Slack’s secret sauce: how it became the fastest growing business app ever


Slack has launched its Asia-Pacific headquarters in Melbourne. We caught up with Ali Rayl, head of customer experience.

Source: Slack’s secret sauce: how it became the fastest growing business app ever

Natural wood and plants adorn Slack's Melbourne office, designed by Breathe Architecture.Natural wood and plants adorn Slack’s Melbourne office, designed by Breathe Architecture. Photo: Slack

Visiting Slack’s new Melbourne office is kind of awful.

Outfitted by Breathe Architecture in the old Carlton United Brewery Maltstore on Swanston Street, the space is so stunningly beautiful it makes you never, ever want to walk back into yours.

It’s like a lush gazebo filled with mismatched shapes in natural finishes, greenery spilling out of every crevice. A fully stocked bar hems an amphitheatre furnished with recycled Australian timber.

A converted silo at Slack's Melbourne office in the former Carlton Draught brewery.A converted silo at Slack’s Melbourne office in the former Carlton Draught brewery. Photo: Slack

The old concrete malt silos now house high-tech conference rooms with names like Irukandji (box jellyfish), Great White and ‘Drop Bear’ – Australian animals that could kill you.

There’s an unmistakeable zen about the place. Staff aren’t allowed to take phone calls on the office floor – instead they must slip into a nearby meeting room.

It’s in one of these that I meet Ali Rayl, Slack’s global director of customer experience. She’s in town for the Melbourne office opening (it’s also Slack’s Asia-Pacific headquarters, a largely customer service-oriented team of 70 staff, with positions currently being filled).

Slack director of customer experience Ali Rayl says the secret to the app's success is to "think like a customer."Slack director of customer experience Ali Rayl says the secret to the app’s success is to “think like a customer.” Photo: Slack

Rayl has years of experience in software engineering and quality assurance on top of her work with Slack. She talks in sentences peppered with “like” and “awesome”. It seems fitting for company that hands out goodie bags to guests containing succulents, KeepCups and socks.

Slack claims to be the fastest growing business app ever, having amassed 2.3 million daily active users in just two years.

The secret to its success, says Rayl, is to think like a consumer.

Slack's Melbourne office has an unmistakable zen about the place.Slack’s Melbourne office has an unmistakable zen about the place. Photo: Slack

“We’ve done something that’s kind of unusual in business software, which is we are focused so much on making a tool that people genuinely like to use,” she says.

“That’s not something you usually get in your workplace – you get tools that your manager or your CEO or your CIO or CTO, like, somebody has decided, ‘This is good for our productivity’.”

Return on investment is not a good enough incentive to get people using something, she says. Making a product that feels more like a social media platform than a productivity tool, however, is.

Little details make using Slack more enjoyable.Little details make using Slack more enjoyable. Photo: Screenshot: Slack

While people love to hate getting work emails after hours, Slack has successfully transcended the work/play divide with an app that, as Rayl describes, “is not a burden on your phone and you don’t resent opening [it] up in the morning”.

It’s not just that Slack is built around chat channels, which are reminiscent of Facebook Messenger but with a tonne more functionality. (Instant integration with popular apps including Dropbox, Twitter and Google Docs is just the beginning.)

Nor is it about Slack’s playful vibe – from its friendly SlackBot notifications to its conversational loading page messages and customisable emoji.

Slack even lets you customise emoji.Slack even lets you customise emoji. Photo: Screenshot: Slack

Underpinning the casual and fun persona is a serious attention to detail that ensures a seamless user experience across both its desktop and mobile apps.

“We go through a lot of pain ourselves [testing internally],” Rayl says.

“We have a lot of conversations about pixels.”

Rayl oversees Slack’s quality assurance (QA) testing team alongside its customer service team. Having both of them under the same umbrella is unusual for a B2B company, but at Slack, it’s a no-brainer.

“Basically it’s [QA] the other side of the customer support coin,” Rayl says.

“If you know the pain points that your customers run into you can pull that back into your QA process and make that a better product.

“[Likewise] with strong QA you can avoid a lot of the problems the customers have [in the first place].”

Perfecting the consumer experience has paid off. Many organisations start off using Slack informally in small teams before the higher-ups adopt it company-wide.

There’s plenty of non-professionals using the platform too.

“We have a lot of people who figured out things to use Slack for things that aren’t their jobs,” Rayl says.

“We tried to make a very app agnostic tool that’s like, you need to work with other people to get stuff done, then here’s the tool for you.

“It’s not surprising that it’s working in other venues, but it’s gratifying – it’s kinda cool to see.”

Productivity tool – or just another distraction?

To say that Slack is a productivity tool may seem counter-intuitive.

According to the company’s own statistics, the average user spends two-and-a-quarter hours each workday actively using the platform.

Slack’s internal customer experience team has a “joking around channel” where staff argue about important things like whether beetroot tastes great or awful. (For the record, Rayl is “team beet”.)

Isobar‘s Australian office, a Slack customer, has a channel dedicated to burger reviews around Melbourne.

Another of Slack’s own statistics claims the app improves a team’s productivity by 32 per cent.

So how does it add up?

One reason is that Slack enables work to happen on its platform that would once have once been done in other programs – such as email. So those active two-and-a-bit hours might include a healthy mix of productive work and play.

There are other benefits that are more difficult to measure.

Having a relaxed communications channel, either within small teams or company-wide, helps build morale. It can also be crucial for the smooth functioning of teams working in separate offices.

“You develop those bonds between co-workers as humans and not just like another cog in the machine that you occasionally have to merge teeth with,” Rayl says.

“I don’t think that that joking with your co-worker … is necessarily always non-productive – it’s productive in a human way, rather than a ‘directly achieving business results each five minutes’ kind of way.”

All this can also make organisational change smoother and quicker, with managers able to explain and work through decisions with staff transparently and in real time.

“There are so many things causing so much change in businesses these days, it’s a vastly different to 50 years ago and I don’t think change management communication has caught up with it,” Rayl says.

While Slack may have found the positives in having become the digital equivalent of the water cooler conversation, there is a limit to lolz and gifs in the office.

As recent court cases have highlighted, some things should never be put in writing, no matter how informal the context – and particularly not in a work-related channel.

“Everybody should behave themselves in the workplace,” Rayl says.

Read more: http://www.smh.com.au/it-pro/business-it/slacks-secret-sauce-how-it-became-the-fastest-growing-business-app-ever-20160331-gnuzia.html#ixzz44XY1X07s
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