The Surprisingly Simple Thing Slack Got Wrong

I’ve been a Slack fan for a while. I was one of the early users of Slack at my company HubSpot (we used it in HubSpot Labs across a small, globally distributed group). We’ve now adopted it across the company.

Slack gets most things around UX and onboarding right. It’s one of the reasons for their spectacular success.

Which is why it’s surprising (and irritating) that they got one fundamental thing very, very wrong:

Users need to create separate “accounts” when invited to join other teams.

Here’s the wording from their web page.

From the Slack website

Wait! What? It’s 2016 and this is not Google+, why can’t I have one identity/account and then just use that to join whichever teams I want?

I’m not exactly sure how Slack wound up where they did, but I’ve got a pretty good theory — based on making this same mistake with inbound.org (a marketing community website) in its early days.

Here’s what happened. When we started, we built the community software for ourselves — because it wasn’t meant to be a product or platform, it was just for this one use case. Then, we had some requests to use it for other purposes. So, the easiest thing to do to go from n=1 to n=2 was to just duplicate the database for this other instance. That created the same issue Slack has — user accounts were part of the instance instead of global. We subsequently fixed that issue.

So, perhaps Slack’s issue is an artifact of the early times at Slack when they built the software for themselves. Then, when they decided to use it for other teams, they just did the same thing I did — take the expedient path, which is often the right thing to do at the time.

Given that the cross-organization channel use case is such a big thing now, my hope is that the Slack team is already figuring out how to pay-off this tech debt and get things on the right track.

And, as far as tech debt goes, this one’s got a pretty high interest rate. It’s going to get more and more expensive to try and “unify” things later (just ask Google). It also keeps Slack from having a simple way to reference a user like twitter (and Medium and just about everyone else lets you do).

Slack is now a network and a network needs to support a central user identity. It’s just good, clean, living.

But, other than that, we’re cool, Slack. I’m not breaking up with you or anything. I just think you should get out from under that college debt so that you can be the best Slack you can be.