How we used Slack to test classes and challenges at Spright

A good chunk of my first day at Spright was spent setting up Slack. For no logical reason, my email was rejecting the invitation, which set some trouble-shooting in motion quickly because there was no way I could NOT be on Slack. I’d miss everything!

“We don’t use email very often,” they said. “Everything is on Slack.”

Welcome to 2015, Heather!

As soon as I did get on there, I panicked.

Where do I start?! Why are there so many channels? Private groups? How can I get rid of these red bubbles everywhere? How will I ever keep up with this?! (Real personal dilemmas here.)

I had been on Slack once before.

It’s used by a coaching startup as a way to share tips, clients, etc. and when I was at the fork in my career road deciding whether to stay self-employed or search for full-time work, I signed up to be a coach on this platform. Then I received an email to join the “community” on Slack. I signed in to see notifications everywhere, hundreds of people I didn’t know, and no clear place to start. Which led me to furiously click the red “X” and get out.

This time was different. I looked at Slack with a familiar side-eye, and realized we’d have to become fast friends.

A good chunk of my first month at Spright was spent outlining ways in which we could foster behavioral change through small group interactions, how we could improve the traditional 1:1 coaching model. I’ve spent a few years coaching individuals both in-person and virtually (i.e. on the phone, or video streaming), and for a number of reasons I was sure there was a better solution, for both the client and the practitioner. Something more accessible, something more efficient, something that doesn’t come with five distractions the second you sign in (looking at you, Facebook), and something that combined a few methods of information-sharing that we were all using, anyway.

Within a few weeks we were ready to give this group-learning thing a try, testing a few basic concepts with people in our circles. We had the subject-matter-expert (hi) and a few engineers ready to go, but a tight timeline and low resource budget. When you want to test things quickly and with little investment, you use things that already exist instead of reinventing the wheel. Startups in the seed stage have no time to waste! And there was one existing thing we were already using day in and day out for practically everything anyway: Slack.

Round one: Challenges on Slack

We made it easy on ourselves during Test #1, with at least half of the participants already familiar with Slack. We led four separate health challenges — topics based on the interest of the Spright team leader — and invited friends and acquaintances to join. I was coaching these four groups, moderating their daily questions and activity, and quickly learning more about Slack than I ever thought I would need, or want, to know.

Because these participants had at least some familiarity with how to use Slack, we were unknowingly a bit lazy with our approach, and we failed to factor that into the next rounds. We didn’t think about how odd an email “invitation to join Slack!” would appear to new users, how hard it would be to convince them to download the mobile app for easier access, or how confusing it might have been to belong to both private groups and open channels. Soon, we would have to think about all of those things!

Rounds two to four: Challenges WITH Slack

For our second round of classes, the participant circle widened a bit (people who know people who know us). By the third round, we opened it up to the public, using a mix of Facebook ads, promotional posts on our website, and social media to get our classes in front of the growing Spright audience. But the further we got away from our inner circle — and the more we encountered people who were learning Slack for the first time — the more we struggled.

Slack wasn’t the only reason for our struggles, but we were getting some signs that it was a big contributor. For example: One month, we had 500 class registrations, but only 190 of those people made it into the actual Slack room where their class was taking place. This was a sign that we needed an extra step in the process: communicating what Slack is and why they’re being invited to join it.

When people signed up for a Spright class, we let them know to be on the lookout for an invite to Slack, where their class communication would be taking place. One of three things happened from there:

  • The recipient dismissed the Slack invitation email entirely.
  • The recipient opened the invitation email but didn’t connect “Slack” to Spright and ignored it.
  • The recipient opened the email, accepted invite, and signed on to Slack.

Just getting onto Slack wasn’t a guarantee of easy communication, either. Remember, I wasn’t thrilled with my first Slack experience, and I like to think I’m a tech-savvy person. Not everyone is an early adopter, and even early adopters will hesitate with any new-to-them communication tool. Even among the people who signed into Slack and started posting messages to their class groups, we saw a wide range of behaviors — not all of them the ones we expected or intended.

Here are some of the places where we struggled to make Slack work:

  • Try as we might to clarify the purpose of each room (“channel”) — e.g. direct messaging users with tips, posting regular updates and “how to” messages — we had a lot of participants who had no idea what to do. Decision paralysis.
  • We often noticed our participants posting in one channel when they definitely meant to be posting in another channel — or, worse, asking “is this where I’m supposed to be posting?”
  • Push notifications could become overwhelming — and, ironically, a number of our participants actually preferred getting information via email.

But, it shouldn’t be this complicated, right? Well, maybe we also shouldn’t expect something that’s not designed by us, at Spright, to work in the exact way we wanted it to.

What did work really well:

  • Having a variety of concurrent (monthly) classes set up as private groups
  • Setting up a private group for the coaches so we could communicate easily, avoiding email (hey, Slack’s thang!)
  • Tying an automated Slack invitation to a Mailchimp list signup, so that participants immediately received something that they associated with Spright

Rounds five and six: We get it, it’s not meant for this

We learned a lot of lessons and changed a lot of the Spright class registration process to increase our conversion rates and, more importantly, to simplify the user experience. We got better at naming channels and groups, explaining their purposes, being proactive with tips, and over-communicating the purpose of Slack and what to expect there. We still didn’t get it totally right, but we were so close! By this time, it was January of 2016 and our Spright app was in the making. Slack continued to fill the gap, because it really can be great for a variety of use cases that Slack’s developers may have never intended, but it didn’t solve our real problems.

The perhaps obvious-by-now-problem here is that we were shoehorning our class experience into a platform that wasn’t designed to support that concept. Slack is meant to replace email, communicate easily with groups, and connect you to your community. It does those things well. Slack isn’t meant to be a place for learning about nutrition or fitness. It works for that, if you absolutely need it to. But it’s not going to be the polished, clear, seamless experience we were hoping for. Slack has remained a great way for us to stay connected with our network of experts (I created a Mastermind group for dietitians), sharing the Spright — and startup — experience with them. And Spright still uses it for nearly all internal communication. But we stopped using it for our classes after February.

Replace a standing 1:1 coaching model with a platform that could work equally well for both experts with knowledge to share and people eager to learn? We’d have to tackle that one on our own.

Why you should use what already exists in the world before you build your thing

It’s easy to assume that since “x” and “y” work well for one thing, then it must work well for your thing. That’s not always true.

It’s also easy to assume that there’s absolutely nothing in the world that can possibly do what you need it to do, so you have to wait and build your own technology from scratch. That’s not always true, either.

Using Slack as our first way to host the Spright classes and begin to experiment with our concept meant that we could move quickly, divide groups, and have both a mobile and desktop platform for communication. These are good things! But, there are plenty of ways in which Slack fell short of our specific needs. That’s not on them, it’s on us — and it’s exactly what we needed our use of Slack to expose.

As we began to plan out future tests and experiments, we noticed our ideas were limited to what was “possible” on Slack. That’s when we knew we needed to take a step back. It’s hard to think outside of what you know, what already exists, and what you’ve already used, but that’s where the real ingenuity can happen.

We took an all-company offsite to hone our list: what features that exist in the world of communication platforms have served us well? What features do not exist, but we wish they did? How can we simplify the features we want?

When you know what you want and need, and how you want and need it to work, it’s time to build your own thing. Turns out, we didn’t need to be Slack. We needed to be Spright.

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