Why We’re Betting Against Real-Time Team Messaging Apps Like Slack

Does faster communication really mean better communication?

By Amir Salihefendic

Why We’re Betting Against Real-Time Team Messaging Apps Like Slack
Illustration by Margarida Mouta

Three years ago our remote company joined Slack.

Until then, we had relied on a mix of email and an internal tool called Wedoist for all of our communication. But our steadily growing team based across several time zones made it hard to stay on the same page and even harder to feel like one, cohesive team. Something had to change.

So we tried Slack.

To say the app was a game-changer would be putting it mildly. Communication between team members across continents exploded. We shared ideas and gifs. (Lots of gifs.) We reported bugs and developed inside jokes. We celebrated successes and discussed ways to improve our work. Almost overnight, we went from a group of 30 individuals to a true team.

And then, two years in, we quit Slack cold turkey.

This post is the story of why we stopped using Slack. It’s also the story of how we had the (possibly) crazy idea that we could contribute something fundamentally different to an already cluttered team communication market. Something for teams like ours with the audacity to think that maybe there’s more to work than keeping up with group chat…

The problem with real-time most of the time

Group chat apps like Slack are built for a specific kind of communication — one-line-at-a-time, real-time conversations. This form of communication is sometimes useful (e.g. in emergency situations), but presents significant downsides when it becomes your team’s primary way of communicating.

It was addicting

One of the first things Slack does during onboarding is ask to send you notifications.

Because conversations in Slack happen on a one-way conveyor belt, our team began feeling like they had to stay constantly connected to keep up. If you weren’t following conversations as they unfolded inside Slack, you were likely missing out on important discussions and decisions.

This style of communication was especially problematic for a remote-first company like ours, with team members spread across many different time zones. How do you stay in the loop when earlier topics have already been discussed and are buried by the time you even wake up?

As Samuel Hulick put it in his famous “break-up” letter to the app:

I’m finding that “always on” tendency to be a self-perpetuating feedback loop: the more everyone’s hanging out, the more conversations take place. The more conversations, the more everyone’s expected to participate. Lather, rinse, repeat.

One study found that Slack users spend an of average of ten hours per day in the app! That’s not to say that people aren’t multitasking of course, but study after study has shown that constant context-switching —like when you stop what you’re doing to check on a notification from a teammate—kills productivity and leads to “more stress, higher frustration, time pressure and effort.”

It wasn’t healthy for our team, and it wasn’t helping us focus on the hard work that really moves projects forward.

It was built for shallow conversations

Slack was useful for quickly checking on things, but we found that it was a troublesome channel for big picture discussions. Group chat interfaces are designed for rapid fire messaging, and it was nearly impossible to sustain a full conversation from start to finish.

We had a similar experience as Dave Teare, founder of Agile Bits:

Before you could even fully understand the problem being discussed (let alone find a solution), someone would invariably start a new conversation or reply to a previous discussion that happened earlier in the channel.

Even when conversations stayed on topic, everything still required an immediate response. With Slack, there was no breathing room to take a step back, think about what was being discussed, and follow up on it later. We still needed separate tools—in our case email and Wedoist—to have deeper conversations about our work. This meant that our conversations were fractured into multiple pieces that were hard to put together.

Communication was shallow and chaotic. Which brings us to the next point…

It was disorganized

With multiple, simultaneous conversations happening inside a single Slack channel, we began losing track of things. Ideas were proposed, discussed for a bit, and lost. It was impossible to refer back to a decision that had been made, or to neatly preserve the information so that others could find it later.

One of our support team members likened the experience of reporting a bug in the #Support channel to trying to hop on a moving train. Once he did manage to get a developer’s attention, there was no easy way to follow up on the status of the issue later.

Since we couldn’t easily go back to find whether a topic had already been discussed, the same questions and issues were often brought up multiple times. Rather than building an internal knowledge base for people to find information themselves, we just repeated ourselves.

It was disorganized, inefficient, and frankly overwhelming.

It only simulated transparency

The lack of organization inside Slack had real consequences for our team’s access to information. We quickly discovered that real-time messaging wasn’t meant to preserve history or promote transparency.

Slack had awesome search if you were looking for something very specific like a file, but there was no way to get insight into what was happening in any given channel without manually skimming through it. Even then, it was difficult to follow along as topics bled into topics with a lot of irrelevant chitchat in between.

That led to a frustrating contradiction. In theory, everyone on the team had access to all the communication that happened in public channels. But in reality, even I couldn’t keep track of all the conversations that were happening at the company. Whoever happened to be connected at the time could follow along and be involved in the decision-making. Everyone else might not even be aware that the conversation happened at all.

Ironically, as communication flourished, conversations became less transparent.

A different way to work together — asynchronous, mindful, organized

Slack the product wasn’t the issue. It’s perfectly designed and built for what it does—real-time messaging for teams. It was real-time messaging itself that was the problem. But when we explored alternatives, we found that Slack’s competitors promised the exact same model of real-time chat.

That’s how, one year into our Slack experiment, we made the decision to create Twist, an entirely new platform—one that centers around calmer, more organized, and more productive communication.

Everyone’s following the same real-time chat model.

Along the way, we’ve drawn inspiration from initiatives like Time Well Spent, “a non-profit movement to reclaim our minds from the race for attention” and Deep Work, the Wall Street Journal bestseller by professor Cal Newport. Newport argues that “the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task” is becoming both increasingly important and increasingly rare in today’s connected, knowledge-based workplace. People are waking up to the fact that the 24/7 hook that technology has on our attention hurts both our work and our well being.

We started building Twist in 2014, and on March 23rd, 2016, we moved all our team communication to the platform.

I firmly believe we wouldn’t be the team we are today if we hadn’t pursued this challenge and made the switch. As a remote team of 50 with very few opportunities for face-to-face interaction, Twist has given us a space to fully discuss complex ideas and projects from start to finish, to give more meaningful feedback, to promote transparency in our decision-making, and to disconnect to do the deep work that we’re truly excited about.

Here are a few of the design decisions we’ve made along the way to prioritize asynchronous communication over real-time messaging, doing great work over being constantly connected:

Thread-first communication

Threaded conversations have been at Twist’s core from the beginning. They let anyone on the team create a conversation about a specific topic and ensure that whole conversations—ideas, issues, answers, and decisions—stay organized around that topic.

With Twist, I can unplug, go play a game of soccer, and come back to any conversation without missing anything. There’s no pressure to respond immediately. In fact, many members snooze all notifications for significant portions of the day, and some don’t have notifications turned on at all. This gives them complete control over their time and attention to do deep, thoughtful work.

Here’s an example of a thread from our Doist Branding channel where we discussed, gave feedback, and iterated on the new logo for Twist for over a year—all organized in the same thread!

This thread kept our discussion about the new Twist logo organized and on topic for over a year. /

Slack recently introduced the concept of threads inside the app as well. The feature is great at what it’s designed for—to hold small side conversations that branch off the main channel—but it doesn’t solve any of the issues we faced. Threaded communication isn’t something you can bolt on as an afterthought. When everything else is built around group chat, real-time communication will always be the default.

Truly transparent conversations

From our experience with Slack, we knew that merely making conversations public wasn’t enough to guarantee equal access to information across the company. Transparency was one of the main reasons that we built communication around clear topics.

Instead of having to skim through single-stream-of-consciousness chat channels, our team can now browse topics to get an overview of the discussions happening in the company. We can delve deeper into just the conversations we’re interested in, even if we’re not directly involved. We often share links to whole threads as reference so people can look and see how a certain decision was made.

Our newest team members have been able to quickly get up to speed on what’s going on and see our team culture in action by reading past discussions about our work.

As CEO, having all our team conversations in Twist threads lets me keep my finger on the pulse of the company without getting overwhelmed. It frees me up to do other work without worrying that I’m missing important things.

We’ve found that Twist has helped us stay connected in more meaningful ways, not just socializing, but actually sharing in the important conversations that determine the core of who we are as a company.

Leaving out the online presence indicator

A small, but impactful design choice we made in creating Twist was to leave out the online presence indicator.

The presence indicator has become something of an expectation for any team communication tool, a holdover from the days when productivity was measured by hours worked rather than work accomplished. But we felt that it would ruin the asynchronous nature of Twist:

  • If you see that a teammate is online, you expect an immediate response.
  • If you see someone is offline, you’re more likely to postpone sending a message because they probably won’t get back to you right away.

Without the presence indicator, our team has adapted to adding comments and sending messages whenever they need to. They have no way of knowing if the person is online, so they don’t expect an immediate response.

Conversations may happen more slowly, but more real work gets done since we don’t have to deal with constant distractions and context-switching that come with real-time messaging.

Time off (really off)

Another example of how we’ve designed Twist to foster mindful communication is the time off feature. Twist lets you set up a time off status that mutes all notifications from the app, changes your avatar to a “vacation” avatar, and lets your teammates know when you’ll return. This way people can properly recharge and take a well-deserved vacation, and everyone knows not to expect a response until they get back.

Ambition and balance are two of the core values of our company. Yes, we want to work hard and build a strong company, but not at the expense of our health and relationships. If we achieve our goals, but we’ve burnt ourselves out in the process, then we’ve failed. It feels amazing to be able to build features like Time Off that reflect those values.

We take vacations seriously 🏄🌴🍹

Products that improve our productivity & wellbeing

Whether it’s Facebook or Slack, today’s communication apps compete to grab your attention and maximize your time spent inside their apps. That’s how they raise VC money and bolster huge valuations (Slack is currently valued at $3.8 billion).

We want Twist to do well and be profitable, but we want it to be because it truly empowers teams (including ours) to do their best work, not because it hijacks their time and attention. It’s about having a product that’s built to serve users’ needs and not the other way around.

It’s going to be a long, uphill battle. Calm, asynchronous communication isn’t the norm. It’s going to take a major shift in thinking to recognize that focus and balance are vital assets that companies need to protect in order to be successful.

We’re betting that in the future, the most successful companies will be the ones who make that shift. The ones that don’t require their employees to be constantly connected, who prioritize asynchronous communication to create space for deep work and allow employees to fully disconnect and recharge. We’re excited to be a part of that movement.