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.

Climate

New Jersey could become an ocean energy hub

A first-in-the-nation bill would support wave and tidal energy as a way to meet the Garden State's climate goals.

Technological challenges mean wave and tidal power remain generally more expensive than their other renewable counterparts. But government support could help spur more innovation that brings down cost.

Photo: Jeremy Bishop via Unsplash

Move over, solar and wind. There’s a new kid on the renewable energy block: waves and tides.

Harnessing the ocean’s power is still in its early stages, but the industry is poised for a big legislative boost, with the potential for real investment down the line.

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Lisa Martine Jenkins

Lisa Martine Jenkins is a senior reporter at Protocol covering climate. Lisa previously wrote for Morning Consult, Chemical Watch and the Associated Press. Lisa is currently based in Brooklyn, and is originally from the Bay Area. Find her on Twitter ( @l_m_j_) or reach out via email (ljenkins@protocol.com).

Every day, millions of us press the “order” button on our favorite coffee store's mobile application: Our chosen brew will be on the counter when we arrive. It’s a personalized, seamless experience that we have all come to expect. What we don’t know is what’s happening behind the scenes. The mobile application is sourcing data from a database that stores information about each customer and what their favorite coffee drinks are. It is also leveraging event-streaming data in real time to ensure the ingredients for your personal coffee are in supply at your local store.

Applications like this power our daily lives, and if they can’t access massive amounts of data stored in a database as well as stream data “in motion” instantaneously, you — and millions of customers — won’t have these in-the-moment experiences.

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Jennifer Goforth Gregory
Jennifer Goforth Gregory has worked in the B2B technology industry for over 20 years. As a freelance writer she writes for top technology brands, including IBM, HPE, Adobe, AT&T, Verizon, Epson, Oracle, Intel and Square. She specializes in a wide range of technology, such as AI, IoT, cloud, cybersecurity, and CX. Jennifer also wrote a bestselling book The Freelance Content Marketing Writer to help other writers launch a high earning freelance business.
Entertainment

Watch 'Stranger Things,' play Neon White and more weekend recs

Don’t know what to do this weekend? We’ve got you covered.

Here are our picks for your long weekend.

Image: Annapurna Interactive; Wizard of the Coast; Netflix

Kick off your long weekend with an extra-long two-part “Stranger Things” finale; a deep dive into the deckbuilding games like Magic: The Gathering; and Neon White, which mashes up several genres, including a dating sim.

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Nick Statt

Nick Statt is Protocol's video game reporter. Prior to joining Protocol, he was news editor at The Verge covering the gaming industry, mobile apps and antitrust out of San Francisco, in addition to managing coverage of Silicon Valley tech giants and startups. He now resides in Rochester, New York, home of the garbage plate and, completely coincidentally, the World Video Game Hall of Fame. He can be reached at nstatt@protocol.com.

Fintech

Debt fueled crypto mining’s boom — and now, its bust

Leverage helped mining operations expand as they borrowed against their hardware or the crypto it generated.

Dropping crypto prices have upended the economics of mining.

Photo: Lars Hagberg/AFP via Getty Images

As bitcoin boomed, crypto mining seemed almost like printing money. But in reality, miners have always had to juggle the cost of hardware, electricity and operations against the tokens their work yielded. Often miners held onto their crypto, betting it would appreciate, or borrowed against it to buy more mining rigs. Now all those bills are coming due: The industry has accumulated as much as $4 billion in debt, according to some estimates.

The crypto boom encouraged excess. “The approach was get rich quick, build it big, build it fast, use leverage. Do it now,” said Andrew Webber, founder and CEO at crypto mining service provider Digital Power Optimization.

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Tomio Geron

Tomio Geron ( @tomiogeron) is a San Francisco-based reporter covering fintech. He was previously a reporter and editor at The Wall Street Journal, covering venture capital and startups. Before that, he worked as a staff writer at Forbes, covering social media and venture capital, and also edited the Midas List of top tech investors. He has also worked at newspapers covering crime, courts, health and other topics. He can be reached at tgeron@protocol.com or tgeron@protonmail.com.

Policy

How lax social media policies help fuel a prescription drug boom

Prescription drug ads are all over TikTok, Facebook and Instagram. As the potential harms become clear, why haven’t the companies updated their advertising policies?

Even as providers like Cerebral draw federal attention, Meta’s and TikTok’s advertising policies still allow telehealth providers to turbocharge their marketing efforts.

Illustration: Overearth/iStock/Getty Images Plus

In the United States, prescription drug advertisements are as commonplace as drive-thru lanes and Pete Davidson relationship updates. We’re told every day — often multiple times a day — to ask our doctor if some new medication is right for us. Saturday Night Live has for decades parodied the breathless parade of side effect warnings tacked onto drug commercials. Here in New York, even our subway swipes are subsidized by advertisements that deliver the good news: We can last longer in bed and keep our hair, if only we turn to the latest VC-backed telehealth service.

The U.S. is almost alone in embracing direct-to-consumer prescription drug advertisements. Nations as disparate as Saudi Arabia, France and China all find common ground in banning such ads. In fact, of all developed nations, only New Zealand joins the U.S. in giving pharmaceutical companies a direct line to consumers.

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Hirsh Chitkara

Hirsh Chitkara ( @HirshChitkara) is a reporter at Protocol focused on the intersection of politics, technology and society. Before joining Protocol, he helped write a daily newsletter at Insider that covered all things Big Tech. He's based in New York and can be reached at hchitkara@protocol.com.

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