Taking up the Slack

Redesigns Change How Something Works, and For Whom

I have to applaud Slack’s redesign – horrible as it is – because it’s done something I was beginning to think wasn’t possible: convince many of the people across the dozen-plus unpaid Slack instances I haunt that perhaps it’s time to move our communities elsewhere.

What’s the big deal? The main complaint I and many others have is they’ve hidden the Workplace Switcher – now, instead of having a visual indicator highlighting which workspace is active and which inactive ones have pending activity or notifications for my attention, that functionality is hidden away behind a keyboard shortcut or multiple clicks.

I hope whoever is responsible gets a promotion – imagine how much this will reduce CapEx by finally convincing people that Slack is Not For Them anymore. It’s not like any of these communities I’ve been in, one for the decade since Slack launched, were ever going to come up with the hundred-plus dollars a month it would take to move to a paid plan. Nor are any of the instances hosting topic-based communities, some with tens of thousands of members going to come up with the presumably tens of thousdands their bill would be. So, good riddance to them and the resources all those long-polling resources.

Screenshot of the pricing for upgrading one of my 'friends chat' Slack instances to a paid plan

This particular Slack instance has 34 members, only 9 of whom posted in the past three months. Active members must be the ones consuming resources? It’s unclear. Besides, if you’re worried about variable pricing based on active users, you’re not among the target customers.

I feel like there’s been something of a dual nature to Slack’s offering since its launch, encapsulated perfectly by the name. There is no definition of the word “slack” that suggests to me productivity, and indeed it was meant as an acronym but you don’t pick an acronym like that without knowledge of the other connotations, especially one with the fun, laid-back vibe you need to conquer the chat service market. Yet their pre-acquisition ticker symbol was $WORK, and their sign-in screens prompt you to enter your work email because the entire product is designed around the idea that you use a single Slack instance for your job.

A lot of people I know don’t want to hear this, but this is why each of your dozen-plus Slack memberships has a separate password, preferences, and progress through those onboarding tutorials, it’s why the pricing doesn’t match the casual or community uses — because being on more than one Slack is an anti-pattern.

For most people, Slack is not something they choose to use – it was chosen for them. And for a majority of those people, that’s fine. You have one employer, you use Slack on your employer-owned computer, and in large enterprise companies Slack is where you talk to your hundred-thousand-plus coworkers in your company’s single Slack instance with its hundred-thousand-plus channels.

Design is how it works, so therefore a redesign will change how it works, and Slack’s redesign is great to reinforce this idea, because Slack doesn’t want you logging into other Slack instances anyway; when you talk to people from other companies, create an external connection to their Slack instance. And if the other company doesn’t have a Slack instance, why not? Are they using Teams? Maybe you shouldn’t be doing business with them. Anyway: all that space in the sidebar for managing instances, recovered!

What about contractors and consultants, who need to connect to multiple Slack instances to communicate with their clients? Well pooh on them, they’re not the paying customer. They can pay for their own Slack and do external connections. Slack isn’t designed for groups who aren’t both employers and paying customers.

Those external non-Slackers can figure out which Slack they’re in on their own, and if they accidentally break an NDA because Slack has made it harder for them to keep track of context, or if they accidentally miss a notification because it’s not from the focused instance, well that’s their own fault for not being an employee somewhere at a large enterprise company.

And that is why the redesign is brilliant: it consistently enforces the idea that you should only use one Slack instance.

Personally, I’m now using Slack in the web browser and bidding good riddance to the desktop app. Firefox has great tools for managing contexts by persona and altering the interface to match, and doesn’t suffer from Single Window Syndrome like most webpages shoehorned into desktop apps via Electron. The web page is persistent that it’s better in the app but, folks, it’s not.

I expect a lot of the larger Slack instances I’ve been on to slowly rot from attrition, and the smaller ones to eventually move elsewhere or disintegrate entirely. Some might try moving to Discord — who bans people attempting to modify their interface — but really, if your community is meant to be open, please don’t use Discord, either.

I suppose there is one usage of slack that brings an idea of productivity: the idiom pick/take up the slack, which means to provide or do something that is missing or not getting done, and in many ways this redesign of the product Slack does that: changes how the product works to better fit its intended use.