open half of your emails on your phone. The net result is that snarky or ill-composed emails add to the already existing frustration associated with email overload.

Psychologically we feel inclined to answer questions asked of us. This is called “responsibility pressure.” Just like you feel the need to answer a question that someone asks you during a conversation, you also feel the need to read or respond to emails you receive. Likewise, you feel a small positive rush when someone answers an email you send, due to the social psychology concept of reciprocity. But reciprocity has a dark side too. You may also feel the desire to lash out when someone has sent you a negative email. Unchecked, this cocktail of emotions, behaviors and impulses can create bad email behavior.

With this in mind, here are some types of email that should be managed carefully, most of which should not be answered at all.

The Passive-Aggressive Post

keep-calm-and-shut-it-down-7Everyone has bad days, but they don’t need to take them out on others. The American Psychiatric Association’s DSM-IV describes passive-aggressive personality disorder as a “pervasive pattern of negativistic attitudes and passive resistance to demands for adequate performance in social and occupational situations,” and passive-aggressive work-related emails will often imply that you should have done, or known, something you didn’t or don’t.

But don’t get dragged into the he-said, she-said, you-did, you-didn’t minutiae of these passive-aggressive emails. Instead, just do something to fix the situation in a straightforward manner. This may be completing the work or telling the passive-aggressive emailer directly that you don’t appreciate the tone of the email. You probably don’t need to respond to the message at all, and answering could actually cause more issues, as well as more email congestion. If possible, let it go and move along.

The Scheduling Morass

One of the most frustrating email exchanges is an endless round of “When works for you?” emails. Scheduling, sometimes referred to as calendar negotiation, is a perpetual problem for busy professionals, and all the more so when two people’s calendars just aren’t syncing up. This is one area where an app can really help, by offering direct calendar access and the ability to send multiple available time slots, as Acompli does. Offering a few options ensures that the other party can almost certainly agree to one, and having them automatically assembled instead of manually compiled offers a big advantage. A good rule of thumb is to never simply ask “When works for you?” Always go in with a few options that you prefer. That way, the other party can lock down a time with one reply.

The “So What?”

Sometimes you get an email to which you just don’t know how to respond. Whether someone is simply “thinking out loud” or venting, they believed the email needed sending, even though it offers nothing of use to you. Research shows asking a question in an email is a great way to get a response, so keep this in mind when answering enigmatic emails you get or when composing your own messages. Sometimes a simple “Is there anything action you’d like me to take regarding this?” is all that’s needed to prompt a blissful “no thanks, all good” – or no response at all.

The FYI

The CC: function is both a blessing and a curse, keeping us up to date while also drowning us in details. While it can be extremely useful to be able to search your email for notable news, too many messages clutter up your inbox. Try creating filters to place carbon copies somewhere else instead of your inbox, or use an email app that sorts out the important messages for you (Acompli does this with its “Focused Inbox” feature). And always avoid the impulse to spark endless reply-all chains by responding to many messages where you’re CC’d. While plenty of amused new stories have come out of such chains, not much else has.

When in doubt about whether to answer an email, a good rule of thumb can be picking up the phone. If an issue isn’t important enough to call someone and resolve it in the moment, why email that person to assign the burden of dealing with it later? Not every situation can be handled on the phone, but using a call as a bar can be a useful way to cut down on email. Holding back the impulse to add on to the email overload is sometimes the best way to use this communication form – and to avoid opening Pandora’s messy inbox full of “grievous cares.”

Pandoras-Box

While you can’t control what you receive, you can control what you send. This includes choosing not to reply, a possibly uncomfortable but powerful idea. Additionally, playing into our desire for positive reciprocity, always ask yourself if your reply is helpful or useful. The more you show good behavior and ignore bad behavior, the more we can influence the email behavior of those around us.

Acompli Puts Email Into Focus, and on Android

Written by , September 4, 2014

Today marks the exciting start to the next phase of Acompli, where we begin introducing innovation on top of a core application experience designed to help professionals “do more email” from their phones. Equally exciting is that we’re now making all of this available on Android too.

Where We’ve Been

If we go back to well over a year ago, when we began the initial development of the Acompli app, we focused on empowering professionals to do more with mobile email. Here’s what we believed (and still believe) gets in the way:

  1. Composing anything more than a basic message is hard
  2. Finding things in your email is hard
  3. Switching in and out of the email app is hard

Based on that thinking, we built a new kind of email app that served up lightning fast email and had the ability to manage your calendar, files and key contacts in a way no other mail app had done before. We combined the unique usability of a mobile app with a new approach to helping professionals complete the kind of workflows they encountered every day.

What We’ve Learned

Since releasing Acompli for iPhone about five months ago, we’ve tuned the app based on fantastic feedback we received from our users. We also looked at how people were using the app, and learned there was an even more fundamental issue that needed solving: helping people find the emails that matter. In other words, while our app does a great job helping people do more with mobile email, people needed more help getting to the emails that matter in the first place.

There are two email trends widely covered by industry analysts that helped us come to this conclusion. The first is that, year-over-year, the volume of email we receive will continue to grow. The second is that we will continue handling more email from our mobile phones. The third trend came from our own research. Looking at how people use the Acompli app, we found the significant majority of users have overrun email inboxes. What do I mean? Way too many unread emails to easily browse through. But what about all the buzz around Inbox Zero, you say? Aren’t a lot of people getting better at working harder on keeping clean inboxes? Turns out only about 10 percent of us can be called inbox zero. The other 90 percent are losing the email battle and finding it increasingly hard to get to important emails.

Covering our bases, we then looked around at what other email companies were doing about this. It turns out, not very much. The most popular area of focus seems to be around triaging and deferring, making it easy to delete emails or snooze emails. Some have designed very nice apps around this principle, but these aren’t really helping you make progress in your inbox. Instead, you live in constant struggle, beating down your inbox and creating future work. Because our mission is to help you do more and defer less, we were compelled to help you find the emails that matter more quickly and then act on them, all from your phone.

Where We’re Going

Today, we’re excited to introduce Focused Inbox, our most important innovation to date. It works by understanding how you interact with your email and contacts to figure out what email is most important to you. At the same time, we take away “noisy” email, like automatically generated ones or those sent to a bulk list of recipients. Now when you open Acompli, your inbox shows two inboxes: “Focused” and “Other.” It’s automatic, you can easily switch between the two inboxes and it keeps learning over time. Don’t worry, if you think an email belongs in the other inbox, you can easily re-classify it. And, of course, you can turn it off and on whenever you like. Best of all, it works across all your email accounts, personal and professional.

Now I realize it may sound a little too good to be true. Truth be told, we worried most about having your Focused Inbox feel right to you. After all, an email that’s important to you might not be important to me. So we put Focused Inbox through a long beta with thousands of people, refining how we decide what goes into “Focused” or “Other.” The result is an experience that our beta community overwhelmingly described as spot on. Imagine opening your email app on your phone, that has all your different email accounts connected to it, and that is chronically overrun. Now imagine opening it, and magically seeing only the right email. That’s what we strove for with Focused Inbox, and we’re excited about the results.

But wait, there’s more. Consider for a moment how “chatty” your phone is – it’s constantly buzzing with notifications and a growing badge count, that little red circle that shows how many unread email you have. This is both distracting and creates anxiety. Do you really want to get buzzed when that retailer you haven’t bought anything from in over a year has yet another sale this week? No. So we also sync your notifications and badge counts to your Focused Inbox, so you’re only notified when it’s important. Again, you can change the settings on this if you like.

Focused Inbox solves one of our users’ biggest hurdles to handling more email on mobile – finding the right emails in a noisy inbox. By bringing Acompli to more people and making it more personal, we believe we’re making progress on our mission to help people get more done on mobile.

Focus on What Matters

With Focused Inbox, Acompli gives you full suite of tools for getting work done on your phone, including an integrated calendar and file management system, with support for Dropbox, Google Drive and Microsoft OneDrive files. By intelligently presorting your inbox, we reduce the clutter for you automatically. In some cases, it cuts down the number of emails by anywhere from 50 to 90 percent, depending on how inundated an inbox is.

Finally, because there are some emails that you actually want to handle later, we’ve also added Email Scheduling. Just Swipe right on an email to clear it from the inbox for a few hours, later in the day, or the next morning – whenever you’re ready to handle it.

These features combine to give you the most powerful email inbox on mobile, that knows what emails matter to you, and keeps learning the more you use it. I invite you to try Focused Inbox and Email Scheduling on iOS or Android. The Acompli app is a free download from the App Store on iPhone and iPod touch, and in the Google Play store for Android phones and tablets.

Imagine There’s No After Hours Email

Written by , August 15, 2014

Imagine a world without work email at night. It’s easy if you try. Sort of like if John Lennon had a desk job. For most of us, that world is largely a fantasy. Most professionals field emails at night, the depth and intensity of which vary by personal choice and pressure from work. In a world of convenient technology, where your email-handling smartphone is always by your side and your sleek laptop is wirelessly connected to the Internet, the temptation to answer your email in real-time can feel overwhelming.

Screen Shot 2014-08-14 at 11.47.07 PM

A recent article in the Harvard Business Review brought up the intriguing idea of employers banning after-hours email. The article broadly examines the somewhat paradoxical feelings people have about extracurricular work: The vast majority of people (79 percent) in a Gallup poll cited in the article think that being able to work remotely is a positive thing, and that two-thirds of workers check their email outside of normal work hours – and those that do are 17 percent more likely to report “better overall lives.” The rub, however, is that half of those workers who check email after hours report having “a lot of stress” the day before they were interviewed, compared to only one-third of the other that did not.

HBR attributed the variance to the sample group’s individual perceptions.

In other words, the “evaluating self” disagrees with the “experiencing self.” The “evaluating self” probably says life is better because we have the flexibility to check email when we want, while the “experiencing self” feels the stress associated with the extra work, pressure, or guilt during our after-hours working time.

This inner conflict is not new to psychologists. For example, research suggests our “two selves” also differ in how they interpret having money and children. Being a parent and having more money is associated with higher life evaluations; but above a baseline of income, having more money doesn’t relate to less daily stress, and having kids brings more daily stress, on average. The “evaluating self” responds to status, while the “experiencing self” responds to daily and momentary life.

Thus, while checking email frequently appears to be stressful, it is also most likely associated with status and perceived importance.

While this academic model, which sounds a lot like the Superego versus the Id — Freudian slip? — to describe the real inner conflict felt by most of us makes sense, I still wonder if professionals would realistically adhere to policies that discouraged after-hours email.

The New Night Shift

Logging off at night is an interesting premise but ultimately unrealistic in the modern workplace. BloombergBusinessweek senior writer, Brad Stone, explored the reasons why in a recent piece entitled “Work-Life Balance and the New Night Shift.” In the section included below, Stone accurately describes the new work environment in which we now find ourselves, and how we’ve adapted.

Work has been leeching onto people’s off-duty time for years. E-mail makes it easier to communicate and more likely that annoyingly ambitious colleagues will respond to every message, at length and in real time. (In-box volumes are increasing by about 15 percent a year, according to global data group Experian (EXPN).) With the growing irresistibility of the smartphone and the ubiquity of cloud collaboration, evening work for many professionals has become standard. We come home from the office, change into more comfortable clothes, put the kids to bed, and maybe open a bottle of wine. And then we grab our laptops and log back in.

This cycle has been standard for me for well over ten years. While working for a major video game maker several jobs ago, a senior executive congratulated me when I sent my first email on the job after midnight. She sent that email in real-time, around 1 am, quickly replying to my own. That email, from a person I respect tremendously, positively reinforced me to keep working hard. At that time, I was already married and my wife was pregnant with our first child.

Night Shift Theatrical Poster

The desire to perform well on the job drives us to do more at all hours. In fact, the night shift is welcomed by many professionals, who feel as though they need this time to either get ahead or catch up. For some, it keeps stress down or ensures we’re not missing out on important opportunities. For me, the idea that email is piling up while I’m not at work, including on weekends and vacations, is more stressful than simply checking in periodically to delete or handle the more urgent ones. If you’re like me, the trick is to find the right balance of working only when you need to, and managing how you do, when you need to.

Company Intervention

So powerful is the force to check email, even while on vacation, that some companies are taking more extreme measures to help employees to separate their work and personal lives. Daimler Benz, the Stuttgart-based maker of cars and trucks, has created a new program for its German employees called “Mail on Holiday” that will delete any emails they receive during vacation. This seeks to achieve two things. First, it removes the temptation to check email while on vacation. Second, it provides emotional relief from the stress that comes with knowing your email is piling up and patiently waiting for the day you return. Rebecca Rosen, Senior Editor at The Atlantic, shares her reaction to the experimental policy to better protect employees’ personal time:

As someone who plans to spend a good part of her own vacation catching up with a few far-flung friends over email, I find myself appreciating that the value of this program stems from an often-overlooked divide: the wall of separation between work and personal email.

There is a tendency to pin the stress of work on the medium—email, for the most part—via which that stress is delivered. When we hear of people spending hours on email after they’ve tucked their kids to bed, is it the system of email that’s keeping them from relaxing? No. It’s their jobs, though email is what allows their jobs to have that sort of access into their homes and personal time.

Daimler’s program is a reminder that it doesn’t need to be that way. Just as email has allowed work to flow into the home, it is a spigot that can be shut off. 

Adventures in Separation

Lately, I’ve been trying different approaches to see if I can reduce off-hours workload. These don’t fully end my after-hours email sessions, but have made some difference. The goal is to spend more quality time with my family. For the record, the jury is still out on whether these better separate my work and personal lives.

First, I’ve been trying to take care of bigger ticket items before I leave work, so that anything that comes in can be quickly and easily triaged or answered. This can be hard for me because I’ve typically used the evenings to work on bigger ticket items, ironically because I’ll be interrupted less often at home; that is, once the kids are in bed and have already asked for three cups of water and to be tucked in two more times. Second is using the “phone only” rule where I only answer emails at night on my phone. While this may sound like I’m allowing my phone to act as a conduit from my work world into my personal one, it forces me to limit my responses and helps me to avoid opening up my computer, which tends to transport me completely back into work-mode.

A world where we didn’t email after work sounds nice, but isn’t realistic – John Lennon with a briefcase or otherwise. It’s up to each of us to establish the boundaries between our work and personal lives whether we work in a 9-to-5 environment or more of a high-pressure, competitive workplace where the boss also emails around-the-clock. Each of us needs to figure out whether it’s worth bending our private lives to the demands of work. It’s also up to each of us to figure out how to manage our email in order to minimize the need to log on after hours. And that’s not too hard to imagine.

Context Counts in Communication

Written by , July 31, 2014

Edge-of-Tomorrow-Movie-Review-Image-4“On your feet, maggot!”

This repeated command from a drill sergeant to Bill Cage, Tom Cruise’s character in Edge of Tomorrow, jolts movie watchers into realizing that Bill is way out of his element. But would you ever say that to someone? For that matter, would anyone ever say that to anyone else? Perhaps in the right context, but what that might be? If someone had absolute authority over another and needed to create a sense of urgency because it might one day save lives, then perhaps. Barking out something like this to a supervisor, colleague or family member, however, would definitely not go over well.

You behave differently in different situations. At work, for example, you may choose your words differently depending on whether you’re speaking to a trusted colleague, a customer or your boss. With more ways to communicate than ever – including calling, texting, emailing, IMing and video conferencing – we have more contexts than ever to manage. And when personal and professional worlds collide, like receiving an unexpected call from your significant other while immersed in work, the context switch can be more jarring. In short, context matters when it comes to communication.

Change is Hard

Just as Bill in Edge of Tomorrow had a hard time switching his own context and setting aside personal feelings for Rita to complete his professional mission, it can be hard for most of us to successfully manage the blurring of personal and professional contexts. We don’t want our kids’ soccer game locations showing up to coworkers in our calendars, or to let our family to see all the in-depth agenda items of our work meetings. And we certainly don’t want our kids tweeting their video game successes on our Twitter accounts.

Research supports that switching contexts is hard for us: “Switching of organizational contexts in communication is associated with higher levels of stress,” at least in the workplace. But switching is also necessary to maintain that thin digital line between personal and professional identity, and we need to be able to access all the information relevant to us in context.

Context Matters

Context matters in both the physical and digital worlds. Acompli CEO, Javier Soltero, wrote a piece explaining how email is an intimate part of anyone’s identity, serving not only as a compendium of information about us but also a marker of who we are. As our lives become increasingly digital, our online identities expand beyond email to include calendars, messages, documents, and even social media accounts, both personal and professional. As these many elements of our digital lives proliferate, we need better ways to manage them – ways that take into account the context of each element.

In Edge of Tomorrow, part of Bill Cage was suppressed when he was ripped out of context from his cushy media spokesman position and thrown into the army. But part of him was created too: a soldier. In this new context, his previous successes meant little – to him or anyone else. And he needed help adapting.

People Create Context

“Come find me when you wake up.”

Come Find Me When You Wake Up

Bill’s transition from shill to warrior is helped along by his fellow soldier Rita, and most of what we do in our personal or professional lives revolves around people as well, whether they’re the ones we choose to spend our time with or the ones we’re forced to work with. And we learn – by intentional effort or trial and error – to manage our activities by communicating with people in the way they prefer. (Rita, for example, is a woman of few words.)

Generally, we don’t Snapchat our grandparents (here’s hoping, anyway) or send urgent business correspondence by regular mail. We write Granny a letter and email (or text) our boss; we send wedding invitations by mail and meeting invites digitally. We crack certain types of jokes at work and others in the bar. We turn off our ringers after hours except for those critical calls from family members, because in the middle of the night, work can wait – usually. And we make all these decisions not based on the unlimited technology available but on the specific people involved in a certain communication context.

Put People First

In the world of apps, where phones are so personal and central to communication, the next wave of innovation needs to put the person at the center of context. Instead of simply offering email, calendar or cloud storage services, services must adroitly manage personal and professional contexts. This means systems have to align with people, not the other way around. It’s a continual process. At Acompli, for example, we focus our app on the people who matter to you – the people whose expertise keeps you moving, in any context. And we do this because we think it’s the best way to support better collaboration in context. We put people first because people create context. And context matters.

The Thin Digital Line Between Work and Life

Written by , July 17, 2014

The line between work and other parts of our lives has never been thinner or blurrier. You know that supercomputer in your pocket you call a phone, connected by a fat pipe to the internet and the cloud? Not only does it make you more accessible, but also it pressures you into feeling like you need to be more responsive at all hours. I feel that pressure, and have certainly allowed the Trojan horse that is my smartphone to invade my personal life.

WorldsAreColliding

My Worlds Collided Long Ago

When it comes to work, I reply to emails on evenings and weekends. I respond to text messages, and would answer calls immediately from my boss or colleagues. I even schedule meetings with overseas colleagues at 11 pm on Skype. Additionally, I’ve used my personal mobile phone as my business phone number for a decade. It’s gone on press releases when I was the media contact, and it went on my business cards before we decided that business cards were “so last year.” Such is the reality of my professional life in the modern era.

It turns out I’m not the only one whose worlds have collided. According to one study, people who use smartphones and tablets add two hours to the working day, which equates to an extra 460 hours per year. In that study, nine out of ten office workers accessed email on their phones, and two-thirds check emails as they wake up and as they go to bed. A third of people first checked email on their phone between 6 am to 7 am, and a quarter last checked email from mobile between 11 pm and midnight.

Another recent study finds that monitoring your phone for messages from your boss and responding to colleagues at all hours doesn’t just make it harder get a decent night’s sleep, but also leaves you exhausted and disengaged the next day.

At Acompli, we also find that users who manage both their business and personal email accounts with our email app have a substantially higher retention rate than those who use it for just their personal or just their business accounts. Overwhelmingly, we received feedback that combining their personal and professional accounts was desirable.

Hope for the Weary

On the flip side, there is hope for those who can learn to disconnect on a regular basis, according to Harvard Business School professor Leslie Perlow. In her book, entitled “Sleeping With Your Smartphone,” she discusses her study of Boston Consulting Group executives. When these executives had better separation between their personal and professional lives, they felt more excited about work, as well as more satisfied with both their personal and professional lives.

Reinforcing the Borders

As professionals, we can create better separation, but complete disconnection may not always be feasible. Here are some things ways to better manage the separation of your worlds.

axis-allies-1914-0014

1. Filter VIPs

Identify important contacts, and keep on top of communications coming from them. These are individuals whose email you always respond to quickly, regardless of whether you are on the clock or not. You can also use filters to keep those messages at the forefront of your inbox and lower-priority communications away from immediate view. Sifting through the dreck of your inbox to locate and respond to important messages is an unnecessary act that can lead to stress.

2. Keep ‘Em Separated

Resist the urge to manage both your personal and professional inboxes at the same time. If you’re at work, turn off push notifications from your personal email. They will just be a distraction, whether your sister is sending you the latest gif of a sleepy puppy or eBay is mockingly notifying you that you were outbid (sorry, cheapskate). If you’re going to use your personal device for work and private communication, increase your awareness around the appropriate time and place to manage each category. While you might feel like multitasking is a good idea, you’re just kidding yourself. It doesn’t work.

3. Turn It Off

Your iPhone has a built in “do not disturb” setting. Use it. Carve out time with your family. Set aside time for yourself. Studies show that two or more hours of exposure to backlit devices suppresses melatonin by as much as 22%. Try turning that device off at least 30 minutes before you want to go to sleep, and avoid “screen-time” before bed in general.

How are you managing the separation between your work and professionals lives? I’d love to hear your strategies. If the studies tell us anything, it’s that too much work leads to exhaustion, inefficiency and reduced satisfaction. This just may be a welcomed case of less is more.

How Email and Files are like Chocolate and Peanut Butter

Written by , July 9, 2014

I’d like to make a small confession. I don’t love peanut butter. Maybe it’s the fact that growing up in Puerto Rico, peanut butter just wasn’t that big of a thing. Still, I distinctly remember seeing a TV commercial for Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups with two Walkman-toting teenagers strolling down the street, with one inexplicably eating peanut butter out of a jar. As they bump into each other, one says: “Hey, you put your chocolate in my peanut butter!” 30 years later I still marvel at how well Reese’s marketing conveyed the idea of synergy, that the whole can be greater than the sum of its parts. That, and I strangely find Reese’s peanut butter cups incredibly delicious despite my lack of love for one of its main ingredients.

Reese's Peanut Butter Cups

When we started Acompli, we knew that creating a breakthrough email app for mobile professionals would require us combine email with other important ingredients. But what were those ingredients, and how would we combine them?  To figure it out, we studied important actions that started or ended with an email message and also involved other sources of data. We identified ways to bring people closer to the data and actions necessary to deal with any message in their inbox. The first ingredient we began combining was the calendar, which is very tightly coupled with the email experience to give professionals new, powerful ways of managing their calendar on mobile.

Early user feedback also told us that combining files was very important, since the inability to easily attach files to email was a major pain point on mobile. The key question was how to take the “chocolate” that is email and marry it with the “peanut butter” of files to produce something amazing?

Chopped Mystery Blanket

We started by describing what we wanted to enable people to do with files from inside our app, in its simplest terms: Enable people to find, view, and share any file they’ve sent or received. Our initial implementation of this dealt only with email attachments and, based on the user feedback so far, we’ve uncovered something special by simply making this critical payload of most email messages easier to access and work with.

Today’s release of Acompli with Google Drive and Dropbox integration takes a big step forward. Adding support for the top two cloud file providers gives Acompli users the ability to access, manage, and share any file, regardless of where its stored. We’ve also updated our files panel to help users quickly identify the most recent files that have been added, updated or shared. This unique combination of cloud files, attachments and email makes mobile users more productive and provides what we believe is the right kind of “chocolate and peanut butter” experience. We’ve brought professionals closer to their documents, no matter where they are, and enabled powerful, new ways to move files to and from cloud file services.

A few days ago, as we were making the final preparations for this release, I had my own version of the “you put your chocolate in my peanut butter” moment. I was out at a playground with my son on the weekend and, while he was happily zipping around on his scooter, I took a look at my phone and noticed an email from our marketing team asking if I had reviewed the press release for this announcement. I had deleted the email that originally included the link to the Google Doc we were using to draft it, but quickly remembered that Acompli had direct access to it. One tap into the files panel in Acompli, and there it was, at the top of the list of Google Drive files since it had been recently updated. One more tap to open it and review it, and I was able to reply to the marketing folks to let them know the release was ready to go.

These types of events happen multiple times a day for most professionals. The opportunity to build a product that helps them get more done, quickly, and directly from their powerful mobile device is extremely exciting for our entire team.

We’re eager to hear your stories of how Acompli helped you get more done from your iPhone or Android. You can find us on Twitter and Facebook and, of course, by email.

 

Bridging the Mobile Productivity Gap

Written by , July 7, 2014

Mobile Phone

Mobile technology seduces us into feeling we are infinitely productive. Since most of us now carry pocket-sized, powerful computers everywhere we go, it follows that we should be able to use our smartphones to solve problems, answer questions, and generally knock out our to-do lists. The problem is that our desire to be more productive isn’t realized in practice.

Mobile makes it possible to receive assignments, instructions, feedback, etc. But acting on these missives is a laborious and awkward process. If you’ve ever tapped out a terse, grammatically inept work message while squinting at your tiny keyboard, biding time until you can get on your laptop and do actual work, you understand: there is a major gap between the work we need to do on mobile and the work we can actually do.

Our CEO, Javier Soltero, discusses this productivity gap in an piece for Fast Company, addressing the tools we need to adapt to working via mobile, and how this will help us adjust to the stresses and challenges faced by today’s workforce. Here’s an excerpt:

Closing the productivity gap begins with a paradigm shift: we need to abandon the notion that the way we do work on mobile should look or feel exactly like the way we do work on a desktop computer or laptop. The mobile interface and the optimal way to use it have very little in common with the desktop interface and its uses. The more quickly we accept this reality, the more quickly we can begin to evolve a new understanding of how to use our mobile working hours more efficiently and effectively.   

We also need to stop using mobile as a consumption-only channel, and start creating content on it. Whether that means writing short but effective emails, creating tasks in the right to-do list app, or sending calendar invites on mobile, any action taken on mobile is one that doesn’t have to happen later on the desktop. It’s much too easy to get in the habit of checking email on mobile and feeling like that equals being productive. Merely checking email doesn’t get work done, and it’s time to stop acting like it does. Instead, we need to start working actively on mobile devices.

Read the rest on Fast Company.

Keep Your Damn Technology Off My To Do List

Written by , July 2, 2014

Technology has changed the way we live and work, from PCs and the Internet to smartphones and apps. Today, for example, we can instantaneously send a message to someone else’s mobile device from anywhere to anywhere, any time of day. More recent developments like the cloud, big data and faster broadband make this the best era in which to work from anywhere.

Sometimes No Tech is the Best Tech

Despite these advances, one thing that hasn’t changed for me is using a pen and paper for my to-do list. Having worked my fair share of years, I’ve seen a lot of evolution in how we work. With today’s technology, I can be fully productive wherever I have my laptop, mobile phone and connectivity. Below is an actual picture of my desk, where you’ll notice I have three key and portable things: my laptop, phone and old school to-do list. Of course there’s a hot mug of my go-go juice. Note that I do not bring the cactus with me when I’m away from my desk.

If we go back just 50 years ago, we still used typewriters and “CC” meant carbon copy, not courtesy copy. And there was actually a carbon copy machine that duplicated typed memos that were distributed by an army of people into your colleagues’ mail slots. As an aside, the ads for copy machines were unbelievably sexist. The hit TV show, Mad Men, got that aspect of the period right.

A September 1959 advertisement for the Xerox 914

Just 20 or so years ago, if you needed to send a letter or memo to a customer, you used the postal service. Pay more and you could get it there overnight. Pay even more, and it could be sent priority overnight, arriving by 10 AM. Maybe you didn’t need to send a letter, so you just called from the landline on your desk. I don’t have one on mine anymore, and haven’t for roughly the last decade. There were also fax machines that instantly reproduced your letter on the receiver’s machine, wherever it was. I still hate them, of course, since sending a fax was always about as easy as programming your VCR. And along came email, instant messaging, cloud sharing, and more. My to-do list? Still pen and paper.

When it comes to pen and paper, there’s just no substitute to the flexibility, ease and effectiveness of a notebook for writing my to-do list, jotting some quick notes and maybe even sketching out a quick diagram, all of which I do regularly in my notepad. Now, before you scream “luddite,” know that I work in high tech start ups. And per my Silicon Valley obligation, I’ve tried many high tech alternatives to my to-do list, ranging from spreadsheets, Palm Pilots (remember those?), Asana, and more. But I always come back to pen and paper.

I Assume My “Asana” with Pen and Paper in Hand

An important truth is that technology does not always make something better. Ashlee Vance, technology writer for Bloomberg Businessweek, recently challenged the value of task management software companies like Asana and Slack. They promise that if you use their software you’ll “be less busy,” which Vance describes as “the office equivalent of a fad diet.” He describes their products as nothing more than “a glorified to-do list.”

Vance believes these products are the result of Silicon Valley bias, pointing out that these products “are created by engineers who’ve never worked at a traditional company and who fetishize task management and the step-by-step processes used to build software applications.” Basically, the products were never really designed to satisfy the needs of “regular people in regular corporate jobs.”

Andy Rooney on Computers

The Writing Bone’s Connected to the Brain Bone

Another reason I believe paper and pen have persevered all these years is the hard connection your brain makes with something that’s written versus something typed or inputted another way. Adobe’s VP of Experience Design, Michael Gough, told Forbes writer Anthony Wing Kosner that it was that connection that Adobe was aiming to make with Ink & Slide, its new hardware designed to recreate the organic experience of drawing for the iPad. Adobe Ink is a stylus and Adobe Slide is a ruler-like device that work in combination with drawing apps Adobe Sketch and Adobe Line to draw more naturally using tablets. According to Gough, “many creatives feel… that for all [technology] has given us it has also robbed us of expressiveness and the ease of making.”

Adobe Ink & Paper

That expressiveness and ease of making also applies to our simple to-do lists we make every day. Writing something by hand – a note, task, or quick sketch – imprints it directly on our brains in a way that can’t be matched. While only some may need the tools to draw elaborate, beautiful pictures, we all need a way of keeping track of goals, ideas, tasks and more.

ToDoList_635

I’ve spent a lot of time looking for a digital task manager until I finally realized that I could cross it off my list. There’s no substitute for that notebook on my desk. Now, if I could only keep track of that pen…

New Gmail API: An Email Standard Power Grab?

Written by , June 25, 2014

Google I/O 2014Today at Google I/O, sandwiched somewhere between smart watches and health monitoring technology, Google announced a new REST API for accessing Gmail. Their choice to highlight an API during their keynote reinforces the strategic importance of Gmail to the company as it continues to aggressively acquire a user base across both consumer and enterprise audiences.

Google’s choice to mention it in the keynote, as did Apple in its WWDC keynote, sparked some interesting conversation at Acompli. Our initial reaction was something like “HUZZAH! NO MORE WHACKY gIMAP!”

Tobias says huzzah

But the joy quickly faded as we dug into the specifics. The most obvious question was “Well, what’s changed here? Is this the go-forward API for Gmail/Google Apps?” The quick answer: No. Not yet, at least. This new API is not rich enough to support the capabilities that make Acompli possible. Google clearly includes the “smoking Gmail API Note” in their developer documentation:

The Gmail API Note

Elsewhere on the Internet, the discussion inevitably turned to the issue of standards and how this move represents a move in the wrong direction in preserving the ubiquity of access to email services built on things like IMAP, SMTP, POP3 (gasp!) and a few others.

So, is this a good thing? In short, yes, but it highlights the false promise of the role standards play in the retrieval of email messages. Email standards are the reason why it remains one of the most important and heavily used communications medium in the world. The standards evolved from the early days of the Internet as a set of rules that enable messages to be delivered across arbitrarily complex networks. Unfortunately those standards, and specifically the ones related to retrieving mail (such as IMAP), are quaint by comparison to most APIs developers use these days. Even worse, the standards themselves are all colored with extra elements that make them fundamentally incompatible with each other. In plain English, it means that a Gmail IMAP client and a Yahoo IMAP client are significantly different even though they are both built on a standard.

Fortunately, users don’t care about this kind of stuff. People assume that developers will build email clients and services that can connect to email providers using whatever magic is required, even if it is not built on a standard. The thing they do care about is making sure a message gets delivered and that the recipient can retrieve and read that message. This leads us to the one standard that really does matter: SMTP (Simple Mail Transport Protocol). This standard is responsible for ensuring that email systems can talk to each other and route messages appropriately. It is the binding agreement we all share that makes electronic mail universally reliable and ubiquitous.

The SMTP Standard

Google’s choice to make their Gmail service more accessible to developers through a proprietary API will definitely lead to more innovative uses of email data and possibly new client experiences. This is most certainly a good thing for users, especially since we all depend on email in one way or another. It doesn’t, however, affect the fundamental way in which email travels from one point of the Internet to the other.

The opportunity for dominant email platforms like Gmail and Exchange is to focus on opening up access to developers to build differentiated, powerful experiences that work with the vast amounts of great data in email. If this means the introduction of new APIs, then great. Much like the telephone system and the diversity of handsets and PBXs, there’s ample opportunity to innovate on how users access communication mediums without fundamentally altering the open way in which calls are routed from one system to another. Any step towards making email a more developer-friendly and accessible medium is a step in the right direction, especially for us here at Acompli. Now all we need is for Microsoft to follow suit and simplify and unify their myriad API options for Exchange and Office 365 so we can build even more interesting capabilities with their platform as well.

The Hard Truth About Managing Up

Written by , June 20, 2014

The thin, neatly stapled stack of papers landed on my desk with a soft swish. Looking up, Doug was standing on the other side of my desk with a tight smile. “Read this,” he said. And then he walked away.

Doug was my no-nonsense boss, and the CEO of a company I worked for just out of college. I had been on the job for just a few months. The company was lean and growing fast, which ultimately allowed me to quickly earn more responsibility. It also translated into a lot of exposure to Doug, including heavy travel, calling on our top customers together and frequent evening calls to calibrate. I had eight interviews before I got the job offer, and within 48 hours of starting, I was asked abruptly to fly down to Los Angeles, where I would live for the next three weeks, managing a key test market of our product across several stores of a national retailer. Doug was successful, had earned his MBA at Harvard Business School and was hard charging. As a 23-year-old new college grad, I wanted to learn as much as I could from someone like this. When Doug dropped that article on my desk, I was as green as they come.

OfficeSpace_ManagingBothMe_andYou

Nervously picking up the stack, the title read “Managing Your Boss.” It was published by something called Harvard Business Review, which I didn’t know existed until that moment. It turns out that this article is one of the true classics that all professionals should read at some point in their careers, and it changed the way I thought about my relationship with my boss (and all superiors), from that moment forward. Perhaps Doug didn’t have the words to say these things to me, but the article certainly did. I felt a mix of embarrassment, insult and the feeling that I was being given bad news. Scanning the article, my 23-year-old hubris immediately (and falsely) interpreted that Doug was saying that he was more important than I was, and that I need to accommodate him. Of course, you have to forgive my younger, cockier self, who already knew everything about life. Fortunately, I had the good sense to take a deep breath and reread it.

So what does “Managing Your Boss” say? In a nutshell, it explains that your boss needs you as much as you need them, and that the management of this relationship is squarely your responsibility. It calls out the confusing reality that your boss must serve as both your supporter and evaluator, which changes depending on the situation. To be sure, it is definitely not a guide on how to flatter your boss, nor does it recommend that. Rather, it provides you insight and empathy for your boss as a person with pressures, goals, emotions and a life outside of work just like you. It also makes clear that while your boss may not be perfect, it’s up to you to try to lean into strengths and compensate for weaknesses. Help your boss in a way that best helps you. Why? Because your boss is your best touch point to the rest of the organization and likely has sway, if not direct authority, over resources and relationships to help you do your job better.

Dilbert_GladIDontHaveYourJob

The article argues that you must find a working style that works for both of you. You may have heard this described as “managing up.” This process can include observing and modifying how and when your boss likes to communicate, setting and managing expectations appropriately and trying to leave your own fears and ego at the door. Above all, it reminds you that delivering on the job, and how you do so, is the foundation of how you build a foundation of trust with your direct supervisor. This also means that you need to increase your own self-awareness, including how you perceive and react to authority.

For someone just out of undergraduate, it was pretty mind blowing. Consider the 23-year-old me for a moment. I had just spent around 20 years in an educational system where the teachers and professors told the student what to do for each and every assignment. I had grown up with an immigrant, autocratic father who liked to give instructions and criticism equally. I had played competitive sports including during college, where coaches maximize every minute of your training and call the shots during games and tournaments. A sudden adjustment to proactively setting my own goals, seeking support, building consensus, negotiating deadlines, managing expectations and course correcting were foreign concepts. Telling someone like me to go and be “proactive” probably wasn’t clear enough direction.

Mr._BurnsFast-forward 20 years later, after having hired and managed many, I confess that it can be challenging to do well. There have been fleeting moments I’ve been great, and far more times I’ve been far less than great. And from my own experience, it’s a luxury to have people work for you who understand how to maturely and effectively help manage the mutual dependency that is the supervisor-subordinate relationship. Likewise, you never move beyond working for someone in some capacity. The more you learn to help and influence those who have authority, the more you can get what you need. I still occasionally reread this article, and sometimes give it to others, hopefully with a little more explanation than Doug did when he gave it to me.

In a follow up article, I’ll provide my own methods for managing up. I’ve now worked for four strong CEOs. Each have different personalities, and my own needs have changed over the years. In the end, I worked for Doug for seven years before going to get my own graduate degree. In many ways, he was my most important boss, whose mentoring still help me today. While he was hard on me, he was good for me, and I am grateful.

Now, go read Managing Your Boss today. You can’t get it as a stand-alone article anymore, but it’s contained within a useful collection of articles called Managing Up and Across. It’s worth the read.

Ask an Expert: Is Inbox Zero the New Email Black?

Written by , June 17, 2014

Welcome to the Acompli Ask an Expert series, in which we’ll highlight how different executives and thought leaders think about email, productivity and mobile. In this inaugural post, we tackle one of the most debated of all email work styles, Inbox Zero.

Inbox Zero is the New Black

Inbox Zero is an approach to email management, developed by productivity expert Merlin Mann, with the goal of keeping your email inbox empty, or nearly empty, at all times. The classic system allows a person to take only one of five actions for each email that comes into an inbox: delete, delegate, respond, defer and do.

To give us perspective is Acompli co-founder and VP of Engineering, Kevin Henrikson. Kevin has worked in the email industry for more than 13 years across 5 companies. He’s also a hardcore inbox zero proponent with typically no more than five email in his inbox at any time. Those who contact Kevin generally get a response within minutes, even during evenings and weekends. Kevin has maintained Inbox Zero regardless of the pressures of his job, whether running a team of more than 100 engineers at VMware, or helping set up and build out Acompli, our new company focused on mobile email.

So how does Kevin manage his inbox? We talked with him to learn about his approach to Inbox Zero, and summarize the highlights of the conversation for you here.

A Forced Situation

Like many people who’ve been in tech for more than 10 years, or who live outside of Silicon Valley, Kevin’s corporate inbox used to reside in Microsoft Outlook on a PC. Stringent size limits on Exchange Server meant he had to manage the size of his inbox very carefully. This meant he couldn’t save every message he ever sent, and if you feel like your email record is the foundation of your professional identity, or if you’re a digital hoarder, the very prospect might send you into a mild panic. But Kevin worked with the tools he had, and created regular archives so he could delete emails when Outlook prompted him, yet still retain access to old messages. Because Outlook search was so awful, he developed a way to aggressively filter and folder his emails for future reference. In essence, the constraints of Exchange Server mandated much of the character of his initial proactive approach to managing email.

No Limits

Then along came slick new email services like Gmail and Zimbra that had fast, useful search capabilities, unlimited storage space and easy web access. With the constraints of Outlook removed, many people fell into a search-and-hope system, keeping a mental model of the keywords that might lead them back to the email they didn’t act on. But even when liberated from the shackles of inbox size constraints and assisted by a better search mechanism, Kevin didn’t abandon his battle against email overload. He continued to filter messages, not letting his inbox bloat to unmanageable proportions. He also began to take a more task-based approach to email.

Everything in Its Place

As we mentioned last week, everybody needs to customize their own disciplined approach to email management. This means you can’t hold your breath and hope that your emails read themselves, insist that colleagues drop by your desk for everything they need, or treat email as a to-do list. Email is a great way to communicate with others about tasks, but it’s not in itself a task management tool.

Because most of us have an ample stable of tasks, our inboxes fill up apace. This makes managing the inbox an impossible task in itself, stealing too much time from our actual to-dos. Kevin’s solution is to forward emails about tasks to a separate task management system. This keeps his email inbox from becoming too overwhelming, while also ensuring that no tasks slip through the cracks into the email abyss.

He maintains several types of task lists, including professional tasks, personal tasks, and tasks that can be done on the go, so he always has a list to work on, no matter where he is or what he’s doing. While the same task list approach doesn’t work for everyone, it’s a virtual necessity to separate managing emails from managing tasks.

Free Your Mind and Your Inbox Will Follow

While some people recommend setting aside time to answer emails, Kevin processes most emails as they comes in, either responding right away, scheduling time for a discussion, or filing the email away as a task. By handling most email immediately, he saves himself the mental “tax” of having to remember that certain tasks are languishing in his inbox, and then find those tasks in order to complete them.

Free your mind

If you don’t have a formal way of managing your inbox, you’re managing it mentally, whether you realize it or not. Somewhere in the back of your mind, valuable brain cells are occupied with the knowledge that you need to respond to this email from your boss about that presentation, or send the latest update on the project to your team, or check an email for your action items from the meeting. Constantly juggling this knowledge, trivial as it may seem, taxes your brain in a way that’s difficult to measure but can have a real impact on your performance – an invisible form of multitasking.

How Acompli Helps

In addition to constantly monitoring his inbox and using a separate task management system, Kevin (of course) uses the Acompli email app on his phone, which helps reach Inbox Zero with features like unread filtering, scheduling suggestions, and priority recommendations for files and contacts. While hardcore Inbox Zero zealots are fixated on a truly empty inbox, Kevin takes a less rigid approach, and he typically has a couple unread messages in his inbox to deal with when he gets back to his desk.

And because Kevin is a co-founder at Acompli, he made sure that its email application includes many key features to enable an Inbox Zero work style. Using an inbox filter, he can display only unread messages, which lets Kevin manage new emails right as they come in, and frees his mind from the task of tracking of old, unanswered messages. Integrating calendar into email allows him to schedule meetings on the go as well as get  quick access to frequent contacts and files, which help him send the right content to the right person, right away. So while Acompli won’t get everyone’s inbox as clean as Kevin’s, it has key features for both Inbox Zero and other work styles alike.

Overall, Kevin’s points out that Inbox Zero approach isn’t magic, and it isn’t right for everyone. It’s something he’s developed and fine-tuned over time to help him reduce the cognitive burden of email, which frees him to focus on his core tasks. Not everyone can use the same approach – but everyone does need to choose an email style, or risk being mentally imprisoned in an email vortex. Email overload may seem like a life sentence, but coming up with your own Inbox Zero approach can get you early release.

The Cure for Email Time Suck [Part II]

Written by , June 13, 2014

Not so long ago, office communication was done solely by phone, fax and in-person rendezvous, and none of it was as glamorous as the three-hour boozy lunches seen on Mad Men. Email may be more high tech than the stacks of paper memos, barely legible faxes and strained phone conversations of yore, but that’s also helped it proliferate faster than Don Draper’s list of exes. The hard truth for those with bulging inboxes is that email is not going the way of the dinosaurs anytime soon. The good news is, it does not have to be the time suck we discussed earlier this week. Here’s how to buckle down and take control of your inbox, instead of letting it control you.

Set Time Limits

Set firm limitations on how much time you will spend on email in a given day. This includes limiting the frequency with which you check your inbox: try to check it no more than hourly, and certainly not every five minutes (you know who you are). A major part of email overload stems from the unrealistic perception that you must respond to work email constantly, around the clock. Many people respond at all hours due to the prevalence of smartphones, giving themselves a reputation they struggle to maintain.

A 2012 survey of almost 500 executives, managers, and professionals by the Center for Creative Leadership found that 60% of respondents who use a smartphone for business purposes end up working between 13.5 and 18.5 hours a day. Further, as mobile technology has reached a higher market penetration since 2012, it’s easy to imagine that 60% is now a low estimate. Realistically, most of us shouldn’t have to respond to work email after work hours. And it may not even make us more productive.

Start with Work, not Email

On a similar note, when you get to the office in the morning, don’t check your email first thing. Try to wait 30 minutes or an hour, and then look at your inbox. Use this first half hour to an hour to catch up on non-email related tasks from the day before. Do some planning, update your to do list or catch up on some news. Cognitively, your focus is sharpest in mid to late morning, and surveys of workers have shown that the morning hours are the most productive, so morning is the time to harness this productive energy. Knock out this first hour or so without distracting yourself with your inbox, and you will likely be less overwhelmed when it comes time to start replying to messages.

Prioritize by Person

Prioritizing your communications will help you stay within your time budget. This does not mean responding to a few messages that you perceive to be urgent at the expense of ignoring all other communications. Rather, it means understanding which communications require more immediate action or response, which ones can wait till later, and which ones don’t merit your time at all. In statistics compiled by the Radicati Group in 2011, about 20% of email is unwanted spam, even in spite of spam filters. Often times, importance depends greatly on who the email is from. Applying tools that learn from your behavior, like Gmail Priority Inbox or AwayFind, will help you identify the most important email first, easing the pressure to scan over a ton of different messages to figure out which is most pressing. There are many different email productivity tools out there, and chances are you will be able to find one that you enjoy using.

I thought that Email Mattered

Go Off the Notification Grid

Consider disabling email push notifications. Push notifications can be really useful (reminding you of important appointments, to pick up the kid from soccer practice, etc). But they are also a disruption and often alert you of nonessential email. If you are working on a difficult task that requires full concentration and your phone buzzes, it’s going to be a major temptation to stop whatever you are doing to at least look at the email. Free yourself from that temptation.

This point has been reiterated many times, but humans are not good at multitasking. The limits of our cognition just do not allow for it. Part of the reason email seems to take so much time is that we are often in the process of doing something else when we take a compulsive detour to the inbox, only to find that what was once five unanswered emails has multiplied to fifteen or twenty, or more. Soon you begin replying and totally lose focus on whatever you were doing before and whenever you return to it, whether it’s within 20 minutes or an hour, you have effectively lost steam and probably added a few new tasks onto a list of already unfinished ones. Constant interruptions destroy focus and productivity, which isn’t good for anyone.

Take it Slow

To minimize the chance of relapse, don’t try to implement all these time-saving changes at once. Starting small is a more sure path to reaching your goals, and changing your email habits shouldn’t be about extreme or drastic measures. Subtle behavioral shifts are what you are aiming for, and the more you put these principles into practice, the more you will find peace and balance with your email. And remember, your inbox does not have to be at zero for you to be the office hero.

Will iOS 8 Settle the Bundled vs. Unbundled App Debate?

Written by , June 11, 2014

When Apple introduced the world to the iPhone in 2007, it launched a revolution around the concept of an app. They spent hundreds of millions of dollars in advertising to educate consumers that “there’s an app for that.” It wrote the iOS Human Interface Guidelines (HIG) to steer developers toward designing apps that were streamlined, simple and did one thing exceptionally well. It raised the bar for better design on mobile around a philosophy of “one app, one purpose.” Through this, Apple took a stance toward unbundled app design.

Last week, at WWDC 2014, Apple previewed iOS 8, which introduces the concept of “Extensions” as a way to enable apps to interact with each other in ways previous versions of iOS did not allow. We’ll get into more of that later. But to understand why this is significant, we first have to look at how just how much Apple’s design philosophy from its mobile platform has had on all digital platforms, especially the Web.

On the Web, There’s Still a Bundle for That

On the web, tabbed, multi-mode applications still exist but feel noisy by contrast to the more single-purpose design trend on mobile. Just visit United’s site to book airfare for a reminder of classic web app design. Hello car rentals, hotels, vacation planning and a million other things. This type of bundled approach arguably doesn’t work well on the web, but competing business goals coupled with generous screen real estate have led web designers to pack the screen with as much content as possible. On the mobile side, the exact opposite has become true. Limited screen space forced companies like United Airlines to build a simple mobile interface designed around one thing: getting you on an airplane. The HIG worked.

This disciplined approach to mobile app design has helped bring new levels of visual polish to apps. It has also introduced completely different ways for us to interact with massive amounts of information. One of the best examples of this is Tinder, the popular social dating app.

Blending Form and Function on Mobile

Tinder_screenshotTinder’s sole purpose is to help you meet people (what you do after that is beyond the scope of any app). The beauty of Tinder’s design is how it makes browsing large numbers of people easy and fun. Rather than displaying a scrolling list, the designers combined navigating a list with expressing interest in someone by using intuitive swipe gestures. The result is a more engaging experience for users. It’s a well-executed single purpose app with the right mobile gesture interface. The success of mobile-first apps like Tinder and Snapchat, among others, has led many brands (including our friends at United) to refine their functionality for mobile.

Facebook, one of the most used mobile apps, is caught in the middle of this debate as it tries to reconcile core functionality like the News Feed with additional functionality from its messaging platform, as well as various other apps it has acquired over the years. At the heart of this dilemma is Facebook’s core mobile app. Today, it combines a raft of features, including many that users may not know about, since they’re buried inside the “More” menu. And those features were likely placed there in the first place, because they’re secondary to the core experience. Facebook’s recent efforts to introduce and promote dedicated apps like Messenger and Paper suggest they too believe Facebook functionality merits a series of apps versus the previous all-in-one approach. It won’t be a surprise to see Facebook use iOS 8 to guide users between its various single-purpose apps, with the goal of keeping people within the Facebook ecosystem as much as possible. Additionally, Facebook’s tremendous reach has enabled it to get iOS level integration that few other developers will ever get.

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To Bundle or Not to Bundle?

Does Facebook’s potential unbundling or the success of focused apps like Tinder and Instagram mean there’s no room for multi-function apps in a mobile world? No. In fact, as our team at Acompli looked at this problem from the perspective of building the ideal mobile email app, we found the best example of why some apps need to be multi-function experiences. See if you recognize it. It’s on every iPhone.

iPhone Phone & Contacts Apps

The current built-in iOS Apple phone app is actually a combination of many applications packed together into a single experience — Call Dialer, FaceTime, Contacts, Visual Voicemail, Call Log and VIP list — all accessible behind one app icon. Why? Because unbundling these components would make using the telephone functionality of the iPhone extremely painful. Sure, the Contacts app is separate from the phone app, but ask yourself: how often do you go to the contacts app from outside of the phone? Almost never. Why? Because the two main reasons you’d go there would be to find someone’s phone number or email address. Both of those operations are best accessed by going to either the phone app or the email app. And this is where the biggest contradiction exists in Apple’s argument that apps should be unbundled. While iOS 8 may begin to address some of this, unwinding this position must be done delicately.

Bundle What People Need

This inconsistency in the otherwise unbundled design of iOS 7 stands out. The folks who designed iOS 7 and its core apps have remained largely devoted to their single-purpose religion save for this specific but glaring case where they opted to have the ‘phone’ part of the iPhone remain a bundled app experience. iOS 8 appears to remedy some of the problematic legacy decisions Apple made along the way by making it easier to access functionality between apps.

Bundling Isn't Just for Apps

Among the new features of iOS 8 revealed at WWDC, Apple introduced app extensions and interactive notifications. These two features aim to reduce the need for app switching. Extensions are designed to allow 3rd party apps to interact with each other (though as Ars Technica covers in their great writeup, technically apps still cant talk directly to one another). Interactive notifications allow you to handle a limited action related to a different app without leaving the app you’re in. For example, borrowing from Android, as a message appears in the notification bar overlaid on top of the current app, you can tap out a message right there and send it without leaving your app. This eliminates the jarring experience of having to close the app, open the other, and then return to the app you left. Similar quick actions can be taken related to accepting calendar invites and snoozing meetings. Interactive notifications are handled at the OS level and third party developers can leverage interactive notifications.

iOS 8 Interactive Notifications from Apps

This push toward a more seamless, selectively bundled experience makes sense. And with this move, Apple reveals its position within the broader “bundling versus unbundling” industry debate. It’s clear that their desire for design consistency, security and streamlined experiences continues to define how they expect people to interact with their phones. In most cases, like the ones mentioned above, this is the right call. However, as Apple itself proves with its still-very-bundled phone app, sometimes people want to get things done without jumping around all over the place. Acompli faced this question a year ago when we began building our own email and calendar application for iOS7. Our approach started with understanding desired workflows on the phone. This revealed that especially calendar management and file sharing have to be intertwined into the email experience. With some of the ways iOS 8 allows quick responses (e.g., accepting a calendar invite) while in another app, this will help Acompli accelerate its ability to better enable work flows for professionals from within our app. Extensions will also allow us to deliver better integrations with apps that enable people to extend the integrated email/calendar/files experience we provide with other powerful features. There’s also a broad range of other things in iOS 8 and Yosemite that will help Acompli continue to push the envelope of professional productivity on the iPhone. We’re excited to explore the possibilities afforded by iOS 8, and look forward to getting those into the hands of consumers when iOS becomes available this Fall.

Why is Email Still Such a Time Suck? [Part I]

Written by , June 10, 2014

There have been many attempts to fix email, based on the common assertion that email is an intractable problem that ultimately wastes a a lot of time. Managing email has been described colorfully as “deadening,” “a never ending game of Tetris” (that one player ultimately lost) or “like pushing hot pokers into my eyes.” Given the charged language people use to describe their email burdens, one might presume that email is among the worst chores possible, right up there with tending the fires of hell or shoveling coal on the Titanic.

Ship_BoilerRoom_2
Frustrations aside, email remains an essential business tool and the most fundamental unit of communication in the workplace. Even as people are increasingly managing their personal communications via other platforms, like Facebook, WhatsApp and Snapchat, work life remains tethered to email, and will be for the foreseeable future. As the chart below shows, the volume of business email is forecasted to grow by more than 20 percent over the next five years.

WW Business Emails Sent or Received, 2014 - 2018, Forecasted

Email Drains Energy

Although managing email tends to suck up valuable work time and can trigger the aforementioned “deadening” feeling, that may have more to do with how people treat their inboxes as enemies than with email itself. Due to the symbiotic nature of work and email, any negative feelings associated with email can spill over into how people perceive their jobs and their workplace as well. The Energy Project recently surveyed 12,000 mostly white-collar workers and found that 66 percent lacked the ability to focus on one thing at a time while at work. A staggering 70 percent of respondents said they did not have time for strategic or creative thinking at work, and only 36 percent felt “overall positive energy” in their workplace. A lack of time to focus on things that actually matter in the workplace cannot be chalked up just to bad work culture, but may stem largely from the strain on time and mental energy created by an overflowing inbox. Smartphones, supposedly tools for productivity, only exacerbate the feeling of being overwhelmed, especially because people have a tendency to check and respond to work email after office hours.

Old Habits Die Hard

Blaming email isn’t the solution. The fundamental issue is not with email itself but with the undisciplined way most people manage their inboxes. One common method of dealing with email overload involves setting strict time parameters for handling email. But because the amount and nature of messages people receive are highly varied, there is no one size fits all approach. That elevates the importance of self-discipline: you have to really police yourself in order for this method to work. You might succeed at limiting yourself to an hour of email a day for a week or so. Ingrained habits die hard, though, and it’s likely that after a short experiment you will fall back into your old ways, and your inbox will resume its post as your cruel and relentless taskmaster – but only because you let it.

Triage Isn’t Enough

Another common technique for coping with an overabundance of email is a clumsily executed form of triage, in which people put first priority on the most urgent, needs-response-now messages, then move on down the list to accommodate or dismiss less pressing missives. While triage can be an effective means of managing email volume, it’s at best a temporary crutch, because the ultimate goal is still to respond to your emails, not just categorize them.

MailSorting_Room_635Triage itself can be stressful, as well as somewhat arbitrary, which renders it less efficient than it could be, especially if you are one of those (un)lucky individuals whose inbox is always jammed. Unless your triage process is bulletproof, important emails may go unanswered. If you need to go outside the email app to check your calendar, scan over a relevant document or report, or just type out a long response at your desk, triage doesn’t help.

The very word “triage” belies a very specific sense that email is something over which to panic, pull your hair, or grit your teeth. But email shouldn’t resemble an extreme sport or a life-saving procedure, no matter how important or urgent the matter at hand. Whether you triage every couple of hours, check email obsessively every 10 minutes, or employ a medley of browser plugins, folders and third-party services, spending three hours a day managing email means you are not approaching the communication method with the right mindset. You’re letting your email manage you – and that’s not the way it should work.

In a follow up post, we’ll bring you some concrete tips for bettering managing your inbox. Your inbox is an important communication medium and while new work can get triggered by incoming email, your choice of when and how to respond needs to fit into a greater strategy that aligns with making the greatest impact in the workplace. We’ll share some ways to help you do so.

5 Reasons We Built the Acompli Email App for iOS First

Written by , June 4, 2014

Apple iOS versus Google Android

Just a few years ago, most mobile business professionals were busy typing away on physical BlackBerry keyboards. Now, the decline of BlackBerry, the rise of BYOD, and decreased IT constraints have given professionals a new choice between iOS and Android when it comes to mobile devices. Android now dominates in terms of reach, but iOS tends to attract more premium users.

For any app developer, choosing which platform to tackle first is a major decision. As the installed base of Android continues to grow beyond that of iOS, the decision about which to choose is growing more difficult. In Acompli’s case, since it took us a year to develop our first market-ready app, we didn’t take this decision lightly. In order to make our choice, we looked at a number of factors we found relevant.

 

Here’s the thinking behind the process that made iOS the right launch platform for Acompli.

1. Reach: While Android dominates as a platform, the iPhone is still the leading device: over 40 percent of smartphone subscribers in the U.S. use iPhones. This makes it a no-brainer to pick the platform that automatically reaches the largest number of devices. More on this below, as we discuss the next two criteria.

2. Audience: The iPhone is the leading bring-your-own device in workplaces, and Acompli is made for professionals. For example, this is why Acompli uniquely offers tightly integrated calendar and file handling features in its application. Additionally, this is why we committed to shipping Microsoft Exchange support, the most popular email service among professionals, in our first GA release. Regarding iOS’ reach against professionals, 98 percent of Fortune 500 companies use iOS.

3. Differentiation: Overall, we did not choose the business of email lightly. It’s a mature category and all the major platform providers (e.g., Apple, Google, Microsoft) provide their own mobile email apps. With real competition, we had to be sure we could innovate in a way that was meaningful enough to convince consumers to switch from email apps that likely work well enough for them. That’s a “10X” challenge. Comparing the strength of pre-installed clients on iOS and Android, Apple’s email client is harder to improve upon, which meant the need to differentiate would be even greater. Ultimately, however, our research showed that people were deeply frustrated and open to change on iOS. That provided us an entry window. Moreover, as mobile continues to radically change how, when and where professionals get work done, we are only beginning to scratch the surface of possibilities as it relates to mobile email. To us, this meant that not only could we launch with something different, but also continue to innovate and differentiate for the foreseeable future.

4. Fragmentation: Little fragmentation exists in the iOS world. On iOS, new OS versions are automatically pushed to devices resulting in the vast majority of users always having the latest OS. Additionally, there are only a few device variations to account for, e.g., iPhone 4, iPhone 5, iPad and iPad mini. On Android, a developer has to consider hundreds of devices and, as Tim Cook pointed out at WWDC, only 9 percent of Android users are on Kit Kat, the latest version of Android, versus 87 percent of iOS users who are on iOS 7. Much of this stems from middle-man issues (OEMs and Carriers) in the Android ecosystem, who delay, alter or block the distribution of a homogenous operating system. We chose to start with iOS first so we could focus on the core product design with fewer distractions that come with having to solve fragmentation issues.

5. Security: Because of Apple’s app review process, iOS apps are, on average, higher quality and more secure. Greater fragmentation and more lax app approval policies have led to malware on Android devices and even malicious apps available for download in Google Play. Security is particularly important to our customer base of professionals, so it’s important to us, and we wanted to debut on a more controlled, safe platform. Plus, the iPhone 5s in particular has a notable safety feature: Touch ID. While it hasn’t worked perfectly, it shows that Apple is serious about baking security into its devices.

These five reasons compelled Acompli to select iOS as its launch platform. With initial positive reception to our app, we feel validated that we built the right product for the right audience, distributed over the right platform. Furthermore, everything we learn about how professionals use mobile email on iOS will help us better satisfy the needs of Android users as we develop the beta for that platform.

[VIDEO INTERVIEW] How to Build the Perfect Mobile Email Client

Written by , May 29, 2014

Rob Woodbridge, host of UNTETHER.tv, sits down with Javier Soltero, Acompli CEO, to discuss how the company built an application in stealth for a year to change how people work from their phones. Below is the original  article and video interview which ran here.

Email. Love it or hate it, there is still nothing that rivals it as a business tool. Everyone has an email address and the adoption and use is not abating despite the other communication channels that have emerged. Email has become synonymous with the smartphones we use – think back to the original flavour of BlackBerry, it was sold as a mobile email tool. Legend has it that when Lazaridis saw people responding to email on their BlackBerry’s while sitting in front of their desktops he knew a shift had happened in the industry.

Flash forward to today and, if your inbox is like mine, email has become an albatross – a vacuous place where good deeds and intentions go to die. Mobile email was supposed to help smooth out our day so we don’t return to our desks with 100′s or 1000′s or unread messages but this hasn’t happened. Now, as we move more and more to a small screen as our dominant (read: first) screen, our practice of mobile email triage does not suffice.

This is where today’s guest, Javier Soltero, and his company, Acompli begin. Javier and his team looked at email as a specific workflow and built an incredibly easy to use mobile app that solves many of our challenges with mobile email. This is the story of why Javier and Acompli are challenging the norm, the installed incumbents and the process of email use in a mobile world.

Enjoy!

Key topics discussed:

1. Why attack the email challenge? 2:00
2. Mobile email triage versus solving mobile email 8:40
3. What other problems were you looking at solving at the same time as email? 11:30
4. How to enter a very competitive market 13:30
5. 3 reasons why it is hard to manage email on a mobile device 16:00
6. What type of research validated the idea? 18:30
7. What about the unbundling trend? 21:35
8. What were some of the technology challenges that were encountered? 24:35
9. Why build your own protocol for email for Acompli? 29:00
10. How do you decide it is necessary to build your own protocol? 30:50
11. What else will be added to Acompli? 34:15
12. Why did it take a year to launch? 37:15
13. How did you know it was ready to launch? 41:15
14. What did you learn about marketing the product? 44:15
15. What app or service do you use aside from your own app? 46:50

Hate Email? Emails Don’t Write Themselves

Written by , May 7, 2014

Discussing email elicits strong reactions, everything from dread and despair to anger and frustration. The more overrun a person’s inbox, the stronger the feelings. While some simply hate email, others are downright overwhelmed by it. Either way this creates problems for senders and recipients alike.

Email is a Problem, Some Swear

Drowning Kitty Needs HalpTake reporter-turned-VC, MG Siegler, whose delicious rant, “Still F*cking Hate Email” leaves no ambiguity about how he feels. Instant classic. Some issues he describes, especially on mobile, are being addressed, but we collectively have a long way to go. New York Times reporter Nick Bilton recently took a different tact, declaring email bankruptcy by deleting over 40,000 unread emails with the stroke of a key. Bilton elegantly summed up the conundrum: “Am I a bad guy for ignoring those emails? Or are the senders somehow at fault? Probably a bit of both.”

Fred Wilson, a particularly thoughtful VC, provides tips on how to get your emails read by him. When your recipient’s inbox looks like fast moving river, getting your email noticed can be nearly impossible.

Things Always Can Get Worse

If email is a problem for professionals, then it’s a growing one. According to The Radicati Group, the majority of the world’s email traffic comes from business accounts, which drive over 108 billion emails sent and received per day. By 2018, this volume will have grown by nearly 30% to roughly 140 billion emails sent and received per day.

And then there’s mobile. Already, there are more than 1.1 billion mobile email users around the world today. By 2018, this number will double to approximately 2.2 billion. About half of all people now handle email on their mobile phones. Returning to the wisdom of Fred Wilson, he explains how the problem of email simply gets worse on mobile. “As much as I hate doing email on the web,” Fred writes, “it is worse on mobile. You have less screen real estate. Cutting and pasting is harder. Everything is harder.”

We Are a Noisy Bunch

Humans are social, and so we communicate. People like MG, Nick and Fred are in particularly high demand, and so they receive inordinately high volumes of email. I suspect they feel bad when they don’t get back to others because they don’t want to 1) appear rude b) miss out on opportunities and/or c) feel out of control. Not to mention that handling that much email likely feels like a never-ending battle. Does this mean that email is at fault? No. As the saying goes “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people.” And you, too, likely feel like you receive too much email. Studies show that the average professional spends about a quarter of her time dealing with email at work everyday. So, email is noisy because human beings are noisy.

The collective body of email generated by the working population is staggering, and you help generate it. The many requests for information, meetings, and the like, flood the inboxes of colleagues, prospects and others whom you seek to reach. It’s easy to send an email asking for something, but often harder to satisfy the request. ‘Did you get this?’ ‘Did you do this?’ That’s part of email noise. Asking Fred ‘did you get my pitch?’ five times is email noise. Like lowering your carbon footprint, you can reduce your email footprint. If you don’t want to do it for Fred, then do it for your colleagues. Do it for yourself.

Discussing it around the Acompli office, we came up with five key ways we can all reduce email noise at work.

1. Don’t Play Roll Call

Mr. T says Shut Up Fool!The “reply all” button is a catalyst for endless, empty conversation. Replying all without adding value to the conversation is a great way to fill up inboxes and look busy, but a bad way to get real work done. So don’t be the person who just “checks in” on every conversation thread, just to confirm you received an email or to agree with your superiors. You’ll look like a schmoozer instead of a productive professional, and you’ll waste others’ time in addition to your own. Instead, stay out of endless chains as much as possible.

2. Don’t Be a Free Rider

Free riding is an economic principle that covers enjoying a communal public good without sharing the cost – dodging taxes but relaxing in taxpayer-funded Golden Gate Park, for example, or driving on city streets without paying the communal costs of pollution. Email has a similar problem, in that unnecessary emails reduce the shared value of email as a tool, but don’t cost individuals anything to send. To stop the “free rider” problem, think about having to “pay” for every email you send by adding something of value to the conversation. This will help you maintain the integrity of email as a public good.

3. Think About Your Email “Footprint”

Step Away from the KeyboardMany workplaces have email footers that discourage printing emails. But how about discouraging people from sending emails? Spam emails have an environmental impact equivalent to driving around the world 2 million times, and data centers use about 1.1 to 1.5 percent of all energy globally – while using just 6 to 12 percent of the electricity they consume to do the work, with the rest spent to keep servers running even when unused. So next time you’re tempted to email, consider whether your message really needs to be stored forever on an air conditioned server farm somewhere. If the answer is no, wait until you have something more important to say.

4. Speak Up

When there’s an issue at hand that could be potentially sensitive, sticky, or just confusing, consider picking up the phone or having an in-person conversation instead. This can save a ton of emails and time for everyone involved, as well as be a conduit for better professional relationships.

5. Act Like You’re Always On the Go

We’ve covered several ways to be more productive on your phone with gestures, voice controls, and other neat tricks. But sometimes it’s good to use your phone as a constraint. Just like scientists work within tight rules about what chemicals they can combine, try constraining yourself to responding only to emails on mobile, or with only a sentence or two. You might be surprised by how many messages you forego – and how productive you become.

Bro do you even science?

Write Less to Read Less

Email is growing, and it’s going mobile. People are noisy and our inboxes are overrun. If we all do our part, we can help reduce the collective crush of emails that pins us down in our working lives. If we write less, and more thoughtfully, we may find ourselves having to collectively read less. Do it for your colleagues. Do it for yourself.

Time for Mobile Email to Deliver

Written by , April 24, 2014

204 million emails are sent every minute. That’s a lot of messages. For perspective, WhatsApp, the popular messaging service recently acquired by Facebook for $19B, sends 44 million messages in the same time period. The number of tweets per minute? Its record peaks are around 381 thousand per minute during Super Bowls and just over 300 thousand when Miley Cyrus twerks. Looks like those pining for email’s death are going to have to wait for a while. Those of us who use email every day, especially on our iPhones, know that despite this astoundingly large number of messages sent, we’re still not able to use this powerful medium to its full potential, until today.

Email vs. WhatsApp vs. Twitter

The world doesn’t need to send more email. It needs to be able to send better, more useful email, more easily. Seven years ago we all fell in love with the iPhone, a device that wrapped a phone, email, browser, and the boundless potential of apps in a beautiful package. Since then, not much has changed when it comes to how email — the most ubiquitous and open communications technology of our time — can be used from this device. It’s as if we’ve given up on the possibility that we can do more from an iPhone beyond writing short messages or snoozing tasks for later.

Back in February I shared Acompli’s goal of making a better mobile email experience for business professionals. We’ve spent the last year building a product whose goal is to enable you to do more from your iPhone. We built Acompli on the belief that the same people who choose to use an iPhone for work will also choose apps that are well-designed, simple and powerful.

Today you can download Acompli and experience a different kind of email app — an email app that combines lightning fast email with the ability to manage your calendar, files, and key contacts in a way no other mail app has done before. We’ve combined the unique usability iOS with a new approach to completing workflows every professional faces multiple times a day. The result is an app that empowers professionals to:

  • Conquer the Calendar: Share available times, schedule meetings and more, all tightly integrated with email. Switching between email and calendar apps is a thing of the past.
  • Solve Attachment Discovery: Attach any file to an email in just two taps. Every file sent or received is in one convenient list to make file handling a breeze while on the go.
  • Find Anything Fast: Find important emails, people or files with a couple of keystrokes. Intelligent predictive search helps find everything faster.
  • Contact Important People: Discover the people you contact most often. Access all related emails, meetings and files to manage relationships more efficiently.
Acompli #RockTheDock

@acompli #RockTheDock

After working with an amazingly vocal and broad set of early adopters, we’ve built a product we are proud to invite you to start using today. For us, success means earning one of the four coveted slots in the dock on your iPhone. We know that only the most important apps live there, and it takes a powerful, new experience to earn it. When you do decide to put Acompli on your dock, I invite you to tweet a picture of your dock @acompli with the the hashtag #rockthedock to show everyone how Acompli has helped you become a more productive, empowered professional.

 

Welcome to Acompli.

I Wish I Hadn’t Sent That Email

Written by , April 10, 2014

Email regret!Work email is a tricky thing. Practically speaking, it’s a great record keeper of communication you’ve had with colleagues and partners over time. People even send recap emails after important meetings just so there’s a “paper trail.” You can search through all your email to find what you’ve shared, committed to, what was sent back to you, and so forth. After particularly hectic weeks, I sometimes look through that week’s emails to remind myself what I’ve worked on. Put a different way, the body of all your email – made up of dates, messages, conversations and shared files – represents your “work memory.” Super handy.

Your work email also represents your reputation – your “word,” how you conduct yourself. When you commit to, and complete promised tasks by certain dates, you demonstrate that you’re responsive, reliable and professional. Sounds easy enough, doesn’t it? Here’s what makes it tricky though. You’re human. You’re emotional. Sometimes you even send emails when you shouldn’t. Maybe you were a little angry when you pressed send. Or perhaps you were in a hurry or careless. Maybe you broke a “promise” by not following up quickly enough or by the date to which you committed. Tsk Tsk. And now there’s a record. Oh, that memory thing again. See how it gets tricky? I won’t even get into how you look when you try to be sarcastic or passive aggressive in emails.

I Did This. Don’t Do This.

Just to make sure you don’t feel too bad about some email mistakes you may have made, I’ll share one of mine. I’m sure I’ve done worse but I’m also quite sure that in order to move past the crippling effect of my own hot shame, I’ve liberally distorted my own memory, burying said shame down deep so that I can still get out of bed every morning and maintain polite conversations at cocktail parties.

So, after grad school, after having talked my way into a dream job at a major video game company, I soon left to hop into startups. This was a mobile gaming startup, and high flying at the time. Our team made great games, amazing games, and we leaned into it. I pushed hard on press reviews because critical acclaim could get our humble titles accepted by important customers. A couple years into the job, we had just put out a new game, and it earned a perfect 10 review from a respected gaming publication. It was a coup. In fact, this particular outlet had only given out two perfect 10s in its history, and the last one had occurred eight years prior. Very rare and valuable. They had to hold a special meeting just to approve it.

Contain Your Email ExcitementSounds great, but here’s where I blew it. In my elation, I shot off an email to the entire executive team with the subject line “Perfect F***ING 10!!!” Immediately after I pressed send, my joy melted away into creeping concern. Let’s do an instant replay, shall we? F-bomb? Check. ALL-CAPS. You betcha. Seemed like a good idea at the time? Sigh, yes. “Uh oh. Was that OK? Is this bad? This is bad isn’t it?” The only thing worse is to try to retract the email. Remember the curved blue arrow that says “I’m taking this back, but you can still read it and now you certainly will because I put a huge blue arrow on it showing I don’t want you to?” At least I didn’t do that.

As it turned out, it wasn’t the worst thing ever. The CEO ended up sending a positive reaction (I think he felt bad for me), but I’m pretty sure that it was perceived as either immature or lacking good judgement by some of the people on the chain. It was a gaming company, which is supposed to be irreverent by nature (complete with lots of swearing at the office), and, yes I was justifiably excited. What I didn’t do was take a moment to think about how this would affect how others perceived me. I distracted from the message, which was that we had achieved something cool together. And now it was in email, with my name on it, coloring this situation and my reputation. I still wince a little when I think about it.

Your Email is Your Reputation

Email is an extension of you, part of your reputation. What you say and how you conduct yourself over email is the professional “you.” Managing this carefully is important. We’ve all encountered, and perhaps have been guilty of bad email behavior including over-CC’ing, instantly responding, emailing angrily and putting untenable promises in writing. Chatting about this with others around the Acompli office, we put together a list of things to avoid. We believe that if we all did more of this, we’d build better email reputations and relationships.

1. Respond Thoughtfully, Not Instantly

Think Before You EmailWe all know people who respond to emails immediately – sometimes even before the original sender has released his or her mouse button. While a fast response can be important for urgent messages and make you look responsive, it could also signal that the sender may not have enough to do, or hasn’t thought enough about the issue. To establish a good email reputation, take a minute to think before responding, and make sure every message contains quality info. If you don’t need to respond, don’t. People who respond in large email threads just to show they are “present,” but don’t add value, also start to stick out.

2. Don’t Turn CC into CYA

Perhaps as outdated as the carbon copy from which it takes its name, the CC: function may have caused more headaches than it’s averted over time. While it can be useful to CC: people on a message to provide important information or keep them posted on the progress of a project, CC: is too often used as a catch-all to protect against any backlash. To protect your reputation, use CC: judiciously – only for people who need to know, when they need to know. Don’t be afraid to remove people from threads if they’re no longer needed or to add people who need to be informed (but do always make a note when you alter the recipients list). And feel free to ask others: they’ll tell you if you’re copying them too often on things they don’t need to know about.

3. Keep It Clean

Keep email cleanThink about what you take away from other people’s emails – even before looking at the content. Is the email nicely formatted and well thought out, with consistent fonts, correct spelling and punctuation, and clear content? Or is the email dashed off haphazardly in all lower case using eight different fonts, with typos excused only by a sheepish footer message? Which of these do you think builds a better reputation? Your emails don’t need to be perfect, but they should strive for a level of professionalism, both in form and content.

4. Keep Your Word

The good and the bad news about email is that it creates a written record. This means you can sort through your inbox to find out what you need to do, or check your outbox to see what you’ve promised other people. But this also means any colleague can forward your boss the email where you promised you’d review that Q1 report by Friday… when you still haven’t reviewed it by the following Wednesday. To avoid being caught slacking by email’s impeccable memory, make sure to promise only what you can deliver, in writing or otherwise. I know how this can happen. Maybe you really want to say “yes” to a request, just be realistic with the deadline, or don’t commit to it. Colleagues will get annoyed once they detect this pattern from someone on the team. The upside is that if manage expectations through email well, you’ll quickly gain a reputation for being a reliable professional, rather than a person who creates more commitments than results.

5. Don’t Email Angry

One of my favorite bosses very early in my career used to frequently say “let’s read that again to make sure we took all the “f— y— out of it.” By the way, Blog Law #4218 allows me to swear in a blog post when someone else said it, not me. Anyway, we were a small company and were often asked to respond in writing to important, powerful customers. The communication was tense, and we often felt threatened and antagonized. That said, we were the vendor and they were the customer. It didn’t do us any good to let our emotions get in the way since we had more to lose than they did. The same goes for email. Sleep on it. Re-read it. Get a second pair of eyes on it. Stand down. Holster your weapon. Once you fire that shot, it’s part of history (and an easy part of it to forward around).

Don't Email Angry

6. Be Human

Don't Be Mr. Roboto Over EmailWe’ve all gotten emails that have aggravated us. We’ve also gotten emails that made us smile. Which kind would you rather send? Too many people adopt a stern tone in email or CC supervisors, assuming it increases authority. It doesn’t. Be professional in your emails, but recognize we’re all human. Toss in the occasional joke or emoticon (but not in every sentence). Recognize that some people don’t work during evenings and weekends, even if you email then. Show coworkers your human side and you’ll gain a reputation as someone realistic, approachable and well liked.

By sending thoughtful messages to the right people, in the right format, in a reasonable timeframe, and keeping your word, you’ll create an impeccable email reputation for yourself. Remember, your email is your reputation. By the way, if you have any “hall of shame” email moments you’d like to share, we’d love to hear them. Send away!

Confessions of an Email App Designer

Written by , April 8, 2014

toilet-paper-rollHere’s a fun experiment: Get five of your friends in a room and ask them how they use their email. You will likely get five passionate and violently different responses. That’s been my experience at Acompli collecting user feedback about the email app we’re developing. Wait, isn’t user feedback is supposed to be clarifying?

Any designer will tell you that good product design isn’t borne from indulging in every possible workflow or edge case. It requires that hard decisions be made; tradeoffs are an inevitability. Multiply this principle by 10x when you take into account the constraints of a mobile device.

Take for example the basic email workflow of reading, responding to, or triaging messages and threads. You have probably never thought about the design implications between presenting a list of individual messages under a topic heading versus consolidating them under an object known as a conversation. But chances are you have a pretty strong opinion about it once you have been exposed to something different than what you’re used to.

If you’re a Gmail user, you are probably familiar with actions such as archive, move, star and label, occurring at the conversation level. Only the delete operation can break the chain, removing a single message from the thread, and you can only do this in the web client.

conversation-level-actions

In Gmail, all organizational actions occur on the conversation level.

Desktop clients, as well as iOS’s default mail application, hinge actions on the individual message. The messages might be presented as a conversation, but they are still individual objects that can be moved, archived, and flagged independently of each other. This provides the user with a lot of flexibility with respect to organization while also allowing a thread to be completely dismantled.

message-detail

In iOS’ mail.app, messages are shown individually. A user can go to the sent folder or message details, or will have to go to sent items to see the messages she sent.

When designing this part of our product we had to make a decision about which pattern to go with. But what do you do when your user-base has deeply ingrained yet widely disparate email patterns? Maybe a few of you are thinking, this would be a good opportunity to innovate. Disrupt the mobile email paradigm! Immersive design!! Snackable Content!!! I admit that I fancy myself as bit of a non-conformist, but experience has taught me that there is a time and place to be different and that this was not it.

doing-it-wrongYou wouldn’t change the position of the gas and the brake pedals on a car for the sake of being innovative. If you’ve been driving for any length of time, you know relearning this behavior could lead to catastrophic outcomes. When it comes to email, especially your work email, you don’t want to be confused about how something works, where something went, or to have your workflow hindered by superfluous design.

So our decision was predicated on the pattern that is most suitable for doing three email-related things on a mobile device: triaging, viewing conversations and reading individual messages without losing context.

On devices with large viewports, using the message detail to present content and actions is suitable because the user can easily see the contents of the entire thread within the message. This is not the case on mobile; on a very small viewport, reading long threads within the message detail is increasingly difficult as you go farther down the chain.

On a mobile device, presenting messages together as conversation preserves context for scanning. Having actions at this level allow for quick triage. Additionally, a user can read an individual message in its entirety without leaving the context of the thread. This is the pattern we chose, and is also the one with which Gmail users are most familiar.

Conversation View in Acompli

While this is one example of how product decisions are made at Acompli, there is higher guiding principle at work.  Many productivity tools on the market are attempting to change or replace email. We know email is, and will continue to be, the medium for communication in the workplace. So, we have chosen to focus on solving the pain-points of doing email on the mobile device for the working professional. Speed, workflow optimization and our unique ability to provide the user with a contextual and relevant picture of their professional world is where we are looking to score innovation points.

Do you use Acompli? If so, how are we tracking against our stated goal? We’d love to hear your thoughts.

Avoid Email Bankruptcy Using Your Email App

Written by , April 4, 2014

New York Times writer Nick Bilton made waves at the beginning of the year when he took drastic measures to deal with email overload. He deleted his unread emails. All 46,315 of them. Total email bankruptcy.

That’s an astounding number in more than one way. First, most of us would be fired because of neglect if we had that many unread emails. Second, mass deleting that much unread information would send normal people into an anxiety attack they may never recover from. Bilton (and most reporters) are a different case though, especially those as high profile as him. They’re deluged by emails from everywhere: sources, want-to-be sources, companies like us persuading him to write a story, and any number of conferences, services and alerts.

Those of us in less demand, however, don’t have the luxury of declaring email bankruptcy. We need those emails, no matter how fast they come in, and we need to check them often. In fact, in a well-publicized 2012 study researchers found that people check their email 37 times per hour at work, spending 23 percent of their time in email. That same study followed 13 email-dependant workers who spent five days without email and came to the conclusion that their time spent in email translated into stress due to being in a state of constant “high alert.”

According to the Wall Street Journal, “Those subjects removed from email for five days had heart rates indicating a more relaxed state. By contrast, those who read email had heart rates that were in a ‘high alert’ state.”

EmailStressCanMakeYourHeadExplode

As we use our phones more to do work – including email – this high alert state becomes a huge problem. Our brains know that email fix is literally sitting in our pockets. While we may be closer than ever to our email – and the stress related to it – there are ways to set yourself up for less inbox anxiety.

Don’t defer by default

Deferring emails – marking emails in bulk to read or dealt with later based on a snap judgement – has become a popular way to organize (or at least temporarily triage) flooded inboxes. While it’s easy to do, and fits well with the form and function of a mobile phone (with swipes or a long tap), ultimately we can’t unsee an email. The more emails we send to deferral, the more we hear that nagging voice in the back of our heads reminding us that there’s email sitting in our inboxes that needs to be read, no matter what our email app tells us.

This isn’t to say that deferring email is bad, or that people shouldn’t do it – we all have to lean on deferral to certain degrees – just don’t use it as a crutch. Remember, out of sight isn’t necessarily out of mind.

Go into email with a plan

Everyone attacks email differently. Some people check email on a schedule, some people blast through short emails, then save more in-depth messages for later. There’s thousands of ways to go at an inbox, and no one right way, but everyone should find a way that works for them. Find a system, however rigid or lax, that helps you go in to your inbox with a plan. People that do know what’s in their email: what’s been taken care of, what’s on deck, and – most importantly – what big hairy problems they still have to take care of. That knowledge translates directly into less stress.

Take advantage of the gaps

The greatest thing about smartphones is, of course, their portability. Exploit that advantage by finding the gaps in your day when you’re not busy and use them get through emails on your phone. Our survey last week showed that some people take checking email a bit far (on a date?!), but there are plenty of sensible places to do so: On the bus or train to work, while taking a walk outside or getting away from your desk to another part of the office for a bit. There’s even the bathroom … though that’s more personal choice. Phones are great for emails with short, one- or two-sentence responses, and our days are filled with little bits where we’re in work mode, but not at our computers. Use those many small moments to make sure your inbox isn’t stressing you out.

Barring winning the lottery, heavy medication or an intensely sunny disposition, we’re never going to completely get rid of email stress. We can manage it better, however, with a little thought and foresight.

What Microsoft Didn’t Include in Office for iPad

Written by , April 2, 2014

By now you’ve heard the news. More than 4 years after the iPad was released – by far the most popular tablet on the planet – Microsoft delivered a version of its decades-old Office suite. While this further validates the new era of connected device computing, which puts the desktop-anchored Microsoft further off-balance, the most significant news to me was that Outlook was not included.

Remember Outlook, the ultimate personal information management software for your desktop that combines email, task management, contact management, note taking and even a journal? Used by hundreds of millions of professionals daily, and still the cornerstone of most Office purchases by IT departments, it was conspicuously missing in the Office bundle released last week.

Office Apps on iPad

What Outlook Represents

From recent research by McKinsey, we know that professionals spend over a quarter of their working time using email. With its strength in the Enterprise, this means that Microsoft’s most significant relationship with any group of users is through Outlook email. So did Microsoft suddenly decide to surrender this critical audience of Outlook PC users (because, let’s face it, who really uses the Mac version?) to the built-in iPad Mail app?

We don’t think so. That would squarely go against their best interests. PC users spend significantly more time in front of Outlook than any other app, especially since it’s through Outlook that they send and receive Word docs, PowerPoint decks and Excel spreadsheets. Why then separate it from the bundle in which it’s been faithfully included since Office97?

Microsoft Agenda Overload

Like any large technology company, Microsoft has many competing agendas, and for good reason. Their software increasingly runs on non-Microsoft operating systems. SaaS based productivity software like Google Apps continue to chip away at their stranglehold on desktop-based productivity software. And it serves a sprawling, diversified customer base. That said, Microsoft has actively tried to avoid the curse of Innovator’s Dilemma by consistently making bold bets, even sometimes at the expense of current customer expectations. As a result, it now finds itself strategically fragmented, held hostage by its multiple ambitious agendas.

Microsoft, however, can afford its current state of confusion. The company, which employs over 100,000 employees and has over $80 billion cash-on-hand and short term investments (almost triple that of the U.S. government), is one of the best capitalized entities on Earth. Girth aside, let’s consider how their competing agendas may shed light on the conspicuous omission of Outlook on iPad. To set the table, here are a few of their key agendas:

  • Platform agenda: their desire for everything to run on their platform
  • Device agenda: their desire for everything to run on their devices
  • Design agenda: their desire for everything to look like their platform and their devices
  • Document agenda: their desire to define the dominant document formats

The net result of having so many broad and competing agendas is that they frequently collide with each other, resulting in products that often miss the mark, even for the legions of dedicated users who rely on them every day.

The Union of Office and Outlook

Another red flag in the absence of Outlook is that it largely shapes the end user’s perception of “Office.” How? Simple. In the PC era, the platform, device, design and document agendas all lived in harmony. This is precisely what begat the concept of the Office suite to begin with. One set of core productivity apps closely aligned with the core look and feel of the desktop OS and supported by backend technologies like Exchange and SharePoint.

Fast forward to April 2014. People have different devices, most of which aren’t made by Microsoft. The jump to non-Windows experiences gave everyone a chance to be open to new designs and simpler functionality for productivity apps, which has led to fewer dependencies on specific Office document formats. In the middle of this mess is Outlook, still the dominant way for people to communicate from their PC’s, but no longer as relevant on anything other than Windows machines.

Microsoft’s response? Separate these apps and let them fend for themselves. Proof? Word, Excel, and PowerPoint and OneNote (yes, even OneNote!) are individually downloadable from the store even though they are marketed together as “Office.”

Let’s Talk About OWA

OWA Email App on iPhoneYou may have looked hard enough to find something on your iPhone or iPad called “OWA,” which stands for “Outlook Web Access.” Ah, so maybe we’ve found Outlook at last, but in what state! Well, the cornerstone of Office is now an app named after the web version of its true self. Further ameliorating its significance is that it’s only useful for those of us running Office365. But let’s face it, OWA isnt even really an app. It’s a slow-loading web app wrapped in native chrome. And by native chrome, I mean chrome that makes the whole iOS experience look like it’s been lobotomized into a Windows device by the evil Dr. Watson. Unlike the better-late-than-never Office suite, OWA winds up being the best example of Agenda Overload. It’s what happens when a company wants to carry its design agenda (Blue & White! BIG FONTS! Metro!), platform agenda (you should only have one email account, as long as it’s Exchange!), and device agenda (really, you should be using a Windows Phone!).

OWA: A Taste of the Real Outlook for iOS?

It’s entirely possible that there’s a fancier version of Outlook for iOS devices headed our way. Microsoft isn’t blind to the possibility that there are now more non-MS devices connecting into Exchange than there are Outlook seats out there. Good news: Microsoft is still the dominant messaging server for most of the planet. Bad news: More and more people aren’t using Microsoft products to access that email on those servers.

What should users expect if and when Outlook for iOS comes out? Based on Office for iPad, we can’t expect much more than we’ve already seen. Expect a product that’s married to Office365, with limited-to-no support for alternative email accounts, and a lack of imagination about what email on mobile should look like.

Why The Real Outlook Would Disappoint on iPad

Microsoft has a fundamental problem with Outlook on the iPad; namely, decades of built up user expectation. You see, the moment ‘it looks and smells like Outlook,’ the user immediately expects parity with the desktop experience, the dominant use case with which they are most familiar. No iPad or mobile app can live up to that expectation. The reality that someone may want to use a single app on their mobile device for various accounts, including non-Microsoft ones, forces trade offs and technical challenges Microsoft is going to have a hard time addressing.

Mobile Email: Game On

The opportunity for a new email app experience built from the ground up for professionals is born from far more than Microsoft’s missteps in their gradual move towards a multi-platform world. The right answer is to build a product that makes the best use of the unique signals and capabilities built into mobile devices and improves the way in which people communicate. We’re just getting started. And while big companies spend years reconciling their various agendas, we’re focused on building the email app and service that will make the best use of your iPhone, iPad and Android devices.

[Infographic] You Check Mobile Work Email Where?

Written by , March 27, 2014

Secret_PhoneWorkEmail_onDateThis ever happen to you on a dinner date? As you return from the bathroom, during which you checked your mobile work email, your date says to you “I know what you were doing in the bathroom. Don’t worry, I was checking my email on my phone too.” Far fetched? Well, you just haven’t seen the results of our latest survey, in which we asked professionals all the places they check work email on their phones!

Still need proof? People are even talking about it on Secret. Okay, I’m sorry, I actually posted that to Secret, but I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one mildly fictionalizing on Secret. Maybe I’m one of the first to use Secret for marketing purposes though, and I did earn two hearts and make a fun graphic for this blog post.

In our survey, we asked over 100 professionals “When and where have you ever checked work email on your smartphone?” Let’s just say that this is a dedicated group of professionals. Other times and places people check work email from their phone that we didn’t include in the infographic are on the weekend (90%), watching TV (90%), after 11 pm (83%), in the bathroom (74%), at a child’s school event (38%), while brushing teeth (36%), during a wedding (31%) and while their spouse was in labor (9%). Check it out below.

Acompli_Survey_EmailUsage_Final

8 Productivity Tips That Might Surprise You

Written by , March 25, 2014

Acompli’s mission is to help professionals be more productive, and this extends beyond mobile email. As we’ve been developing a mobile app that combines your email, calendar, files and contacts, we’ve done a fair amount of research on working smarter. Beyond the common tips you’d expect, we’ve also found ways to boost productivity that surprised us. Doing a little bit of research to see which ones had more credibility (we provide links where appropriate), we decided to share the top 8 counterintuitive ways to get more things done at work, divided into 4 Do’s and 4 Don’ts. Check them out!

Screen Shot 2014-03-25 at 5.00.44 AM

1. Turn Off Your Phone and Take A Nap

Research shows that most of us aren’t getting enough sleep – even though sleep actually helps us be more productive. (Or, to be more precise, lack of sleep makes us unproductive.) Rather than trying to drag out your daily tasks late into the evening, take a break for some shuteye. You’ll wake up refreshed and ready to tackle a new task. And who knows, you might even boost the GDP.

2. Share Resources

Research by Chally Worldwide confirms that the success of “superstars” at work is often driven by access to information and resources that aren’t available to others. By sharing  knowledge and resources within an organization, you can help more people become more productive. The notion of the acquisition trap also comes into play here to an extent – that it’s actually more useful to acquire knowledge yourself, rather than just find someone else who knows how to do something.

3. Focus On Failures

We’ve probably all heard about the Pareto Principle, which posits that 80 percent of our results come from 20 percent of our efforts. While it might seem like you should focus your attention on doing more of those tasks that fall in the useful 20 percent – and that’s certainly an option – you can also turn the ratio around and focus on what doesn’t work.

What do you spend 80 percent of your time doing that never seems to produce real results? Whether it’s filling out unnecessary forms, searching for the right version of a file, or going back and forth with appointment scheduling, figure out what’s wasting your time. Then, try out a system like this one for prioritizing your work by effort required, impact of results, and overall priority. You might be surprised by what you achieve.

4. Go It Alone

Agile development processes and a growing emphasis on supportive company culture have led us to take a team-first approach to many tasks. And that’s often good – teams can do more than individuals in many ways. But sometimes what you really need to move forward is a surge of individual effort. Take inspiration from William H. Whyte’s classic The Organization Man, which criticizes a collectivist mindset, and go it alone on a big project. Your individual effort might even inspire the rest of your team to do more.

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1. Don’t Take Your Time

Even if you’ve never heard of Parkinson’s law, you’ve probably experienced its effects. This behavioral “law” basically holds that work expands to fill the time allotted. So if you give yourself an entire afternoon to write a blog post, you might find yourself typing the final words at 6 p.m., just as the last express bus leaves the station. But if you’d given yourself just half an hour to write the same post, you might have finished it in that shorter timeframe. Instead of giving yourself the luxury of time, create constraints by giving yourself less time than you think you need. You may not finish, but you’ll make more progress, faster, than by allotting a luxurious expanse of time.

2. Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff

It’s easy to get obsessed with every little detail of your company’s operations, and many people find themselves spending a lot of time and effort thinking about everything from the type of coffee beans to buy for the office, to the timeframe for developing the top priority on your product roadmap. But our good friend Parkinson actually had another law – Parkinson’s law of triviality – holding that organizations focus too much attention on trivial details. Parkinson actually found that people pay a lot attention to issues in the inverse proportion to the issue’s financial priority. So drop the insignificant details and you’ll find yourself with the time to concentrate on what’s really important.

3. Don’t Use Two Monitors

It might seem like the more monitor space you have, the more productive you can be. And that’s true, for some tasks, like text editing. But recent research shows that distractions are bogging us down at work – and many of those may come from multiple monitors. If you have twenty tabs open on two screens, that’s twenty things you need to pay attention to before focusing in on your Pareto-prioritized task. Sometimes unplugging the HDMI cord is your best option.

4. Don’t Be a Hero

Being productive used to mean being the first one to get to the office and the last one to leave. But those days are over. Now that we’re all constantly connected, we think we can be productive from anywhere. So don’t be afraid to scoot out of work early so you can fit in a workout, or make dinner for your family. Being able to do the things that lend meaning to your life and keep you happy will reduce your perceived effort and increase your satisfaction at work. So don’t be a hero – do your job and go home.

What are some counterintuitive productivity tips you’ve tried?

Mobile Email Appreciates a Nice Gesture

Written by , March 21, 2014

When the iPhone came out in 2007, many scoffed at the notion of a phone without a physical keyboard. In 2014, keyboard-centric Blackberry is stumbling, touchscreens are the norm, and smartwatches are the wave of the future. It’s clear that we don’t need a physical keyboard to be productive on our phones. The fact that the installed base of iOS and Android devices is accelerating toward 2 billion proves that. And this level of penetration means that approximately 1 out of 4 people on Earth now have a connected device.

The iPhone kicked off a new era of portable computing. With inputs like touch, voice, movement (accelerometer) and location, our imaginations continue to run wild with new ways to interact through this new breed of supercomputer in our pocket. Powerful networks, beautiful screens, generous onboard processing and cloud storage are all enabling new waves of innovation around what can be created, viewed, shared and done on connected devices. While typing remains an important input, it’s not the only way to be productive on a mobile device.

At Acompli, we are fascinated by the possibilities of communication and productivity in post-PC era. To truly unlock potential for our users, we constantly think about what can be done through mobile email that has never been done before. Today, we want to talk about a world beyond typing, a pain point our customers regularly cite as a reason they can’t do more today with mobile email. We’re working on that and drawing inspiration from ways in which it’s already possible to be more productive on a mobile device without typing at all.

iPad Typewriter

Here are three exciting ways mobile users are already empowered beyond typing.

Now You’re Talking

Remember when phones were for talking, not texting? They still are – even if nobody’s on the other end of the line. Here are three ways voice commands can save you time.

Set location reminders: Google or Siri can be configured to speak up based on location and time parameters, providing a reminder to grab the milk on the way past the store, call the boss about whether she wants coffee when near work in the morning or upload those reports before boarding the train home.

Specify a medium: Whether the situation calls for a how-to video, Wikipedia page or app download, Google and Siri can help. Just specify “Play a video on VLOOKUP,” “Navigate to Kinko’s” or “Download the Acompli app,” and results will pop up in the right format. Simple as that.

Create calendar events: It’s painful to get information in an email, copy everything manually, then open up a calendar app to add an event. Without a good integrated system for this, voice can be a good alternative. Just tell Google or Siri to create an event on the right date.

Swype It Out

Even for people who are all thumbs (not necessarily a disadvantage when it comes to smartphones), custom keyboards like Swype and SwiftKey can do wonders for productivity. These keyboards tend to offer two main benefits: the ability to drag a finger between letters to form words (a huge advantage on tiny keyboards), and predictive technology that anticipates what word is likely to be typed next.

It may take a little while to adjust to swiping fingers instead of stabbing keys, but after making the transition, typing on mobile becomes a breeze, with competent speeds clocking in around 50 words per minute. And custom keyboards can be shockingly good at detecting intent, helping save even more time. SwiftKey claims it’s prevented more than 70 billion keystrokes for its users. Have the need for speed? A company called Hipjot has a new iOS keyboard capable of 120 word per minute.

A Nice Gesture

Many apps have helpful hidden gestures that turn you into productivity ninjas. For example, it’s possible to move calendar events in iOS by simply pressing and holding, then dragging – no need to open and edit the event. Or, to scroll to the top of a web page, just tap the menu bar at the top of the screen to jump right up.

Android gestures vary more between devices, but they can also be more powerful, especially with help from special launchers or gesture apps to take advantage of particular ones. For example, some custom launchers make it possible to swipe up instead of double tap, among other time-saving gestures.

Work Different

While building Acompli mobile email, we are inspired by others who think differently about how people interact with their phones – things like location, voice inputs, smart keyboards and intuitive gestures. We’re thinking about how to apply these concepts to help people work smarter on smartphones. The persistent problem with work tools for phones is that they often attempt to clumsily recreate tools we use at our desks. Point, click, type… repeat. Phones don’t work that way, and we don’t work that way on phones. Just as Apple challenged the world to “think different” in their seminal 1997 television ad, we are excited to help you think differently about work, and how you can do more and defer less in the post-PC era.

Email Me Maybe?

Written by , March 20, 2014

At Acompli, we talk a lot about how people work. It comes with the territory since our company is focused on helping people work smarter through mobile email. One topic we often discuss that may surprise you is when you should not email. It’s part of broader conversation around the right mode of communication for the right situation, of which email is one choice, albeit a popular one.

I’ve been having the “right mode of communication” conversation since the beginning of my career. When I was just starting out, in consumer packaged goods marketing, we used to manage relationships with powerful retail buyers who could impact our business by tens of millions of dollars based on relatively quick decisions. Effective communication was mission critical. The discussion about how and when to reach out was constant.

At work, you communicate for a number of reasons, from collaborating and sharing to seeking to gain access and influence. Regardless of advances in technology, the reasons why we communicate professionally don’t change. However, decades-long advances in communication technology, especially the recent meteoric rise of iOS and Android connected devices, has opened up new channels and behaviors.

Reach Out and Touch Someone

Take a moment to consider how you’d feel if I texted you right now. Since we don’t know each other, my guess is that it would feel pretty strange. Your phone likely feels personal to you, and you only expect to receive text messages from people to whom you’ve consciously provided your number. If I called you, it wouldn’t be as weird – possibly just annoying, especially if it wasn’t urgent. And if I emailed you, you probably wouldn’t think twice about it. However, you also might not respond. If I happen to need some information to move forward with something I’m working on, that’s a risk for me.

Every smartphone has three primary, built-in forms of communication: calling, texting and emailing. Unfortunately there are no black and white rules for when to text someone, give them a call, or send an email – it’s a gray area based on personal preferences and a sort of social contract across workgroups.

Discussing it around the office, we believe the decision about which communication mode to use is driven by three factors:

  1. Urgency: How time sensitive is the issue
  2. Familiarity: How well I know the other party
  3. Complexity: How complex is the topic or decision

Based on this notion, we polled a group of professionals to see what they thought. In a survey, we presented varying scenarios based on urgency, familiarity and complexity. For example, we asked whether someone would call, text or email a customer whom she doesn’t know well if it were urgent. Please note that to keep choices more mobile-centric, we omitted various forms of chatting (e.g., social and IM) as well as face-to-face meetings. Studying the results, we generated the following two summary views. The first scenario was tied to urgency, the need to reach the person right away.

Acompli_Email_Text_Call_Scenario1_Urgent

Looking at the table above, let’s start in the upper left hand corner. In this case, the issue was time-sensitive, we knew the person and the communication was simple. Based on this, 67% of respondents reported they would call (represented in the graphic by the phone icon), 26% would text message (text chat icon) and 7% would email (envelope icon). Each cell adds up to 100%, and data was collected from all respondents for each cell.

Scanning the entire table you’ll notice that calling trumps all other forms of communication. We highlighted these percentages in yellow. This tells us that when things are time-sensitive, the need to communicate in real-time (e.g., call) is far more important than whether we know the person or the message is complex. We do observe that when the message is complex, more people choose to call (notice the 97% figure). The choice to text message is only selected when the message is simple, and much more often if we know the person. Now let’s check out what happens when the need to communicate isn’t urgent.

Acompli_Email_Text_Call_Scenario2_Non-UrgentWhen the need to communicate isn’t time-sensitive, the choice to email dominates. Notice the highest percentages highlighted in yellow. We believe that email dominates in this scenario because the sender trusts that the recipient will get to the email on her own time. If it’s not urgent for the sender, we can respect the recipient’s time better with email. We don’t need to risk aggravating the recipient by disrupting her day with a call. If the message or request is simple, the choice to email increased (notice the email percentages in the top row are greater than those in the bottom row). If the person is known, respondents felt more at liberty to simply call, whether the topic was simple or complex. Additionally, texting was only chosen when respondents knew the recipient. The incidence of texting was greatest when the recipient was both known and the message was simple, as was also the case in the “urgent” scenario.

There’s a Time and a Place

The data provided sheds light on how different communication methods have their proper place in a professional’s workflow. In a given day, some people set aside time to respond to emails in depth or make important phone calls to help them move forward with their work. If someone’s input is blocking you from moving forward with a project, you’ll likely follow an escalation path of emailing, calling, and texting to follow up on your call until you get the response you need.

Even as technology creates more ways for us to interact with people, personal relationships continue to drive our communication choices. In this sense, the address book becomes the gatekeeper for our communications. Our contacts reflect who is relevant in our personal and professional lives. The better we know someone, the more options we have to communicate. By the same token, if you need to get in touch with somebody not in your contacts, you’re probably not going to call them and you’re definitely not going to text them – you’ll go with email.

The importance of personal relationships is a guiding product principle at Acompli. We built the service to make contacts a guide to who’s most relevant in your professional life. Acompli uses contacts to show how often you’re in touch with certain people, organize the documents you send back back and forth, and manage the flow of your everyday work. By building our email service with people (not just messages) in mind, we make it easier for professionals to do work.

As the penetration of smartphones increases, and more email activity migrates from desktop to mobile, communication methods will continue to evolve. Likewise, as a new generation is more comfortable with short format social and IM communication, we also expect to see changes in communication behavior. For now, the next time you have to choose whether to communicate with a colleague or customer, we hope this study will help guide your decision.

When Personal Identity & Work Email Collide

Written by , March 14, 2014

People can be pretty particular about their email addresses. They also get quite attached to them. I was  javier@hyperic.com for nearly a decade and as one of its founders, I never thought twice about using it for all kinds of things. That is, of course, until it was turned off. This was to be expected. I had moved on from VMware (they acquired Hyperic in 2009 along with SpringSource) and after keeping it as an alias, they had deleted it along with my primary VMware address. It’s fair to say I wasn’t prepared for how much this would impact me given how happy I was to use that address all over the place.

Forget about the more than half a million emails I sent and received from that account to build the business. I truly accept that I had sold the rights to all the “professional history” they represent. Never mind all the times I used that account to sign up for something personal, or had sent or received emails from friends and family. When that account was shut down, I lost a piece of my personal history and online identity as well. The story of losing my decade-old email address came up the other day and it led us to go and ask a bunch of professionals how they felt about the interplay of their professional and personal online identities.

Acompli_PersonalUse_ofWorkEmail_SurveyCharts

In a survey of professionals conducted by Acompli, we asked how much work email is used for personal use. The findings show that 48% (about 1 out of 2) of professionals use their work email to send personal emails. Additionally, 23% (nearly 1 out of 4) have used their work email to sign up for a personal account such as a social network, photo-sharing service or online shopping website. Finally, we found that 31% (almost 1 out of 3) of professionals have lost access to personal accounts of some kind because their former employers shut down their work email addresses.

The findings suggest that many professionals are still failing to keep their personal and professional worlds separate. But why? Perhaps it’s that they’re unaware or simply not concerned enough about the reality that their employer owns everything that flows through their email inbox. Another possibility is that people may now more accept that professional and personal worlds have already collided on social networks like Facebook and Twitter, making it harder for us to keep things more separate at work. An additional possibility is that the massive adoption of iPhones, iPads and Android devices by consumers, who are bringing them into the workplace, is changing their perception of what belongs to whom. As a result, professionals are backsliding on keeping worlds separate.

BYOD (“Bring Your Own Device”) has made things gray for both professionals and companies. In this case, we’re talking about a situation where it’s your device but still your company’s email. Additionally, some of that data on the phone, even though it’s your phone, is their property. Remember your employment contract? The company wants its data and frankly has a right to it. The problem is that in many cases, to remove the data, they have to wipe your phone, usually remotely. Chances are pretty good that this process ends up ‘bricking’ or resetting your phone. Those pictures of your kid? Gone. Grandma’s phone number? Also gone. You’re welcome!

So what should you do as an employee, as your personal and professional lives continue to blur?  At the simplest level, you should have separate email accounts, and be disciplined about “separating church and state.” Even if you started and own your own company, it’s naïve to think that because you gave it life, it won’t grow beyond you, wanting to keep all its data for itself when you are no longer around.

Even those who use a cloud-based email system like Google Apps are still subject to a corporate master – Google. Ever tried to share a Google Doc with someone not on Gmail or Google Apps? It’s difficult, and intentionally so – Google wants to bring as many people as possible into their own ecosystem in order to establish themselves as the source of people’s online identity. That’s how important the email address is. And as long as Google has a strong enough user base to bring people over from other services, there’s little need for them to interoperate between platforms – in fact, it’s better for them if they don’t. Solving this problem requires defining aliases for your account which, while possible, are settings that are buried in two separate places (Gmail and Google Accounts).

As the web and mobile continue to evolve, email will remain the center of professional identity, and continue to spill over into personal identity. At work, email is where you go for information, interaction, and marching orders. It’s where you go to figure out what to do – and to show who you are. With professional email usage growing and the division between professional and personal worlds blurring, keeping your personal identity intact will continue to be a challenge. At Acompli, we’re working on ways to help you manage this better. In the meantime, I hope you learn from my own experience and avoid signing up for things using accounts that you may not control in the future.

Sent from Acompli

Written by , February 20, 2014

After 9 months of building, we are proud to officially announce Acompli, a new email application and cloud service built for mobile professionals.

Email remains among the most widely and frequently used applications on smartphones. It was the killer app on the PC and it remains the killer app on smartphones. These days people email more than they make calls on these “phones.” Among professionals, the number of email accounts and the number of emails sent has grown for the last 20 years and will continue to grow for the next 20. It’s the connective tissue of the workplace.

Now, with so much email sent on phones, here’s the question that got us scratching our heads: Why do people apologize so much when they email from their smartphones? Not sure what I mean? Just start paying attention to the email footers you receive from people who send emails from phones. You’ll see messages like “Sent from my (fancy phone) with all thumbs” or “Please excuse the brevity” or “Sorry for the typos.” Think about it. When has there been a product that people increasingly use even though it embarrasses them? The combination of simultaneously growing frustration and demand made us want to investigate the root cause.

While professionals have depended on email for about 20 years, mobile email started taking off about 10 years ago. The game changer was a device that allowed people to bring email with them “in their pockets.” Devices with QWERTY keyboards helped unleash an era of messaging that has yet to crest. Led by a dominant mobile communications company, sometimes even with two CEOs, messaging swept through the enterprise.

Today, however, things have changed. Technology, design and user behavior have all rapidly evolved, and new companies dominate, displacing declining giants. Physical keyboards are no longer necessary. The rapid adoption of 1.4 billion active smart devices with touch screens prove that. Smartphone consumers now expect location-aware supercomputers in their pockets with beautiful, gesture-based touch interfaces, connected to a limitless cloud by a super fast wireless connection. Sure, that device needs to make the occasional voice call, but that’s been dwarfed by everything else that a smartphone can do today.

What hasn’t changed is the importance of a few killer apps, especially email. Why? Because sharing, collaborating and communicating are the basic elements of every professional’s life, made better and easier by open technology like email and, more specifically, by email on smartphones.

Acompli believes that the email killer app should unapologetically unleash the power of the modern smartphone. The key to doing so is by turning smartphones from email reading devices to email doing devices.

Fixing this problem begins by addressing 3 things that prevent professionals from sending more email from their phones:

1. Composing anything more than a basic message is hard
2. Finding things in your email is hard
3. Switching in and out of the email app is hard

The upcoming release of Acompli introduces powerful new ways to manage calendars, attachments and contacts. These new capabilities are all built with the mobile professional in mind and designed to help people excel on the job and free up time to do things other than work. From more easily scheduling meetings and managing calendars to finding the right version of that file a coworker sent last week, Acompli will make “doing email” on the smartphone a simpler, more powerful experience.
Acompli Product Hero
As a company, we see an opportunity to combine peoples’ love of beautiful, useful apps with the power and capability of a corporate IT organization. The boundary between “my technology” and “my company’s technology” will continue to blur to the point where solutions that wall off the enterprise at the expense of its users will be of limited use. Email is at the center of this blurred divide, and is the primary communication tool for businesses around the world. It is also the primary source of notification, the most tangible source of identity, and a key part of just about every workflow in business today. As we considered these facts, we arrived at a clear conclusion: The road to building the next great enterprise software company — the one that combines products that users choose and love with the trust of the IT organization — starts with reimagining email for the mobile workforce.

We are at the beginning of a long, exciting journey. I am thrilled to be working with the support of amazing investors whose backgrounds match our team’s mix of enterprise and consumer technology, infrastructure and design. We invite you to sign up for our early access program and join us in building a new kind of business technology company.

“Feelings Friday” and Other Attempts at Building Company Culture

Written by , January 20, 2014

There are entirely too many blog posts and articles on the subject of company culture and how important it is. Brace yourself. I’m about to add one more post to that pile!

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I’d argue young companies often spend a ton of time talking about culture and other “touchy feely” priorities when they should be focused on the real issues that increase the already long-shot odds for success. Turns out building a team made up of startup veterans means that most of us agree that navel-gazing activities went out of style back in the late 90s. Most of us have lived through the heartbreak of being emotionally invested in companies which spent too much time and money in ways that did not reflect the reality of a startup:

You have not earned the right to exist yet, and may not earn that for a long time. Act accordingly.

With that in mind, we’ve approached the culture of Acompli as something that’s emergent, built on the character, interests, and personalities of the people we bring on board. With over 15 people now with offices in San Francisco and Pune, India, it seems like a good time to take stock of what constitutes culture at Acompli.

Feelings Friday, now with Acompli jackets.

Feelings Friday (missing a few folks who were still upstairs)

One of my favorite ‘traditions’ of Acompli is something we call “Feelings Friday”. Feelings Friday and, more importantly, its origin are the best representation of how we approach the often messy process of building this company. It began from a funny conversation Kevin and I had over lunch. Both of us were surrounded by people involved in building new companies, and it struck us how a few of these teams seemed to occasionally get together for what seemed like open discussions about their feelings. Initially as a joke, I suggested to Kevin that we institute our own version of this ‘touchy feely’ session on Fridays and use it as an opportunity to drink beers (even if they are of the ginger variety as JJ prefers). At the time, we were about 7 people and the idea was mostly about sitting around in the lower level of Heavybit while we sampled their amazing beer selection while jokingly talking about our feelings. We realized pretty quickly as the conversation transitioned from witty banter into useful dialogue that there was something to be made of our little improvised ‘tradition’. At the second Feelings Friday, I suggested that we apply a bit more structure to the process and attempt to go around the room and have each person talk about what did and didn’t go well in the past week. People were encouraged to talk about their own individual experience or the company’s. And while it’s officially an ‘no judgements’ open discussion, there’s always room for the team to throw in a good joke to prevent things from getting too deep.

It’s been 6+ months of us following this weekly ritual and officially evolving it to include our weekly release of our app and service (which is coming very very soon to an iPhone near you!). Folks from our team in Pune have boldly joined us (it takes place at the crack of dawn on a Saturday for them). Most importantly, beyond giving us an opportunity every week to drink good beers, it serves as a great way for us to each answer the most important question: “Are we winning?“. This is a question whose answer changes as time progresses, but it is the guiding light for every single thing we do as we work our tails off to launch and build out this great company. New employees get thrown into the fire right away and then get to talk about it on Feelings Friday. One week later they may be happily busting someone for spilling their beer and almost destroying a laptop. It may not be for everyone, but it is definitely for us.

DevOps Builds Apps That Never Crash

Written by , September 4, 2013

dogfood

“En casa del herrero, asador de palos.” – Anonymous Spanish ‘philosopher’

Nearly every language has a phrase that captures the irony of people not practicing what they preach. In our industry we’ve even wrapped up the concept in the oft-repeated phrase of “eating our own dog food” – coined in an email by former VMware CEO Paul Maritz back when he was at Microsoft.

This phrase has been on my mind lately as we have been hard at work building out the Acompli mobile app and the backend service that powers it. While our team is focused on making our product a reality, I keep coming back to the challenges associated with managing the kind of application we are building. Turns out I’ve spent a lot of time in my past life talking about making apps more manageable. Now it’s time to prove that the last 15 years of working in the bowels of Internet infrastructure were worth the effort.

Before DevOps, there were “Developers who Operated”backflip.com

My journey with operations started back in 1999 at a now defunct startup called Backflip.com. In the months leading up to the launch of the site everyone on the team was furiously banging out mod_perl code to bring Backflip to life against a hard deadline. Like most startups at that time, we had a separate “ops” team responsible for managing the entirety of the operations of Backflip.com. Also like most startups, our ops team consisted mostly of people who knew these four basic ops skills:

1- How to cable stuff inside of racks and make them look pretty

2- The intricacies of Solaris pkgadd

3- How to configure Cisco routers

4- 15 reasons why FreeBSD was & forever will be better than Linux 

Pretty much every other part of the system was a black box to them, which meant developers were always on call to resolve issues. A few of us were tasked with carrying the lucky “on-call pager” (pagers!) which would send out cryptic alerts at all hours of the night. The experience of managing the Backflip site led my future co-founder Doug MacEachern to build the first set of management tools which later served as the inspiration for things like Hyperic SIGAR. In the end Backflip, like most other .coms of the day, failed. But in the process we learned a lot about the people and tech required to keep a high traffic site running.

Customers are your Best Teachers

Years after Backflip, a few of us started Hyperic. The idea was to build the monitoring and management solution we wished we’d had at Backflip. The idea was simple – ops people were not developers, and they needed to be able to monitor and manage many moving parts in increasingly complex web architectures. Existing solutions didn’t cut it, and building your own tools from scratch is complex and overwhelming.

HypericHQ

After bootstrapping Hyperic for 2  years and getting dozens of paying customers, we decided to go big and open source the core engine of the product to drive adoption among customers who were otherwise inclined to build their own monitoring solutions. Through this process we were able to work with some key internet companies including Salesforce.com, Yahoo, Twitter, StubHub, CNet, Comcast, and many others. All of these customers shared our belief that the monitoring and management of large scale cloud services starts with building manageability into the app itself and only then can you go to third party tools to collect and analyze data.

The experience of working with these demanding customers, as well as the hundreds of others who made Hyperic a success, left a lasting impression on me. It was one thing to be talking in the abstract about good hygiene of monitoring and management, it another to live it by being in the trenches when things aren’t working right. See, one of the toughest things about being in the monitoring and management business is that it is your product waking people up at night, showing them what’s broken, and hopefully helping them fix it. Few software vendors operate with such high stakes.

Putting these Lessons into Practice

Now, many years later, we’ve taken on a new challenge that will force us to prove that we learned a few things from our past experience. Instead of building out infrastructure management, we’re tackling the task of building the kind of large scale apps that require it.

Acompli is building an application that will allow millions of people to securely access their most critical business data right from their mobile device. Delivery and management of this data depends on technical innovations in data sync and a platform runtime built to not just handle the load, but also provide visibility and manageability, which will enable us to deliver an amazing customer experience.

As the person with the strongest operations background, I’ve taken up the task of defining, and in some cases implementing, aspects of how our service will ultimately be managed in production. This process has led me back to some old friends like SIGAR & JMX, and introduced me to some new ones like AkkaNewRelic, and Bamboo. As we rev up to the final months before the launch, I plan to spend a lot of time with the team revisiting what we’ve learned from our past experiences and fulfilling the most critical element of our business plan – to deliver an amazing experience through the speed, security, and reliability of our product.

Do you have what it takes?

Acompli is actively hiring highly experienced software engineers and DevOps people to help us build and launch our product later this year. If you’re up to helping us build a high scale, enterprise focused service that will be used by millions, drop us a line. We’d love to talk.

We fight for the users

Written by , July 29, 2013

Tron-80s-films-328187_1024_768You could say that I learned everything I know about enterprise IT from watching the movie Tron. No, not the 2011 version (please). I mean the ORIGINAL 1982 classic in which a pre-Lebowski Jeff Bridges gets digitized into a computer world where he’s forced to play games against other evil ‘programs’. I remember watching it and being completely blown away by the idea that what was behind the primitive display on my TRS-80 could be some beautiful, laser-lit world filled with awesome lightcycles. Now I know better, and I’d guess the insides of my trash-80 actually looked more like a poorly designed Minecraft creation.

What i thought was inside my trs-80 what was actually inside
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Back in 1982, computers were still mysterious giant boxes operated by scientists in windowless, refrigerated basements. These computers were primarily designed for numerically complex tasks which would take humans too much time or too much paper.1982stevejobs

Outside of a small fruit-named company in Cupertino, no one was putting much thought into how to make technology more useable by the masses.

And in the 80’s business world, the common workplace ideology was that computers and technology were mandated, company-issued tools to help employees do their jobs. People accepted whatever hardware, software or platform that was provided while the all-powerful IT department watched over their shoulders to make sure they didn’t do anything stupid.

30 years later, we now live in a world where technology has moved out of the refrigerated basement and into the refrigerators themselves. Technology is everywhere, and it is no longer solely the domain of experts. Even the least technically inclined professional will happily describe their preferences for certain types of technologies, especially when it comes to their choice of mobile phone.

Transforming the IT/User power structure

The well-documented genius of Apple’s iPhone is in enabling users to develop a personal relationship with a phone – a device they’ve had for many years in their pockets, but prior to the iPhone was only used to make phone calls. As soon as people started bringing their iPhones to work, IT organizations around the world were forced to reconsider almost everything about the way they delivered technology to their users. But the idea that individuals are savvy enough to make their own technology choices has proven to be a bit hard to swallow for a lot of enterprise organizations. Despite good intentions, the desire for control that is hardwired into most IT departments runs counter to the idea that users should be empowered to choose their phones, computers, or even applications.

imgresThis conflict between the interests of the users and the organization is at the heart of the original Tron storyline. The “Master Control Program” or MCP, intends to be the arbiter of all activity in the system and the idea that any program would put the interests of its user ahead of those of the MCP is grounds for “de-resolution” (not sure what this is, but it looked painful). Even the concept of identity is defined in the form of a disc that the MCP issues to every program and, if lost, is also grounds for immediate de-resolution (yay!).

One early scene in the movie captures the heart of the most pressing issue in IT today:

tronsnap1(Good scientist guy) Dr. Gibbs: “User requests are what computers are for!”

tumblr_lk232xbEtl1qf4elio1_500(Evil corporate guy) Mr. Dillinger: “Doing our business is what computers are for!”

Predictably, the film presents the proclamations above as conflicting viewpoints. But many people would agree that both are true, even if the business priorities have often been implemented at the expense of the user. That imbalance was justified in the days when people weren’t comfortable or familiar enough with technology to make their own choices. Those days are over. We spend a lot of time at Acompli thinking about this conflict. We’ve gone from a world where our company gives us everything we need: a computer, a phone, email, apps, storage – to a world where we make many of these choices ourselves and demand the ability to combine them with enterprise tools. Even the task of enabling applications to exchange data with each other, previously the domain of IT architects, is now something a user can do at the click of a button through the magic of OAuth. Our identities, now permanently entwined with technology, have transformed from company-sanctioned to self-selected. Also predictably, most of today’s attention and innovation in enterprise IT has been focused around expanding the company’s walled garden to include personal devices and other aspects of this new user-driven world. Want to use your sweet new iPad at work? No problem, just swing by IT first so we can install a bunch of stuff on it. Like Dropbox? Sorry, we don’t, so we blocked it. Want to check your email on that iPhone? Only if you install our crappy software. Etc. etc. etc.

A new day

The idea that the path to building a great enterprise technology company always starts by catering to the interests of the IT organization is dated, and will not survive this decade. Similarly, the notion that it’s impossible to build experiences and services that users voluntarily choose without undermining IT is equally false.  All these changes create a host of new challenges and most importantly an opportunity for a different kind of enterprise software company: one that fights for the users.