Risky! As millions start working from home, Slack changes its UX. Here's why

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright March 19, 2020
As millions suddenly shift to working from home, this seems like a risky time for digital teamwork platform Slack to give its UX a makeover, but it has its reasons

New Slack UX screenshot 2020-03
(via Slack)

Just when tens of thousands of users are ramping up the amount of time they're spending in an application may seem like a poor moment to refresh the user experience. But then messaging platform Slack had no inkling that coronavirus was going to trigger a global switch to remote working at precisely the same time as it has chosen to roll out a "simpler, more organized" look, starting yesterday.

Slack of course believes even the most avid users will prefer the new layout. The company says it has had positive feedback from over 1,000 users at 30 companies, who have been included in shared channels with Slack's product engineers over the past few months, helping to put the final touches to the new design. It's been "the closest that I've worked with customers throughout a redesign process," says VP of Design Ethan Eismann. Just as importantly, there's been an equally good response from new users who've had an early look.

Getting those new users up to speed as fast as possible is a priority for Slack, which wants to shorten the time it takes to turn small business adopters into paying accounts. Having a lot of free users doesn't pay the bills. So any way it can accelerate these self-serve sign-ups towards paid functionality is a boon — indeed, Slack has accelerated its original roll-out plans so that it can put the new experience in the hands of new users even sooner.

What's new in the Slack UI

A big part of the redesign is to put more functionality within easy reach from the main screen without having to remember specific slash commands. Those terse commands may have appealed to the hardcore developer population, but Slack now wants more of a main street appeal. Here are the main changes:

  • A new navigation bar at the top of the screen with a search dialog and the ability to toggle between recent conversations, including back and forward buttons
  • The top of the sidebar now shows shortcuts to the most important mentions and reactions, files, people and applications
  • A new compose button makes it easy to start a new message. Crucially, you can start drafting a message before deciding the person or channel you’ll send it to.
  • On paid plans only, users can organize channels, messages and apps — in any order they like — into custom, collapsible sections with a folder look and feel
  • Shortcuts marked with a new lightning bolt icon let you go directly to an application, predefined workflow, reminder or call.

A measure of how well the new layout works is that established users often assume that the redesign is adding new functions rather than simply doing a better job of surfacing what's already there, says Eismann:

One interesting thing about this is that we've heard from many existing users that we've added new features with these new richer sidebars. When in fact we've just reorganized. They already existed in Slack and we've presented them in a better way.

The ability to organize your own sections in the sidebar is an important part of making Slack adapt to the way people work, he adds. A new set of customizable themes also helps people adapt the Slack workspace to their personal taste.

This is one of the things that really makes people love Slack and make it feel like a much more pleasant experience, the fact that they can customize and really feel ownership over it.

But that sense of ownership is precisely why making significant changes to the look and feel is bound to generate some pushback. Slack is aware of the need to help the existing user base through this change, says Eismann.

When you're using Slack for over nine hours a day — and you're using it for nearly 90 minutes a day in a deeply engaged way — it is where you're working. If somebody rearranges your workspace, you've got to understand how and why they rearranged it. So we've put a lot of time and effort into making sure that we're explaining and helping people understand why we made this change.

Why Slack is making the change now

So why is it happening now? Slack had simply got to the point where it was time to take a pause and rethink the design of a product that has grown up fast. Eismann explains:

Slack's design has historically evolved in a relatively piecemeal manner. As new features have been added to the product, that feature ... has just been plopped onto the interface without a lot of consideration for how it relates to all the other areas.

In other words, there wasn't a central governing body to focus on how all of the features in Slack should come together. As a result, the user experience of Slack was much more complicated than it needed to be.

That's really the key to this redesign. We've added some new features, but much of the redesign is about taking the features that exist, and organizing them into a much more simpler and more powerful experience.

The redesign comes in the wake of an overhaul to the underlying client architecture, which was rolled out last summer. That too was a refactoring to accommodate piecemeal feature enhancements that had been added as Slack expanded functionality. It slimmed down the code required to run the desktop client and also improved integration to other applications. The new client architecture also facilitated the iterative approach the design team used to fine-tune the new UI changes, says Eismann.

That re-architecture that we did in the code level, really paved the way for us to be able to do some of this work that we've done in this redesign. It allowed us to do that rapid iteration. We wouldn't have been able to do that if we hadn't rearchitected the code.

My take

Rolling out a redesign of a popular app is always a risky endeavor, but these changes make sense in terms of broadening Slack's appeal beyond the tech-savvy users that drove its early adoption. Slack needs to demonstrate its relevance to users across an organization.

At a time when office workers across the globe are quickly switching to remote working, ease of adoption is crucial to helping them stay productive. It's also crucial to Slack's own survival. As I pointed out in my discussion of Slack's latest earnings report, the company relies on continued revenue growth to keep funding investment in infrastructure and capacity. In that context, rolling out UI changes that speed adoption both among self-serve SMB customers and within large enterprises has a very helpful bottom-line impact if it boosts Slack's paid user numbers.

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