Monday, June 13, 2011

Four Features To Help Administrators Get the Most Out Gmail

Gmail is our districts' and my personal email service of choice. It's easy to use interface, any-where access, and customizable features make it an extremely useful email service. What are some of the features of Gmail I find most useful as a school administrator? If I were conducting training for administrators just converting to Gmail, here's some things I think they need to be able to do.

Set Up Labels: Gmail does not use folders. Instead, users have what are called labels. Received email can be provided with a label that distinguishes it from other emails. In practice using labels accomplishes the very same thing users want when they use folders in other email programs. I have found being able to use only two custom labels helps me manage my email. Those labels are: "Follow Up" and "Hold." Emails with the "Follow Up" label involve tasks that I must undertake, and they retain that label until that task is done, at which time I remove it. Emails with the "Hold" label contain short term reference information that I am going to need in the next few weeks. Once I no longer need the information in the email, I remove the label. However, I would caution administrators from going overboard with labels. Using too many makes it really difficult to remember which label you applied to which email. Training administrators on how to use Gmail labels provides them with a tool manage the email load that comes across their desk.

Using the Gmail Search Engine: Gmail provides users with the powerful ability to completely search all their email using specified search options. Users can search by sender, recipient, subject, label, specific words, and within a specified time period. This is extremely useful when trying to track down an email sent or received in the past that suddenly becomes relevant to a current situation. Training administrators on how to effectively mine their own email archive is a must so that they have at their fingertips all correspondence to the larger school community.

Creating a Custom Signature: Like other email programs such as Outlook or Thunderbird, Gmail users can also create a custom signature that contains information wanted at the bottom of every email sent. This can include the sender's name, contact information, and anything else that a user wants to convey with each message sent. Training administrators on how to create their own custom Gmail signature is important because it allows them to customize their email messages and make their contact information more readily available.

Use Selected Gmail Lab Features: While Google provides a disclaimer that says these extra Gmail features are for use at your own risk, some of them do help with email management. My current favorites are:
  • Canned Response: This allows users to create a generic response that can be sent by simply selecting it when composing an email. However, I very cautiously use "canned responses" because it's just not good practice to be so impersonal. There have been a few times though, a good canned response fits the situation perfectly.
  • Multiple Inboxes: This feature allows users to display extra lists to their inboxes. For example, I use this lab to display my emails with the "Follow Up" label so that I can glance at them quickly.
  • Message Sneak Peek: This lab allows users to right click on a message to preview the contents of that message. It is a very useful feature that allows users to peek at the contents of a message without opening it.
  • Right-Side Chat: This lab lets users display the contacts list for Google Talk with a search bar to the right of the email inbox. Right click on a contact's name and you can send an email to them or open a chat with them in Google Talk.
Gmail's simple interface can be deceptive. It provides users with a variety of options and tools to manage email. This list of features is a good starting point for anyone wanting to begin taking advantage of its options.

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