Experimenting With Slack for Casual Communication

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Slack for casual communication

Slack has a killer reputation as a team communication tool, but since it’s free to use, my friends and I decided to give it a shot as a Google Hangouts replacement. We chat across OS X, Windows, Android, and iOS depending on location, so Slack’s multi-platform support was a huge selling point. There were also a few more advantages to Slack.

One of the big draws was that Slack has actual apps for every platform. Hangouts is clean, but it has to run in the browser on desktops, so you’ve got to pin a tab in Safari or use FluidApp to generate a dedicated window. Slack was also one of the first apps to embrace the iPad Pro’s screen size with a wider layout, which gave it big points for me as an early iPad Pro adopter.

Slack???

If you haven’t used Slack before, here’s the quick primer. You start off by establishing a team (ex. teamname.slack.com) and then inviting members to join that team. Slack has a very generous free tier for small teams, but the paid tiers allow for fancier integrations with services. You can run customer support and entire teams off of Slack, and the service has lots of little features (notification snooze and @mention notifications) that help it scale from teams of 20–200 people. We didn’t need to scale up because they only things we really send around are a few Dropbox links and images of our stupid faces. The basic tier was enough.

Channels

Another of Slack’s organizational features is the idea of Channels, which are basically chatrooms marked by hashtags. This was overkill for a group of three people, but we did try using #general and #2016trip channels. The idea was that we’d only talk about our vacation in the #2016trip channel, and everything else would go into #general. We weren’t quite as efficient as Megan Quinn in our after-hours use of Slack, but given the volume of messages my friends output, channels seemed like a great tool to try.

I really liked how easy it was to clean up information within a channel. Not only can you star specific messages, but you can also delete them entirely if you’re the moderator of the channel. This helps to keep only pertinent information in the channel so that the chats are easier to return to and read at a later date.

There’s a lot more that you can use Slack for, but in our 1.5 months of testing, we never felt we needed to go further. If anything, what stopped our trial run of Slack was the lack of a few basic features — specifically image support.

Slack image selection

No Thumbnails

Images in Slack are organized in a Recent Files section, but you don’t see any thumbnails when viewing images. My friends and I don’t bother renaming pictures as we share them, so everything looks identical. Finding an old picture required us to tap through different filenames. Slack for desktop was updated with thumbnails in the past month, but it’s still an issue on iOS.

Slack large images

No Picture Resizing

The killer was that Slack is also more optimized for general file sharing. Because it’s equipped to handle ZIP files, GIFs, videos, and links, it doesn’t have a nuanced approach to photo handling. There is currently no option to auto-resize a picture as you share it in Slack, so my 24 Megapixel JPEGs are all sent at full size (5 MB per shot). For my friend with only 1 GB of data on his monthly plan, these pictures are a real data hog.

To Slack’s credit, I mentioned the issue on Twitter and they responded to me within a day: they will address image resizing on mobile, but they won’t be able to get to it for a while.

So, as of today, my friends and I have returned to Google Hangouts. I’ll miss having a native app, but this service just works better for our needs right now. This is by no means a condemnation of Slack — in fact, this little experiment showed me how the product is built to scale for small and large teams. It’s just that the experiment didn’t quite work for our group.


Thomas

My name is probably Thomas (yes, it is). I'll be able to help you figure out why Evernote isn't syncing, or recommend your favourite new RSS reader to you. That's partly because I am enamoured with the iOS ecosystem and hardware, but mostly because I'm Canadian.

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3 thoughts on “Experimenting With Slack for Casual Communication”

  1. I’ve been using Slack for several months and have a couple additional thoughts:

    a. The lack of threaded messaging may or may not be a problem. In larger groups I can tell you that it is a problem for me. Not being able to follow the replies of (or reply to) specific messages makes it very difficult to catch up on the conversation flow.

    b. The mobile apps are nothing to write home about. They seem to be getting better. Previously they were very html5-ish and would work unpredictably if you lost data in the midst of visiting a Slack site.

    c. The pricing is expensive at $6.67/user / month. In my experience many of these types of sites will heavily negotiate if you have user counts in the 100’s. Without a paid account you will find your message archives scroll and cannot be searched any longer (the free account has limited history of 10,000 messages which you don’t think you’ll ever hit – but you will) .

    d. The UI is awkward. One example — if someone direct messages you and then you reply back, the conversation disappears from your screen (unless you have starred the person as a favorite). The data doesn’t go away but you have to remember to search for the person in order to read your prior conversation. This is weird. And odd.

    On the plus side, one of the major reasons Slack is getting such press is that they have a pretty usable free component. I’ve only used the free option and aside from limiting history at 10k messages I don’t bump into painful limitations.

    Creating a private group means that when you let in a new person you can optionally make it that the person cannot read the old messages in the private group. THIS IS HUGE for many reasons. Often when you start a small private group you may not recall what was said in the past month or two — and it’s awkward to add another person or maybe a colleague when you could have been discussing sensitive info. Very (very) cool that you can optionally disallow the reading of the old messages in a private group.

    Lastly, one thing I read online is that Slack TOS doesn’t allow their service to be used as an open community. In other words don’t try to replace your discussion forums with a Slack group. It’s perfectly fine to have large Slack groups for your organization. My interpretation is that it would be a no-no to advertise publicly for anyone to join the Slack and to run it as a public discussion forum.

    1. Wow, Wayne. Heckuva comment. 1000 points to you.

      Some responses:
      b. Mobile apps are all right; I’d say they’re on par with Google’s offering, and certainly better than LINE Messenger (which my family uses). I do miss landscape support on the iPhone, though. I know I’m comparing a corporate tool to chatting tools, but I also think they’re similar enough that it’s fair to do so.

      c. Hangouts won’t even let us search on mobile, so the fact that Slack has that at all is already a plus.

      That bit about the private group is killer.

      I do think Slack works pretty well as-is for teams, but I do think it needs to be a bit more mobile-friendly. The lack of thumbnails and the full-res picture sending make it cumbersome to handle media.

      1. My biggest beef with Google Hangouts and larger groups (10+ people) is you cannot remove someone from a group. If you add someone by mistake to a large group the only way to get them out is to ask them to leave.

        I had been playing Ingress on Android and we’d use Hangouts as our primary group chat. It worked very well as we’d see when everyone read a message. However on occasion a player would add the wrong person to a 65 person hangout and we’d need to either convince the person to leave or create a whole new Hangout from scratch.

        I would really like Hangouts to offer the same “Notify Once” notification option as Gmail on Android offers — where I would NOT get repeated notifications for especially chatty Hangouts. I only want to be notified of the first chat alert and not the 15 (or more) that follow. Just as in Gmail, this would ideally be an option that people could toggle on or off.

        If Microsoft buys Slack I would abandon ship as quickly as possible since I have yet to see a really clear strategy for what Microsoft will do with the myriad of messaging apps (Skype, Yammer, GroupMe, Groups) that they offer.

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