Instant Messaging

April 7, 2011

Chapter 9 – Communicating In Real-Time

When instant messenger first came to my workplace I totally blew it. In my defense, I had already had two bad experiences with IM. The first one came when I was visiting an old girlfriend at college. Her computer was in her dorm room and we were interrupted with about 50 separate IM chats a day.

My second bad experience was still happening when my coworkers started using IM. A group of my friends had convinced me to sign up with Yahoo! instant messenger and become their buddy. They were mostly still in college and didn’t really understand what it was like to have a full-time job. They IMed me all day long with messages like “what are you doing?”

I know it isn’t an excuse, but it helps explain why I flat out refused to use IM with my coworkers. That lasted for a couple of weeks before I caved. Within a few days I started seeing the power of the tool and became and abusive IM user. I demanded answers to my questions immediately often walked over to someone’s cube to complain if they didn’t answer me fast enough. Yes, we were using IM even though we were all in the same office.

A lot of years have passed since I first started using IM and I’ve come to a better place with it. I’m more patient and I use it sparingly. I’ve also come to realize what a disruptive technology IM can be. There are times when I wouldn’t want to disrupt someone with a phone call that IM feels OK to me.

The way to make IM a useful tool instead of a constant interruption is to use it sparingly. Keep your chats short and don’t bother people for information you could easily find on your own. The next sections present some examples which will help you streamline the way you use IM and help you stay connected with your team.

Avoid long conversations

Short questions with short answers are the sweet spot of IM: “What time is the meeting?” or “Do you have a utility for parsing URLs?” “How are we going to organize our new team? ” will work better over the phone.

IM is not the place to discuss controversial or open-ended issues. If you want to ask questions that start with “I know you don’t agree with this, but…” or “have you thought about…” then use email or the telephone.

Frame the question

When you ask someone a question it is fresh in your mind. You know what you want to say and you have (hopefully) been thinking about it for a little while before you ask the question. This can lead you to assume the other person knows what you are talking about.

I have received many instant messages that start with, “I’m curious what you think about that bug.” I’ve sent a few like that too. It would be much better to say, “I’m looking at bug 256 in the order processing code. Do you have any idea what might be wrong?” The second example let’s the other person give you useful feedback immediately instead of wating time asking for more information.

IM conversations often contain long pauses while someone completes requested work or researches an issue. During that time the other party will have moved on to other tasks. It is important to frame your questions and responses.

If you haven’t sent that person a message in over 10 minutes then you should assume you are having a new conversation.

Know when the conversation should end

Even a well-planned chat about a simple issue can devolve into a long drawn-out conversation. It is important to reevaluate your conversation frequently and see if it should be switched to the telephone or wrapped up.

Communicate well about time

If you send someone an IM they will probably wait for you to finish and when they ask you a question they will probably wait for the answer. A few minutes while you look something up may seem short to you, but they will be long to the other person. Before you stop typing for a little while let the other person know if they should wait for you or not.

Avoid unwieldy acronyms and abbreviations

Zack: Hello Justin. That customer meeting was very interesting.
Justin: w/e i was ttly zzz u2? ;>)

Text abbreviations are common in IM and can make the message faster to type, but don’t go too far. Most organizations will use a small set of abbreviations. If you are unsure, then take the extra few seconds to type the whole word. Your coworkers will appreciate not having to decode your messages.


You have to let your team know what you are up to and if you are available. IM is a good real-time tool for showing status. IM clients include the ability to set personal status and see the status of other members of your team. If you are busy and don’t want to be interrupted you can use your IM status to indicate that. Use your status messages to let your team know when they can expect your response to their questions.


Whoever hosts your IM account has total access to every message you send. When you send an IM through Yahoo! they can see every word. If you are worried about security you need to suggest that your company install an internal IM server which can be secured and logged for just the members of your company.

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