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Slack’s big redesign aims to turn newbies into power users

As remote collaboration takes on new urgency, Slack is releasing an update designed to make everything from basics to advanced features more approachable.

Slack’s big redesign aims to turn newbies into power users
[Animation: courtesy of Slack]

When Tamar Yehoshua started a new job in early 2019, she faced a challenge: she’d never used Slack, and her new coworkers lived in it.

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As she got up to speed, colleagues helpfully steered her through the parts of the workplace collaboration service that were less than intuitive. “I don’t think I would have gotten as good at using Slack if I didn’t have people next to me telling me, ‘Oh, you should try this setting, you should use this feature over here,'” she remembers.

Unlike most Slack newbies who feel a tad disoriented, Yehoshua was in a position to do something beyond patiently puzzling it out. A Google and Amazon veteran, she was acclimating herself to Slack because she had joined the company as its chief product officer. And Slack knew that it had a lot of users like Yehoshua—folks who would be more productive in the service once they understood everything that it could do.

Now Slack is rolling out a new version designed with approachability in mind. The redesign doesn’t introduce any daring new features or take the service into uncharted territory. Instead, it’s mostly about organizing what’s already there and implementing a multitude of tweaks that make the environment more comprehensible and pleasant.

We want to make sure that we give the best experience we can for all these people who are in really difficult situations.”

Tamar Yehoshua, Slack
“We want to make it really, really easy for people who have never used Slack to understand how to use it, and just get the basics going,” explains director of product Jaime DeLanghe. As well, she says, the company aimed “to take a lot of those things that are super power-user features, where you have to know a key [combination], or you have to know this secret—’Click three times here, and then this thing shows up’—and help people understand them and get a lot more out of Slack more quickly.”

Slack being Slack, the people responsible for the redesign created it by collaborating in their own service, sometimes trying working prototypes of changes on for size. And for the first time, they created shared channels and invited in real customers to help shape the new version. Around 100 members of the company’s Champion Network—an advisory board of savvy users—participated in one such channel. Since helping Slack neophytes was a primary goal, a separate group of about 60 less expert users had their say in another shared channel.

As Slack was getting ready to release its redesign, the coronavirus pandemic brought unexpected urgency to its simplification goals. According to Yehoshua, the company has seen a bump in inquiries from organizations that are new to Slack and have suddenly found themselves telling their workforces to work from home. “We want to make sure that we give the best experience we can for all these people who are in really difficult situations trying to figure out how to stay productive,” she says.

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With that in mind, Slack revised its plans to slowly roll out the redesigned service and will instead start all new teams on it as quickly as possible. Existing teams will get the update more gradually over the next few weeks. Mobile versions—similar in spirit to the new desktop incarnation, but not carbon copies—will follow.

Meanwhile, Slack, which is now a 2,000-person enterprise with 18 offices in 10 countries, is itself a case study in the coronavirus’s impact on team productivity. Under normal circumstances a place where staffers do quite a bit of their collaborating in person, the company has sent everyone home and is gaining a new understanding of how its own tools fare at an unprecedented moment in history.

“In real time, we’re seeing how the product is being used for 100% remote work,” says Yehoshua. “We’ve written some things on our blog to help people with what we’re learning.”

Reassessing everything

Though the new Slack isn’t an utterly radical departure from the old Slack, the company didn’t set out to minimize disruption. Instead, it tried to be ruthlessly objective about assessing and correcting long-time deficiencies. As VP of design Ethan Eismann uses Zoom to show me a slide of the main Slack screen in its existing form, he laments how many unlabeled icons and hidden pieces of functionality it contains. “There are no less than 15 different things that, as a new user, I have to understand,” he says.

Slack therefore began the design process with as few assumptions as possible. “It was really important for us to take a big step back and think about, ‘Well, what would Slack looks like if we rebuilt it from scratch?'” says Eismann.

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Months ago, the company began roughing out prototypes of a variety of new elements, then tried them on for size—sometimes in working form. In some, a strip of icons along the left-hand side of the screen provided access to features such as search and integrated apps. In another, some of that functionality was part of a drawer that popped up from the bottom: “I liked it quite a bit, but I was an outlier,” says Eismann wistfully.

The pop-up drawer in this prototype didn’t make it into Slack’s new design, [Screenshot: courtesy of Slack]
Eventually, Slack’s designers landed on the idea of putting some of the service’s critical functionality right up top. They created a persistent bar with a great big unified search field, consolidating two search entry points in the old interface (one on the left, one on the right). The bar also offers back and forward buttons for navigation, and access to a history feature that lets you browse back through your activity.

Slack, in other words, had settled on a user interface that had a lot in common with one of the most pervasive productivity tools of them all: the web browser. And that was fine, even though the company had explored more inventive designs along the way. “One important principle that started to emerge was not reinventing the wheel,” says Eismann.

Slack’s new top bar features search and other browser-like tools. [Screenshot: courtesy of Slack]
Similarly, Slack borrowed a familiar email feature by giving Slack a new Compose button, which lets you type messages into a larger-than-normal window even before you’ve specified where you want them to appear. Why would a service that’s often accused of trying to kill email introduce something that feels so . . . e-mail-ish? In part, it did so to reassure newcomers who are more comfortable with email than with Slack.

A prototype with a Compose bottom at the bottom of the screen (it later migrated upward). [Screenshot: courtesy of Slack]
“When you’re just getting started, sometimes it can be a little intimidating to understand exactly how you navigate to a channel, then create a message,” says DeLanghe. Slack also found that people liked the Compose option when crafting important messages, as well as for double-checking that their missives would go to the correct recipients.

The Compose item provides access to a roomy text-editing window for your most important messages. [Screenshot: courtesy of Slack]
Much of Slack’s power comes from its array of shortcuts, integrations with other services, and even a workflow builder that lets you create your own automations. But all of these goodies weren’t that easy to find unless you’d figured out the arcana of “slash commands” (“Maybe you could learn them from a friend,” says DeLanghe). In the new version, the Compose field has a lightning-bolt icon; click it, and a menu of  actions pops up. Even this new element reminds me a tad of an existing piece of interface design: Windows’ venerable Start button.

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Slack also took a fresh look at its most important navigational tool, the left-hand sidebar. Paid users, for example, can now organize channels, conversations, and apps into collapsible sections—allowing you to put everything related to your own team or a particular project in one place.

A prototype of Slack’s new sidebar and the finished version. [Screenshot: courtesy of Slack]
Over the years, designers had tucked some navigation elements elsewhere, for reasons that presumably felt logical at the time but made them tough to find. For instance, a feature called Activity, which shows other people’s mentions of you and reactions to your messages, was cryptically represented by an @ sign on the right side. Now it’s a sidebar item with a new name that says exactly what it is: “Mentions & reactions.”

As Slack revised the sidebar, it also tried to make better use of its main center pane, which is usually dedicated to your current conversation. Now more features use that prime real estate rather than shunting you off elsewhere. A feature called People, for example, fills the center pane with a guide to your coworkers, with nice big photos and details such as their title and phone number.

The new lightning-bolt menu provides access to polls and a whole lot of other features. [Animation: courtesy of Slack]
People is one of several features in the new Slack that test users found to be welcome additions—except that they aren’t additions. “In the early pilot, some of the feedback we’ve been getting is people are so excited that we’ve built these brand-new features,” says DeLanghe. “And they’re not brand-new. They’re just in a new place where they’re a lot more understandable.” (People replaces the Directory, which bordered on invisibility as an item in an unlabeled menu on the right side of the interface.)

Pssst: The new People feature is really a new version of the old Directory that’s been relocated and rethought. [Image: Courtesy of Slack]
Along with all of this fundamental reorganization, Slack is getting some new customization options that will arrive a little after the initial round of updates. You’ll be able to resize the width of the sidebar—the sort of affordance that’s more common in old-school apps like word processors than newer apps. And Slack will add 11 new color themes, with names such as “Banana” and “Eggplant.”

Listening (usually) to users

As much as Slack valued the input of the real users it involved in the process, design is not a democracy. The final product reflects both user feedback and the Slack team’s confidence in its own expertise and instinct.

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Some Slack Champions, for instance, argued that the new top bar hogged too much space. “We actually did the math,” says Eismann. “We weren’t really saving people all that many pixels by not having that top bar. And so we decided to keep it, even though we received feedback from some of the Champions that they didn’t like it as much.” As the bar became more familiar, grumbling subsided.

[Screenshot: courtesy of Slack]
One thing that did matter a lot was when users said that they’d fallen in love with a proposed change and were worried it might go away. “That to me is just a massively clear indication that we’re on the right track and ready to move forward,” says Eismann.

In the end, changes that made it into the new version were driven by the need to serve Slack users worldwide, who number 12 million as of last October—beginners, intermediate types, and old pros alike. “We needed to make some hard choices based on our understanding of what’s best for the majority of our users,” says Eismann. “This is a key part of design.”

A sturdier foundation

Like any good redesign, the new Slack is in part about what’s still to come. “It’s really hard for teams at Slack to build on top of this disorganized mess,” says Eismann, referring to the existing design. “And so we knew that we needed to go back to the basics and start fresh in order to make sure we have a good foundation.”

When Slack introduces features henceforth, adds Yehoshua, “there are more obvious places to put them to make sure that they’re more discoverable. Having the lightning bolt for our shortcuts now is a much more intuitive place for people to add new shortcuts. Having the sidebar organization will continue to pay benefits.” New stuff is all very well—but it’s infinitely more meaningful if people can find it without playing hide and seek.

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About the author

Harry McCracken is the technology editor for Fast Company, based in San Francisco. In past lives, he was editor at large for Time magazine, founder and editor of Technologizer, and editor of PC World.

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