Uncracking Slack’s Product Development Strategy by@angeline_lim

Uncracking Slack’s Product Development Strategy

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Angeline Lim


The hows and whys to building a sustaining tech product

I have always been a big fan of Slack ever since the day I started using its web application (and later mobile application) to manage my team. Later on, I came across Slack’s growth statistics that has ignited my curiosity as to why and how did Slack become such a successful product.

This article aims to explain and extrapolate Slack’s product development strategy based on the stories and information readily available through our favourite search engine — Google. Think of this as a quest to solve a puzzle, and we are going on an adventure to find the missing puzzle pieces to put them together.

Puzzle piece 1: Slack as a new market innovation


Slack is a new market innovation that has opened the doors for people to begin using instant messaging (IM) as a form of team communication. Tasks and communication previously achieved via emails are shifted to the IM platform through Slack. Its beautifully crafted user experience from signing-up to making announcements, discussing ideas and updating work progress have made it very easy for a general user to use.

Slack as a new market innovation has allowed it to focus on competing with the “non-consumption” instead of the existing IM market. This can be understood by segmenting the market through goals and tasks a typical user is trying to achieve when jumping onto the platform. Tools such as HipChat, CampFire and Yammer are not Slack’s direct competitors because the goals that users are trying to achieve on these platforms are different from Slack. Users adopt slack to achieve tasks that were previously done via emails. For instance, making an announcement is shifted from sending an email to IM (on Slack) due to less pressure in drafting and its flexibility to edit the announcement later. Discussing ideas on an email thread is shifted to Slack channels.

Sell the innovation, not the product — Steward Butterfield

Slack has crafted its product’s user experience so well that the company was able to attract teams from the mainstream market into IM market. Teams who previously used any email platforms or mainstream social platforms such as WhatsApp and Facebook to communicate, now use Slack because it is more effective and easy to achieve more team-centric tasks. Through the use of new market innovation, Slack did not just pull consumers from the pre-existing IM market, but also users from the email market. It is of no surprise that Slack’s user has grown 3.5 times within a year.

Puzzle piece 2: Focus on the users


Be it in cultivating oneself, building a relationship or running a company, staying focused on things that are important is the key to unlock its potential. Slack holds the key to unlock and realise its full potential when they chose to focus on their users. In fact, they know their users and the tasks the users are trying to achieve so well that it has allowed them to narrow down the product features to focus on the customers outcomes. But how?

Your customer doesn’t care how much you know until they know how much you care — Damon Richards

Design around what users are practicing and make it better. With its aim to reduce email usage by 75%, Slack knows how to design around the tasks users want to achieve when using email, and shifts the same behaviour to IM. For instance, organisations and teams use email to announce updates, discuss an idea or topic within an email thread, attach completed work for feedback and check-in on work progress. These can easily be done in Slack with significantly less time and effort with mentions (@everyone to announce updates), hashtags (#channel to represent an idea or topic), integrations to attach documents and keep track of workflow, as well as searchable messages. These are all consistent with their three core focuses: search, synchronisation and simple file-sharing. Slack did not reinvent the wheel or try to change the jobs users are trying to accomplish. Instead, they designed around what users were practicing and made it better. Slack has focused on what the customers value, and turned that into their strengths to increase its competitiveness in the IM market. It is no surprise that Slack receives so much love in return.

Puzzle piece 3: Discovery-driven approach


Product development is as much about learning as it is about building. Operating in an environment of inevitable change, product managers in Slack use a discovery-driven approach to continuously learn, build and measure its product. They understand the company’s goals as circumstances change, and coming up with assumptions that need to be satisfied to reach their goals. They operate like scientists, coming up with a hypothesis to be tested, not in the lab but in an ever-changing environment. They prioritise the hypotheses that needs to be tested because they know that time is gold. They understand that metrics is just a measurement to measure their goals, and discovery-driven approach ensures that they don’t get blinded by historical data at times. It is this continuous learning from the environment that maintains and boosts the product’s growth trajectory as it feeds into the cycle of learning, building and measuring in product development. All in all, a product’s lifecycle is similar to that of a human: when you stop learning, you stop growing.

Puzzle piece 4: Acquisition to sustain growth


As a company that understands the importance of continuous innovation, Slack has leveraged the opportunity to acquire Spaces and Screenhero in 2015 to sustain its growth. Spaces is a disruptive innovation that lets users collaborate on any combination of text, codes, images, task lists and files etc. to allow users to collaborate on a new kind of file format that they previously could not have done. The acquisition has allowed Slack to extend its functionalities to serve existing customers who actively use document collaborative tools, and shift the use cases onto its own platform. On the other hand, acquiring Screenhero seems to be a smart move to improve Slack’s performance through the introduction of a new feature: “group calls”. This is because Screenhero is a sustaining innovation to Slack when it’s well integrated into its product as a whole. Slack has demonstrated that, when an acquisition opportunity is well leveraged, it is a good strategy to sustain growth.

Puzzle piece 5: The Gritty Details


Connecting the dots

Overall, Slack’s execution is supported by the people, the processes and the culture cultivated and nurtured by the founding team — diligence, curiosity and empathy. Slack is the product of the gritty details demonstrated by the team as a whole. The great attention to detail, endeavour for continuous growth and people’s ability to stand in one’s shoes when designing and building has made Slack the product users love.

A line is formed by connecting two dots, and the lines of a Slack’s hash logo is made up by the coloured dots presented previously. The gritty details are the forces that connect the dots to complete the logo, hence Slack.


Making your working life simpler, more pleasant and more productive

This article is greatly inspired by ‘The Innovator’s Solution’ by Clayton Christensen, ‘The Lean Startup’ by Eric Ries and the beautifully made Slack.

Important Sources:

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