Slack's Head of Research Christina Janzer shares the work behind the team messaging platform's feel-good moments

The team communications platform Slack is just about ubiquitous in the tech world. Its popularity owes to the fact that its user experience is more akin to the social apps people use for pleasure than traditional enterprise solutions, providing a sense of surprise, delight and just feeling good about work. There's a reason for that. PSFK sat down with Christina Janzer, head of research at Slack, to talk about the work her team does to engineer those feel-good moments and get her thoughts on the UX principles that every organization should heed.

What is the story around your research in making Slack the experience it is?

I spent the first 11 years of my career focusing on consumer products, so working on enterprise is kind of a new thing for me. I started at Slack about two years ago, largely because of the opportunity to be here close to the start and build out the research team, which usually doesn’t happen until a company is much larger. I love that Slack is so invested in user experience and wanted a research team to better understand the people on their platform. Slack is very people-centered in every aspect, from our customer service to how we work together within the company itself.

If you care about user experience and the people using these enterprise tools, you want to make their working lives better. So it was exciting for me to think about the potential impact of working on a product that people are using for 40 to 50 hours a week.

At Slack, we often start by asking ourselves about the needs of those using our product: what do they like, what are their challenges, what are they thinking about at work and how can we make their working life easier? It starts with really foundational research to help answer those questions.

I can tell you what it’s like at my job as a researcher, but I don’t have first-hand experience of what it’s like to work at a large corporation or in another country. Part of the purpose of the research is to help me and my team fill in those gaps and create a product for everyone. It’s a very diverse product and caters to different workers, companies and cultures. It’s a very flexible product and there’s no one right way to use Slack. In order for us to understand the ways in which we can help people, we need to understand the diversity of our users.

Can you talk a little bit about the research methodology you employed in order to gather these user insights? Were there any ‘aha' moments or anything that surprised you, good or bad?

Our research methods are pretty diverse. We do everything from large-scale surveys in order to understand the audience we’re building for and their needs. We definitely do a lot of qualitative research as well, like interviews, to understand common problems or concerns. We also do some usability testing. So our research can involve anything from large-scale surveys to focus groups.

We’ve definitely had some interesting findings come out of our research. We were doing a really large-scale survey and a number of responses expressed fear and worry that tools like Slack would lead to more miscommunication. It was an ‘aha' moment for us that we’re supposed to be making communication better and yet people were still concerned that our platform would lead to increased miscommunication.

When you lose the opportunity to meet with someone in person, you’re going to lose all those emotional and physical cues that you use when you communicate face to face. As a result, if you use a tool like email or IM, it is possible for messages to get misinterpreted. People are so used to face to face communication, so when you start to use tools for the first time, some of those cues go away, like the intonation in someone’s voice. You miss knowing if someone is stressed or on the phone or has a huge stack of papers on their desk or if they’re at their desk at all. So all those cues we’ve relied on for years have suddenly gone away, and the question for our team at Slack has been how to bring those aspects of real-time, face-to-face communication back through our product.

One way we’ve done this is through emojis, which can communicate how you’re feeling. Those kinds of things may feel small, but they add something big to a conversation. Our research has shown that emojis actually lead to higher productivity and remove ambiguity and miscommunication. For example, at Slack, people will use the eyes emojis to communicate they’re reviewing something I posted. It’s faster than typing out a response but it’s also more colorful than words on a screen. So it’s more human and increases productivity at the same time. What we’ve learned about our users in including a lot of delightful experiences like these is that it comes back to increasing engagement, which leads to more social interactions, making people feel better about their jobs.

What are any insights or principles you have that can be applied to other products?

Something we think about a lot here is how to put people first, not features. It’s so satisfying to make a list of features and check them off as you add them, but I think what a lot of people don’t do is think about the person experiencing the product and build for them and what they want out of it.

If you think about people first, you can anticipate their problems and address them before they happen. I think people are used to having bad experiences with technology and have a low bar for that, but when you think about the user first, you have an opportunity to actually delight them and surprise them.

For example, we have a Google doc integration that allows people to share Google docs in Slack. When we were building this, we asked ourselves, “Why are people sharing Google docs in channel?” and it’s to discuss and engage with the materials, not just move them to a new location. And what often happens with sharing Google docs is that people forget to grant the correct viewing or editing access. So people will share something with their team and only some members are able to open it, which is super frustrating. We understood this potential problem and, as a result, built a bot that tells users if someone doesn’t have access and asks if they’d like to update the settings accordingly. And there would be no way to know how to solve that problem if you didn’t think about the entire experience of those users and what they’re trying to accomplish. We’ve really tried to seek out what the entire user journey is.

Any UX pet peeves? What grinds your gears?

I feel like I have so many every day. Just today, I thought whoever made baby clothes with a million buttons from top to bottom has never actually had the experience of changing a squirmy baby. Also, every time I open up a box of Cheerios (or any cardboard box of food) I manage to completely butcher it. And why aren’t all lotion pump bottles clear so you can see how much is left? It’s like it goes from full to completely empty with no warning signs!

Christina will be a keynote speaker at PSFK's CXI 2018 conference on May 18 in New York City—details and tickets available here.