Work Note: Why and how we use Slack

After trying out several tools, we’re now using Slack and found some fun hacks to extend its functionality.

It’s not like there’s a lack of solutions for teams and companies to communicate internally. Without even getting into email this time, there are plenty solutions for chatting between coworkers. From Skype group-chats to IRC channels to IM. There’s also dedicated professional chat app like Campfire and HipChat. Let’s just say that “Somebody needs to fix group chats for teams,” wasn’t uttered a lot.

Searching for an internal chat tool

As a 2-person company, Igor and I didn’t need much for the part of our daily communication when we are not in the same room. We tried out IRC with an encrypted room, guarded by a bot, mostly out of nostalgia for The Web We Lost. It didn’t stick because IRC is not the best protocol for the mobile age. Neither is Jabber/Instant Messaging. Going back and forth between different devices is hard for these protocols. And Skype wasn’t an option after various leaks put a lot of Microsoft’s security for the service in question.

We settled on iMessage. It works across macs and iphones, is comparatively secure and it’s free. So when the hype around a new chat app for teams called Slack started to build up, we didn’t see the need for us. But after friends kept praising it, curiosity won.

Execution makes the difference

Slack is a startup, founded by the flickr co-founders Stewart Butterfield and Cal Henderson. Once more (just like flickr), it emerged as a side project while Butterfield was developing a game. Check out this extensive portrait from Wired for a detailed story how Slack came to be.

There’s a lot of typical Silicon-Valley rhetoric around Slack about big product visions. But where Slack shines for us is in execution. This is app feels like the developers and designers keep asking: “if this feature was invented today, how would it be done right?”

Here are some of the features:

  • Its notification system is smart. It will ping you when there is a new messages. If you don’t react within a certain time, it will send you an email, informing you about the latest activities in your chat rooms. If you get a notification on your phone and check the chat room on your computer, it will take the notification away on your phone.
  • It tries to display some details about links that you put into a chat. Put in a Soundcloud link and it will show the player for that track. Same for videos, tweets etc.
  • Slack understands that not everyone is a full-time employee of one company anymore. More and more people freelance or need to work with several teams and companies. So they made switching between different Slack accounts easy. A practice I hope to see taken on by a lot more app developers.

More than just a chat tool

Where Slack really shows its strength is in the integration of other tools, services and platforms. For example: we use Asana to coordinate our tasks. In Slack, I can see when Igor has added a task and I get a special notification if he delegated the task to me. I can even add tasks from the chat room.
We also get pings when someone subscribes to our newsletter or when one of us has send a tweet with the company Twitter account. This is where Slack’s vision of being the central hub for your company’s communication is starting to make sense.

There’s also some fun stuff you can do with that. We have created a chat room called #fav and are using it with Slack’s integration of IFTTT. Now whenever one of us is faving a tweet or an article in Instapaper, a message is send to that chat room. We have another one for music that is connected to our Soundcloud accounts. I’ve turned off notifications for these chat rooms to not be bothered every time Igor (or Martin or Jens, our office mates) favs something. But I like going in there from time to time to see what got Igor’s attention.

We’re sold

All these features and how they are implemented convinced us to use Slack as our main communication tool. We think it’s worth it, even for a 2-person company. Using it with our office mates also offers us a glimpse at the benefits it can have for larger teams. And so far we haven’t used features like search and document exchange (with connection to Dropbox etc.). Let’s hope that Slack won’t be bought too soon.

Author: Johannes

Johannes is a strategist and consultant for digital communications. His work is informed by his experience of working with brands like Deutsche Telekom, MTV, Postbank, Maggi and Nike and by his insatiable appetite for finding the bigger patterns behind current developments in technology and science. Holding a diploma in Media System Design, Johannes is a regular speaker at web and marketing conferences like Republica and the Social Media Summit.