Workplace

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.

Enterprise

Microsoft’s new chief partner officer: 'Customers need help'

The new Microsoft Cloud Partner Program forces new certification requirements on the hundreds of thousands of partners that sell and support its products and services. Nicole Dezen says those changes now give customers “total clarity” into which ones are best suited to meet their cloud needs.

Nicole Dezen, Microsoft's chief partner officer, talked with Protocol last week about the company's announcement.

Photo: Microsoft

As Microsoft launches the biggest overhaul of its partner program today since 2010, its new chief partner officer says the changes will help enterprises and other customers more easily identify qualified partners that are the right fit to help with their cloud needs.

“All of our priorities, all of our design principles, are built with the customer in mind,” Nicole Dezen, Microsoft’s chief partner officer and corporate vice president of global partner solutions, told Protocol in an exclusive interview, her first since being appointed in July.

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Donna Goodison

Donna Goodison (@dgoodison) is Protocol's senior reporter focusing on enterprise infrastructure technology, from the 'Big 3' cloud computing providers to data centers. She previously covered the public cloud at CRN after 15 years as a business reporter for the Boston Herald. Based in Massachusetts, she also has worked as a Boston Globe freelancer, business reporter at the Boston Business Journal and real estate reporter at Banker & Tradesman after toiling at weekly newspapers.

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Great products are built on strong patents

Experts say robust intellectual property protection is essential to ensure the long-term R&D required to innovate and maintain America's technology leadership.

Every great tech product that you rely on each day, from the smartphone in your pocket to your music streaming service and navigational system in the car, shares one important thing: part of its innovative design is protected by intellectual property (IP) laws.

From 5G to artificial intelligence, IP protection offers a powerful incentive for researchers to create ground-breaking products, and governmental leaders say its protection is an essential part of maintaining US technology leadership. To quote Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo: "intellectual property protection is vital for American innovation and entrepreneurship.”

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James Daly
James Daly has a deep knowledge of creating brand voice identity, including understanding various audiences and targeting messaging accordingly. He enjoys commissioning, editing, writing, and business development, particularly in launching new ventures and building passionate audiences. Daly has led teams large and small to multiple awards and quantifiable success through a strategy built on teamwork, passion, fact-checking, intelligence, analytics, and audience growth while meeting budget goals and production deadlines in fast-paced environments. Daly is the Editorial Director of 2030 Media and a contributor at Wired.
Workplace

An IPO may soon be in Notion’s future

Notion COO Akshay Kothari says there’s room to grow, aided by a new CFO who knows how to take a company public.

Notion has hired its first chief financial officer: Rama Katkar.

Photo: Courtesy of Notion

It’s been a year since Notion’s triumphant $275 million funding round and $10 billion valuation. Since then the landscape for productivity startups trying to make it on their own has completely changed, especially for those pandemic darlings that flourished in the all-remote world.

As recession looms, companies looking to cut costs are less likely to spend money on tools outside of their Microsoft or Google workplace bundles. Enterprise platforms are bulking up and it could spell trouble for the productivity startups trying to unseat them. But Notion COO Akshay Kothari says the company is still aiming to build the next Microsoft, not be the next Microsoft. And in a move signaling a new chapter of maturity, Notion has hired its first chief financial officer: Rama Katkar, Instacart’s former VP of finance.

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Lizzy Lawrence

Lizzy Lawrence ( @LizzyLaw_) is a reporter at Protocol, covering tools and productivity in the workplace. She's a recent graduate of the University of Michigan, where she studied sociology and international studies. She served as editor in chief of The Michigan Daily, her school's independent newspaper. She's based in D.C., and can be reached at llawrence@protocol.com.

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Securing the enterprise

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In today’s enterprise, “identity and security are very merged.”

Illustration: iStock/Getty Images Plus; Protocol
the Protocol team
Protocol focuses on the people, power and politics of tech, with no agenda and just one goal: to arm decision-makers in tech, business and public policy with the unbiased, fact-based news and analysis they need to navigate a world in rapid change.
Fintech

How neobanks are helping consumers game credit scoring

The CFPB says it is closely monitoring secured credit cards offered by neobanks.

Regulators are scrutinizing neobanks' card offerings.

Photo: Oscar Wong/Moment/Getty Images

About one in six Americans has a credit score below 619, according to the CFPB. Another 23% have too thin a credit file to score or no file at all. That puts them in a credit trap: To build credit, these consumers need someone to give them a line of credit with which they can demonstrate good financial habits. But with scores that low, few lenders are prepared to offer them anything.

Neobanks say they can solve the problem through a new twist on secured credit cards. But regulators are already scrutinizing their offerings.

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Veronica Irwin

Veronica Irwin (@vronirwin) is a San Francisco-based reporter at Protocol covering fintech. Previously she was at the San Francisco Examiner, covering tech from a hyper-local angle. Before that, her byline was featured in SF Weekly, The Nation, Techworker, Ms. Magazine and The Frisc.

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