Since email became the major communication channel in the 1990s, the centralized inbox where users can access all of their conversation history literally also became the work communication hub. Decades later, emails are much more populous and filled with spam and marketing newsletters; the centralized inbox has become a symbol of unproductivity. Slack, the workplace group chat application, has been said to be email’s replacement.
Slack is the ultimate chat service, mostly between heavily connected people at work. It’s seamlessly integrated with many of the third-party tools commonly used in workplaces, such as Dropbox, Github, Paypal, and Google Drive. Slack is essentially a communication connecting a series of services that leads to the achievement of company goals. The seamless integration of those third-party tools, is one of the many factors that make Slack more successful.
Also, unlike conventional corporate group chats, Slack is designed to make communication easier, more fun and synchronous. Slack has a very colorful design and a wide variety of emoticons for its users to use, making the app fun and exciting. In this regard, Slack differs from other chat applications such as Campfire and Hipchat.
The synchronous factor makes communications more lively and transparent. However, the synchronous factor in group chats was the exact reason why email had been the favored corporate communication tool, because conversations could not be well organized to be useful and productive. Slack’s UI history highlights its intent to overcome the organization issues that existed in chat UIs.
In this paper, I hope to decode some of the details of Slack handling these factors. First, I’ll tackle the fundamental appeal and issues in chat interfaces.
Group chats are great- teams feel inclusive and it is an easy way to keep and track records with simplicity and linearity. However, the simple structure starts to become counter-effective as more people participate in the conversation. Unlike real conversations, participants may not be ‘participating’ all the time; once you are away from a conversation, it’s really hard to talk about things discussed in the past without distracting other group members. To solve this problem in synchronous communication, Slack introduced the threads function, giving an opportunity to branch out from a specific message in the conversation.
A thread can be attached to an individual message, with the text input into one sequence. The reply will create a new thread, which appears on the right panel, which other people can easily access and view at the same time. The size of a thread can be easily identified by the number of people and reply numbers, even when the thread is collapsed. To keep threads from moving away too much from the main conversation subject, users cannot create threads branching out of other threads.
The front face of the traditional inbox is a list of different conversations piled in order based off of when the latest message was sent. How subject matters are organized is ambiguous and up to users. To sort this information overload, recipients have to manually put each conversation into different buckets, which are detached from how other users organize. In contrast, Slack lets users create topic channels first. Even subsequent communications stay as a continuation of the previous conversation. When initiating a conversation, it is built in a way to make users define their topic first. Although it solves the organization issues, this synchronous flow is harder in terms of having all users participating in discussions without losing the linear narrative of the channel. With the aid of the thread, each user can still peel off from the main narrative to discuss much granular details based off of one message. This way, all conversations are kept organized simply, while all participants communicate synchronously to be on the same page.
Threads are even more powerful with Slack’s share capability. Users can copy links of threads to paste elsewhere. It enables all meaningful information in threads to be brought back into the main channel stream, or even into another topic channel. This portability adds new meaningful connections between different conversations. It can carry concise useful information without exposing everything. To keep everything under control, threads are designed not to allow subthreads (as mentioned before) and to be visible enough from the main conversation stream.
“It’s all your communication in one place, instantly searchable, and available wherever you go.”
— Stewart Butterfield, co-founder of Slack
Because conversations and files are all in one place, and organized by channels, the archive function becomes powerful with Slack. Slack was not known for great search functionality, but in 2018, they enhanced its usability.
Similar to how threads help inform in-depth conversations, but they don’t take users away from the main conversation, the search interface appears as an overlay keeping quick and easy access back to the conversation. If you type and hit the return key, series of filters appear next to the results. The filter by people and channel functions was the reason conversations were well organized to begin with. Instead of clicking individual filters, you can type in different commands, for example, `from: @someone` or `in: #channel` when you are searching in a specific conversation.
The power of chat applications are their capability to manipulate simply by typing. The slash command in Slack makes millions of hidden features accessible. To initiate, users simply have to type a `/`, and all the options appear. For example `/away` changes your status from active to away, `/invite @someone` will get others into the channel, and `/mute` will opt-out from notifications from the channel. Slack extended that and added an action button, available for third party apps to integrate their functions exposed to users more explicitly.
For example, Asana will let you turn Slack messages into a new task. For accounts with Asana installed, you simply need to tap the three dots next to each message and hit “Create a task…”. In Slack, you can also change the task status, change due dates, and add assignees.
Google Drive integration is also essential to the way people collaborate on documents. Every google document shared through the plus icon will be consolidated in the Google App channel. Users will receive updates as other colleagues edit or add comments to these types of documents. Like the Asana example, the mechanics behind the scene are powered by different applications, but users can use them via Slack. The ease of integration of the third party applications has made Slack the essential communication hub in offices.