My day is spent in mortal fear, worrying that I'm going to accidentally click away in Slack and forget what channel or DM that last important thing I forgot to mark for follow up was in.
As the first Slack-native companies without internal email cultures get larger, Slack will need to grow up to solve their problems the same way email had to grow up two decades ago.
When I led the redesign of the Outlook user interface in 2003, we felt similar growing pains: people were getting 5x, 10x, 100x more mail than they ever got before. Users felt out of control; they lacked the tools and affordances to manage this constant deluge.
Though Slack aspires to be the anti-email, the underlying physics are the same. People have the same number of things to say to one another--maybe more in this world of constant connectivity and remote work. (Brought on specifically by paradigm-shifting apps like Slack!)
When redesigning Outlook, we found two basic groups of users: pilers and filers. Pilers kept a single, ever-expanding list of mail in their Inbox and then worked it down to "inbox zero." Filers wrote rules or manually filed mail into folders, creating an organizational system.
Filers rely on their bespoke, highly customized knowledge of where things go in their email system, much like you might organize your kitchen in a way that makes sense to you. You know where the strainer or little corn-cob-holders go, and no one else does (or needs to.)
Pilers rely on search to find things in their huge amassed pile. We moved Outlook from the fundamental organization unit of "message" to "conversation" (or "thread") so that when pilers found mail via search, messages would return with the context of the surrounding conversation.
Both pilers and filers have one key thing in common: their systems require an affirmative, discrete action to take a mail out of their list. Filers file to a folder when done with a message, and pilers archive/delete. This turned out to be essential for people to feel in control.
For filers, Slack is a living nightmare. They don't get to organize their kitchen; instead the community of sometimes hundreds of neighbors organize it haphazardly together, often without rhyme or reason. And once a potholder is in a certain cabinet, it can never be relocated.
Pilers would seem to be at home in Slack, except that there's no way to affirmatively say "yes, I need to follow up on this" or "no I don't." There's no unread count telling you how close you are to inbox zero. Just the constant river of information flowing by.
As a result, you get exactly one chance in Slack to pick a message out of the abyss. The first time you see it, you can click the ⭐️ and it goes into a follow-up list. But then Ned posts a funny joke and you click on it and... bam, there went your chance. Forever.
Unless you remember exactly what Slack channel you were in (because there's no back button) or, even worse, it was in a DM with 5 people and you have to remember exactly which 5 people were on that DM to unlock the key to get back to it. (Was it Ann/Ned/Jon, or just Ann/Ned...?)
If you happen to remember a keyword in the interesting thing you just clicked away from, you might find it again via search, but if you are like me and remember only "oh, wait, there was something interesting that I needed to follow up on, what was that?" you are out of luck.
Slack has a tremendous opportunity to redefine the way people work. It already has made a huge impact. I work at (and cofounded) a Slack-only company, where we do no email internally. We are living and breathing this heartache as we grow. We want Slack to succeed so much!
There's a lot to learn from the world of email. We faced these same growing pains and had to radically redesign email's user interface in Outlook 15 years ago to meet the challenge. Slack has an amazing opportunity to do the same thing and learn from this without losing its soul.
Because in the end, it's still people sharing their thoughts, their work, their feelings, their ideas. The mode of communication may have changed, but the need for people to feel in control of their information has not.
Next time, I'll share a few concrete ideas for how Slack might evolve its interface to continue to lead the pack without losing what makes it great. (And I know Slack has a great team of designers and engineers who think about this stuff all day, every day, so 👍 to you guys.)