October 21, 2020

Dear Slack, You haven't solved the problem...

Mitchell Dong
Head of Community

First off, thank you for trying.  It was a valiant effort and someone needed to take a solid stab at the problem.  Our hats are off.  You’ve built a great piece of technology and a faster horse.

Second, moving the problem is not solving it.  On the surface it seems like you’re solving a communication problem, but we’ve come to realize that it’s an illusion.  

You promised to reduce meetings, but time spent in meetings has steadily risen 8-10% a year since your inception and 13% this year alone.  You’ve also promised to reduce email, and while it has reduced slightly since your launch, the average knowledge worker still receives 635 emails each week and spends 28% of their time on them.  

On top of this, we now have a new job– “Slacking.”  Your average user sends 200 messages a week with power users sending over 1000 per day.  Anyone who has used Slack at a company larger than 50 people can attest that it can become a social-media-like time sink of its own.  Keeping up with the chatter in these channels can quickly turn from feeling productive to counterproductive. 

Sara Peck, founder of Startup Pregnant, said “We’re just moving email to another place and it’s less searchable.” Slack messages create the illusion of work getting done, but it’s just the same work in a different place.  You haven’t solved the problem by making us better or faster, you’ve just moved it.

“Productivity software should be something you use less than the thing you used before,” Sarah Lacy, founder @ Pando & @ Chairman Mom 

Third, you chose the wrong tool for the job.  It’s a mistake to think typing is the same as talking.  Text is good for surface-level information updates, but not for conversation.  It’s like using a knife to chop down a tree–it’ll eventually work if you have the time.

Written communication is inherently slow.  The average person can compose business communication, such as a Slack message or email, at only 19 words per minute (WPM) yet can speak at 150 WPM.  That means when we write a Slack message, we’re choosing to use a tool that is 7-8x slower than our natural ability.  Strike one.  

Written communication only occupies a small band of the full spectrum of communication.  Experts say that written communication is missing between 70-93% of the complete picture as the majority of our message is communicated through tone of voice and body language.  Again, we’re using a tool that is worse than our natural ability.  Strike two.  
Written communication, specifically in chat form, has very low friction.  This means that the barrier to initiate communication is so low that it can quickly become noisy, especially in channels with large groups.  A noisy communication channel creates these micro-interruptions throughout the day which several studies show reduce productivity.  Once interrupted, it takes on average 25 minutes to get back to the task you were working on.  Strike three.  

All of these inefficiencies of a text-centered chat app seem harmless because individually they only amount to a few seconds or minutes.  But they add up.  And any wasted minute is wasted money.

“Applied to Slack, it’s greatest strength: amazing ease-of-use, is also its weakness: making it far too easy for everyone to default to using Slack for communicating, even for all the myriad things that don’t make sense to use Slack to communicate.” - Alicia Liu, software engineer @ Notion 

Fourth, a channel is not a conversation. Conversation is like a delicate flower that needs to be nurtured by the right topic, context, timing, and participants or else it dies.  

At the heart of all important work communication is a conversation.  Meetings are conversations.  Calls are conversations.  Ad-hoc hallway talking is a conversation. And when done right, support, leadership, management, and even training are conversations.  Conversation is what moves work forward.  

Conversations are turn based.  We take turns adding to the pool of meaning until we’ve arrived at a result.  A conversation can be temporary or ongoing and needs that fluidity to thrive.  For this reason, it’s unnatural for a conversation to persist as a channel.  A channel can quickly become like a noisy room where multiple people are trying to have different conversations with each other at the same time, but only one person can talk at a time and everyone else has to listen to everything.

 So, we bought the lot between you and Zoom.  Most people didn’t even know the lot was there because they have been stretching Slack to do things it isn’t good at.  It’s not your fault.  They do it with Zoom too, especially now that so many are working remotely.  

We feel that for most work communication, Slack is underkill and Zoom is overkill.  We just need to talk to move work forward.  That’s all.  We don’t want to be forced to type, because typing isn’t talking.  And we also don’t want to be forced to schedule a time to talk, because that’s interruptive.  

You’ll love the conversation-centered design of the house we’re building because it incorporates the best elements of both of our neighbors–your flexibility and Zoom’s richness.  This will allow us to have productive conversations without interrupting each other’s productivity.  We feel like this will be a much more comfortable place to live.  

We’re naming this creation, suitably, Volley.

We believe the future of work looks nothing like the past.  We’re building a future where conversation is neither slow or interruptive; where communication is more rapid, inclusive, and precise; where work is more flexible and on-demand; where we meet less and communicate more.  In this future, you are the most productive version of yourself.  

If you want to drop by, the address is https://volleyapp.com.  But we’re guessing you’ve probably passed by our lot so many times that you already know exactly where it is. 

Mitchell Dong

Head of Community at Volley

About the Author

Mitchell Dong is a Hawai’i-grown marketer and educator who has spent his career telling brand stories and creating educational content for a range of organizations. He is the head of community at Volley, where he spends his days educating, supporting, and illuminating Volley users.

Connect with Me

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