The timing was right. We were adding in new features like huddles, canvases, lists, and others into a UI system that was originally designed solely for messaging capabilities. Meanwhile, research showed users on the biggest and most active teams were struggling to stay on top of the basics. Our product navigation was reaching its limits. Slack had more to offer, but it was harder to find it.
A new paradigm that properly showcased our expanding offerings was needed.
However, redesigns usually fall into the “high effort, high variance, questionable benefit” bucket that businesses try to avoid at all costs. Unless something is absolutely broken, not many companies are willing to invest.
Here’s how we harnessed the power of design to lead the way for this ambitious undertaking.
Prototype the Path
We carved out time and space for our design team to think boldly and explore new ideas without constraints. Here at Slack, one of our product principles is to “prototype the path.” We know one of the biggest superpowers our designers have is the ability to visually show how our product could look and more importantly feel in order to create alignment with cross-functional partners and initiate large projects.
The design team developed a series of highly provocative prototypes, not aimed at providing final solutions but at sparking discussions with users and internal stakeholders. The prototypes served as guides for our explorations.
We initiated discussions early on with key engineering and product leaders to ensure the feasibility of our redesign. Working closely with them allowed us to discard impractical ideas and focus on valuable solutions. While these prototypes were not perfect, they paved the way to realistically address our challenges.
As we continued to share these prototypes, key leaders recognized the potential and eagerly joined forces to create a meaningful solution. With buy-in from these key stakeholders, we were ready to get the ball rolling.
Operationalize transparency to build alignment
We kicked off the project in earnest with a three-day in-person onsite for design, engineering, product and program leads. With the prototype as our guide, we started to sketch out the path to production. Which teams would need to be involved? How quickly could we move? When might we start bringing customers into the process? Which questions were most important to answer first?
We organized our teams following a hub-and-spoke model. The hub focused on driving strategy and coordination across different teams, while the spokes concentrated on specific product areas, enabling autonomous progress.
To work transparently and efficiently, we invested significant time in setting up the right operations and ensuring coordination with our internal stakeholders—which encompassed virtually every team in the company—and our customers too. We established communication channels, feedback workflows, and allocated time for regular conversations with internal users, pilot customers, and contributing teams.
Create space for internal and external feedback
As we moved to prototype in the actual product, our continued dialogue with customers was key to validate our initial assumptions, and recalibrate our efforts. For instance, an initial design that aimed to simplify the interface further, placed search in the left-hand navigation. However, user research, pilot feedback, and internal usage data showed us that search just wasn’t findable in that new location, so we moved it back to the top. It wasn’t and won’t be the last thing we had to revisit (See more in: A focus more productive Slack). At every step we needed to ensure our solutions were aligned with their expectations and to date, we’re still iterating.
We set up ongoing research workstreams to answer small design and product questions and ran regular cross-functional workshops to untangle meaty challenges. Pulse surveys for both internal and external users, alongside usage data helped us build confidence before launching. The surveys were especially helpful at pointing out pain points and helping us to course correct before launching to wider audiences.
Staying on course can be a challenge when feedback starts to challenge the solutions you’re building. You have to remember you won’t satisfy everyone (or even be able to address every opinion or suggestion). It is in these moments that the importance of strong leadership and a deep commitment to the product’s core vision becomes key. Conviction is the anchor that will help navigate the turbulent waters of feedback, enabling adaptation and evolution without losing sight of the ultimate goal: creating a solution that truly serves the users.
Considerations for a successful redesign
Start bold, but be pragmatic. Start with high-level solutions to facilitate conversations to create common understanding. Get a sense of their validity through users and internal stakeholders as quickly as you can.
Get everyone onboard. Big changes are hard, more so when they’re not part of people’s plans. Ensure everyone takes an active role in the process bringing their expertise and unique perspectives.
Rigorously execute. Communicate often, provide updates regularly, monitor team’s pace and sentiment and be always available to resolve any roadblocks.
Work hand in hand with customers. Involving them in the redesign process ensures they’ll have enough time to process and prepare for the changes. Even if these are better, no one wants a sudden change the day they least expect it.
Move forward with conviction. Once you have a good signal, get organizational alignment and provide strong leadership. The journey will get scary at times and this will help push through in the hardest moments.
Commit to craft. You’ve already made a big commitment so make sure you spend as much time polishing the edges. Details matter.
And remember: it takes a village… and the right timing!