Tips From the Pros on Getting the Most Out of Onyx

This past weekend, Orion Labs moved offices from our old space on Mission Street in San Francisco to new and much more spacious digs on Utah Street. A number of us worked hard on Sunday to get the place ready for our teammates’ first day in our new office. Onyx proved to be just the tool we needed to coordinate the day’s efforts.

Requesting assistance from high up a ten foot ladder, asking where things had been packed or unpacked, getting status updates about the office network rollout, taking lunch orders from the team, picking up items from the hardware store — all of these tasks were made a lot easier (and a little more fun) thanks to our favorite little personal communicator.

Using Onyx all weekend for such a practical purpose got us thinking about how our team instinctively uses it to communicate. The Orion team includes firefighters, EMTs, disaster workers, and amateur radio operators. Many of us have a lot of expertise using handheld radios. Based on this experience, we’d like to share some ways that you can get the most out of Onyx in your work or your daily life.


  • 1. When starting a new conversation, say the name of the person you’re calling, then say your own name.

On a regular phone call, both people know who they’re talking to, and are (theoretically) paying full attention the whole time. Onyx, by contrast, is designed for communication while focusing on your surroundings and work in front of you. When you’re using Onyx, you’re not stuck on a “call” — your group is just there, all day, whenever you want to talk with them. While this is really convenient, this means you sometimes need to make a special effort to get someone’s attention.

Suppose Bob and Mary, John, and Lynn are at Home Depot with their Onyxes, and Bob wants Mary to meet him in the lighting section. Bob could just hit the button and say “Hello? Are you there?” But Mary might not realize that she’s the person being addressed — or she might not realize that it’s Bob talking.

Instead, Bob could say: “Mary, this is Bob.” Now Mary knows it’s Bob calling for her specifically.

In return, Mary should say both Bob’s name and her own, to let him know that she’s listening. For example, Mary might reply with: “Hi, Bob! This is Mary. What’s up?”


  • 2. When hearing new information, repeat it back, so that others know you got it.

Repeating back new information is probably the #1 way to get the most from using your Onyx with coworkers or friends. Let’s follow the previous exchange:

Mary: “Hi, Bob! This is Mary. What’s up?”

Bob: “Let’s meet at the lighting section in five minutes.”

Mary: “Okay.”

Wait — how does Bob know whether Mary understood what he meant? Mary can make things clearer by repeating back the essentials of what she was just told. How about this:

Bob: “Let’s meet at the lighting section in five minutes.”

Mary: “Got it. See you at the lighting section in five minutes.”

Bob: “Hang on, can we make that twenty? I need to pick up some plywood.”

Mary: “Twenty minutes it is. See you then.”

By repeating back new information to each other, they’re able to get their shopping done in almost no time.


  • 3. When talking to a group of people at once, one person should do a roll call, and ask for everyone else to respond in turn.

Suppose Bob and Mary are on a job site with a whole bunch of people. If Bob broadcasts, saying “Hey, who wants lunch?” — and then everybody replies at once — chaos is likely to follow. This kind of “pile up” happens frequently with walkie-talkies and even conference calls.

Instead, Bob can take on the role of “dispatcher”, and call on each person in the group to respond in turn. Bob might say, “I’m taking a roll call for lunch. Mary?” Along the top of the group view in the Orion app, we’ve built a clean way for users to see others that are in the group (Presence). A blue circle around a group member means the person is available, the person is set to “Do Not Disturb”, and gray means the group member is not connected. Bob can then go down the list of people in the group, call each one in turn, and wait for them to respond.

Conducting a roll call means that an orderly exchange is more likely to follow, instead of a pileup. This way, Bob can also be certain that he knows who’s gotten the message and who hasn’t. When you are the dispatcher, make sure that you acknowledge everyone’s reply, so that they know you heard them.

One last Orion pro tip: Sometimes, because of the way that iOS and Android work, another user might look like they’re offline in the app, but actually be listening, or vice versa. When doing a roll call, it’s best to call all the people that you think might be listening, whether they look like they’re online or not. We’re actively working to improve this experience, but it never hurts to be certain.

That’s it! These three simple techniques are used by virtually all trained radio operators, from firefighters to taxi drivers, to maximize their ability to understand one another, and to minimize the risk of confusion.

We love using Onyx, and we hope you will, too. If you come across other ways to make using Onyx more effective and more fun, let us know — we’d be delighted to share them. Thanks!