How to get teams addicted to your Slack bot: A teardown of Howdy

Howdy is a friendly Slack bot that runs your team’s meetings. Howdy was early to the Slack platform, and has many (well deserved!) fans amongst the startup crowd, especially as it relates to running the common ‘standup’ morning meeting. It’s the one bot that took basically zero effort to include in our daily routine, and has become one of our favorite bots.

Howdy is built by the XOXCO team in Austin, Texas. They’re the same team that’s responsible for the popular bot framework Botkit. Out-of-the box Howdy will run a daily team checkin, collecting information from each teammate and collating it into a clean summary. But this is just the start, according to Howdy’s Founder and CEO Ben Brown:

Our big goal is to make a bot that anyone can customize to be _their_ bot, so that all teams can enjoy the benefits of automation and digital assistance without having to, you know, build a bot. — Ben Brown

It’s a bold vision — sharing the power of bots with anyone working on a team to help them work more effectively and efficiently. Considering the uptake and our experiences in using Howdy, they’re off to a great start. Let’s check out some of Howdy’s special sauce, and what makes the product both useful and sticky.

Hello Howdy!

The basic interactions with Howdy are simple — in the best way possible. Managing the bot(s) that your team is running is very straightforward, with a simple dashboard on the Howdy website to make any edits to your bots:

We began using just the defacto ‘checkin’ script for our team. To get started, you simply set the time, days of the week, where you want the final report of the meeting to be posted, how long Howdy should wait to collect responses, and the names of the participants you want included in the recurring meeting:

Me and Mica stopped there, and didn’t make any other tweaks to our script. We don’t need anything more customized than the standard 3 questions that most people at startups today answer as they run their morning standups.

Talking to Howdy

So what does it look like if you’re using Howdy for your standups? At the scheduled time, Howdy DMs each person on your team to remind them that the checkin is starting:

Once you click the ‘Begin’ button, Howdy launches into the script.

(As a side note… Howdy used to ask you to type a simple ‘y’ or ‘yes’ to start running the meeting. The button UI is new as of a couple weeks ago)

If you’re having a bit of a busy day, Howdy gives you a 5min warning before the meeting is scheduled to end so you can quickly add your notes before the meeting wraps, so they can be included in the daily summary:

This message is often appreciated… but for some reason it’s not sent consistently. Some days we receive this notification, but not all days — unsure if this is a feature or a bug!

Once you accept and start the meeting, each line of the scripts runs and waits for your response in your Howdy DM conversation:

If you’re too late and try to answer the prompts after the designated end time of the meeting, Howdy sends along a polite ‘Sorry, this meeting is already over.’ message to let you know that you’re unable to add your points any longer.

After the allotted duration of minutes/hours runs out, Howdy posts a summary of the notes, so everyone can roll their eyes over what the rest of the team is working on. The report clusters the questions, and shares the response from each person, posted directly to the designated channel. A couple of links are also included — you can review your own notes, and also edit the script or schedule:

All of these notes are collected over time, and are accessible via the Howdy website:

Make it your own

Creating a new script is super simple, props to the Howdy team for making what could be a complicated process into one that feels like something wholly non-technical, and all wrapped in a friendly UI too. Starting from the Scripts dashboard, you simply identify what exactly you want your bot to ‘listen for’, i.e. what the keyword will be to run your script:

I really like this language, the use of the ‘I’ pronoun is a powerful and compelling choice. In naming the script in the way that personifies the bot that will run it, the very first step that the script-builder takes is one where the bot they’re building feels as much like a living, breathing digital coworker as it possibly could. 🙌

Once you’ve ‘named’ your bot by defining what keyword it’ll listed for, the Editor view allows you to build out the back-and-forth statements that your bot will run during each meeting.

You can create a back-and-forth dialogue of the questions if you’d like included via the simple, clickable dialogue view:

Simply type each message as you want them to appear:

And the line will be added to the flow. Each new script entry has the option to be either closed or open ended, via a simple ‘Is this a question?’ checkbox — which is, again, a very clear way to confirm the type of action the bot should take in a non-technical way, completely devoid of the potential code that’s being triggered by the GUI that’ll drive a new row in the database (or not!):

If the new line of the script is a question, the editor automatically displays a simple response bubble image, along with an explicit message stating that the bot will collect and store the information that’s entered when the script is run:

You can create scripts that don’t have pre-defined participants, which could be useful for a certain format of meeting that has rotating attendees. In those cases, you can call the script via a simple ‘@howdy run script_name’ command in Slack in the designated channel, and Howdy will follow up with a quick question on who should be invited to participate:

Why we love Howdy

The current thinking around bots is that those that do well are ones that have a very narrow use case, and are basically form replacements. Howdy definitely checks both of those boxes. Instead of a boring form to run your startup (which no one would actually do, anyway), participants interact in a conversational way around familiar questions. It fits really well with the existing behavior of users, and in doing those established behaviors via the bot, brings a ton of added value to the interaction — responses are automatically recorded, reminders are sent if people are late or forgetful, cute responses to answering questions that are meaningful to your workday.

It’s these subtle shifts in perception that we found caused us to most appreciate and value Howdy. Originally, we didn’t really have high expectations for the bot (#truth), and thought it would seem overkill, or we’d just never bother using it. But it has quickly become a routine just because of the fact that the over-arching practice is already in our routine, there was a negligible amount of user education to get us up to speed, and we’ve had literally zero friction or drawbacks since jumping aboard the Howdy train.

I’m unsure how other teams use Howdy (post-standup? pre-standup? how long before/after? etc.), but we use it 5min prior to our irl standup. It works because it has the same effect as Amazon’s 6-pager approach to meetings — the structured prep-work means that each individual comes to the standup having done enough work on their own to be optimized for interaction with the team. Howdy causes this shift in behavior, so while that change sits outside the chat bubbles of the bot itself, the positive outcomes and value derived from that shift have been 100% attributed to the bot.

While we haven’t created any personalized meeting scripts that we use, the potential to create other meeting formats is a powerful feature that we didn’t expect, and believe would be useful for other teams with a wider range of structured meetings across their calendars.

Quirks we put up with

We struggled a bit to come up with what we thought were ‘problems’ with Howdy. Partially because it’s such a simple product, but also because we haven’t run into many issues since starting to use it everyday for the past month.

One small issue is that sometimes it’s unclear how to ‘wake up’ non-scheduled scripts. Simply typing the name of the script doesn’t work — you need to both call Howdy, followed by the word ‘run’, and then the script name:

At the same time, we appreciate that Howdy’s Founder and CEO perspective on privacy:

Howdy only pays attention to messages directed at the bot itself — no other messages are logged or stored, including any messages sent before the bot joins. — Ben Brown

A recent change that we don’t like is the addition of buttons to the daily ‘are you ready?’ DM that Howdy sends to each participant. The action that you’re about to begin with Howdy is one where you’ll be typing on your keyboard, but tapping on a button requires the user to recognize the visual UI of the button, and then physically leave the keyboard, reaching out for their mouse in order to get started. Both of us much prefer the simple action of typing a short command to then launch the rest of the typing-based interaction.

One other small thing is that the ‘you’re too late, meeting is over’ message doesn’t fit with the otherwise friendly, engaging experience of using Howdy. Having a feature that would allow you to edit your submissions — even if they were noted as late submissions, with a timestamp of when they were added — would be great. For our purposes, when we miss a meeting, we manually log the 3 questions into our Standup channel. While they’re now in that location for future reference if needed, they’re not included in the Notes that Howdy otherwise dutifully logs everyday. And unfortunately for Howdy, when we look back on our notes, we’ll probably only blame the product for it’s lack of data (versus our tardiness!).

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