5 things wrong with Slack

It's been valued at close to $3 billion and favored with glowing headlines like "Slack, the Office Messaging App That May Finally Sink Email" (The New York Times). But while Slack may indeed be the "darling app, the hot new thing for intraoffice chat and organization" (Slack Is Overrun With Bots. Friendly, Wonderful Bots, Wired), the service is still a little rough around the edges.

After a couple of weeks on the service, here are five things I wish they'd fix:

1) There's no Boolean search. Say you want to find all the messages from your team that mention both iOS and Android. Your first instinct might be to search for "iOS AND Android," but good luck with that: There is no Boolean search within Slack. Use two search terms, and you'll get back any message that has either term. Which means in this case, you'll get messages that mention iOS alone or Android alone as well as those with both terms.

Slack, you're a $2.8 billion company but paying customers still can't do a simple "contains term1 AND term2" search?

2) Users can't easily scan all new messages in multiple channels. Slack seems to be designed for employees who are members of one or a couple of teams, but not for managers who might need to check into many teams' channels. Yes, users can click on every channel that shows there are new messages, but it would be nice to click a single button -- or use a single search term -- to see all new messages across channels. This is especially important for companies that span the globe and have a lot of activity in other users' overnight time zones.

"A feed of all channels is something we are considering!" was the response to my Slack help desk query. "It isn't possible right now, sorry. I'll let the team know there's still high demand for such a feature. :)" "Still" leads me to believe that I'm not the only user who finds this important.

3) Away messages are too basic. "Since you can receive notifications and access Slack on the go," Slack's help center explains, "we keep statuses simple — team members are either active or away." Huh? If you're still receiving messages while mobile, why do you need to say you're away? But if you truly are unavailable, wouldn't it be useful for your colleagues to know whether you've just stepped away for an hour or are gone for the week?

4) There's no way to be notified of all messages from a certain person. In start-up land, the workplace may be egalitarian and everyone's contributions are equally valued. In much of corporate America, however, savvy employees like to manage up -- and that often means responding more quickly to comments/requests from one's boss's boss's boss than those of one's peers.

So, if your CIO tends to drop into various Slack channels making requests or suggestions, you might want to know about it sooner than whenever it is you get around to doing a manual search or checking every channel for new comments. Any decent email platform lets you flag messages from a specific person -- in Outlook, you can color code and set desktop notifications. Slack? You can do a search for all messages from a specific user, but there's no way to set up push notifications.

5) Search API results are somewhat convoluted. Others who are coding applications with the Slack search API may find this useful in order to get messages back with context. Alas, I don't, since my use case is "See results that match my search terms."

Let me explain. I'm searching for all messages posted today in channel X that mention term Y. When I do the search manually, I get 10 responses (both messages and files). Great. But when I do the same search using the API, I get only 4 matches. Why? Because each matching message also contains "previous," "previous_2", "next," and "next_2" -- whether or not those prior and subsequent messages meet the search criteria.

All matching items don't seem to have their own separate listings, but occasionally they do. If I just want to return a list of matching messages, it's up to me as the coder to check all 5 JSON fields -- the message and then that message's previous and next items; and then screen out 1) all the ones that match and 2) all the dupes. (That's an hour of my life I'll never get back, finally figuring out that quirk).

So, yes, Slack bots are fun. Yes, I like coding my own customized slash commands. And yes, the interface is more engaging than Outlook's (admittedly, a somewhat low bar). However, if Slack supposed to replace email for internal communication instead of being Yet One More Thing I Need To Monitor, some features still need to be addressed before I'd want to rely on it for all my in-house messaging. Even if I can make my own slash commands to report the local weather and respond to queries about holiday days off.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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