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Group Chat Doesn't Suck. The Way We're Using It Sucks

We either love or hate our team's group chat. But is the problem with the UX or our expectations of it?

It's finally here. "Group chat applications like Slack, HipChat, and others are due for a backlash," reported Bloomberg in late January. "Slack, I’m breaking up with you," wrote Samuel Hulick in a great post a month later. "Is group chat making you sweat?" asked Jason Fried earlier this week in a compelling rundown of both the benefits—and drawbacks—of group chat.

Yep, the backlash has arrived. It's not a huge surprise: after all, group chats like Slack and HipChat—which aim to replace email by creating a central chatroom (or rooms) where employees can constantly communicate in real time—have seen unprecedented growth over the past two years. In 2014, Marc Andreessen said he had "never seen [an] enterprise app go viral like [Slack]," much less based on "all word of mouth." That last part is crucial for understanding this month's whiplash. The growth of Slack and its competitors has been fueled by extraordinary descriptions of their productivity powers: "Slack is killing email." "5 reasons Slack will change the workplace." "Slack can change your life."

The rapid pace of adoption, and the wild optimism of early users, is partially to blame for the backlash. There are also plenty of UX problems to be solved as these apps evolve, as many writers have pointed out this month, from refining user controls to figuring out a better way to archive and organize the morass of chats. Yet many of the designers and usability experts I spoke with suggested that while there's definitely room for improvement in the design of group chats, there's also a lesson to be learned in the remarkable expectations users set for them.

Use AI To Filter The Noise

In this emerging backlash, one of the biggest complaints is simple exhaustion: There are too many messages. Too often. And at wildly inappropriate times of day. It’s hard to even stay engaged in the flood, much less work in it.

Ben Brown, a designer and developer based in Austin, is well aware. So aware, in fact, that Brown is building a company to fix it: Howdy, an AI chatbot, sits over Slack to fix some of the inherent problems with group chat—things that, from a UX perspective, simply need to be tailored to fit each unique group or business. "I’m biased, but we are betting that bots will help fix some of these design problems," he says. Howdy is, essentially, an artificial coworker who can be assigned specific tasks that chat clients simply can’t do.

Take the message flood, for example. "We are very interested in helping people manage their attention and the various glaring unread counts they face," he says. "One solution would be to have an AI agent try to learn, understand, and then report to you the important messages that you missed." He describes Howdy as a "message butler" that safeguards your time at work, keeping track of messages, and creating external documentation of what happens inside Slack.

Or take another glaring problem many people report with group chat: search. If you’ve ever missed an important meeting in Slack, you know how annoying it is to have to search through the archives and read an entire, rambling, line-by-line transcript of the conversation. Howdy takes notes during meetings and then—crucially—uploads them to a document outside of Slack with its own URL. If you need to refer to a conversation or decision, you don’t even need to search the chat.

But while Howdy does offer specific UX solutions to group chat’s inherent shortcomings, Brown points out that the bigger problem may be what people expect Slack and HipChat to be. "This is a secondary and additive communication tool, and doesn’t replace process, documentation, and other tools like the wiki or company intranet," he writes. "Another solution would be to try to change the culture and say, hey look, it’s a chat room. If you miss some messages, that’s fine."

Not All Work Works For Group Chat

I was curious how companies that specialize in design use group chat, too. Would they have specialized insight into how these tools could adapt?

I asked Work & Co—the New York-based agency that has a reputation for developing ultra-clean, ultra-usable websites for Virgin America, Chase, and the NBA. Marcelo Eduardo, a partner at Work & Co, pointed out that for the kind of work the agency does, a giant, ongoing group chat doesn’t make much sense—either from a productivity perspective or a cultural one.

"With global teams and variable time zones, we need something more powerful than plain email," Eduardo says. Yet the chaos of a massive, all-inclusive group chat doesn’t make as much sense for the design-focused work the teams do. "For us, it’s much bigger than the public group chats," he says. Instead, Work & Co uses group chat in a very specific way: directly, almost as a chat client instead of a group-oriented log. "If you look at our usage statistics, 97% of the time it’s being used on private, project-related channels and direct message," Eduardo says.

The takeaway here? Don’t expect a chat client’s main use case to work for your team—the onus is on you (or your boss) to establish a workable group chat culture that works for your work. Again, this is a choice on the part of the user—not something that can be "designed into" a client’s UX.

Group Chat Is Just A Tool

There is a deeper user experience lesson in the group chat backlash, though, and it has to do with expectations. Because these platforms solve so many deep-seated issues with email and other forms of office communication, it’s easy to cast them as the end-all solution to our team’s particular problems, be it productivity or communication.

Part of that is the fault of users—managers in particular—who are eager to use all the tools available to them to make their companies better. But the group chat apps themselves deserve some of the blame, as well. Take Slack, which even keeps an official "wall of love" on Twitter where it tracks wildly positive comments from new users: "Seriously, forget email." "Slack solved problems we didn't even know we had." "Awesome communication tool."

Who could blame them? Slack is easy to love, and we’ve all wanted to shout it from the rooftops at one point or another. But broadcasting a solid wall of praise—echoed across social media and publications, too—also sets people up to expect way more than any group chat could ever deliver.

Mark Kawano, the founder of Storehouse and a former user experience evangelist at Apple, points out that hype and backlash are part of the vast echo chamber of technology throughout history. "It’s a relatively new product category so people get overly excited and experiment with all the new ways they can approach communication," he says. "The hype pendulum swings a bit too far in one direction as to what efficiency gains are produced, but that doesn't detract from the fact that Slack has helped our company become more efficient."

In other words, group chat isn’t a solution. It’s a tool, or empty vessel, for a team to use. I can vouch for this idea: over the past few years, I've gotten glimpse at how wildly group chat culture can differ between teams and companies on both ends of the spectrum between overwhelming and manageable. Here at Fast Company, Slack is more work-focused and functional, and that’s due not to the UX of the app, but the culture established by editors and writers.

"Collaboration tools take time to evolve because people are dynamic and groups have diverse needs, but the problems are not at all unsolvable," Kawano says. "The only thing unsolvable is expecting a group chat tool to be anything but a tool."

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