Slack's Void: The gap between unread and urgent messages

4 min read

I have a question to ask and it’s blocking my progress. I know Trent (name changed) can help me, but he’s busy chatting in the #dev channel arguing the value of type systems. I could ping Trent directly, but I did that yesterday… He always says it doesn’t bother him, but I don’t want to feel like I’m constantly asking for help. I’m still relatively new on the team so I want to make a good impression.

Not wanting my message to get lost, I decide to find another channel in Slack to send my question. Crossing my fingers that someone sees it, I post it and success! Drew sees it right away and gives me a really helpful answer. I was lucky this time; I’ve seen other’s questions get unnoticed and overlooked.

The Void

I run into the void daily when I’m working in Slack. There are seemingly useful discussions going on in the relevant channels to my question. I don’t want to interrupt and be like a commercial on YouTube blasting in high volume in the middle of a Bob Ross video. So I patiently wait for a while hoping for the discussion to subside. Sometimes it does, other times it goes on for 10 to 20 minutes.

I’ve also tried tossing my questions into the flood of messages. I’d say my question has a 50/50 chance of being looked at and noticed. I often have to wait for an opportune moment. Will this be the day Slack is quiet enough I can get the help I need?

There is a chance my question will not be read at all. With notification overload, I’ve seen many co-workers declare message bankruptcy and mark all messages as read.

Fun fact: Did you know shift + esc clears all messages in Slack?

Declaring message bankruptcy
Declaring message bankruptcy

My only other option is to ping someone. But mentioning someone directly has an imposed sense of urgency. I often say “No rush”, but everytime I do it, I know it interrupts what they are doing. I could use @here or @channel, but that implies even more urgency…

I don’t want to give off the wrong impression of my team. They are always willing to help. It just feels like there aren’t many options for non-urgent-important messages in Slack.

Is Slack’s only language urgent?

It seems I really have no choice but to make my message urgent or to let them get lost in the unread sea. It feels unproductive to be doing this dance. Do I really have to ping someone? That feels like the only way to ensure my message is at least read. However, it still doesn’t even guarantee someone will answer me.

@channel is really taboo. I feel like I’m crying wolf and someone always lets me know it’s disruptive. @here has the worst response by far. I think other people just assume someone else will help me. I understand, they have their work they need to get done too.

I try to bring up all my questions during stand-up (when my team meets briefly for 10 minutes a day), but sometimes I haven’t even started my task yet, so I don’t have anything to ask about. I could wait until the next stand-up, but I guess I’m overly ambitious and want to get something done today.

My urgent is better than your urgent

My coping mechanism is whenever I have a question to ask I picture in my mind a game of frogger. Can I dodge the fleat of gifs and emoji and get someone to notice my message before getting run over? Begrudgingly, day after day, I do the dance hoping to get the attention I need.

It makes sense. Others might have more pressing questions/needs. My end goal is to be a team player, so if someone else asks questions I try to be helpful. There has to be a balance; some way to rotate who is responsible to help.

Filling the void using rotating user groups

I’ve run into Slack’s void across multiple jobs so I finally decided to try and do something about it. I built Tellspin to fill in the gap. The idea is that you can create easy-to-remember user groups (or aliases) that your colleagues can reach out to for help.

Rotating user group

For example, in my Slack workspace, we have an @support-assistant. Anyone on the support team knows to reach out to this handle when they have something urgent or just need some help. Tellspin automatically rotates one person into the @support-assistant user group on a custom interval, usually daily or weekly. Rotating is useful because it spreads the load across team members, which encourages those who normally don’t help to take some shifts. It also ensures the burden to help support doesn’t fall on one individual all the time.

Of course Tellspin isn’t the only way to solve this problem. You can also take a look at my list of tips to reduce interruptions for your team. My hope is Tellspin can assist your team as much as it has mine.

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Written by Dan Willoughby

Hey I'm Dan. I'm the solo-founder behind Tellspin which helps dev teams respond to support through Slack. Tellspin takes the guesswork out of who should pay attention to which messages making it easier to focus. You should try out Tellspin and follow me on Twitter