Actually, Slack really sucks

This isn’t another $2.8bn ramble on valuations

“The mission is to make people’s working lives simpler, more pleasant, more productive.”
Stewart Butterfield, Co-founder and CEO of Slack

Well Stewart, I’m afraid you’ve failed. At least for me.

What Slack has done a really really good job of is creating a movement. A sort of cult following. Its uptake is seriously impressive for such a young company and the innate trust users appear to have in it instantly even more so. It seems to be one of those rare products which manages to sell itself. The problem is, my life isn’t any easier now that everyone insists on using Slack. I’ve actually noticed its far more complex and distracting.

I was somewhere between email and Skype before Slack came along. It was kinda straightforward. I’d instant message and call from Skype and deal with more detailed stuff by email. That was until the hype got me. In a very short space of time I had invitations for slack groups from all over the place. Teams I’d apparently joined, companies I’d been a part of, companies I was still a part of, meetups, friends and every other possible combination imaginable — about 10 in total. Great, I thought. This new thing promises to make my life easier.

Where does Slack go wrong?

Workflow

To simplify it, my morning routine before Slack would look something like this:

  1. Get into the office.
  2. Check unread emails.
  3. Scan through read emails to see if I needed to update anything.
  4. Use mailbox to schedule any for later that weren’t relevant now.
  5. Prioritise then deal with the others.
  6. Delete any I’m done with.
  7. Ask simple questions via Skype.

And post-Slack:

  1. Get into the office.
  2. Open Slack.
  3. (for each account) Go through all the channels with notifications showing, reading through each channel. Realise most of the content wasn’t relevant to me. Sometimes miss content that was that had shot too far up the page overnight.
  4. (for each account) Go through each message notification from individuals. Desperately try and respond immediately or risk losing the notification now that I’d checked that chat.
  5. Add any tasks I couldn’t do immediately to Trello or write it down somewhere, along with the person to respond to once done.
  6. Repeat all of the email stuff I did in the olden days anyway.

Zero time saved, but lots of time newly wasted by the workflow Slack provides. It just doesn’t cater for tasks that aren’t immediate, and it doesn’t cater for teams that work on different timezones.

Focus

With email, I choose when to look at it. With Skype, I set myself to away so people don’t expect an immediate response.

With Slack I can either be there, being pinged regularly with company wide updates, updates for a channel that was relevant three hours ago but not now, questions from other users they could otherwise figure out but decide are easier to ask me; or select Do Not Disturb mode.

Skype also notifies me. True, but no one entered Skype with the expectation that it “replaced email” and was intended to be at the centre of the working day. Slack culture sets that expectation.

Managing Notifications

As soon as I deselect Do Not Disturb mode again, the Slack grind starts over again and I have to look through a gazillion feeds to see what has happened in the last 2 hours. It’s kinda like having 10 Facebooks to simultaneously look through, then make sense of. Actually, no, its worse. Facebook isn’t about returning back to, its about relaxed consumption of content. Slack on the other hand is meant to be about getting things done and being there to respond.

Notifications come from everywhere and couldn’t be less ordered if they tried. Even adopting the Facebook style notification area would be a marginal improvement on the chaos that is the current day Slack.

Group Chats

So you’ve got an issue which needs multiple people involved to be solved. This is really really standard stuff for any company. Day to day business.

In the olden days, you’d send around a group email. As things progressed, relevant people would be added to the email chain and irrelevant people removed. It wasn’t on trend and it might have been clunky but it served its purpose. If a person needed information from one specific person, they could contact them individually in the chain. Everyone could input ideas and get the issue solved. When the issue was out of the way, the whole thing could be shut down with a press of the delete key.

Now try this in Slack. Remember, it’s one of 10 issues you’ll have in a day, so you start with creating a group chat instead of a dedicated channel.

Now add someone. Yup. You’ve now just started an entirely different group chat. All the context of the conversation has gone and you’ve found yourself starting over, having to re-explain the whole situation for each new person added. You’ve also suddenly got a shitload of group chat windows open. Oh, and they aren’t named like channels, so which one of those four group chat windows you’ve now got open was it again? Oh shit. You got it right, but someone else didn’t. They’ve responded in the chat you were all using previously before you realised someone needed adding.

I haven’t mentioned the hangover that comes with making sense of those tomorrow when you come back to clean the side pane up.

On Skype its simple. Adding someone else just adds them to the chat.

Skype handles this scenario better. Its more natural. You’re chatting to someone on Skype, then you need to add someone else. Simple. Adding someone creates a dedicated chat window. Now anyone you add is added to that chat window and sees the chat history so they instantly have context. Got a couple of those open at once? No problem, give them names, just as you would a subject for an email.

Leave them alone for a while and they fade away into history. Want to preserve them? — add it as a favourite.

Colours

Purple and green? Seriously?!

There is a reason no one else has ever gone for mauve and teal as the default colours for their app. Everything cycles through fashions, but you can guarantee the green/purple combination is going to come crashing down in a big way. I’ve always really hated it.

Interaction

I’m being fussy, but 5 clicks to upload an image is just too much. It should be a simple interaction.

And why does the right sidebar pop up whenever I download an image? I have to get it from my downloads folder anyway. Why make me also have to exit a sidebar I didn’t ask for on my return.

I’m not sure how I’d design a multiple teams feature, but I just can’t help but feel there must be a better way than a UI setup which makes it feel like multiple applications inside an application, or separate browser tabs inside in the browser.

Bad design choices go on throughout the app. A good example is the “Quick Switcher” on the bottom of the left pane. This false promise requires the user to move the mouse over the icon (which gives nothing away about its purpose until it has been hovered over), then click to reveal a window where channels and individuals can be searched for in one place. The only thing it really brings up is the question of why channels and individuals can’t be integrated into the same search when clicking on CHANNELS or DIRECT MESSAGES, which is a far more natural starting point for searching for either.

Productivity

I get so much more done when Slack is closed.

Setup

I’m always lost for settings in Slack. In the Mac app, Preferences seems to redirect to a team-specific set of preferences. Then there is a Profile and Accounts section which operates in an entirely different way by opening a browser window and then directing to the Slack website. That redirect means I then have to re-sign in with details I’ve forgotten because I never have to sign into Slack on my computer. If I give up at that stage, I have no idea what I’ve missed in those settings. And that doesn’t even cover the “…” in the top right or the “Channel notification preferences”, “Advanced options” or “Customize Slack” options. The whole thing is baffling.

Tech

Slack tends to use anywhere between 0.3–0.9GB of RAM while running. Nearly a gig of RAM to run a chat app. Really?

On crappy public wifi, the amount of sockets it uses means it’s the first thing to lose a connection.

Integrations

Cool. I can integrate Slack with everything from Skype to CircleCI. Great if I stare at Slack all day, checking a feed for a response from the latest set of integration tests running. Not so great if I have things that need doing.

In theory, the app store approach is a good choice, but in practise it just isn’t useful. One thing I can instantly see a need for is a better way of managing notification emails than email itself, but I just don’t think embedding responses from various apps inline in chat windows is the best way to do that.

Having a bug picked up and reported in an inline chat window is great if someone is there on standby, ready to pick it up. But that just isn’t realistic. Most of the time it gets lost in a conversation feed. If someone is already using the channel for a chat, it’ll interrupt that conversation and send the whole channel on two tangents. If its quiet, it’ll show as a notification for anyone and everyone in the channel.