What I Learned at Slack
Part 1: Peaks and Valleys
I was the first product manager at Slack. I couldn’t be more grateful for all that I learned helping grow the product and the team, so it’s high time I shared a few of those lessons.
While Slack has earned plenty of kudos for its design details, I think of it more as having high peaks and low valleys. Every product has parts of its grand vision that are more built out than others, Slack included. The trick is which parts you build first.
You can build a “flat” product: everything is only barely as good as it needs to be. But without the views from the peaks how will your product be remembered? How will it engender passion? The competitor that wins the market will undoubtedly be memorable.
Every product has a learning curve to unlock its true value, a valley they ask you to walk through. But why would your customers start that walk in the first place? If they do start, what would make them finish? “Peak” moments go a long way towards answering those questions. At Slack, we always tried to add little joyful details where it made sense.
Paul Buchheit’s classic “If your product is Great, it doesn’t need to be Good” makes this point on a macro level: “Pick three key attributes or features, get those things very, very right, and then forget about everything else.” But peaks don’t need to be big. It turns out one very effective way to deliver on your “three key attributes” is to act on them in small ways throughout the product. The ethos is simply to do more than the bare minimum — not everywhere, but a sprinkling of places where it counts.
Build a product with peaks and valleys. Sure, version 1.0 won’t be pretty in some places. Big sections will be missing entirely. But find opportunities to introduce joy. It turns out they’re easy to find. You just have to be looking for them. The glory of those peaks get people through the valleys.
What makes a peak?
Here’s one simple example I worked on at Slack. You’ve probably seen its analogs 1000 times. Are you sure you want to Delete? Send? Save? Revert? This category of alerts exist because of a tense situation: you’re about to make a decision you can’t take back. And oddly, most offer no guidance on how to make the decision. In fact, they’ll often prevent you from finding answers.
There are plenty of standard modals that handle edge cases in Slack. But this isn’t an edge case, so we took a bit more time to defuse the tension every way we knew how. Cueing with the people affected and their locations not only reminds you that there is an impact, but helps contextualize and quantify it. 10 people isn’t so bad, 1000 people is. We anticipated questions from admins (settings) and expert users (keyboard shortcuts). But that’s just thoughtful design: what makes it a peak is clearly the rooster.
Sometimes even little decisions can be stressful. If you decide to change your message, you might feel guilty or embarrassed from the close call. If you decide to send it, you might feel hesitant to bother so many people around the world. Either way, you’ve got a friendly buddy to reassure you it’s all OK: sometimes you just have to crow.