On the face of it, the cloud-based chat software Slack was solving a problem that didn't exist. Group chats existed before Slack. What makes this a big deal? Why should anyone bother with Slack when things like Gchat, HipChat, CampFire, Yammer, Lync, Skype and good old-fashioned IM exist?
Here at Supersite, a group of us started using Slack a few months ago to see how we could answer those questions. And now, Slack has become a vital component in our individual toolkits. So what won us all over?
You can sort chats by channel. One of my complaints about old-school IM, Gchat or Skype was that I'd have to scroll back through earlier conversations to pull out specific exchanges on specific topics. Not so in Slack -- we have channels for stories we're working on now, future projects, article pitches, or general "Hey, you around -- I need to ask about something" queries. Being able to sort conversation by intention and topic is great for focusing a real-time chat between people, and it helps for referring back to something.
A note about scrolling back to find previous chats in Slack: If you use Slack as a free user, there is a hard limit of 10,000 pass messages. So if your team is especially chatty, consider paying up.
Another note about how to find previous comments in Slack: You can star individual messages in a channel. It's like bookmarking them. And then later, simply click the star icon in the upper-right corner and all your starred messages will load. These are not erased if or when your Slack hits the upper limits of its message storage.
You can also have private conversations in Slack. This is handy for having one-on-one chats with colleagues if someone reads something in a main chat and wants to follow up quietly. You are able to switch seamlessly between the group and private conversation.
You can easily upload files into Slack. Sure, the most immediate application is the ability to upload animated gifs under the "a picture's worth a thousand words" theory. But we've also found it useful for filing stories and images when we're working in the field and don't have time or access to the CMS.
Thanks to Slack's integration abilities (for free users, you can integrate up to 10 different apps), the collaborative brainstorming or calendar scheduling we do in Google Docs can be easily read within Slack, and the contents are searchable within Slack too.
A note about how to find things in Slack: Like I've said, the starred messages are helpful. There's a search function that lets you search across one or more channels for key words or for files. And you can also keep things in your Slackbot direct message area -- it's meant to be a private scratchpad for you.
You can customize desktop alerts. This is something I especially appreciate, because I'm picky about how sights and sounds affect my concentration and workflow. I like that you can assign different alert sounds to different chats -- or mute them altogether. My favorite part of the desktop alerts is the ability to customize your desktop alerts so you only get them if you're directly addressed by someone else or if someone uses a "highlight word," i.e. a word or words you've specified as relevant to your needs.
You can access your Slack across different devices. I have Slack apps for both my laptop computer and my mobile phone. This lets me stay connected, conversationally speaking, if I'm on a show floor or covering a press event.
You can load multiple team Slacks into one app. This is my personal favorite feature, because I've got a couple other collaborative team efforts on the side, and being able to switch between Slack teams to see who's talking about what has streamlined my digital life.
A note about using Slack with multiple teams: In the preferences, you can set different visual themes for your Slack. I like to use different color themes with different Slack teams so that I can easily keep track of which team I'm in at any given time.
You can control who you're talking to. The people who launch a Slack team are the ones who can determine whom to invite -- or give that latitude to someone else. Since we at Supersite spend our Slack time talking about website-related work, we want to make sure the only people on our Slack channels are the ones who need to know about what we're doing. I've seen Slack get dinged for not having a "guest" mode in its freebie tier, but if we need someone to see a conversation, we can send screengrabs or do something the old-fashioned way, i.e. email them.
Sure, a lot of Slack's features are available across other group chat-type tools. And one can argue that other group-chat type tools offer more useful features. For example, Slack has next to no project-management tools or calendar features, and it doesn't allow for voice calls.
However, in our little team's case, we weren't looking for a one-in-all solution. We already had tools we liked for managing projects, and Skype's been great for our weekly edit call-ins. (And, by the way, we integrated Skype into one of our Slack channels, so there's that concern about voice calling eliminated.)
What we needed was a quick and easy way to get each other's attention over the course of the day -- something less intrusive than the phone, something less cumbersome-feeling than email, something more useful and customizable than old-school chat apps. Slack does it for us. Maybe it can work for your small team too.