Christina Janzer, Slack's Head of Research, describes how her team designs human-centric user experiences (and reveals her favorite emoji) before joining us at our CXI 2018 conference on May 18

There's a generation of professionals who are more accustomed to texting than talking—and work itself has changed along with them. Technology has made remote and flexible office structures a possibility, but often at the expense of the social element that has existed around the office water cooler. Most of the time, none of that is regained in enterprise UX.

Christina Janzer, head of research at Slack, leads a team devoted to solving this problem. The messaging platform has become wildly popular for its innovative approach to enterprise tools: simply making them friendly and fun. Christina will deliver a keynote at our CXI 2018 conference on May 18 in New York City. Ahead of the event, spoke to PSFK founder and editor-in-chief Piers Fawkes about designing user experiences, and why it's so important to understand the root of people's needs—beyond what they're telling you they want from a product.

Piers Fawkes: Tell me about your approach when it comes to user experience and design at Slack.

Christina Janzer: Slack is trying to rethink the way that enterprise products work. We often hear about enterprise tools being complex and difficult to understand, and dreary. When you think about some more social products, you think of them as fun and human, and interesting and delightful, more of these positive terms. At Slack, we think that there is a lot to be said about figuring out how to make enterprise tools more like social products. How can we make Slack more delightful and more human?

All of this is with the goal of making your working life more pleasant, and more productive. What are some of those principles from social products that we might be able to borrow in order to think about how we can design a better enterprise tool?

A lot of these principles revolve around people. There's this shift where it's not just about the features, tools and capabilities that we want to build. It's about focusing on the person, and really understanding what are the things that they need to be able to do in order to do their job well, and how can we use that as the anchor to everything that we do.

What I was thinking about for this conversation was three design principles that I think a lot about, and how we think about those when we're building Slack. The first one is that core value of, how do we put people first? This is a lot of what my team does. We spend a lot of time understanding people problems. That's not just asking people what they want. That's not just saying, “What new feature would you like Slack to build?”

That's obviously an important part of it, but it's really deeply understanding, if you are a marketer or a salesperson or an engineer, what does work look like for you? What are the things that you need to be able to do in order to do your job well? If we can deeply understand what it is that people need to be able to do, then we're going to be much better equipped to build a product that actually solves the needs that people have.

The second thing that we think a lot about is, what does it mean to bring humanity into work? A lot of people talk about Slack as being more human. One of my favorite quotes from a participant in our research is that Slack brings humanity back into work, which I think is a positive thing.

When we think about bringing humanity into Slack, a lot of it is thinking about the way that work used to be—or some companies are still like this—but I think about my dad. He's a lawyer. He sits in the same vicinity of all of his partners. They can see each other. They know how each other are feeling because they are able to talk every day. They see how busy they are because they know when they're in meetings; they see the stack of briefs on their desk. They know if somebody's upset because they have a frown on their face. They know if somebody's in a meeting because they see them in a meeting.

When you're in that same physical space, you're able to rely on physical cues, on facial expressions, on a lot of these things that not everyone has the opportunity to do anymore because work is becoming so much more distributed. There are remote offices. People work from home. There are satellite situations. I don't know that tools have completely kept up with that, and that's what we're trying to do.

How can we bring those things that I talked about—the social cues and the facial expressions—all those things that are so important? How can we bring that kind of thing back into the product so that even if you aren't sitting with somebody, even if you are in a completely different time zone or country, you're still able to have those human interactions?

People think about emojis as silly tools that social products use. What we find in our research is it's actually not just about making things more human—it's also about reducing miscommunications. If I'm trying to communicate with somebody, it's hard to tell over text how I actually feel. Introducing an emoji here or there can really clarify how am I feeling, where am I coming from.

We find that that really, really reduces miscommunication. Bringing this humanity back into the product actually increases productivity, which is really cool. There's this idea that introducing technology leads to miscommunication. We're trying to shift that on its head a little bit, and thinking about the reality of the situation, which is work is changing. People are becoming more distributed. Let's use technology to solve those problems, versus seeing technology as part of the problem.

A minor question: What is your favorite emoji to use on Slack?

My favorite emoji just in general is the heart eyes emoji, because I just feel like it conveys a lot of different things. I use that when my team does a really great job, and when they share a really interesting piece of research. I'm just so proud of them, so I use the heart eyes emoji. I also use that for my kids, and when I'm reacting to somebody's new baby. It's an all-in-one, “This is my happy reaction.”

Sorry, I had to ask. You have a third element to your strategy.

The third one is this idea that delight really matters. This is building on some of the things that I already said before, but there is a delight in increased productivity. There is a feeling of delight when things just work well, and when something that used to take 20 steps is now something that just happens automatically.

I think people have grown accustomed to the fact that a lot of enterprise tools are clunky. A lot of enterprise tools don't do exactly what you think they're going to do, or they require more steps than they should. We're trying to focus on delightful interactions and experiences so that people come to Slack and say, “Oh, my gosh. That just works.”

That in itself is very delightful to people. We hear that a lot in the research that we do, that these seamless experiences are causing this really delightful feeling that is helping them grow their love for Slack. It feels good to be productive. It feels like you're working with a tool that you want to continue working with. Not just because it helps you do your job, but because it just makes everything easier, and makes everything feel good.

We think about that both in terms of how we're building our product, but then also the research that my team does, which is, how can we really measure that type of thing? How can we make sure that people are feeling good about their experience on Slack? What are the experiences that really do make people feel that delight?

You have these three pillars to your UX strategy. What's a simple way that that might manifest in terms of the user experience?

One of the first things that I talked about was really understanding people problems. Not just understanding what people are asking for, but what is the root of that need? One common thing that people need to be able to do is they need to be able to share a document in a channel in order to get feedback from a colleague, for example. One thing that people do a lot on Slack is they share a Google Doc in a channel, and then they ask people for feedback.

The ability to share a Google Doc and have it show up in a channel—I don't want to say it's a simple engineering feat, because it's probably not, but that seems like a simple solution. Let people do that. Let people share a Google Doc in a channel and have it show up.

When we dig a little bit deeper, and we think a little bit more holistically about what are people trying to do, what people are actually trying to do is they're trying to share a Google Doc in order to get feedback from a colleague.

Tell me if you've had this experience—I've had it a million times. I share a Google Doc with somebody, and then realize 30 minutes later that they actually didn't have permission to see it, and that they're not able to open it because I forgot to open up permissions, which means they're not actually able to get into the doc, read it and give me feedback.

If I didn't actually take the time to understand that whole experience, then I might not realize that that is a problem. Now that I know that that's a problem, it's something that we can anticipate within Slack and solve before it even becomes a problem.

What we ended up doing based on that is when somebody shares a Google Doc in a channel or in a direct message to somebody, we automatically detect, is that person actually able to see it? Are they able to open it? Have I already given that person permission? If not, we will immediately use Slackbot as an opportunity to say, “Hey, Christina. You just tried to share this doc with Piers, and he's not able to see it. Would you like to give him permission right now?”

In that very moment, I say, “You're right. Open up permissions,” problem solved. Doing this extra work helps you anticipate problems before they even happen. That's the delightful experience that I'm talking about, where the moment that I see that, I think, “I totally made that mistake. I wouldn't have caught that until later. Slack did that for me.”

That is such a delightful experience, and that wouldn't happen without us really fully understanding what that people problem is. Let's take the extra step to really provide that value. Let's not just cross the feature off the list and let people put their Google Docs in Slack. Let's think holistically through that whole experience.

Join Christina and other pioneering speakers for CXI 2018 on May 18 in New York City—details and tickets available here.