In the briefing room: AwayFind

In the top right of the screen shot, the user has selected to be alerted via the AwayFind iPhone app.

The only thing worse than getting too much e-mail is not getting the e-mail messages you really need.  Missing an important e-mail message can have far-ranging implications, but the only way to 100% guarantee you won’t let one slip by is to essentially live in your inbox.  Doing that is not an appealing proposition but you won’t be surprised to hear that countless knowledge workers do just that.

The detrimental impact of e-mail overload has been very well documented, here and elsewhere, and the damage occasioned by the constant stream of interruptions resulting from constantly monitoring one’s inbox is fairly self-evident.  Too much e-mail makes it harder to separate the wheat from the chaff, and revisiting the inbox every five minutes to see if anything critical has arrived is not conducive to focused, quality work.  Some experts, including Nathan Zeldes, president of the Information Overload Research Group, recommend only checking your e-mail a few times a day, at scheduled times.  Not a bad idea, but what about the e-mail with critical information that comes in right before a meeting on the topic, or the urgent e-mail that requires immediate attention?

AwayFind is a solution that attempts to bring a sense of balance to this challenge by allowing users to define what e-mail is critical and designating an alternative method of contact.  The concept is based on the idea that only specific e-mail messages are really important at a given time, such as one from a co-worker you share a project with as you near a deadline, or a customer you are finalizing a deal with.  AwayFind allows users to set up alerts for e-mail that is pushed out via a phone call, SMS, instant message, or notifications in an iPhone or Android app.

AwayFind uses a mix of automated rules for alerting users, as well as customizable rules for select time periods.  For example, the system monitors a user’s calendar, and notifies them if an e-mail from someone who has a meeting scheduled has arrived.

For setting up custom alerts, AwayFind allows the user to pick a sender or domain name, and then specify a time slot.  This enables a user to stay away from his inboxe and, for example, go out for lunch knowing that if the one person that he’s waiting for important information from sends an e-mail message, he will be notified.

AwayFind is an innovative idea and works on two distinct levels.  On one level, the tool has potential to be used as a filter for the inbox.  This would allow important messages to get through, while relieving the pressure of wading through the spam and non-critical messages that clog up the typical inbox.  Setting up rules for who is important, and recognizing that priorities change and must be adjusted, is a really valuable feature.

On another level, the product is significant because of the way it pushes notifications through numerous other channels.  This is interesting because it shows AwayFind understands that individuals make different choices in communications tools.  Some knowledge workers live in instant messaging environments, while others find that disruptive and instead prefer phone calls or texts.  Virtually all knowledge workers these days carry smartphones, and many already rely on apps running on those devices for everything from social network updates to calendaring notifications.  In theory, using AwayFind would allow knowledge workers to wean themselves off of the inbox and allow only the most important e-mail to get through, via the communications channel that they prefer.  Of course, this would also require knowledge workers to turn off new e-mail notifications from their e-mail client

For most knowledge workers, using AwayFind will not completely substitute for checking their inbox.  Too many random messages still come in everyday that we all have to comb through, and the ramifications of missing them can be severe (we also seem to actually like checking our e-mail, or at least feel compelled to).  What a tool such as AwayFind can do if used properly, is make it possible to check our inboxes far less frequently.  And that is no small feat.

Cody Burke is a senior analyst at Basex. He can be reached at cburke@basex.com

 

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