in reviews, tech

Review: Slack Threads are great, but have a few big usability issues

I’m a Slack junkie, so I was excited when they recently announced they’d finally be rolling out a Threads feature. I was particularly keen to try it out since I recently launched a Slack community for the /Filmcast podcast. Would threads make it easier or more confusing to organize conversation in a freewheeling channel with hundreds of users?

Slack threads allow users to essentially convert any message into a thread, and then add replies to that thread. Replies are only one message deep (they cannot go further), and show up on the right-hand pane, which is otherwise used for giving info on the thread as a whole.

Slack also compiles all threads into a handy “All Threads” view that lights up whenever someone responds to any of your threads.

This feature is particularly beneficial for replying to earlier messages in channels. If a message appeared hours ago and the entire channel has moved onto a different topic of conversation, it’s a lot easier to make a thread and reply — the original user gets a notification, and the conversation can continue on that topic while the channel is blissfully unaware.

Overall, I think the threads work really well and help to declutter conversations when they are used correctly. However, there are a few issues with threads right now as they are currently implemented:

Converting messages to threads – The ability to convert any message into a thread doesn’t work too well with how people typically use Slack. In many of my Slack Teams, thoughts come out in a series of incomplete messages, often with crosstalk. A single one of these messages would be inappropriate to start a thread with. Thus, being able to group multiple messages into the start of the thread would be helpful.

Moreover, it would be really useful if the user could give some kind of cue (via the UI or otherwise) when they want to start a thread. In our Slack, we’ve taken to putting “Thread: [Topic here]” or something similar. But it’s not always clear what’s better as a thread, or what’s better as further conversation in the channel. Sometimes people use both to respond, creating confusion.

Ways to resolve
– Develop some kind of usage convention, or educate users on proper etiquette when it comes to creating threads
– If possible, allow users to group multiple consecutive messages into a thread

The “Also send to #channel” button – Slack offers you the ability to send any message in a thread back to the general channel. Let me be clear: This button is an abomination and must be changed or destroyed. It’s not that the concept of sending a thread message back to the channel is a bad one; it’s more that the messaging around it is very confusing.

Most people, when they see that checkbox, are going to want to send the message back to the #channel. Why wouldn’t you? Your message is important and the channel should read it, right? We have a lot of first-time users in our Slack and initially, every single one of them clicked on this checkbox. This resulted in exchanges like the one below in the channel itself:

The threads were making the actual channel much more difficult to read. Thus, we had to lay down a ground rule about not checking that checkbox. The results have been much better since.

In short, “Also send to #channel” is terrible messaging. It should say something like, “Do you think this message is important enough that you want to barge into the main conversation with it, interrupting everything else going on over there? Then check this box.” But I understand why they didn’t put that there. Maybe a happy medium would be appropriate?

Ways to resolve
– Do more to explain the dire consequences of sending a thread reply back to the channel
– Remove the button completely

Other thoughts: In addition to blanket “no sending threads back to channel” rule, our Slack has also developed some channels that are “thread only.” This means every single message must be a thread-starting message. This has led to much more organization and readability in channels like #oldermovies, where you can just scroll up and see a bunch of movie-specific discussions to dive into. It would be ideal if there was some way to “force” people into threads for certain channels, or get them to understand that by posting a message, they are actually starting a thread.

Overall: I really like the Threads and I hope Slack continues to take steps to improve their usability. But I  think that a lot more education could have gone into the roll-out, which would’ve saved a lot of confusion and headaches.