How Slack Could Respect Your Time And Attention (Better)

April 16, 2016

Slack, like any communication tool, can function anywhere on a spectrum from “effective medium” to “weapon of mass distraction”. Where your team’s experience falls depends mostly on how deliberately you set up your expectations of each other. But no tool is truly neutral and I think there are changes that Slack could make to help prevent chat fatigue and encourage longer periods of attention and focus.

  • The default notification settings are invasive. If I told you to install software that let anyone in your company flash a notice onto your screen, sliding it over whatever you’re working on at any time—well, you’d probably think I was loony. But that’s exactly what Slack’s default notification settings do, plus playing a little noise in case you managed to keep your attention off the thing flickering at the edge of your vision. Organizations default to the path of least resistance, so software defaults are incredibly powerful. Let users opt into more interrupt-y preferencs if they want.
  • Do Not Disturb mode is a good idea, but has some problems in practice.
    • Anyone who tries to DM someone in DND mode gets warned that this person has enabled DND and asks if you’re sure you want to interrupt them. That’s great! But… it doesn’t seem to do this if you already have a conversation ongoing with someone. So if I’m chatting with a coworker and then turn on DND mode to buckle down and focus for a while, if they DM me again within some unspecified period of time, they don’t get any sort of notice that I’ve changed my availability (unless they’re eagle-eyed and see the tiny icon next to me change).
    • It still shows unread rooms highlighed; if you open up Slack for any reason at all while in DND mode, then you’re confronted with all the things you might be Missing Out On. Ideally, DND mode would quiet all unread notices until you disable it.
  • There’s no way to differentiate a DM meant to interrupt someone right now (“hi the site is burning down”) vs something that can be read whenever (“check out this link next time you’re taking a break”). This is doubly problematic because there’s no way to turn off the unread count for DMs anywhere it appears; even with notifications turned down to their lowest possible settings, privately messaging someone is an attention grab even if you want to it be an asynchronous ping.

Complaining is easy and product design is hard. But I’d still like to see more decisions that move Slack towards being a tool that focuses time and attention instead of tending to consume them.