You would say, of course, to wish for such perfect tool itself is a stretch for any dream, but despite the click bait, I want to share some recent interesting discoveries we have at Polarr.
Polarr has been using Slack for over four years. In the last two weeks we gave Twist, a Slack alternative a company-wide try out. It resulted in us switching back to the Slack. Our conclusion is Twist, in theory, would be significantly more functional and attractive than Slack for international teams like Polarr. But due to poor execution of notification systems and lack of built-in conference calls, we quickly missed Slack. Now we use Slack in more of a Twist way to emulate what we learned in Twist, and I want to write a reminiscent tribute to Twist to hopefully enhance its future offerings.
Disclaimer: this isn’t a sponsored post from either Slack or Twist. I hope our learnings are a useful reference for other startup teams or organizations.
Is Slack designed for (international) remote teams?
I think Slack is excellent for remote the team but adding “international” really complicates this matter. My current answer would be a “maybe” for remote teams, but a “likely no” for international remote teams.
Because Polarr works in 5 different time zones, we have conversations and discussions both synchronously and asynchronously on Slack. Each additional international person added to a channel means we will potentially see other new topics discussed in parallel across a new time zone. This creates a “racing” issue in any multi-threaded conversation. A conversation-in-progress you had earlier in the channel will be guaranteed to be pushed away by other team members when you’re asleep, and the context is lost when you wake up.
This problem can apparently also occur in people working in the same time zone as well; for example, in an HR recruiting Slack channel where we need to discuss multiple candidates in parallel. Adding time zone differences only make the problem a lot worse and reduce productivity further due to more significant communication gaps among teams through context interrupt and switches.
The traditional way to resolve this issue is to use threads so that conversation can be fixated on the originally posted message. However, even though Slack does provide threading functionality, for each message in the channel, the thread UI has less visibility and is folded into a wrapped side panel as a 2ndclass citizen. When someone tries to build a thread in a Slack channel, new messages in that channel can easily blow the threaded conversation out of proportion, and people tend to ignore and have a hard time following the thread.
Can’t you use Asana for threaded discussions?
You might ask, why not just use Asana or a task management tool for asynchronous and threaded conversation, and use Slack for the synchronous ones? This is, in fact, an exciting proposition and in Polarr we also use Asana for task management. But the truth as we found out is, Asana is good at highly concrete and committed tasks with a clear sense of who is assigned and when the deadlines are, but it’s not a place for real-time brainstorming or debating half-baked ideas with a close circle of teammates. Asana has the exact opposite problem of Slack – its synchronous communication functions are outdated; its notification system is barely functional, and uploading screenshots and content related to a discussion is clunky and unbearably slow. Therefore, Asana also can’t replace the type of content-oriented and channel-oriented threaded conversion we’re looking to have on Slack.
Say hello to Twist.
At Polarr we always have a soft spot for the underdogs when approaching vendors and tools, but this time the decision to try out Twist was different – our communication on Slack actually started to break down due to issues mentioned above, and we needed to explore new alternatives.
Again, the breakdown is not Slack’s fault. Or to put in another way, we might no longer be the target customer of Slack after expanding in so many different timezones. Instead, it stemmed from the typical story of today’s startup team pattern – more folks working in different countries hence time zones while working on the same projects.
Twist was first discovered and brought up by Sam, our growth lead at Polarr, through a message and link to https://twist.com/slack-alternative?lang=en, where the content in the link stirred our instant interest and attention. Everything said and marketed in Twist’s page speaks so accurately to our pain points that we had brief suspense of disbelief that Twist actually figured out a solution for all of our Slack problems! The commitment to try out Twist was quick, and over half an hour we were able to onboard 30+ team members. We were trying to have a fair tryout, so everyone closed Slack and pretended life went on as usual. P.S. We later did check and found out Slack can export all message histories to ease the transition to other chat apps, kudos to Slack, but this also shows just how easy it is to move to another chat platform.
Our tryout period with Twist.
Twist’s threaded conversation design, its clean and natively built macOS UI (launches much faster than Slack), and iOS / Android support all seemed great for the first impression. We also found out it learned so much from Slack in terms of channels, emoji, gifs, ways to add members, keyboard shortcuts, etc. A few integrations are missing, but we thought we should be able to tolerate the missing built-in call function by using appear.in or Zoom. We started to have organized threads and discussions all over our 15+ channels, and it felt great. But a few days later, we began to see teams complaining of a prevalent issue – the notification system seems broken and hard to use, and you can’t have settings where you only receive notifications when being @ on the conversion and mute all others.
Here are a few direct quotes from Polarr team: “The notification functionality of Twist seems so broken and unintuitive that I often missed messages I need to see and got messages I don't want. It seems that extra care needs to taken to not send unrelated information in all-chat threads to distract others. On top of that, I don't think people can join a thread as followers besides the thread creator, I can only star or mark as read/unread, if you are not a follower, I don't think you get notifications pushed.” And “Cons that I see are that I’m now much more unaware of what everyone else is working on or what’s going on in the other projects of the company, which I didn’t need to be seeing every day, but now that our all hands is very limited in scope, I would never really know. The smaller projects like Deep Crop I would forget exists if I didn’t see Ritesh in the office. And in general, there’s much less character going on, and I feel less connected to the other people. I can imagine it will get very lonely/disconnected for remote workers”.
However, there are also many voices to support Twist “It’s not perfect, but I still prefer Twist. Reminds me of Reddit a bit with topics getting their own thread that’s easier to follow and discuss. Slack just doesn’t compare with their threading system and it all feels super noisy there.”, “Slack is mayhem, and there are nonstop notifications.”, “I think returning to slack, I would miss the organization. I’m still getting used to Twist though. I think it would benefit from sticky generals for each of the channels for miscellaneous banter related to a project. I think you can star topics but haven’t tried it. I vote Twist since I’d like to see a bit of disruption and support healthy competition.”
Switching back to Slack.
Our issue with Twist’s notification system means Twist also isn’t a good fit for the content-oriented and channel-oriented threaded conversion we’re looking for, especially considering you can’t @ people to call out their attention in a group discussion muted by that specific person. In this case, all functionalities of Twist can be theoretically replicated in Asana, which also has a less than ideal notification system. Given such tension, Asana + Slack seems to be cover more communication needs as a whole package than Asana + Twist.
Our team eventually debated the pros of real-time threaded conversation and the cons from notification issues, and after a collective vote, we decided to move back to Slack through voting. Among the considerations, there are also a few other issues Twist suffers, namely:
1. No integrated voice and video calls (can be resolved by Zoom, but less convenient)
2. Can’t find who’s online and no easy way to create instant new conversations.
3. File uploading isn’t as easy as Slack, and file preview is weak and slow.
4. The mobile app experience is lacking.
The Twist tryout was very helpful for our team’s awareness of productivity gain from using threaded conversation. After switching back to Slack, we became much more mindful with the threading feature in Slack where participants will try to stick with a thread and refuse the temptation to create new messages outside the thread. We think this is a great temporary fix for our team.
We see a lot of potential in both Slack and Twist to become the ideal and perhaps a perfect tool for our team communication, such as if Slack added a threaded mode or Twist manages to create more advanced notification systems and built-in call/ conference capabilities. By the time you read this post, both products might already have addressed these features, and if not, you can use our experiment as a background reference, and we want to hear your experience and thoughts too.