Open Thread: IM, what is it good for?

36 Comments

Yesterday, for once I decided to shut off my instant messaging client and see if I could live without it. It was a drastic move, because these are drastic times. Over last few weeks, despite what I did, I found myself being constantly interrupted by the IM pop-ups. People either sending me tips, or my team alerting me to their posts, or some people who just wanted to chit-chat.

It was the casual chit chat which started to grate on me. In fact, the tool which was supposed to replace the telephone, and help keep casual chats to a bare minimum has become a massive time suck. It is cutting into productivity, and also is affecting my general disposition. Let me explain – I am a fairly social person, and feel that it is rude not to answer someone’s IM message. But when the messages pop-up every few seconds, it became impossible to deal with them.

Shutting down the IM client for a day might be fine, but it is not a permanent solution. Is there a way to better manage IM communications and deal with IM’s every day annoyances? I have some ideas, but since I have not tried them out, I would rather wait and listen to what folks like yourself have to say.

36 Comments

Judi Sohn

ALD, it depends on the IM application. Each application has its own preferences for notifications and settings for how intrusive they are. For example, I use Adium and have it set to only show an indicator in the menu bar. That way it doesn’t pop up in front of what I’m doing.

ALD

This may be a little off subject, but I too am annoyed by constant inconsiderate interruptions. However it is in a different way. When I get an IM the entire message pops up and opens OVER whatever I am working in and it interrupts my input or typing. I used to get just an orange flashing bar at the bottom of the screen. Not sure what changed. Does anyone have any ideas? I’ve tried it all, it seems like.

Phil Blancett

I’m very careful with all IM programs and use a VPN connection ( http://www.strongvpn.com ) while connected. Too many worms and other bad deals with ICQ, MSN and others. The only one I trust off the VPN is Skype. Skype is much better in group chat mode then a campfire session, and its free. In addition if you use Pamela you can auto reply any message. Also there’s DND status of course. There’s no reason to go offline with a program that won’t make a sound when you are in DND and history is saved as well. It’s a invaluable business tool.

Chuck

My brother and I use automated scripts to update our IM status every minute. Currently it displays the app and document name (ex: Word: Project Proposal). This way we can see what the other is working on, and decide to interrupt or not. If my brother’s status is “FireFox: Slashdot”, I know he’s taking a break and can chat freely.

Obviously, for privacy reasons, this is only appropriate for a closed group of contacts. However, a similar system could be used for public IM accounts to set generic status messages based on the app/docs currently in use (“busy on project”, “on skype phone”, “checking email”, etc).

Khalid

We use hosted group chat at: http://www.campfirenow.com, one of the best tools I have used in a long time. It archives all the chats, lets you share files and when I don’t want to be bothered by it I just dock the window. Way less intrusive than IM.

CHRIS

I used to get people trying to talk to me at inopportune times of the day, but I’ve found a system that works pretty well and keeps me productive when I need to be. What I do is use GTalk as a universal client (I’ll go into more detail on how in a bit) to talk to people on AIM and MSN Messenger (my contacts in the US use AIM, my contacts in Europe generally use MSN Messenger). However, I didn’t add everyone from my contact lists to GTalk. Instead, I only added people I would need to talk to for work, and if someone talks to me about something non-work related and I don’t have time, I simply tell them so! I have enough things on my mind to have to remember to change my status every time I’m doing something new. Now if I actually want to talk to my friends or family, I can log onto AIM or MSN Messenger or Skype and do so – the advantage is *I* choose when. So, if you’re interested in turning GTalk into a universal client, check out this site:

http://www.bigblueball.com/forums/google-talk-news/33739-connect-google-talk-aim-msn-yahoo.html

LivNLet

Right now I’m freelancing in house (design/code) for the next two months and I’ve discovered because I don’t have either a company telephone or a real email I’ve been doing some of the best work I’ve done in a very long time. I arrive in the morning, jump into the Mac/CS2, crank up my favorite Internet radio station and just powertool into a deep trance of concentration. Around 11:30 or so I emerge, take a breath of air and check my emails before grabbing a quick bite to eat and starting the process over again.

IM is great but just like any other tool it can be over used. At a previous job I couldn’t concentrate because of it and emails and people coming to see me. It got so bad I had to make a new rule that I called “Primetime!”, where if my IM read “I’m in Primetime!” and my Primetime! sign was up on my door, it meant that you could not talk to me. It was pretty rediculous because of course there were those that thought they were special and would ignore the rule. I ended up working a lot of evenings as well, just to keep up.

Point is, because of the type of work we designers and developers do, we need to have ample periods in the day to remain 100% focused on the task at hand (I’m preaching to the choir here). When the marketing people show up I feel like locking them all in a closet together (where, ultimately they will have a meeting on new brand strategies and cheer each other over and over, causing us to sound proof the closet). Gotta love ’em!

Mel

I use IRC, too. If there is an emergency, I normally get a call on my cellphone and then I set up a channel for me and that client.

This way I only get interrupted when it is absolutely necessary. I don’t like IM programs. They disrupt my work too much, and I get irritated a LOT by that.

I check my mail five times a day. This is enough to make my clients happy. I didn’t get any complaints about being not reachable yet.

Dean Johnson

I have avoided IM like the plague. My first blush impression was that it was simply a chat mechanism for vacuous people. I now see that I wasn’t entirely correct, but not terribly incorrect either. Instead of IM, I use IRC. Far less annoying and distracting. If I feel so inclined, I set up a channel for myself on a shared server and people come to me if they need something. Just the little extra effort of people getting an irc client and configuring it is enough to weed out most of the people that I don’t want to talk to anyways.

JPM

I think the actual scenario here is that IM is useful in certain situations and not in others. I tend to find myself turning on IM when it’s the fastest way to get the information I need. Sometimes I don’t need synchronous communication and then Email or SMS is better or even telephone.

What IS need is a unified message mailbox that I can also access with my BlackBerry. This magic mail box where I can then use filters and rules to create subfolders and alerts based on the inbound messages I receive.

If anyone wants to create this I will help you get investors.

Thanks.

Bill Day

For whatever reason (maybe age), most of my contacts use IM lightly
and phone more heavily. Since we’re all mobile/remote from one another,
it’s mostly cell phone. And since that is perceived as “costing” something
for use (bucket of minutes or not), it tends to be sorta self regulating.

Email, however, is another story. I have to set certain times in my workday
where I work on email, and others where I don’t. I manage this by telling
clients and colleauges to email me for usual stuff, mobile phone for anything
that requires an urgent reply.

It’s always fun finding a balance, isn’t it?

Matt Krause

“Working on a project, can I get back to you” is my stock answer when the IM goes chiming while I’m in the middle of something.

Justin Lilly

disclaimer: I don’t REALLY know that much about the jabber protocol, but this is my understanding of it.

Here’s my proposal… A new IM program.

I know what you’re thinking… not another… but check this out:

The way the jabber protocol works, it opens a feed to another user and what you type is added to this feed. The user downloads this feed and it is then displayed on their screen.

My question is how is this different than RSS? Granted its a different protocol, but it could theoretically work the same. Think of comments to your blog straight from your feed reader. an IM from someone that gets filtered into said feed reader. It could really make a solid communications platform.

This is not unlike email either. Someone types something and sends it, it displays on your screen. Granted, its a different protocol again, but it works the same way in practice. The software would merely need to have the ability to store a “conversation” by title which could be previously defined.

I think there is a lot of room to do something amazing for those who know something more about this stuff than I do.

Sorry this doesn’t address your problem with IMs… but this technology would :)

Sal Cangeloso

I had the same problem as Om. My solution was to switch from AIM client to GAIM and then have an away message up all the time. Even when I talk to people it stays up. This way people think I am busy/away, but the people who need to contact me will leave a message. I can get back to who is important immediately and then save the others for later. This trick only lasts so long, but I if you are careful, friends won’t bother you and coworkers will be able to get in touch easily.

Andy C

Interesting topic. I find myself using IM more in the work environment and find it occasionally useful but mostly intrusive and an unwanted context switch.

I find that people don’t heed the status so if I’m busy I shut it down.

More thoughts here

John

I too use trillian to keep my windows to a minimum, but I have taken to simply not starting it up – this keeps interruptions to a minimum. If it’s really important people know to E-mail me and I’ll read that. If something happens that needs instant attention that way I can still get the message and start up the IM program, but the requirement of a quick response isn’t there.

That said, with some of my friends & colleagues we will still send IMs to each other and just not expect them to be answered anytime soon, it’s just a handy way of getting short messages back & forth.

jim

tabbed IM clients has allowed me to hide adium in the background when i do not want to be bothered with an away message as such. it acts like an answering machine. turn off all cues that you are recieving messages aside from the medu bar icon which turns red when a messages comes in and get to work.

Ben Evans

One thing I have found to help me immensely is using Trillian you can set your preferences to have all IM’s get locked into a single “container”, so I only ever have one IM window open, it just has multiple tabs for the people I am talking to. The tabs then highlight red when there is a new message that I havent seen (and the one taskbar item will flash if I do not have it focused) and there is an icon on the tab next to each person’s IM name indicating their status… It really makes it easy to cut down on clutter because I never have more than one window open.

To turn this feature on, go to your Preferences, Message Windows, turn OFF “Group Message Windows together according to Contact List groups” and under Default Appearance, select Contact Windows, check the Container box underneath and give it a title like “Instant Messages” and then save your preferences!

warren

Use two different IM names… one for when you’re at work and one for when you’re at home. Give only the work IM name and not your home IM name to people at work so work people can’t bother you when you’re not working. Additionally, give out your work IM to people who you wouldn’t mind being interrupted by when you’re at work (family/close friends).

Mark

@Imran Ali:

I’ve ALWAYS been frustrated by the fact that I can define groups in IM (AIM, Trillian, Adium are all clients that I typically use) and organize buddies into those groups but cannot set status messages or (temporarily) Block users in a particular group as you’ve described. Sounds like we need to organize some sort of concerted effort to raise this as a priority for dev teams!

rexdixon

When I am on IM, I use radiusIM so that I don’t have a load of IM clients open. I only log into when needed, and always put up the “busy, or lv msg”. If I see someone IM me, and I am busy – I just don’t answer until later.

IM is like anything else – e-mail, Skype, phone calls — only answer them when you have too — don’t let the blinking, bells and whistles of IM distract you from your focus.

CoryS

IM is our mobile office’s water cooler. We’ve got a small number of employees 50 miles apart and rarely in the same physical place, but, thanks to IM (and other websites/tools), we can interact and collaborate as a group in ways that would have never been possible before. Like mentioned above, my friends know that chit-chat is best late night is best if you want the not-so-time-crunched version of me.

Agree with the post above that there need to be more status icons and less smilies.

Steve E

I use IM at work to keep in touch with my suppliers/agencies and some key colleagues. I find it invaluable as my suppliers are all over the world and it is quicker and easier than picking up the phone in so many cases.

I do use IM at home but very rarely.

Imran Ali

There’s some work to be done by IM operators here too- upgrades tend to give us more smileys and other facile features when many of us actually need more sophisticated presence tools.

How about, mechanisms that expose presence to different people in different ways? For example, between 8am and 6pm, I want to be ‘invisible’ to my friends and family; at weekends, I wanna be invisible to coworkers etc.

Our buddy lists are sparawling social networks and yet the tools offered to manage them are crude and autistic. I beleve it’s an area ripe for innovation :)

PaulSweeney

All very good points above. I just use meebo to keep the suck on my computer down, then I actively manage my status during the day so that people know I am serious about “working on project, do not disturb”, etc. I love the comments above about “training your IM contacts” … excellent. But, their may be times when you do need the interrupt because it is a key piece of news from a key source, so I guess what you might need is someway to priortise your contacts. If there is anyone out there who knows how to do that, perhaps they might contribute to the thread. I’d be interested to know how to do that myself!

Peter

I hate rude IM’ers that don’t even ping to check if you have some time and just start talking. These days, sometimes, I just ignore people when I don’t have time. I let them assume I didn’t see their message..

I figure everyone should just learn to ask “do you have a moment?” before interrupting people.

Adnan

I am surprised that you consider IM so essential to your work. Not only do I avoid IM, I also keep my email client shut for the most of the day – whether I am working, or browsing the Net like right now. I do not like people intruding on my time. I read my mails early in the morning and prepare my To-Do list for the day.

I even keep my phone ring tone to very low (or mute) so that I am not disturbed. This is only part which is tough because I realize that I might miss an emergency call from a family member or loved one.

shannonclark

I think it very much depends on what you set as the expectations about IM. I don’t use it heavily (for whatever reason people I know don’t always remember I’m on IM) but when I do, and I have more the last few days, I find it a very useful and highly productive tool.

A few things I find that help:

– use relatively accurate and useful status messages – I’ve taken to changing my gtalk status on a nearly daily basis – and people have both noticed and chatted with me directly as a result (friends that is)

– when someone skypes me without IMing first, I fairly routinely ignore them and IM them back (and try to train them to always IM first to check if I’m somewhere I can talk – or if I”m in a public space and IM is best)

– if someone IM’s me and I can’t reply, I either send them a simple one line “sorry, finishing a project, let’s talk later” type reply, or I just ignore the IM’s and perhaps get back to them when I can. (if I’m really fancy I’ll either go “invisible” or set Trillian’s auto-reply rules

(oh and to save the IM – I just updated my blog… http://shannonclark.wordpress.com with a longish post on modern entrepreneurship :) )

Shannon

Jesse Ezell

Put your IM on busy when you are busy and refuse to acknowledge any messages that come through until people get the point.

Johannes Kleske

I handle IM differently from time to time. Sometimes I don’t open IM before noon to keep focused and undistracted. Sometimes when I have to focus at an other time I just shut it off. And people totaly get that.

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