David Szpunar: Owner, Servant 42 and Servant Voice

David's Church Information Technology

July 4th, 2007 at 2:20 pm

Important IT Email, or: That which Users love to Ignore

Barry Buchanan over at Church IT Help posted an entry yesterday that resonated strongly with my own experiences and frustrations. His gist? Staff members don’t read IT emails with important information that they very badly need to read. I’ve notice some of the same things he’s mentioned, and I haven’t found a solution. However, I have discovered these five facts and tips that have improved the amount of attention paid to my important IT notification emails:

  1. People don’t read their email. If they do, it’s not in a timely manner (if I get any email that looks remotely important I’ve read it within an hour almost any time between 7:30am and 11pm, on my Treo or a PC, so this is foreign to me).
  2. If people read email, they won’t read long ones. And by long, I mean a lot shorter than what I consider long. I tend to write books rather than emails :-) I’ve had to work on this a lot; shortening communications to just the necessities. It’s good practice, but sometimes my short emails are still longer than people are willing to read for some reason.You have to put the most important information up front.
  3. Preferably, use bold, italics, and color to highlight important phrases at the beginning and throughout the email. Action steps, a summary of changes, or some such very short “if you get nothing else from this email, get this” must be the first sentence or two. Provide details after that (some people will read it, and others might if they see from the beginning that it really needs to be read). A bulleted list with under-one-line summaries of steps or changes should either be first, or if you use another short summary up front, end with a bulleted summary.
  4. Keep the quantity down, but repeat yourself twice when possible. Announce something as early as possible. Then at least when someone says “I never got an email about that” you can pull up their email box and locate the email you sent (unless they’ve deleted it — if only they would! That and all the other accumulated junk causing your Exchange server to whine and complain. Well, users do seem really good at deleting the daily emails about their mailbox being over the size limit…). But also send an email the day before, or as close to a change as possible while leaving people a reasonable amount of time to receive and read it. Two days ahead of time is too early.
  5. This was part of number 3 above, but it’s very important: action steps. Include what is required of the user, up front and emphasized. “You must log out and log back in for these changes to take effect.” Even emphasize if it’s just a notification. “When you log in tomorrow, the icon will be red instead of blue. You don’t need to do anything different, this should happen.”

The problem is not solved. Users will always be…users. But mine are getting better! :-) And a lot of that is due to me working on my emails to make them better and more easily understandable. Any other suggestions I’ve missed?

As a side note, I am contemplating a simple intranet setup as a gateway to our new helpdesk system and to allow for announcements, forms distribution (and eventually business process automation). Posting all IT announcements there should also (hopefully) help. After I get people using it in the first place. (And after the best intranet solution is determined and set up!)

I just thought of an idea — what about pop-up “IT Announcement Ads”? Modify some adware to display ads from the IT department only, and have banners pop up on people’s screens with the information. Now there’s something they’ll pay attention to! (“My computer says I just won a laptop…is that true?!”) Granted, it might negate all the instructions about how users should ignore pop-ups, but might it be worth it? ;-)

If all else fails, I’m with Barry in recommending a ban of all users from the network :-)

  • 1

    One thing I love about blogging is the ability to vent. I actually felt much better after I did my post. Of course my post was edited a bit before the final draft was posted. One of my co-workers here kept me grounded, he pointed out the test would be a post I would not mind the staff here reading. I would not have liked the staff reading my first draft, the facts were right but it was too harsh and blunt. The truth is the communication probably just my own failures and I need to work harder at finding clever ways to do this.
    I do put important annoucements about the network on our Intranet (SharePoint) but again that is not much better than email if users do not read it. Perhaps I’ll send reminders to folks to check the SharePoint site, I already redirect users to the site via GPO so in theory this should work good. SharePoint is a great tool for communication btw, but only if people read it. Please pray for me to have more patience and understanding. I need to remind myself that this is a ministry and not a corporation.

    Thanks for your post, some great ideas in it!


    Barry Buchanan on July 5th, 2007
  • 2

    Yes…excellent blog post test! I know I’ve had at least one staff member comment (in our all-staff meeting) that he found my blog while browsing the internet one time, unintentionally — he didn’t give out the blog address but announcing it to all staff may have resulted in some additional visits :-) And I consulted my direct supervisor for permission to blog before starting (especially since I’m using a church subdomain, but would have for any blog identifying the church by name). Thus, my posts are also reasoned from the standpoint of “would I say this within earshot of everyone?” If not, it’s better left unsaid!

    Hence the focus in my post on what I’m doing to help make my communications better. Hard to complain about a guy who “complains” louder about himself than others and tries to do something about it!

    David Szpunar on July 5th, 2007
  • 3

    Excellent post! I have so many of the same frustrations. Like you, I am very detail oriented, and I give way too much information to users. Thanks for a great post, and some good tips.

    I told one of my users last week that I would be removing all technology pieces and providing stone tablets and chisels. He got a kick out of it. That was after the week that 8 of my 2005 Nobilis machines mysteriously would not start up and required a full re-install of Windows to get back in order. Grrr.

    Matthew Irvine on July 7th, 2007
  • 4

    Oh, we’re doing the Intranet thing right now too. It’ll be a gateway to event request forms, web requests, etc. What I’ve finally decided to do is to put it on our Web host and restrict it to only our external IP. So technically on the Internet, but it’ll work for us. (Then I won’t have to set up another server somewhere at least)

    Matthew Irvine on July 7th, 2007
  • 5

    May I ask on what platform and/or software you’re running your intranet? External hosting is generally Linux but Windows is certainly available. And are you building the system custom, or using a CMS?

    Also, are you going to use SSL when restricting to your external IP, or is it all non-confidential to the point that being sniffed wouldn’t matter?

    Also, have you considered the LAMP Virtual Appliance running on VMware internally (assuming you’re using a Linux host)? Internal control/flexibility but no Linux OS maintenance…upgrade by downloading a new version, re-uploading your stuff, and your OS is ready to go. They’ve switched to Ubuntu recently, so you can easily install any Ubuntu-available software packages. Just wondering what your reasons for/against this is if you are running Linux hosting.

    David Szpunar on July 7th, 2007
  • 6

    Good questions. I’m simply going to use our Linux shared hosting with 1and1. Right now, the verification will be a very simple Perl script to make sure the traffic at least claims to be coming from our building. It’ll all be non-confidential stuff, but not really publicly available. Still, it wouldn’t hurt us if someone got it.

    I’ll be using an open-source CMS like Joomla or ModxCMS for the management of the site.

    I have considered virtualizing, and admittedly I’m a little scared of it since I have zero experience and no machines to test on. I’ll join the bandwagon eventually, but I’m still pretty green with server maintenance. That’s why I love the idea of letting 1and1 manage the server for me. :)

    Matthew Irvine on July 7th, 2007
  • 7

    Cool…how is 1and1? I was considering recommending them to a friend due to price but I don’t have any experience with them.

    Perl IP-blocking would work (I’ve done it myself, and I used to code Perl like there was no tomorrow, before PHP exploded), but you might consider an even easier blocking method: .htaccess

    The official Apache docs are here. but why not get just what you need, at another site under Restricting by IP Address. First you deny from all, then allow just the IPs you want, and it works for the whole directory (in and below the one containing the .htaccess file) at once. Others get 403 Forbidden I believe.

    Also, have you considered using WordPress for your intranet? There are a ton of sites using it as a CMS and it’s simple and easy to use/upgrade. I’ve played with Joomla and some of the others available at OpenSourceCMS for live demo, but haven’t found anything I’ve liked as much as WordPress (but I haven’t used it as a CMS yet, just a blog). This google Search might be even more interesting/helpful!

    David Szpunar on July 8th, 2007
  • 8

    Good call. As I typed out the Perl thing yesterday, I had , as my boss would say, a blinding flash of the obvious, of course htaccess is the way to go. Thanks for the links – makes it tons easier. I think WordPress would do great for us – it’s so customizable! I’ve used Joomla on so many, and it’s just too bloated for me. I love Modx, but the community support is not there yet. It does have a truly excellent backend though.

    I like 1and1. They are the Wal-mart of Web hosting, which is good and bad. When it comes to reliability and speed, they are spot on. However, they kinda stink in the customer service department. I guess the idea is that you should never need to call them, which is pretty much the truth.

    Matthew Irvine on July 8th, 2007
  • 9

    Thanks for the info. My best hosting experience has been with BlueVirtual, which has a good price, very good hosting, and excellent customer service. I’ve been with them since they were just starting, when the founders decided to start a new company after Interland bought CommuniTech.Net where they worked and basically turned CommuniTech from great into garbage. I also have a dedicated server at The Planet at the moment, to host random stuff :-) But BlueVirtual is $10/mo, which is still high for some people wanting a personal site.

    I took a look at MODx based on your comments, since I’d never heard of it. It looks extremely promising! I had to be careful to avoid drooling on my laptop’s keyboard :-) However…you do have a point about community. One of the biggest strengths of WordPress in my opinion is the plugins, and themes for that matter. I don’t think I’ve needed to do anything on this or any of my other blogs that I couldn’t find a pre-written plugin for. I’ve never designed a theme myself, either, I always use a freely available one (since all my sites are one-man-band right now and I’m not a designer by any means, this is good!). And WordPress is very flexible. I keep meaning to play aroung with writing my own plugin(s), but I haven’t come up with a need that an existing one hasn’t filled, so…not yet :-) Plugins make upgrades so much easier since you can replace the core without removing your mods!

    I am a bit worried about using WordPress as an intranet just from the standpoint of growth. If the intranet grows and we want to do some workflows (maybe automate time away requests and approvals, etc?) is WordPress the best option? Is another system? Simple stuff is easy. I just want the best system that will grow with the least amount of effort (and cost :-) Which is one reason we have no intranet yet!

    David Szpunar on July 8th, 2007
  • 10

    I loved Communitech. They were the first host I ever used, the first host I recommended to clients, and the best host I’ve ever used…. until Interland bought them. I still have one client who stuck it out with Interland, but just one and they’re on a $99/month dedicated server that we got on SUPER special. Oh, the glory days of Web hosts. I’ll have to check out the Blue guys. If they’re half as good as Communitech, they’re still better than 90% of the hosts out there today.

    Matthew Irvine on July 9th, 2007
  • 11

    CommuniTech was one of my first hosts as well! The first I can remember…anything else was so long ago I don’t recall anything about them. I had two or three accounts there myself, and resold up to 5 at one time as well. Did you happen to contribute to the CommuniTech forums when they were around? If so I may have seen you on there and not even known it at the time! Robert Accettura (a former CommuniTech customer and forums poster) is at BlueVirtual now as a support rep in their forums, Chad McCan is one of the owners, and there are a couple of others (including Jason) that I can’t remember the full names of right now.

    Also, I have a dedicated server at The Planet (through ServerMatrix, their low-cost servers store) that I got for $89/month including Plesk with unlimited domains…also on super special. And not at Intertrash :-)

    David Szpunar on July 10th, 2007