I’ve used Slack on and off for years, but only about a month ago did my team start using it full time. The tool is growing on me, sure, but having used a variety of alternatives, I also find it unnecessarily frustrating at times. The good news is that Slack’s problems can be fixed.
I admit that some of the frustration is due to the fact our workflow was built around a competing tool called Convo, which is unreliable at worst and antiquated at best. Every communications platform has its pros and cons, change is always hard, etc.
Still, Slack is in a tough spot. It’s growing steadily (8 million daily active users and counting), receiving various new integrations on a regular basis, but tech giants Google and Microsoft are closing in.
My team didn’t give Google Hangouts Chat a proper run because our initial tests show it is woefully underdeveloped. Microsoft Teams, meanwhile, is in many ways already better than Slack, but it still doesn’t have a free trial available (although rumor has it that’s on the way).
So we tried Slack, and we didn’t like it. You’ve probably tried Slack and liked it. I’m not trying to convince you otherwise. Quite the contrary. I want to explain what Slack needs to improve to stand a fighting chance against Google’s and Microsoft’s advances.
Putting aside outages (two minor ones just this week, but at least they’re working on it), notifications (which don’t have a single home, but at least you can meticulously customize them), and GIFs (which the team is particularly annoyed you can’t choose), I think Slack is needlessly difficult to use. It’s extremely powerful, and most people get that as they use it more and more, but for those who have used a myriad of communication tools in the past, there’s a few things that Slack can do to significantly simplify and improve its ease of use.
I refused to switch my team to Slack until it supported threading. Over the years, multiple people at Slack told me there was no date to look forward to, because the company wanted to get this feature right. Bless them. After years of whining, pleading, and begging, Slack added threaded replies in January 2017.
Threading in Slack sucks.
Let me be crystal clear on what I mean by that. Slack is better off with threading than without. The feature works. That might not seem like a big deal, but plenty of major features launch and aren’t even remotely functional.
The problem, as is often the case when the feature works but doesn’t work well, comes down to implementation. Given the fact that Slack was not built with threading in mind — the feature was taped on, if you will — it’s not too bad.
But Slack can do a hell of a lot better. For example,
Does anyone know if there is a way to expand all @SlackHQ threads by default? I don't mean the All Unreads or All Threads options at the top, I mean I simply want to view all the comments in threads when scrolling through a channel, without having to open each one individually.
— Emil Protalinski (@EPro) April 18, 2018
There are two ways that you may want to interact with threads. You may want to read them, and you may want to contribute to them. Sometimes you might even do both!
You should be able to read threads without having to expand them. I don’t mean in a sidebar, I mean literally expanded so I can scan, skim, or read them as I please — in the channel, right there, without having to open every single thread one by one.
Yes, I know about the All Threads section. It’s a lie. It should be called My Threads, as it only shows the threads I have participated in or been tagged in.
And even if All Threads showed all the threads, they’re out of context (more on that later). If Slack doesn’t want to expand all threads by default, for whatever reason, at least give me the option to do so.
This is something that other communication tools have by default and it works wonderfully. Slack has tried to “fix” this problem by adding an “Also send to” checkbox below every threaded reply (which, if you forget to check, there’s no way to salvage). Not only would this solution be needed even less if all threads were expanded, it also isn’t checked by default, adding an unnecessary extra click.
If I only want to read through a channel, the fact all the threads are collapsed by default means a lot of clicking. But even when I want to contribute, there’s a ton of unnecessary clicking (tapping on mobile). Again, for threads, I have to click before I can read and decide if I want to contribute (as opposed to just reading and then clicking to contribute).
But the problem is worse if I want to start a thread or start a reaction. I have to hover over the post in question and choose the correct button over in the top right. For reactions, it’s two clicks. For comments, it’s one. Other communication tools (everything ranging from behemoths like Facebook to tiny platforms like Convo) let you react or respond right below. Slack should have something similar, in which hovering over a post let me respond right there, in line. A thumbs up should be a single click, and creating a thread should be possible right below — none of that sidebar nonsense.
Thankfully, anyone who comes along after can simply click on the existing reaction — just one click — to upvote the same one. And even subsequent replies are easier once a thread has already been created, because the link for “x replies” is right below.
I want fewer clicks. I want a one-click reaction option, a one-click reply option in-line, and I want this experience to be seamless. This is entirely possible without significantly changing Slack’s look and feel — again, it’s been done on other platforms.
Speaking of something else that has been done on other platforms, why can’t I see every post someone has made by clicking on their profile? If you want to quickly see someone’s last few posts in context, you have to… click through all the channels.
Yes, the powerful search function is an option, although the context isn’t as clear and the results are unfortunately relegated to the sidebar. Still, why can’t I just click on someone’s profile and see their latest posts, powered by search, right there?
When you compose a message in Slack, you have to either send it to a channel, a group, or an individual. You cannot send it to multiple places at once.
This is incredibly limiting.
If I want to let multiple channels know about something, I shouldn’t have to copy and paste the same message multiple times. Teams have gotten around this in various ways, including by creating a ridiculous number of channels that hopefully cover all the various subsets of members you may need to message at any given time. It’s a convoluted solution, and it doesn’t have to be this way.
It’s also a very odd decision, given that there is such a thing as private channels on Slack, and they’re prefixed with a hashtag. If I’m writing a message in a private channel and I reference a public channel, the message should just send there as well. What exactly is the purpose of having a hashtag for a channel if I can’t bloody refer to it in a useful way?
You have no excuse for this one, Slack — the hashtag is in your goddamn logo.
Bringing it all together
This brings me back to threading. All Threads is a great idea, although again, it only exists because threading is so difficult to follow and notifications are so unreliable. But why stop at threads? Why isn’t there an “All” section? Why the hell can’t I see what is happening in multiple channels at once?
If you’re reading this and think that it would be too chaotic, let me explain why that’s not at all the case. As long as you are only a member of the channels that you are actively participating in, or at least expected to participate in (having left or muted the rest), you would be fine. You would still be getting the same number of messages, and you always could drill into a given channel if you need to focus on it.
But you should be able to view everything that’s happening and be able to choose where you need to respond. This is not a novel concept.
Instead, Slack forces you to click on every channel, and all its subsequent threads, before you can figure out where you should message next.
ProBeat is a column in which Emil rants about whatever crosses him that week.