Asynchronous communication has provided product teams with an alternative (and perhaps even preferred) method of communication for quite some time now, but how does it really stack up against synchronous communication? Does it make product management easier?
In this article, you’ll learn what asynchronous communication is and how it compares to synchronous communication, the benefits and challenges, and the different types of asynchronous communication. I’ll also recommend some asynchronous communication tools for you to check out.
Let’s dive in.
Simply put, asynchronous communication is communication that doesn’t happen in real-time. For example, person A leaves a comment for person B and then moves on to another task — person B reads the comment a few hours later perhaps, responds, then maybe person A reads the response a few hours later.
Asynchronous communication is different to synchronous communication because with synchronous communication person A and person B have the conversion (virtually or otherwise) in real-time:
However, what happens if person B replies to the asynchronous message immediately? Does it become synchronous? Technically no, because person A didn’t intend for it to be synchronous, and communicating the intent is actually one of the biggest challenges when it comes to communication. But we’ll get to that later — for now, let’s talk about the benefits of asynchronous communication.
The main benefit of asynchronous communication is that recipients aren’t obligated to respond immediately, giving them more flexibility to progress through their tasks. Time is a finite resource, so you must utilize it strategically.
Also, interruptions can hinder productivity (especially for those with attention disorders, which are very common). If you have a non-urgent concern, your recipients would probably rather receive an asynchronous message that they don’t have to respond to right away.
In addition to this, you probably wouldn’t want to be interrupted, distracted, or locked into a conversion either.
There are different types of asynchronous communication — some are for general communication whereas others are for specific activities.
General communication includes email and chat apps (basically, tools whose primary goal is to help people talk to each other). Product teams use these tools even if they’re not working remotely — for convenience, sharing digital information, and also so that people can refer back to things that have been said.
Specific activities refers to specialist tools that people use to carry out their responsibilities, but also have communication features to help them collaborate with other stakeholders. For example, UI design tools have commenting features so that people can leave feedback and ask questions, and audio conversation features so that stakeholders can discuss in real-time (the latter of which is synchronous of course, not asynchronous).
Developers also have access to tools that facilitate comments (for anything code related) and audio conversations (more so for synchronous pair programming).
Whiteboard tools are a bit more abstract in terms of what they enable product teams to do, but are pretty much the same when it comes to communication.
Within the realm of UI design, there are a ton of communication tools; however, Figma is now the most popular UI design tool by a long shot, owning almost all of the market share according to the 2023 Design Tools Survey.
For whiteboarding there’s Miro and FigJam. Whiteboarding is usually fueled by some sort of process (such as crazy 8s for ideation or dot voting for making decisions) and usually produces some sort of visual takeaway (such as a diagram or concept).
This isn’t the case with generic communication tools such as Slack and Microsoft Teams (the two most popular chat apps for product teams), where communication is more conversational and less structured:
This isn’t an exhaustive list; however, these tools are the most popular options by a long shot for good reason.
Now that we’ve covered why you might use asynchronous communication, the different types, and common tools, let’s take a look at some best practices.
You want to try to reduce the number of asynchronous communication tools that your product team uses.
Doing this will prevent conversations from being scattered across multiple tools, where it’s harder to keep track of them. This also applies to synchronous communication tools and tools in general.
To add to this, having too many communication tools often results in product teams never really mastering any communication tool, which makes them less adept at communicating.
Product teams are more efficient when they’re using as few communication tools as possible (asynchronous or otherwise), even if said tools aren’t everybody’s cup of tea.
Communicating in context essentially means using the right asynchronous communication tool for the job. If discussing a prototype for example, that’ll be Figma or whatever prototyping tool your product team is using. If discussing code, it’ll be Github or whatever your product team uses to discuss code issues.
The key is that stakeholders are able to reference specific parts of a design or specific snippets of code in their comments, providing context and thus reducing miscommunication.
More importantly for recipients though is that these comments remain there until recipients are ready to address them, whereas with chat apps there’s the risk of messages getting lost in the chat before they’re seen (threads functionality hasn’t really solved this at all) and no way to turn messages into actionable, trackable, resolvable tasks.
By communicating in context, recipients are also able to address, respond to, and resolve comments without having to context switch.
Interruptions can be annoying (extremely annoying for some). That said, you do have to respond to coworkers so that they can do their job as well. It’s a tough thing to navigate, but the only real solution is to be mindful of your time alongside your coworkers.
When you have time, remember to look at your emails and notifications and use your best judgment to address whatever you can. This is easier to do when senders mark their urgent messages as urgent.
Receivers should turn on their in-app notifications and also their email notifications just in case. They don’t need to look at them right away and they can be marked as unread in case they do so accidentally. They key is to be able to dive right into whatever comes your way but only when you’re ready to.
There are certainly people (extroverts) that prefer context switching and multitasking or are at least able to tolerate it for short periods of time and/or at different times of the day (e.g., right after lunch, before starting or restarting a task). True teamwork is finding synergy, so get to know your teammates and ask them how they prefer to go about their day.
Asynchronous communication is great. It can enable you to remain focused on your work so that you have fewer distractions and are more productive.
Although there might be some occasional delays in communication, the anxiety that comes from “always being online’” won’t be there and instead of being reactive to interruption you’ll be proactive in addressing what are essentially micro-tasks.
The good news is you don’t have to choose between asynchronous communication and synchronous communication; product teams work best using a combination of both.
If you have a question you can drop it into the comment section below. Thanks for reading!
Featured image source: IconScout
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