Slack: Aesthetics Over Utility?

Our office recently started using Slack. It’s the fastest growing workplace software ever and Inc.’s 2015 company of the year, amassing 1.7 million users in just 20 months after its launch, making it one of the fastest-growing startups in the world.

Slack is essentially a chat application with iOS, Android, and browser-based versions available. PC Magazine calls it a great tool for nonessential communication and private backchannel discussion. Nonessential communication?
By the sounds of it small-ish teams may benefit the most from using Slack as a direct messaging app like Skype or MSN Messenger before it, offsetting rampant email use which can hamper productivity. Larger groups and online communities on the other hand may struggle with Slack’s lack of more advanced project management capabilities.

A colleague affectionately touted Slack as an email alternative, calling it an “email killer” bolstering the ongoing argument that email has become a nuisance of modern office life and a crutch for traditional face-to-face interactions with co-workers. Yes, I couldn’t agree more. Email is a creature of convenience we rely on far too much to communicate with one another. Let me repeat that: walking over to a co-worker’s desk to discuss a project is still the best way to get something done. But at the same time, let’s be honest, given the rise of mobile workplaces comprised of teams working remotely who may not always be in the same physical space, tools like Slack (and webmail) become rather useful.

But email can suck the productivity out of the best of us if you find yourself sifting through swaths of CC’d messages, pointless app notifications, and meeting requests with your morning coffee. Curiously though, is it really much different scanning though reams of discussion threads inside a dedicated chat app? Popular email apps like MS Outlook and Gmail already offer conversation mode features, so is it really necessary to run a separate chat app like Slack?

Skepticism aside, I was still interested in trying Slack to see what all the fuss was about given my experience with Basecamp and JIRA for project collaboration.

But as I quickly discovered after just a couple weeks, Slack is full of quirky and often frustrating conventions that, I’m afraid to say, have made me feel slightly more busy, contrary to company’s utopian tagline: “Be less busy”.

Take for instance Slack’s insistence discussion topics, called channel names, contain no special characters (e.g. !@#$%&>.) and be 21 characters or less. If I can’t, for example, type the full name of a project or the client’s URL address (our team work on numerous web sites for various media properties) then I’m stuck with a lot of vaguely titled channels to sort through.
When I asked @SlackHQ why, they said it was for aesthetic reasons, which is odd considering the channels are neatly displayed in a ridiculously narrow column on the left-hand side of the screen while discussion threads extend off indefinitely. As you can see from this screen the desktop UI suffers from a bad case of interface sprawl. To quote Maciej Cegłowski, I’m an adult human being sitting at a large display, with a mouse and keyboard. I deserve better.

Productivity-Thwarting Email Notifications
The way Slack handles notifications is also a bit bewildering, granted I am a new user unfamiliar with the Slack way of doing things.
“Something happened in Slack while you were away…click this link to blah blah blah…” Oh fantastic. How do I turn off these stupid alerts! Isn’t Slack supposed to help me cut-down on the number of emails I get? Perhaps I should have watched the training videos. Who has time to watch software training videos? If I need to watch videos or search through support docs to work the app perhaps the UI needs an audit and some testing with first-time users in mind.

A Head-Scratching Scenario
A colleague of mine posts a direct message to me on Slack, but as luck would have it I am not logged in to the application which means I receive yet another email. (Again, isn’t Slack supposed to help me cut these attention-eroding email notifications down to a minimum?) The email contains a link to the message. After logging back in to Slack I am taken to my colleague’s message, a rather sparse looking screen that doesn’t seem to resemble the normal discussion threads. As I read through my colleague’s message I naturally decide I’d like to respond, but it appears my only options are copy link or add an emoji reaction. Wait a minute. Where is the reply pane? What project [channel] does this message fall under? After a brief moment I realize the email notification I received earlier has linked to a message archive screen rather than the discussion thread itself where my colleague had originally posted the message. What the heck is the purpose of this screen?! Clickbait to get me to stay in the app longer?
Strangely there are no links provided to the corresponding discussion thread —just those ridiculous emoji reactions— so I have to manually track down the correct channel and scroll through a long thread to find the original post where I am able to type a response.

. . .

The more I use Slack the more I wish it was like Basecamp (sorry) —hell, even JIRA, which isn’t saying much —just more flexibility and user-friendliness and without those childish emoji reactions, which are probably better suited to my 9-year old son’s Xbox chat app.

Creativity And Incubation Time

Café Sperl, Vienna - Photo courtesy Kotomi_

Eric Weiner, journalist and author of the book “The Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World”, believes the Viennese pastime of sitting and thinking about nothing, and everything — something he calls “productive idleness” — can help open the door to creativity.

Eric writes:

The Viennese are onto something. Psychology tells us that idleness — a certain kind, anyway — boosts creativity. It happens during the “incubation stage” of the creative process. This is when we stop turning over a problem in our conscious mind and, instead, allow our subconscious to take a whack at it. When the perfect solution to a problem occurs to you in the shower, it’s the result of the incubation stage working away. Many studies have found a link between this sort of seemingly idle behaviour and creative breakthroughs.

Here on North American soil, by contrast, particularly in big urban centers like Toronto and New York City, we elevate to-do lists and multi-tasking to an art form.
It’s quite common — and funny — to see Torontonians briskly walking city streets with a giant Tim Horton’s or Starbucks coffee in one hand and their mobile in the other with an almost frantic sense of urgency.

Photo: Café Sperl, Vienna – Kotomi_

Designing With People In Mind

It’s been said that great design is transparent. Dieter Rams’ enduring design ethos less and more (and also less, but better) immediately comes to mind.

A common thread shared among effective product experiences is that unnecessary complexity, sometimes called creeping featurism, is removed where ever possible.

Invariably this approach will a yield a superior user experience and lead us to an interface that: a) isn’t visually or functionally obtrusive, but rather gets out of the way and allows people to get things done; and b) is user-centered whereby human behaviours factor prominently into the underlying design rationale.

Noted Behavioral Scientist Susan Weinschenk provides us with a useful 10-point reference when embarking on a user-centered (that is, people first) design methodology:

1. People Don’t Want to Work or Think More Than They Have To

  • People will do the least amount of work possible to get a task done.
  • It is better to show people a little bit of information and let them choose if they want more details. The fancy term for this is progressive disclosure.
  • Instead of just describing things, show people an example.
  • Pay attention to the affordance of objects on the screen, page, or device you are designing. If something is clickable make sure it looks like it is clickable.
  • Only provide the features that people really need. Don’t rely on your opinion of what you think they need; do user research to actually find out. Giving people more than they need just clutters up the experience.
  • Provide defaults. Defaults let people do less work to get the job done.

2. People Have Limitations

  • People can only look at so much information or read so much text on a screen without losing interest. Only provide the information that’s needed at the moment (see progressive disclosure above).
  • Make the information easy to scan.
  • Use headers and short blocks of info or text.
  • People can’t multi-task. The research is very clear on this, so don’t expect them to.
  • People prefer short line lengths, but they read better with longer ones! It’s a conundrum, so decide whether preference or performance is more important in your case, but know that people are going to ask for things that actually aren’t best for them.

3. People Make Mistakes

  • Assume people will make mistakes. Anticipate what they will be and try to prevent them.
  • If the results of an error are severe then use a confirmation before acting on the user’s action.
  • Make it easy to “undo”.
  • Preventing errors from occurring is always better than helping people correct them once they occur. The best error message is no message at all.
  • If a task is error-prone, break it up into smaller chunks.
  • If the user makes and error and you can correct it, then do so and show what you did.
  • Whoever is designing the UX makes errors too, so make sure that there is time and energy for iteration, user feedback, and testing.

4. Human Memory Is Complicated

  • People reconstruct memories, which means they are always changing. You can trust what users say as the truth only a little bit. It is better to observe them in action than to take their word for it.
  • Memory is fragile. It degrades quickly and is subject to lots of errors. Don’t make people remember things from one task to another or one page to another.
  • People can only remember about 3-4 items at a time. The “7 plus or minus 2” rule is an urban legend. Research shows the real number is 3-4.

5. People Are Social

  • People will always try to use technology to be social. This has been true for thousands of years.
  • People look to others for guidance on what they should do, especially if they are uncertain. This is called social validation. This is why, for example, ratings and reviews are so powerful on websites.
  • If people do something together at the same time (synchronous behavior) it bonds them together —there are actually chemical reactions in the brain. Laughter also bonds people.
  • If you do a favor for me then I will feel indebted to give you a favor back (reciprocity). Research shows that if you want people to fill out a form, give them something they want and then ask for them to fill out the form, not vice versa.
  • When you watch someone do something, the same parts in your brain light up as though you were doing it yourself (called mirror neurons). We are programmed with our biology to imitate. If you want people to do something then show someone else doing it.
  • You can only have strong ties to 150 people. Strong ties are defined as ties that with people you are in close physical proximity to. But weak ties can be in the thousands and are very influential (à la Facebook).

6. Attention

  • Attention is a key to designing an engaging UI. Grabbing and holding onto attention, and not distracting someone when they are paying attention to something, are key concerns.
  • People are programmed to pay attention to anything that is different or novel. If you make something different it will stand out.
  • Having said that, people can actually miss changes in their visual field. This is called change blindness. There are some quite humorous videos of people who start talking to someone on the street (who has stopped them and asked for directions) and then don’t notice when the person actually changes!
  • You can use the senses to grab attention. Bright colors, large fonts, beeps, and tones will capture attention.
  • People are easily distracted. If you don’t want them to be distracted, don’t flash things on the page or start videos playing. If, however, you do want to grab their attention, do those things.

7. People Crave Information

  • Dopamine is a chemical that makes people seek… food, sex, information. Learning is dopaminergic —we can’t help but want more information.
  • People will often want more information than they can actually process. Having more information makes people feel that they have more choices. Having more choices makes people feel in control. Feeling in control makes people feel they will survive better.
  • People need feedback. The computer doesn’t need to tell the human that it is loading the file. The human needs to know what is going on.

8. Unconscious Processing

  • Most mental processing occurs unconsciously.
  • If you can get people to commit to a small action (sign up for a free membership), then it is much more likely that they will later commit to a larger action (e.g., upgrade to a premium account).
  • The old brain makes or at least has input into most of our decisions. The old brain cares about survival and propagation: food, sex, and danger. That is why these three messages can grab our attention.
  • The emotional brain is affected by pictures, especially pictures of people, as well as by stories. The emotional brain has a huge impact on our decisions.
  • People’s behavior is greatly affected by factors that they aren’t even aware of. The words “retired”, “Florida,” and “tired” can make even young people walk down the hall slower (called framing).
  • Both the old brain and the emotional brain act without our conscious knowledge. We will always ascribe a rational, conscious-brain reason to our decision, but it’s never the whole reason why we take an action, and often the rational reason isn’t even part of the reason.

9. People Create Mental Models

  • People always have a mental model in place about a certain object or task (paying my bills, reading a book, using a remote control).
  • The mental model that people have about a particular task may make it easy or hard to use an interface that you have designed.
  • In order to create a positive UX, you can either match the conceptual model of your product or website to the users’ mental model, or you can figure out how to “teach” the users to have a different mental model.
  • Metaphors help users “get” a conceptual model. For example, “This is just like reading a book.”
  • The most important reason to do user research is to get information about users’ mental models.

10. Visual System

  • If pages are cluttered people can’t find information. Use grouping to help focus where the eye should look.
  • Things that are close together are believed to “go” together.
  • Make fonts large enough. Use fonts that are not too decorative so they are easy to read.
  • Research shows that people use peripheral vision to get the “gist” of what they are looking at. Eye tracking studies are interesting, but just because someone is looking at something straight on doesn’t mean they are paying attention to it.
  • The hardest colors to look at together are red and blue. Try to avoid red text on a blue background or vice versa.
  • People can recognize objects on a screen best when they are slightly angled and have the perspective of being slightly above (canonical perspective).
  • Color can be used to show whether things go together. Be sure to use another way to show the same info since some people are colorblind.