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Slack's redesign eyes its next source of growth: Regular people

"If the software makes them feel stupid, they'll bail," Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield told Protocol. The new design arrives after years of focus on adding features and amid fresh competition.

Stewart Butterfield, chief executive officer of Slack Technologies, Inc., speaks during an interview outside of the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) during the company's initial public offering

Slack's new redesign "will make a lot of important functionality more easily available," said CEO Stewart Butterfield.

Photographer: Michael Nagle/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Slack revealed one of the most significant redesigns in its recent history Wednesday, hoping to make it easier for its growing user base to communicate with colleagues and organize their working lives at a time when businesses have become suddenly reliant on workplace collaboration software.

The new design and features arrive after a week in which Slack has seen "unprecedented, explosive growth in everything," said Slack co-founder and CEO Stewart Butterfield, in an interview with Protocol. Thanks to the global restrictions on travel prompted by the coronavirus outbreak, a lot of the company's customers are using Slack much more than they were a week ago, and a lot of those customers are relatively new to the app, he said. (The company has not publicly quantified the increased usage in any way.)


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The redesign, which was planned long before the current uptick in demand for the service, was sparked in large part by the realization that newer users have a hard time discovering the tools and settings that can help them manage their Slack activity, and it also makes it easier for brand-new users without a lot of activity to get up and running, Butterfield said. The new look also arrives as Slack faces new competitive pressures from Microsoft and its Teams product, which is now used by 20 million people a day (compared to 12 million daily Slack users) and which Microsoft is heavily incentivizing its partners to sell.

"We've had five-plus years of kind of the same overall framework, and during that time we've added enormous amounts of functionality, [roughly] 80% of all the features in Slack were invented after the basic UI," said Butterfield, who founded Slack in 2014 after a long career as a product designer and tech executive. "So there's just an enormous amount of product debt and design debt that was right to be paid off."

A new compose button will let Slack users write their message in a pop-up text box before choosing the intended destination of that message, which might help prevent embarrassing mistakes while hiding the usual sign that you're writing something big: the prolonged "Tom Krazit is typing" message that appears below the main text-entry box on Slack. People will also now be able to organize channels, apps and people under custom topics within the left-hand navigation bar.

"For people who are existing hardcore users of Slack, this new design will make a lot of important functionality more easily available, because we're pushing certain things into the background," Butterfield said. "It will make it much easier for people to manage really active Slack instances because they're able to create their own categorization for channels and collapse a whole bunch of them at once."


Slack compose button Slack's new compose button is one of the new features intended to make the chat app friendlier to new users.Courtesy of Slack.


Several other new features bow to the fact that while Slack rose to prominence as the darling of the Silicon Valley startup world, newer users aren't as interested in pushing the boundaries of what Slack can accomplish, and therefore often don't realize how many tools and settings they can access, Butterfield said.

"A big goal for this redesign was, how do we make it simpler for people to use Slack, enable people to be more organized, and how do we make it easier for them to access all the tools they use," said Brian Elliott, vice president and general manager for Slack Platform.

"People hate, hate, hate to be made to feel stupid," Butterfield said. "If the software makes them feel stupid, they'll bail."

Slack applications will now be available through a lightning-bolt button that will appear in the main text entry box, which will also hide — but not remove — some of the "slash commands" prized by more-experienced Slack users. A new navigation bar at the top of the Slack window promises to make it easier to switch between frequently used channels and pending messages.

The concepts behind the redesign underscore that Slack wants to be a workplace hub based around "channel-based messaging," Elliott said, which is a unique experience the company believes it pioneered.

He emphasized that Slack users spend an average of 90 minutes a day engaged with the product, a number for which there is no easy comparison with Microsoft Teams. And Butterfield noted that Microsoft Teams customers who want to use it across their entire organizations are currently limited to 5,000 users per organization, and can only set up five 5,000-user organizations. (A Microsoft representative later clarified that Microsoft Teams can be used across organizations with more than 25,000 people, but that it requires setting up multiple "tenants," or Office 365 accounts.)

"We've seen very, very few uses of Teams that are at all like the way people use Slack," Butterfield said. In his experience, most Teams users consider it a replacement for Skype for Business ( which Microsoft is phasing out next year), and use Teams as a hub for voice and video calls, features that are available in Slack but less developed: Slack actually uses Zoom for internal voice and video calls, he said.

Still, Slack investors have not reacted well to the growth of Microsoft Teams, although recent market activity makes everybody's stock look pretty bad right now compared to a year ago.


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Earlier this month Slack reported earnings that exceeded Wall Street expectations, with a 49% jump in revenue compared to the previous year, but its stock fell precipitously in the aftermath of that earnings report thanks to lower-than-expected guidance being issued right at the start of the massive work-from-home movement caused by the coronavirus outbreak.

The new features will begin rolling out Wednesday for desktop users, arriving over the next few weeks. A new edition of Slack's mobile app that incorporates the new features will follow.

Clarification: This post was updated March 19 to include a statement from Microsoft regarding how many people in one company can use Teams.

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