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Is group chat making you sweat? (signalvnoise.com)
226 points by j4pe on Mar 7, 2016 | hide | past | favorite | 66 comments

> All sorts of eventual bad happens when a company begins thinking one-line-at-a-time most of the time.

theres a style i see a lot

of complicating on slack

^ communicating

where they type everything line by line

like this

not much punctuation

hardly any capital letters

never use the edit feature to correct anything

just type another line with ^ and the word you meant

and everyone sees that "Stratoscope is typing" message

the entire time

it makes me crazy

I seem to be the odd man out in some Slack teams and channels. When I write something, even on Slack, I try to write it to be read. Sentences, paragraphs, punctuation, and grammar make things easier to read.

Of course I leave out the email-style "Hi Sally," intro and "Thanks, -Mike" closing, and keep it shorter and less formal.

If I'm writing more than a sentence or two, I'll sometimes type it into a separate text editor first, just so people won't have to see that "Mike is typing" the whole time. And so I don't accidentally hit Enter and send out my half-baked draft!

I also have to admit to a prejudice: when I see consistently sloppy writing from a programmer, I start to wonder what their code is like. Do they code in a way that's quick to write, or easy to read?

To be clear, by "sloppy" I don't mean the kinds of mistakes that can be expected and forgiven from a non-native speaker. And I don't mean the casual informality that is natural for the medium. I'm talking about the barely coherent style of writing I used at the top of this comment.

The line by line stream of thought seems lazy to me. It's distracting, hard to read, and doesn't feel respectful of the reader.

but maybe thats just me

It seems like you're being downvoted, but I'm right there with you. I can't tell you how many times I've been in the middle of a thought only to receive a "Hi, can I ask you a question?" message, followed by 30 seconds of "X is typing...".

Part of my job is answering questions. The answer to "can I ask you a question?" therefore is always "Yes". All you manage to accomplish by asking me if you can ask me a question is to break my concentration and waste my time until your actual question comes through (often one line at a time as well).

I have to assume this is coming from people who are not good text communicators in general because the same problem exists with email: "when would you like to schedule this" without indication of your own schedule is one such pet peeve. It's really easy to stretch out asynchronous conversation by wasting the other person's time.

"I have a question" in speech DOES have a purpose, which is to prime listeners to enter conversation mode instead of stopping you to say "what" after you've said two words. Of course, I've seen people who are on the ball and impatient still get testy about that convention.

Edit: the most infuriating experience I've had in recent memory is a friend who will consistently spam his shitposts over IM without warning, but when it comes time to do business will say "hi" or "are you there" instead of asking the question.

Oh god yes. This wastes so much time! "Oh Hi" ... 5 minutes later ... "got a sec?"

You're entirely right about the quality of writing that comes out. I wouldn't be so quick to blame the users, though. The tools have settled on general design decisions that encourage this usage, primarily:

1. Input boxes too short to see more than a few lines of text, and of course they are not resizable.

2. Pressing <enter> sends the message, so you can't really write more than a paragraph anyway. It's usually possible to insert CRLF by something undiscoverable like shift-<enter>, but you're nervous the whole time you type it in case it sends before you're ready.

3. No spell checking.

It would be an interesting experiment to see if behavior changed much just by addressing these 3 simple items.

We use a chat program with all three of those, and it doesn't fix any of those problems.

Ha. I would hope it would be at least a little better, like the incomplete thoughts are at least correctly spelled. But maybe the whole idea of "chat" puts the user in a frame of mind that prefers speed of writing over all else.

I think you've hit the nail on the head! People respond to the incentives they're given, and those certainly are the incentives here. Quite the opposite of an email app or a programmer's editor.

> If I'm writing more than a sentence or two, I'll sometimes type it into a separate text editor first

Same! I always hop over to Sublime to do this. It'd be nice if Slack had a full screen popup focus mode where you could just write with a large text box and without UI distractions.

This definitely isn't slack-specific, and it drives me nuts as well. I've seen the same in hipchat and just about any real-time chat client in the past.

From what I've been able to tell, it's conversational, where the person types as they would speak - at the speed of thought, and others can potentially jump in (as is possible in normal conversation). This brain-dump method also seems to avoid the "x is typing..." (as fluxquanta mentioned) pause, which, if poorly implemented in some chat clients, will show "x is typing..." even if x stopped typing and stepped away. That's just as infuriating - especially if you actually need to know what x was typing.

Personally, I still prefer email. There are very few times that real-time communication has been better for me, personally, than a well-thought-out email and response chain, which I can search and reference at another time. The more a team I'm working with leans toward real-time chat, the more I find myself logging out of chat to get things done and then reviewing and responding at length when I can focus on doing so.

I have found there is a strong correlation between people who suck at email and people who suck at realtime chat.

It appears that not many people have learned (or been taught) to value other peoples' time in regards to this sort of communication.

I think Slack really needs to tweak their default notification settings. Before you know what you're doing you end up with an anxiety-inducing list of bolded room names after you've been away from your machine for 10 minutes.

Or maybe they shouldn't have defaults - when you join a room it should ask you how you want to be notified. Since I've set 90% of the rooms I'm in to "muted until someone @s me" I've found it to be a much better experience, but setting that up was a pain.

I don't use Slack, but when I tried it (that was in June 2015), this was the about first thing that @slackbot had suggested to me. In 2 days after signing up I got this message:

> Psst… Aleksey! Right now you’re getting notified every time something is posted to Slack. That's great at first, but now that activity is increasing you'll probably prefer dialing that down. We recommend notifications just for mentions and DMs (i.e., only when someone wants your attention).

> [Switch to our recommended settings]

So, they're doing this already.

("The activity is increasing" part was a lie, though - they don't measure the activity or notification frequency at all, as I was the only user somewhat alive.)

Yeah, this is how I set it up. Should be a default, as it is more sane to only be notified when you are addressed.

Also, more complex conversations should "go somewhere else", whether that's github issues, a Google doc, or a Skype call.

Basecamp tries to be an all in one solution, which means that it's probably not as good as Slack for group chat, and not as good as Google Docs for document editing etc.

The defaults are sensible. Tags for you specifically, or private messages, show up noisily. Messages to a group show up subtly, but not completely invisibly. Bolded rooms should be normal; the green (1)s should be reserved for the truly urgent things.

The defaults may be sensible to you, but they're not for me and not for the OP. Bold is "important"--perhaps they could consider a subtle change of text color or even italics instead of LOOK AT ME I AM BRIGHT WHITE AND BOLD. And having any badges in my Dock is completely unusual to me to the point where it's an automatic reflex to look at them.

I can, and do, modify the default settings, but I contend that, for me, the defaults are inhumane and I wish we as a tech culture would stop with these proclamation-from-on-high denials of potential issues just because they don't scratch the proclaimer's itch.

> Bolded rooms should be normal

That's where I disagree, particularly as it shows up with a red dot next to the app in my dock. Makes it seem far more urgent than it actually is.

This red dot notification badge is maddening in a team of 20+. It should default to off.

They have added the option to disable it:

  Preferences > 
    Notification Settings > 
      Dock App Icon > 
        Show (•) symbol on icon to indicate unread activity

The red dot icon for unread activity is a default I find non-sensible. When the team is a few dozen plus, seeing the badge every 1-5 minutes is incredibly distracting.

On Android the default is to push-notify on every message in a room. This is not sensible at all.

I wish you could get rid of the default channels, so everything has more of a point. #general basically always becomes a garbage dump.

At our company, we renamed it #announcements and made it so only admins could post there.

This is super true. My first act on any new Slack is to disable notifications globally, then re-enable them for channels I care about.

The cynic in me can't help but notice that this post seems to reframe Basecamp and similar solutions as the central collaboration hubs, with team chats being additional tools.

Given the fact that 37Signals refocused on Basecamp a couple years ago [1], and given the aggressive competition they must be facing from Slack and the likes (on top of other project management platforms like Trello or Asana), this is pretty understandable.

I agree with some of the points made, mostly that you should have some sort of asynchronous, slower pace type of hub that should act more or less as the source of truth and progress. For my team, it's been GitHub for a while [2], and I haven't met a (functioning) team who did without. At the very least, there's a Hackpad or a whiteboard somewhere that lists what needs to be done and where things are at.

Is it sometimes frustrating to be constantly connected to your entire team? Sure. Does it breed expectations of immediacy? Sure. But this is not specific to the workplace: Uber, Tinder, Airbnb, ... heck iMessage. We've already been down that road for a few years now. Just look at how frustrated one can be when you chose not to answer a text for a day.

Teams that have their sh*t together will use something like Basecamp, Asana, Trello or GitHub. But the problem the author raises here is much larger than just work collaboration and I very much doubt that this global trend will curb in the short to middle term. We will build behaviors to cope with the culture of "now", but I very much doubt that it will look like Basecamp.

[1]: http://www.inc.com/magazine/201403/jason-fried/basecamp-focu...

[2]: https://wiredcraft.com/blog/github-for-everything/

I can't really believe that it's a competitive space. It seems like a massively growing market... from what I can tell there's a crazy amount of "fresh blood" in the form of businesses using antiquated software and newly formed organizations forming which are just graduating from Google Docs.

In a growing market it's not really a zero sum game, multiple players just means more growth.

My productivity increases so much when I shutdown chat apps I can only wish people responsible for setting them up at companies would stop for a minute and read this. Only the fact that the app is running is enough to reduce my output since I'll switch to it regularly no matter what.

This is all funny because 3 years ago it was email overload, use chat instead. Now we are up to chat overload. With no tools we have meeting overload.

Maybe we just need some kind of flat "only talk to people 2 hours a day" rule for developers that transcends communication method.

The problem is that the tools we invent to solve the old problem create new problems that are worse.

- At least meetings had a defined start and end time. With email you're expected to be "always on"

- At least emails can be dealt with asynchronously, so you can focus on work for a while and then circle back and deal with email. With chat you've got to be at least semi-engaged with the tool at all times

> Maybe we just need some kind of flat "only talk to people 2 hours a day" rule for developers...

I'm not sure if it was Brooks or if it was another one of the guys who were doing investigation into engineer/programmer productivity at the time that discovered something along the lines of: "The most productive workplaces allow and encourage their engineers to switch off their desk telephones whenever the engineer requires it.". [0]

Maybe in a hundred years we will have learned that lesson for good.

[0] Remember, this was back in the 1980s or so, so you got desk phones, intra-office mail, or walking down to talk to a guy.

One 15 minutes meeting spoils 1 hour of development time.

One 2 hour meeting spoils 3-4 hours of development time.

And LACK of the right 15 minute meeting wastes months of development time as we build the wrong thing and then throw it out.

The trick is knowing which piece of communication is the one that will actually matter. I have no idea how to solve this one.

Experience helps. But there is no magic answer that fixes the problem.

Won't it be faster if you disable the notifications at the OS level? If your output is more important than instant communication with your peers, it should be OK to not be notified. Otherwise you'll just have to accept your destiny.

Do posts from signalvsnoise.com get a penalty or are they just always flagged? I'm asking cause this was just posted an hour ago, has 157 points/47 comments, and is already falling from the first page. And this seems like a pattern.

Sounds like it. Have noticed something similar on another thread as well.

With 7 years experience of running a remote & distributed team (5+ countries) at Netsparker [1].

We have 4 platforms:

* Bug Tracking / Project Management

* Group Chat

* Skype / Voice

* Email

Since we grew organically, here is how I shaped the culture from 2 team members to 20 and quite happy with it at the moment:

Groupchat is for "2. Red Alerts" (via @everyone mentions), "3.Having Fun" and "4. Sense of belonging". Finally to share random stuff from funny moments to interesting articles. Stuff that's completely optional to consume. Very very rarely for "Hashing things out quickly" for that we use Skype. If you want to toss an idea back and forth, just talk. If you are not in the same timezone just wait for all to be in the same timezone (we don't have extreme timezone differences, max is about 10 hours)

Voice is for pretty much everything else. We don't type or discuss anything on chat if it's more than 3 message exchanges, when that happens someone just calls. It's just waste of time, we just get on a call and talk. We also have a routine of initiating skype calls to ensure it's normal to call people but it's also normal to ignore calls as well. So you have the option to quickly talk but also option to not be distracted.

We made it OK to be offline. Especially for devs it's OK to just be offline.

If something is really urgent, we'll call you or send you a text message. Which rarely happens.

If it's a task/bug put it into the bug tracking system. Then it'll be visible on the developer chat channel automatically.

So we found that voice chat is superior to pretty much anything else for many purposes. Another habit we are getting better at is taking notes in voice conversations and putting them on to the tasks.

These make text group chat a very minimal part of the flow. Another good example: I was away for 2 weeks and it took me about 10 minutes to catch up with all the group chat because we use it sparsely and discussions always use threads (this is something we teach during the orientation) so you can read the first line and just skip the whole thing.

Maybe it works because we have only 20 people, we're planning to continue to do this until it doesn't work anymore.

[1]: https://www.netsparker.com

TL;DR : don't use synchronous channels for asynchronous communication.

There is a continuum from real-time discursive to solid archived legally-binding documentation, with a whole nuanced palette in-between... But - everything in chatrooms, everything in mailing lists, everything in web forums, everything in ticketing, everything in a wiki, everything in IRC, everything in Slack: I've seen all those fads... When the only tool you have is a hammer etc.

I believe that the deeper problem is about the tool selection process - not just bottom-up vs. top-down but also the bonding produced by the community that forms around a tool and the way it emerges from peer opinion leaders... False consensus is easy to achieve and it becomes apparent once media fatigue begins to occur as practical pressure overcomes social pressure.

I have Hipchat (tool used internally at my company) set to no notifications at all for group chats. I get notified by 1/1 chats and I selectively enable notification for 'hot' rooms (i.e when I'm dealing with a specific problem that needs my attention now).

This is how I manage my personal group chats in groupme.

What I took back from this article was that it's not about Slack vs. Hipchat vs. IRC vs. Skype vs. Basecamp or anything else. Whatever you do with your S/H/I/S/B app settings, the very mode of communication without specific granular contexts and separation of those contexts (like in email) is a big issue, not some notification setting that could possibly get rid of the issues of this medium.

Chat has its benefits as mentioned in the article, but there is a big deal of frustration -- "How do I respond to point #1 by A, point #2 by B, point #3 by C, point #4 by D that was in reply to point #2 by B"-- and exhaustion -- "I can never catch up with this" -- not to mention it being futile in some cases.

If the topic at hand is granular enough (which never is the case, especially when dealing with complex things like software design and development) then chats could be useful. For anything broader, depending on people's availability, asynchronous communication (say email) or synchronous voice communication (say a phone or VoIP call with a shared whiteboard) may be better choices with more focus and productivity.

The whole problem exponentially increases in its (negative) impact with the addition of more people into a group chat. This part has commonality with other communication modes, but the way to control it and the effectiveness of controlling it vary.

On a tangent, a voice call with a larger group is useless unless it has a shared screen or presentation to keep people's eyes also busy and in sync. If there's a way to make people participate, that's a big bonus. Otherwise many will drift off to chat windows, email, browser tabs, etc., resulting in the oft-repeated phrase in conference calls "Sorry, I didn't get that last part. Could you please repeat it?" :)

On the subject of Slack and its shortcomings, I'm not happy with the apparently deliberate rolling-back of WYSIWYG for online communication. Early web forums used flat text or manual HTML because browser/tech limitations made WYSIWYG hard or impossible, but that style has somehow become a standard decades after it stopped being technically relevant.

I can kinda-sorta understand it for deliberately minimalistic web interfaces like HN's, but Slack isn't even limited to a web app. Why do I have to use their idiosyncratic markup instead of just hitting Ctrl-I like every other desktop app for the past 20 years? (Underscores for italics, really?) Why can't I make a normal hyperlink with normal link text, instead of ramming a mile-long URL with a big ugly preview image into the chat?

Semi-related story: Slack lost us a partnership deal

Last year, I met with the EVP of a division at a Fortune 500 company in New York, to discuss a partnership opportunity for our software company.

His direct reports had talked us up to him because we had a highly differentiated offering for a crowded space; one which his company was competing in.

It all went south as soon as the EVP recalled his experience with Slack. "You guys sound like this Slack we tried last month." While our product didn't handle group chat whatsoever, I couldn't convince him otherwise.

According to him, Slack increased the noise in their communications because they "worked on a long-term case/problem basis" and they and "always refer back to conversations", which was difficult to do with constant chatter.

Related: Slack, I'm Breaking Up With You


As a remote employee who has successfully pushed Flowdock into the culture of my last three employers, I've got things to say here. :)

I think the core thing is to treat group chat like physical office chat. So:

  - Don't use it to make decisions
  - Don't expect anyone is paying attention
  - If you need someone to pay attention, @ them
  - Stay in flows/rooms/groups with your close working companions, visit others when needed
Maybe I've been lucky that this has come pretty naturally to the people I work with, but Flowdock has been a lifesaver for me, and gone a long way towards making it easier to hire more remote people.

Whether or not you buy what they are selling (this is an ad for Basecamp over Slack) -- there are some great points raised that I think are worth thinking through even if you are all-in on Slack/Hipchat/etc.

I found the "one-line at a time thinking" and "announcements aren't chat" to be very elegant ways of describing some hangups I've had with group chat and I have a few very actionable changes that I hope to make in my day-to-day work life.

For many of the same downsides, I have chosen to sign out of iMessage on my Mac. I used to think "wow, this so convenient!" but the accessibility ruins my focus when I'm working.

I think there is a dramatic difference for people who are even slightly socially anxious. I know I have an impulse to give social situations more attention than what's needed, exaggerating the distractive nature of notifications.

Well I don't read my Slack feed much, except when directly mentioned. If somebody needs everybody's attention, there is @everyone tag (not to be used lightly, and Slack warns about that).

Otherwise, chats are there to be ignored and consumed when there is some free time. Slack (as the name implies) is not a high-priority business communication tool.

we use the group chat the same way as texts. There is an understanding that there is no requirement to respond instantly (or at all!). It is an announcement platform with implicit understanding it is not work related. You want to discuss something work related, you use email.

>>You want to discuss something work related, you use email.

This pattern is the inverse of what I see as best practice: _email_ is the announcement (notification) tool, and then when discourse is needed move to "pro chat," something with logging, powerful search, so forth.

An email thread locks knowledge in the thread and it's hidden from the team (at least until someone in the thread fwds it on).

It’s about a method of communication. Let's take the positive suggestions.

As a side note, interesting that this is published on/by Medium but on a custom domain. I also heard Bill Simmons mention using Medium for a new site (on his podcast).

Curious to see where they're headed with this.

The pomodoro technique solves this problem.

HBR's Winter 2016 article on Collaboration Overload might interest some people: https://hbr.org/2016/01/collaborative-overload

Good, relevant, share. Was this posted as a stand-alone link on HN? "Those seen as the best sources of information and in highest demand as collaborators in their companies—have the lowest engagement and career satisfaction scores." Yikes.

Very interesting indeed. It's been posted 4 times in the past 2 months btw :) no discussions though.


I wish there was a way to "subtly" @ someone where the person would not be pinged until they turned off their "I'm working" status. You could still normally @ someone to get their immediate attention no matter what.

what i want to know is why in the world both hipchat and slack don't allow you to open multiple rooms/channels at once in the native client.

i'm clicking at least 1000 times per day to change channels. that's not an exaggeration.

surely i can't be the only one with this problem. or am i just missing something super obvious here?

having said that, my current position/job/company is the last one i will ever work where things have to get done "now" constantly. i'm done with this method of working after i fulfuill my current obligations.

The only survival tactic is to figure out the absolute minimum of group-chat engagement you can get away with in your org without it being a problem. Leave all the rooms and groups that are not explicitly about work. If a room is bold because it has unread messages, that doesn't mean you need to read them right now.


Just like every other communication tool, it's not the tool it's how you use it.

Did you read the article? Because the author specifically calls out this viewpoint as, while perhaps well-intended, ignoring the fundamental reality of how tools encourage you to work. When the straightforward, socially-accepted path is distraction hell, that becomes the norm for those in it regardless of one's desired use pattern.

Yes I did read the article. But until someone can show me how slack exacerbates behavior any better/worse than what email did when it first came out, or texting, or even typed memos and letters, I'd love to see it.

Points 11 and 12 of the article contrast chat with email, along with various other minor references.

What if the tool doesn't allow you to use it how you'd like?

I'm a member of a couple of Slack teams. Some I need to be on for 1 on 1s and the group chat is handy from a social perspective.

However, I see the same red badge on the icon when tabbing between apps when theres a cat photo as when theres an important message. That isnt good.

Yep, I get that there are a lot of emerging edge cases that need to have the UI and experience tweaked, but at the same time, it's on us to understand the ability of the tool and how best to use it.

Don't get me wrong, Slack needs to improve and adapt just like any other tool that has a growing user-base. But the SVN hand waving about culture isn't actually about Slack at all, it's just about teams not being well set up with clear goals and methods. You could sub out "Slack" with "email" and come up with similar issues.

... Well that's not a solution, that's just a statement saying a solution might be found.

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