The workplace is becoming more collaborative and international, and arguably less hierarchical. With remote working arrangements and shrinking budgets, it’s more important than ever to get things done quickly and efficiently in real-time. Following up on countless e-mails is impractical in the long run; things get lost in the process and the workflow can get pretty complicated when shuttling between an ever-growing list of apps. Projects with larger teams can get unwieldly, so it’s best to save everyone’s time (and souls!) by bring all these elements – communication, collaboration and productivity – on the same page. After using several communications tools, I’ve found myself going back to Slack, which has three versions so far: Free, Standard (US$6.67/month/user) and Plus (US$12.50/month/user).
Criteria for Evaluating a Team Collaboration App
- Quick and responsive – The tool must be bug- and lag-free. Nothing gets in the way of productivity more than waiting around for the tools to work!
- User Interface and Design – The interface must be fool-proof. How can we expect to collaborate if some team members can’t figure out how to use the app? In addition, the app must also be pleasant to look at since collaborators would be using it frequently. We don’t want to either go blind from too much visual drama or feel like we’re crawling into a mortuary from cold, personality-void designs, do we?
- Integration with Popular Tools – Your team may already have data and an established workflow on tools like Google Drive and Trello, so adding on yet another tool may understandably cause heart palpitations. Wouldn’t it be cool to have everything in one place? A good collaboration app would allow for the integration of apps like Google Drive and Trello into its ecosystem so that all you need is just one app to access everything that your team needs.
- Cross-platform Compatibility – What good is a collaboration app if logging on feels like pulling teeth? The tool should therefore at least be compatible with OS X, Windows, iOS, and Android.
The Winner: “Slack”
So here’s the thing, this contest was hard, which each app we tested giving us something different. Slack’s the most expensive of the bunch (especially if you need more than 5GB and if your team’s pretty large), but its highly-customizable UI is the most pleasant-looking of the lot, and the tool has amazing notification options. It also supports the most third-party apps (thanks to outstanding API support), allows for 1-on-1 calls, and supports text commands for power users. Hey, if it’s good enough for NASA and The Times, it’s good enough for us.
Quick and Responsive
Slack’s web and app versions were snappy. Messages on the app could take a few seconds to load, but that was due to internet connectivity issues than issues with the app itself. The product is quick and polished, and doesn’t come bloated with apps and integrations you do not need. If you need to connect specific tools to your team’s Slack account, Slack’s App Directory makes it really easy for you to search for – and integrate – apps.
User Interface and Design
Signing up to use Slack cannot be easier. Just head over to the Slack website, key in your e-mail address, and invite team mates. If your company already has a team, look for it under “Find your team”. Easy.
Slack’s customizable UI is delightfully colourful and clean. Channels and team members are flushed to the left, with generous space for conversation and collaboration taking up the rest of the page. The use of @ and # tags takes the pain out of directing messages at individuals about specific topics. They essentially work the way they do on Twitter. For example, if you want to direct a message to a teammate with the username “tyra,” just type in “@tyra” with your message. Hashtags are used to categorize posts and to make it easier for you to find items of the same thing across multiple channels. You can also “star” posts to show your agreement with them or to file them for future reference.
In the type space, users can choose to type text and emojis, insert a snippet of a particular conversation, or upload a file. Searching through countless posts and messages is a snap – just use the search bar on the top-right. And since it’s all securely stored on the cloud, all you need to get your life in order is an Internet connection.
The app version is similarly easy to use, but it takes time to figure out how to get to the various screens. For example, clicking on the channel name does not allow you to toggle between channels. Rather, it brings you to “Channel Settings,” and it took me some time to figure out how to toggle between channels.
As it turns out, in order to toggle between channels you’d have to tap on the Slack icon on the top left. Tapping on the ellipses on the top right brings up a several options: check out uploaded files and starred items, view team members and invite new ones, switch teams, manage settings and snooze notifications (very useful if you’re in a meeting!).
Integration with Popular Tools
Integration works by providing a simple link from the third-party app onto Slack, which makes files usable directly on the tool. For example, to import Google Drive files after integrating the app into Slack, all users have to do is to insert the links of the files into the team’s Slack workspace and the file will be available for download in addition to being indexed for search. I experimented with Quip integration, and all I had to do to create a new Quip document was to type “/quip”.
There’s also a conversational productivity tool called Kyber that we at Barely Efficient use. It keeps us on track by allowing us to delegate tasks and set to-do lists and personal reminders, all within Slack. I’d receive push notifications daily on all the items I have due, which has come in handy since I’ve got the memory of a goldfish.
Slack is available for iOS, Android, Windows Phone (Beta), Mac OS 10.9 and newer, Windows 7 or newer, and Linus (Ubuntu and Fedora). My team uses Windows, OS X and iOS and we’ve not encountered any problems… yet.
Other Nifty Options
Sure, Slack’s great and all, but it’s not for everyone. It has only 5GB storage and a searchable history of up to 10,000 messages on its free version, and its paid versions are so expensive it may rip you a new one (especially if your teams are particularly large). Thankfully, there are some pretty great alternatives.
HipChat’s design, ironically, is anything but hip. In sharp contrast to Slack, HipChat is bland, old-fashioned and completely devoid of personality. That being said, while Slack’s more fashionable and better-looking, there’s a bit of a learning curve. HipChat’s design is extremely straightforward to figure out (and we love that you can upload unlimited files on the right of each chat screen), so it may be the best option for those who aren’t comfortable learning new tools and for more traditional corporate settings. HipChat Basic is free for unlimited users, searches up to 25,000 messages and comes with 5GB storage, while HipChat Plus adds in 1-to-1 video chat and screen sharing and unlimited search and storage for US$2 per user.
Ryver’s markets itself as a replacement to Slack, with the added benefit of being completely free. But free doesn’t necessarily mean ratchet, as the tool comes with unlimited users and data, no chat search limits, and the ability to invite guests (e.g, clients and external vendors). While we aren’t quite fans of the window-driven UX design (it looks like Facebook’s and Gmail’s love child), we thoroughly enjoyed service’s functionality and intuitiveness, and its little additions that have proven to be very useful, such as the ability to directly link links to specific posts, set status updates (i.e., Available, Away, and Do Not Disturb), and manage individual user roles. Truth be told, if Ryver had Slack’s notification options and visual customisations, it would have easily been our top pick.
WorkHive’s another completely free tool that doesn’t just allow individuals to communicate internally within organisations, but also collaborate with external contractors across multiple groups and locations. In addition, administrators can easily create a public page to promote their respective organisations to the public, something Slack doesn’t do. We like the powerful search tool and the ability to add quick comments and feedback, but it currently supports integration with less than 10 apps. This isn’t a problem if you’re only using well-known apps like Google Drive and Trello, but otherwise your options are as restricted as Donald Trump’s sense of tact.
There are many tools out there to boost communication and collaboration within teams. If you’re looking to work within small teams, Slack may be your best bet. If you work in a more traditional organizational setting, the completely free Ryver would be the way to go, and its capacity to enable collaboration with guests and external contractors is valuable for managing more complex projects. If you want something free, enjoy using an iOS-like chat interface and don’t mind the lack of third-party app support, consider WorkHive. And then there’s HipChat, which provides a user interface that would be sure to please more conservative and old-fashioned web users. Ultimately, decide what works best for you and your team: consider the number of users, how you’d like to use the app, how much space you need, and your budget.