Tag Archives: collaboration

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.

On Diminished Substitutes

Jonathan Safran Foer writes a piece for the Sunday edition of the NY Times that raises a number of troubling questions about the degree with which we’re using technology (e.g. smartphones, email) as replacements for face-to-face communication. Foer calls these forms of communication “diminished substitutes”:

It’s easier to make a phone call than to schlep to see someone in person. Leaving a message on someone’s machine is easier than having a phone conversation — you can say what you need to say without a response; hard news is easier to leave; it’s easier to check in without becoming entangled. So we began calling when we knew no one would pick up.

Shooting off an e-mail is easier, still, because one can hide behind the absence of vocal inflection, and of course there’s no chance of accidentally catching someone. And texting is even easier, as the expectation for articulateness is further reduced, and another shell is offered to hide in. Each step “forward” has made it easier, just a little, to avoid the emotional work of being present, to convey information rather than humanity.

No doubt.

I think Skype is an excellent example of a diminished [communication] substitute. I use Skype almost daily. It’s become a rather necessary tool to keep in touch with colleagues and coordinate projects. Necessary —and quite frankly, I’m reluctant to use the word indispensable because I would gladly dispense with Skype, and Basecamp too, if everyone I worked with lived in the same city and were able to work out of the same office. But of course, that’s not possible given the makeup of the typical digital team these days. Here in Toronto, traffic woes seem to be getting worse each year as our city’s population growth continues to strain the public transit system. The option to work remotely from home a couple days a week, I can tell you from first-hand experience, is a perk of the job I gladly embrace.

On any given week I’m working with people on 3 continents and sometimes 4 or 5 different time zones. Skype and Basecamp become necessary to keep the lines of communication open and coordinate efforts. But from my perspective it’s a less than ideal situation. Aside from the usual technical hiccups from lack of bandwidth to software and hardware issues, these cloud apps, which are routinely touted as the bright future of collaborative technology, only ever really work when all active participants have: a) a stable Internet connection and b) a bug-free device with no compatibility issues.

A team of people working in the same physical space, in my opinion, will always be more effective than a team scattered around the globe working remotely where there’s a reliance on these cloud based apps to help push projects forward.

Skype conference calls are, at best, a crude substitute for in-person communication. Nevermind Microsoft is apparently listening in. Skype’s instant message functionality seems to break almost weekly and has proven to be an inconsistent way to reach colleagues as an alternative to traditional long-distance phone calls.

Basecamp, in the same context, is an absolute crutch when in-person team collaboration is not possible. This is best illustrated by the seemingly harmless yet insidiously time-sucking project notifications lining one’s in-box each day. Anyone who’s ever used Basecamp knows exactly what I’m talking about. When a contributor makes an update to a project, Basecamp will send out an email notification to all team members involved. Unless manually overridden it’s possible to barrage your colleagues with a very unnecessary tsunami of daily email updates. The sheer amount of time required to sift through these notifications, on some days, is enough to leave you scratching your head to say, where did the day go?

If anything else this is the reality of working in the digital economy and a reflection of how inextricably connected we’ve become in relying on these tools and technologies to earn a living. For better or worse, I’m afraid we’ll just have to make the best of it.

Discuss on Hacker News.