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 sidebarsThe 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.


Judge Zia Faruqui is trying to teach you crypto, one ‘SNL’ reference at a time

His decisions on major cryptocurrency cases have quoted "The Big Lebowski," "SNL," and "Dr. Strangelove." That’s because he wants you — yes, you — to read them.

The ways Zia Faruqui (right) has weighed on cases that have come before him can give lawyers clues as to what legal frameworks will pass muster.

Photo: Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post via Getty Images

“Cryptocurrency and related software analytics tools are ‘The wave of the future, Dude. One hundred percent electronic.’”

That’s not a quote from "The Big Lebowski" — at least, not directly. It’s a quote from a Washington, D.C., district court memorandum opinion on the role cryptocurrency analytics tools can play in government investigations. The author is Magistrate Judge Zia Faruqui.

Keep ReadingShow less
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.

The financial technology transformation is driving competition, creating consumer choice, and shaping the future of finance. Hear from seven fintech leaders who are reshaping the future of finance, and join the inaugural Financial Technology Association Fintech Summit to learn more.

Keep ReadingShow less
The Financial Technology Association (FTA) represents industry leaders shaping the future of finance. We champion the power of technology-centered financial services and advocate for the modernization of financial regulation to support inclusion and responsible innovation.

AWS CEO: The cloud isn’t just about technology

As AWS preps for its annual re:Invent conference, Adam Selipsky talks product strategy, support for hybrid environments, and the value of the cloud in uncertain economic times.

Photo: Noah Berger/Getty Images for Amazon Web Services

AWS is gearing up for re:Invent, its annual cloud computing conference where announcements this year are expected to focus on its end-to-end data strategy and delivering new industry-specific services.

It will be the second re:Invent with CEO Adam Selipsky as leader of the industry’s largest cloud provider after his return last year to AWS from data visualization company Tableau Software.

Keep ReadingShow less
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.

Image: Protocol

We launched Protocol in February 2020 to cover the evolving power center of tech. It is with deep sadness that just under three years later, we are winding down the publication.

As of today, we will not publish any more stories. All of our newsletters, apart from our flagship, Source Code, will no longer be sent. Source Code will be published and sent for the next few weeks, but it will also close down in December.

Keep ReadingShow less
Bennett Richardson

Bennett Richardson ( @bennettrich) is the president of Protocol. Prior to joining Protocol in 2019, Bennett was executive director of global strategic partnerships at POLITICO, where he led strategic growth efforts including POLITICO's European expansion in Brussels and POLITICO's creative agency POLITICO Focus during his six years with the company. Prior to POLITICO, Bennett was co-founder and CMO of Hinge, the mobile dating company recently acquired by Match Group. Bennett began his career in digital and social brand marketing working with major brands across tech, energy, and health care at leading marketing and communications agencies including Edelman and GMMB. Bennett is originally from Portland, Maine, and received his bachelor's degree from Colgate University.


Why large enterprises struggle to find suitable platforms for MLops

As companies expand their use of AI beyond running just a few machine learning models, and as larger enterprises go from deploying hundreds of models to thousands and even millions of models, ML practitioners say that they have yet to find what they need from prepackaged MLops systems.

As companies expand their use of AI beyond running just a few machine learning models, ML practitioners say that they have yet to find what they need from prepackaged MLops systems.

Photo: artpartner-images via Getty Images

On any given day, Lily AI runs hundreds of machine learning models using computer vision and natural language processing that are customized for its retail and ecommerce clients to make website product recommendations, forecast demand, and plan merchandising. But this spring when the company was in the market for a machine learning operations platform to manage its expanding model roster, it wasn’t easy to find a suitable off-the-shelf system that could handle such a large number of models in deployment while also meeting other criteria.

Some MLops platforms are not well-suited for maintaining even more than 10 machine learning models when it comes to keeping track of data, navigating their user interfaces, or reporting capabilities, Matthew Nokleby, machine learning manager for Lily AI’s product intelligence team, told Protocol earlier this year. “The duct tape starts to show,” he said.

Keep ReadingShow less
Kate Kaye

Kate Kaye is an award-winning multimedia reporter digging deep and telling print, digital and audio stories. She covers AI and data for Protocol. Her reporting on AI and tech ethics issues has been published in OneZero, Fast Company, MIT Technology Review, CityLab, Ad Age and Digiday and heard on NPR. Kate is the creator of and is the author of "Campaign '08: A Turning Point for Digital Media," a book about how the 2008 presidential campaigns used digital media and data.

Latest Stories