If you work in tech as a designer or developer, there is a high chance the company you work for uses Slack as its internal communication tool of choice. In March 2020, Slack released an update it dubbed “significant” which cleaned up the interface and introduced a few new shortcuts.
When Slack landed on the scene, it was hot (about as hot as Zoom is now during the pandemic). Workplaces adopted it en masse, but pretty quickly Slack went from hot new thing to just another enterprise chore application that ends up overwhelming us.
It also turns out that despite the grandiose vision, Slack did not kill email.
And before we continue, I want to point out that despite the flaws that Slack has, Microsoft Teams is infinitely worse and growing in the enterprise space (companies already using Office 365). Many of the issues that Slack has can probably be traced to its use of Electron, but the UX issues go a little beyond that.
Distance makes the virtual grow stronger
Now more than ever, workplaces that might not have had a need for a communication tool like Slack thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic are finding themselves needing one to help keep remote teams together. Naturally, Slack is the first choice because it is one of the most well-known platforms out there.
Look, Slack isn’t a complete failure. What they have achieved as a company is inspiring, nobody could have foreseen Slack becoming as popular as it did, especially when people were hedging their bets on Facebook taking the mantle (and never did).
A recurring distraction
There is no disputing Slack has turned into an all-day meeting with no agenda, that never ends. Even some of the fun features like lunch and Gif sharing bots becoming distractions that many companies outright quell after a short period of time.
Admittedly, the novelty of Slack bots have also worn off for me.
Sometimes the noise gets a little much for me and I close Slack with the intention of opening it up shortly after. However, I sometimes forget to reopen it which can result in people not being able to contact me. Even though I have email and receive email notifications, people have conditioned themselves to only communicate through Slack (even when it is important).
Search is broken
One of the biggest annoyances with Slack is search. Sure, the ability to ctrl + f inside of conversations is nice, but the search is still terrible and doesn’t work properly. The global search is perhaps the worst of all, I struggle to find conversations I know I have had and usually end up resorting to scrolling through the history until I get what I need.
Given Slack is often used to make important changes, it’s amazing how buried things get in the constant flow of discussion. Just this month alone, I’ve had to wade knee-deep through Slack finding conversations about specific features or decisions.
Comparatively, search in email is really good. Outlook, Gmail and other email services have incredibly powerful search features. I never struggle to find something in an email, especially with modern email even allowing you to search inside of attachments. Still, Slack struggles with basic text string searches, often showing my irrelevant messages from years ago.
Confusing, bolted-on interface and noisy sidebar
Despite the interface improvements they have made, Slack is still one of the most frustrating applications to use and look at. Threads still feel tacked on and they’re frustrating to use. The main sidebar menu is spaghetti; channels, files, saved items, threads, direct messages and more. It looks like the menu for the Cheesecake Factory over there.
One of the easiest changes that Slack can and should make is removing the people from the sidebar and into a separate window. Given Slack is really no different than messaging apps that came before it like MSN Messenger or AIM. Existing conversations and channels are the two primary things I find myself using in the sidebar.
Group conversations need to be reworked
Another confusing aspect is group conversations.
Sometimes I have conversations with mostly the same people, except maybe a team member or two less. Navigating group conversations is a nightmare, especially when the participants get truncated with an ellipsis. Further adding to the annoyance is the fact names are alphabetically ordered.
Say you had 3 people named John at your company, someone named Aaron, a couple of people named Steve and then a mixture of other names. Alphabetically, Aaron is always going to come first, followed by the other names.
Imagine you have had a group conversation with Aaron, one of the Johns, Steve and Janet. Then you have another group conversation with Aaron, one of the Johns, Steve and Janet is not in this one. From a UI perspective, they’ll show up almost similar to one another in the sidebar, truncated by an ellipsis if they’re too long.
The problem here is obvious, I have to click on each conversation and see which one has the people I want to talk about. Let’s say I have information that Janet isn’t allowed to know, I accidentally click on the group chat and type in there, not realising I clicked the wrong one. I can delete the message, but Janet has already seen it.
The simple fix to this solution is to provide the ability to label a group conversation. It’s a painfully obvious feature, the ability to name a group conversation. I realise that Slack has the ability to group chats and channels into groups now, but the ability to rename a group conversation just seems like the easiest solution.
Notifications: noise. noise. noise. noise.
And then you have the notifications… Ask anyone to name one thing they find annoying about Slack and they will probably tell you it’s the notifications. Despite being buggy for me from time-to-time (not clearing when I view a conversation/channel), it just feels like a constant barrage of noise, with Slack not providing adequate control over them.
Depending on what I am working on, sometimes I need complete focus. And it’s a balancing act, working remotely I need to be available for emergencies and important things, but not too available that Gary sharing pictures of his weekend getaway are bothering me or our deployment bot which notifies when a build has failed or succeeded.
You do get control over notifications, but it’s not as fine-grained as a tool built for business communication should be. Instead of just making me set myself as away or busy, give me the ability to set up “do not disturb” time periods where I can focus, aggregate my notifications into a panel of some kind and allow me to catch up on the import things later on.
Multiple Sign-in Is Painful
If you’re like me, you are possibly a member of more than one Slack organisation. The frustrating thing about having to join a new organisation is the need to create a new login, having to generate yet another password, enter your details again and tell Slack you don’t want the tour.
Why can I just not have a single sign-on (SSO), one account and then join the organisations I am a part of? Why do I need to fill out an email, create a new password and enter my information repeatedly?
The best example of single sign-on is Discord. I think Slack needs to really take a look at Discord, study what they have done and then go back to the drawing board. The way Discord handles multiple servers is also really nice and it is effortless to manage/organise them. Discord is ironically a tool built for the gaming community, but in many ways, it’s a lot better than Slack at basic communication and organisation features.
While Slack is not the worse option out there, it still surprises me that in 2020 now that Slack is worth billions that it still has some of these issues. The lack of single sign-on is probably one of the biggest omissions from the popular communication platform. Understandably, they have reached a point where they can’t move as fast as they could when they were still considered a startup.
It does make me wonder, will Slack always be the top option or are we witnessing a MySpace 1.0 situation and a competitor that isn’t Microsoft Teams is just waiting around the corner to take the crown?