Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Digital Etiquette

First, let me start by saying I'm no "Emily Post" or "Dear Abby." But it's often said that one of the biggest problems people have is communicating with each other.

My experience is that face-to-face communications offer the best opportunity to connect, because they involve visual (seeing the person), audio (hearing the person, especially the inflections in their voice), the ability to interact (ask questions and receive responses) quickly, and even touch (it's amazing what a handshake or an appropriate touch can mean).

For better or for worse, our electronic communications can both help and hinder our ability to communicate with other people. Certainly, electronic communications can allow us to communicate over broader distances faster, but it means we won't be face to face.

We've had challenges with communications since people existed on this planet. When we started writing letters to each other, there was the challenge of saying the right thing. Telephones provided more immediacy and the ability to tell nuance, but still was less information than face to face.

Here are some of my observations and experiences of things that have happened to me that have been less-than-effective ways of communicating in a digital age.

What day is that? I see many people saying something like: "Call me tomorrow" or "Let's meet today."

The use of relative dates rarely adds clarity. Specifically, if someone writes a message on Tuesday asking about calling you tomorrow, but you don't see the message until Wednesday, then tomorrow for them is Wednesday, but for you it might be Thursday. Oops. I find I avoid using relative dates or at least qualify them by saying: "Call me tomorrow (Wednesday)." Better yet, simply say: "Call me on Wednesday."


Subject lines needs to be very effective. If I receive an e-mail with a subject line of "A note from Susie", that tells me nothing. For me, the subject line should explain the bottom line of the message, such as "Cheerleading Practice Moved from Tuesday to Wednesday This Week Only." The body of the e-mail can tell me why or who to contact, but I need e-mails with a useful subject line or they risk being unopened.

Who are You? I frequently receive emails from people with cryptic e-mail addresses, such as Who is that? They then either don't sign their name or sign it simply: Susan. I happen to know a lot of people named Susan. Which Susan are you? One of the things I learned as a marketer is to always make it easy for people to contact you. Always sign e-mail messages with your full name and phone number. If this is hard to remember to do, set up your e-mail client to insert what's called a "Signature Block" that will put this information at the bottom of each email. Don't make people guess about your identity.


How Can I Contact you? I frequently receive voicemails from people saying something like: "Hi, this is Sally. Call me to let me know about this Thursday."

Optionally, they may add: "You have my number."

Again, people assume we know who they are and that's usually true, but if I'm picking up a message for my wife or other member of my family, I may have no clue who Sally is. Leave your first and last name. As far as returning a call, I don't always have someone's phone number. Take an extra few seconds and leave your phone number.

How Fast Can You Talk? When people do leave a phone number, why is it that they seem to double or triple the speed of their speech? If anything, speaking slowly and clearly when leaving a phone number is a good thing. Even if you do speak slowly and clearly, the prevalence of mobile phones and the inherent lack of good audio quality has prompted me to not only speak slowly and clearly, but repeat the phone number to ensure that any audio glitch won't prevent someone from hearing my phone number.

We will always have to work at communicating better, but let's not make it harder for people to understand what we're trying to say.

Remember, hearing you and understanding you are two different things. The best message is one that's received and understood as the sender had intended. That responsibility mainly lies with the sender, not the receiver.

Mark Mathias, a 30-plus year veteran of information technology and a resident of Westport, Connecticut, was named by Computerworld magazine to their inaugural list of “Premier 100 IT Leaders.” This column was originally published in the Westport News on Wednesday 18 August 2010.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Technology in the Loo

OK, I get it, talking about the bathroom is embarrassing. Some might legitimately ask why I'd spend time writing about technology in the bathroom.

The answer is really simple: there's some very interesting stuff going on in there.

What's also interesting is that some of the most dramatic technological innovations aren't taking place in America.

The Japanese, in particular, are legendary in their toilets. Everything from sprays and nozzles and air blowers and music and ... well, just Google "Japanese toilet technology" and see what pops up.

The subject is so well established that there's even a Wikipedia ( entry on it.

But I wanted to talk about two technologies: automatic faucets and hand drying.

I first encountered automatic faucets in Germany back in the early 1980s. I didn't see them here in the U.S. for about another 10 years.

Automatic faucets generally turn on water faucets, but they can also be used for toilets and urinals. Typically, they have a motion sensor that detects when something is nearby.

In the case of a sink faucet, the detector turns on when it detects something nearby. In the case of a toilet, the detector waits until the object leaves before it activates.

I always wondered how these faucets work. I thought they'd either be electrical or mechanical, or a combination of both. In particular, the little sensor must require some sort of electrical power, as does the opening and closing of a valve, which could take a lot of juice.

I had wondered if the actual flow of the water would spin a little propeller, which would either charge a battery or arm a mechanism that could perform the opening and closing of the valve.

While that might be the case, most instances of automatic valves are simply battery-operated and the battery reportedly lasts about three years before it needs to be replaced.

The battery model is a great method for installing faucets in existing restrooms, as sinks typically don't have electricity available.

For new construction, the faucet companies also allow low voltage power with a battery back-up.

The value of automatic valves, of course, is to help prevent the spread of germs and disease in public restrooms.

My completely unscientific poll indicates that in most populated places in the U.S., automatic faucets have overtaken manual ones in public restrooms.

The other bit of bathroom technology is the lowly hand dryer.

Years ago, I was in a restroom with one of the old dryers where you'd push the big metal button and it would blow warm air on your hands. The dryer has two instructions printed on it: 1. Press button; and 2. Rub hands under warm air. Someone had written a third instruction: 3. Wipe hands on pants.

While I don't approve of this sort of vandalism, the person was right. The old-fashioned hand dryers simply don't work -- at least not in the timeframe that most people are willing to spend drying their hands.

But there are two devices that work pretty well.

XLERATOR ( -- This device is based on the fact that the volume of air over hands is far more important than the temperature of the air. Stick your hand under an XLERATOR dryer and it's like sticking your hand out of the car window at 60 mph.

The other device that works very well is the Dyson airblade (

Rather than having a single nozzle that shoots out air, the Dyson airblade shoots air on the top and bottom of your hands as you wave your hands through the air blades. The air from the airblade isn't nearly as fast as the XLERATOR, but it does cover more skin.

Both of these hand-drying solutions are welcome improvements over the old push button hand dryers. I rarely have to wipe my hands on my pants anymore.

As technology continues to become more and more a part of our lives, it doesn't take too much imagination to see how technology will continue to enter our restrooms. Just peek across the Pacific Ocean to Japan for a preview.

Mark Mathias, a 30-plus year veteran of information technology and a resident of Westport, Connecticut, was named by Computerworld magazine to their inaugural list of “Premier 100 IT Leaders.” This column was originally published in the Westport News on Wednesday 4 August 2010.
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