Three years ago, our remote company joined Slack. Until then, we had relied on a mix of email and an internal tool called Wedoist for all our communication. But our steadily growing team based across several time zones made it hard to stay on the same page and feel cohesive.
Something had to change. So we tried Slack. To say the app was a game-changer would be putting it mildly. Communication between team members across continents exploded. Almost overnight, we went from a group of 30 individuals to a true team.
But then, two years in, we decided to quit Slack cold turkey.
Group chat apps like Slack are built for a specific kind of communication –one-line-at-a-time, real-time conversations. This form of communication is sometimes useful (e.g. in emergency situations) but presents significant downsides when it becomes your team’s primary way of communicating. Here’s why we eventually opted out.
It Was Addictive
Because conversations in Slack happen on a one-way conveyor belt, our team began feeling like they had to stay constantly connected to keep up. This style of communication was especially problematic for a remote-first company like ours. How do you stay in the loop when earlier topics have already been discussed and are buried by the time you even wake up? It wasn’t healthy for our team, and it wasn’t helping us focus on the hard work that really moves projects forward.
It Was Built For Shallow Conversations
Slack was useful for quickly checking on things, but we found that it was a troublesome channel for big-picture discussions. It was nearly impossible to sustain a full conversation from start to finish.
Even when conversations stayed on topic, everything still required an immediate response. With Slack, there was no breathing room to take a step back and follow up on it later. We still needed separate tools–in our case, email and Wedoist–to have deeper conversations about our work.
It Was Disorganized
With multiple, simultaneous conversations happening inside a single Slack channel, we began losing track of things. Ideas were proposed, discussed for a bit, and lost. As a result, the same questions and issues were often brought up multiple times.
It Only Simulated Transparency
The lack of organization inside Slack had real consequences for our team’s access to information. We quickly discovered that real-time messaging wasn’t meant to preserve history or promote transparency.
Slack had awesome search if you were looking for something very specific like a file, but there was no way to get insight into what was happening in any given channel without manually skimming through it.
That led to a frustrating contradiction: In theory, everyone on the team had access to all the communication that happened in public channels. But in reality, even I couldn’t keep track of all the conversations that were happening at the company.
Finding A Different Way To Work Together
We realized we needed an alternative that was asynchronous, more mindful, and better organized. In fact, Slack the product wasn’t the issue. It was real-time messaging itself that was the problem. So in 2014—roughly one year into our Slack experiment—we started building “Twist.” Our goal was to design an entirely new platform– one that centers around calmer, more organized, and more productive communication. And on March 23, 2016, we moved all our team communication to the platform.
I firmly believe we wouldn’t be the team we are today if we hadn’t pursued this challenge and made the switch. Twist has given us a space to fully discuss complex ideas and projects from start to finish, to give more meaningful feedback, to promote transparency in our decision-making, and to disconnect to do the deep work that we’re truly excited about.
Along the way, we’ve made a few design decisions to prioritize asynchronous communication over real-time messaging:
Threaded conversations have been at Twist’s core from the beginning. They let anyone on the team create a conversation about a specific topic and ensure that whole conversations– ideas, issues, answers, and decisions – stay organized around that topic. Many members snooze all notifications for significant portions of the day, and some don’t have notifications turned on at all. This gives them complete control over their time and attention to do deep, thoughtful work.
Slack recently introduced the concept of threads inside the app as well. The feature is great at what it’s designed for– to hold small side conversations that branch off the main channel– but it doesn’t solve any of the issues we faced. When everything else is built around group chat, real-time communication will always be the default.
Truly Transparent Conversations
From our experience with Slack, we knew that merely making conversations public wasn’t enough to guarantee equal access to information across the company. Instead of having to skim through single stream-of-consciousness chat channels, our team can now browse topics to get an overview of the discussions happening across the company. We can delve deeper into just the conversations we’re interested in, even if we’re not directly involved. We often share links to whole threads as reference so people can look and see how a certain decision was made.
As CEO, having all our team conversations in Twist threads lets me keep my finger on the pulse of the company without getting overwhelmed. It frees me up to do other work without worrying that I’m missing important things.
We’ve found that Twist has helped us stay connected in more meaningful ways—not just socializing, but actually sharing in the important conversations that determine the core of who we are as a company.
Leaving Out The Online Presence Indicator
A small but impactful design choice we made in creating Twist was to leave out the online presence indicator. If you see that a teammate is online, you expect an immediate response. But if you see someone is offline, you’re more likely to postpone sending a message because they probably won’t get back to you right away.
Without the presence indicator, our team has adapted to adding comments and sending messages whenever they need to. They have no way of knowing if the person is online, so they don’t expect an immediate response. Conversations may happen more slowly, but more real work gets done.
Real Time Off
Another example of how we’ve designed Twist to foster mindful communication is the time-off feature. Twist lets you set up a Time Off status that mutes all notifications from the app, changes your avatar to a “vacation” avatar, and lets your teammates know when you’ll return. This way people can properly recharge and take a well-deserved vacation, and everyone knows not to expect a response until they get back.
Products That Improve Productivity And Well-Being
Today’s communication apps compete to grab your attention and maximize your time spent inside their apps. We want Twist to do well and be profitable, but we want it to be because it truly empowers teams (including ours) to do their best work, not because it hijacks their time and attention. It’s about having a product that’s built to serve users’ needs and not the other way around.
Calm, asynchronous communication isn’t the norm. It’s going to take a major shift in thinking to recognize that focus and balance are vital assets that companies need to protect in order to be successful.
We’re betting that in the future, the most successful companies will be the ones that make that shift—the ones that don’t require their employees to be constantly connected, who see the value in creating space for deep work and setting aside time to fully disconnect and recharge. We’re excited to be a part of that movement.