Calm, not chaos: How Slack is revamping its sidebar

People have been complaining about Slack’s chaotic notifications for years. Slack says the root of the problem is its sidebar.

People cleaning off a Slack sidebar

Slack is aiming for simplicity with its revamp.

Illustration: Giacomo Bagnara for Slack

What if instead of your standard stack of threads, channels and DMs, Slack presented you with one urgent message at a time? You would address each message in order of importance, never having to switch contexts. This hypothetical version of Slack, head of Design Ethan Eismann explained, would be “infinitely intelligent,” understanding exactly what information you need to see next.

Slack isn’t quite there yet, and it’s unclear if it ever will be. Infinite intelligence isn’t exactly easy. For now, Slack’s product and design teams have done the next best thing when it comes to simplicity: They’ve revamped the sidebar. The changes are subtle: spacing out text, changing the default notification color from red to white, removing unnecessary icons. But VP of Product Ali Rayl hopes that together, they’ll address the most common criticism levied at Slack: overwhelm.

“What have we done with the visual presentation of Slack activity that's making people stressed out?” Rayl asked. “How can we change that visual presentation to just lower the temperature a little bit?”

Old and new Slack sidebars The new sidebar is meant to reduce that always-on feeling.Image: Slack

The heart of the problem is our always-on work culture, a problem that only got worse for some with remote work blending together our homes and the office. Humans, not Slack, are the ones sending a cacophony of messages. We pressure ourselves to respond immediately, even when we don’t need to. “The obligation that we feel to one another is stronger than their immediate need for us in those cases,” Rayl said.

Still, the norms of instant messaging don’t help: “Instant” is literally in the name. The expectation for urgent, immediate responses is “baked into that particular medium in a way that it was never baked into email,” said Slack user and engineering manager Mykola Bilokonsky. To combat this, as well as customers’ general complaints about Slack sending them too many notifications, Rayl said Slack’s leaders first focused on features like “Do Not Disturb” and customizable statuses. But the feedback didn’t change.

“We went deeper,” Rayl said. “We were like, ‘What do you mean when you say notifications?’ And they said, ‘Oh, man, it's the sidebar. It's the badges and it's all bold, and there are all these channels. That’s how we ended up here.’”

It’s not solely about the presence of notifications: It’s about their presentation. Eismann said every pixel within Slack corresponds to a number of “cognitive calories,” or the brain power that helps us interpret our computer screens. Removing icons and streamlining context menus help reduce the cognitive calories Slack requires. For example, “Slack Connect” channels (channels with external partners) used to have a special icon differentiating them. But Rayl said some customers actually had no idea what the icon meant, creating confusion. Now, Slack users can hover over a channel to get a text-based description.

Slack overwhelm affects neurodivergent people more acutely, Bilokonsky said. Bilokonsky, who is autistic and has ADHD, said Slack is “a nightmare for ND brains.” It’s difficult for him to shift contexts, and the incessant pace of notifications can heighten anxiety. Bilokonsky mostly just finds Slack annoying, but some of his neurodivergent friends find Slack’s presence debilitating.

“I’ve got friends who just cannot have Slack open while they’re working,” Bilokonsky said. “The possibility of being distracted in that way makes it impossible for them to allocate their attention on their work.”

Yet Slack is absolutely necessary for Bilokonsky’s job. He has found certain features indispensable, like grouping channels by priority and integrating all of his other tools within Slack. And he appreciates Slack’s commitment to improving its app design, noting that even little changes can make a difference.

“Our computer screens are our environment, to an extent,” Bilokonsky said. “Just like subtle variations in carpet color or wall decoration can really make or break a space, I think stylistic changes can make huge impacts on how it feels to use the app.”

Some people might have trouble pinpointing what design change would improve their user experience. This isn’t the case with autistic people, Bilokonsky said. “We know what we need; we’re screaming it from the rooftops,” Bilokonsky said. “Taking the time to create that feedback channel is awesome.”

Rayl said Slack’s team had accessibility in mind throughout the research process, consulting with neurodivergent and blind customers. It’s also made changes to the sidebar technology supporting screen readers which simplifies the text that’s read aloud.

Company leaders are bracing themselves for feedback. “I'm extremely cognizant of the fact that we are touching the most sensitive spot of the product right now,” Rayl said. But she’s hopeful that after a few days, people will find that the new sidebar has seamlessly improved their Slack experience.

Slack will start rolling out the new sidebar to people on Wednesday, but it will take a few weeks to reach everyone’s Slack accounts.


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Photo: Microsoft

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