Counter Intuition
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Counter Intuition

Death By a Thousand Pings: The Hidden Side of Using Slack

How the ubiquitous productivity app that I loved became the ultimate productivity killer that I loathe

Like many of you, I fell in love with using Slack instantly. It was (and is) wonderfully crafted software that held true to the promise of not just being simple to use, but a joy to use. The vast majority of my work communication over the last four years has been through Slack, and it has been wonderful…until recently.

What changed? I went from a very small team and company (< 10 people) to a quickly growing company. And even though at Nava, we’re still relatively small (50-100 people), I realized that using Slack in the same way as we did as a small team was the source of many problems, both communication-related and much broader than that.

I felt increasingly unproductive, highly reactive, and simply overwhelmed by Slack. And the problem got worse the more time I spent using Slack. I kept being constantly pulled in by Slack notifications. As someone who has intentionally cut nearly all social media use in recent months, I’ve been working on developing more awareness of social media’s effects on me. I noticed that my usage of Slack was having a similar effect to social media. I found myself compulsively checking Slack even when I had no need to. And as a result, I was in a constant state of distraction, and not just during work, which is bad enough, but after work and first thing when I woke up. (The drawback of being on the west coast with coworkers on the east coast is that I wake up to a bunch of already in-flight conversations on Slack, like popping up groggy into the middle of multiple meetings).

Nava works on hard problems, and we desperately need dedicated time to concentrate on solving them. Protecting uninterrupted time is especially important to me as a manager, because a typical manager’s day is already fractured by meetings. I need a clear focused mind to do my job effectively. Yet, I felt I was losing control of my brain to the tool that’s supposed to help me. What was happening, and how do I get back to using Slack as a tool instead of Slack controlling me?

If you’re also feeling overwhelmed by Slack, take a look at How we use Slack at Nava for practical techniques to configure Slack for yourself and your organization.

A seeming paradox that I’m reminded of is that our greatest strengths are also the source of our greatest weaknesses.

Applied to Slack, its greatest strength: amazing ease-of-use, is also its weakness: making it far too easy for everyone to default to using Slack for communicating, even for all the myriad things that don’t make sense to use Slack to communicate. Defaulting to using Slack is especially prevalent for distributed teams like Nava. We’re spread across three offices with people often working from home, and Slack neatly fills the big hole of not being able to easily talk in person. Slack does make me feel much more connected to my coworkers across the country, all of whom I love chatting with, but it comes at a cost.

I realized that my growing discontent with Slack can be traced to trying to juggle all sorts of communications that I was receiving through Slack, but for which I was woefully unprepared to handle through Slack.

What seem like innocuous quick pings on Slack are often things that actually require deep thought and likely discussion, or require complex problem solving, or are requests for me to do a significant amount of work, and so on. Yet big or small, everything coming in through Slack shares the same compact shape, and worse, the same level of urgency.

I cannot prioritize in Slack.

The only tools I have at my disposable to try to deal with notification overload are… mark as unread or a Slack reminder, both of which just delay the problem. (I know many Slack add-ons exist to deal with this problem, but the value proposition and longevity of these add-ons is too iffy to ask the whole company to invest the necessary time and money into them. In comparison to email, there are many well-established built-in and external tools to help with prioritizing emails and attaining the elusive goal of inbox zero.)

Death by Slack isn’t a problem on a small team, where the amount of communication is low enough that you can keep up with everything that’s going on, and you can have near real-time conversations on urgent issues in Slack. In fact, nothing feels better for a small agile team than the quick and easy communication afforded by Slack. In contrast, on an expanding team with lots and lots of busy channels, plus as a higher-level manager, trying to track issues across different parts of the company, keeping up with Slack has quickly become an untenable situation.

Slack’s Impact on Work Communication and Work Culture

If you’re reading this, you likely have a clear idea of the downsides of email and how much time it takes to wrangle an inbox. Slack’s goal as the “email killer” is an ambitious one. Slack does indeed replace a whole swath of communication that would have landed in my inbox, and Slack does a great job with a lot of that. However, Slack does not magically reduce the complexity of the communication required. We still need to communicate complex, often ill-defined, concepts and situations to some, often ill-defined, group of people.

Because Slack is so easy to use, the barrier to initiate a communication is greatly lowered. Just drop a thought into a channel, maybe add an emoji, and voila! You’re now free to bask in the dopamine hits of getting emoji reactions and instant replies. You feel immediately validated as a productive valuable team member. It feels great!

Still using a lot of email.

With email, it’s different. Before you hit Send, you have to think about a) exactly who you want to communicate your message to, b) who else might also be interested in your message, c) summarizing your message so it’s clear why those people need to click on your message to read it, d) writing in an organized way and perhaps adding a clear call to action e) (optional) figure out how to add an emoji and worry about it showing up weird like the dreaded “J”. Writing a good email is not that simple to do. By using Slack, all the work you would otherwise put into writing such an email largely disappears. Cool, right? Not so fast.

That work doesn’t just disappear. That cognitive work is now dispersed on to all the people who come across your message in Slack. Each person now needs to figure out: a) is this message relevant to me? b) if so, how? c) do I need to take some action based on this message? d) should I ask for clarification on its relevance or whether I need to take some action? Oof. The work that would have gone into crafting an email can thus not only be passed on to the recipients in Slack, it is multiplied by the number of people in that channel.

Good Communication Takes Intention

By lowering the barrier to initiate communication, the hidden side effect is that Slack has the quiet capacity to exponentially increase communication overhead. Resulting in much more voluminous, lower quality communication. Low quality communication has a multiplicative effect on communication overhead because it is imprecise and prone to being misunderstood. Thus it generates even more communication to clear up the misunderstandings, all of which contribute to more cognitive overhead borne by the recipients of the communication. At worst, there is a miscommunication, and people end up acting on wrong information.

Using Slack has the effect of feeling productive, when it may actually be extremely counter-productive. Trying to discern when using Slack is productive or not requires awareness and thought too. For complex communications, taking the time and initiative to switch to a real live conversation or writing a structured document is still the way to go. These ways of communicating between humans have worked for thousands of years. I’m pretty confident they’re going to continue to work.

Slack has only been around for a few years, and there are all the expected growing pains of developing new software that can meet the needs of so many people, not to mention for a mission as big as trying to replace email. (This stuff is really hard!) While I remain skeptical that Slack can replace email, and I don’t believe Slack should, I’m confident that as Slack continues to mature, the top-notch engineers, designers, and product folks at Slack will solve many of these core problems. In the mean time, as a Slack user, I’m dealing with these issues by developing guidelines around how we use Slack as an organization.

Good communication takes intention, thoughtfulness, and work, and those things don’t come for free simply with easier-to-use software. As we continue to barrel down the path of exponentially more online communication, and dealing with tech companies using every trick available to grab at our extremely limited time and attention, I wish for us all — as consumers of technology, and especially as those of us who are creators of technology — to be extremely wary of the hidden effects this technology has on our brains, our work, and our lives.

Parting thoughts for those of you that design and build software that affect millions of people: we, as technologists, wield incredible power over how people live their lives. This is a great and daunting responsibility, which we often overlook as we focus on our immediate goals — goals that often reduce down to how to make a small uptick in a graph somewhere. As engineers, we live by quantifiable results, and by and large, we have good intentions to improve the software we create. While it’s true that we improve what we measure, it’s also true that what we’re able to measure is an abstraction of something far less quantifiable.

When it comes to software applications that facilitate how we communicate, what is the measurable abstraction? The answer is usually “user engagement,” but in the limited sense of users’ engagement with that particular app. What is much harder, if not impossible to measure, is the level of human-to-human engagement and connection facilitated by that app, though nearly all communication-focused apps tout that human connection is their noble goal. Spending more time using an app does not guarantee more human understanding and connection, and as research is starting to indicate, it can be quite the opposite. As engineers, we know the shortfalls of an abstraction. An abstraction can become too far removed from what it’s supposed to represent, to the extent of being more harmful than good. We need to be aware of that at the highest level for the software we create. What is the effect our software is having on humans?

I’m currently struggling with this too. At Nava, our company mission is to increase public benefit — I hope you can imagine that’s hard to quantify! As we come up with ways to attempt to measure public benefit, we need to keep assessing and questioning whether we really are fulfilling the real goal underneath the graphs. Humans are messy and imperfect and difficult to fit neatly into x and y axes. But humans, not numbers, bear the brunt of our software decisions. What seem like minor insignificant choices when we’re coding can have huge impacts on the people who use the resulting application. When creating software for humans, let’s center humans. ❤️

For practical techniques to configure Slack for yourself and your organization, take a look at How we use Slack at Nava. We need to continue adapting our usage of Slack as we grow and as Slack continues to evolve.



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