When working in a busy office environment, effective communication among team members is one of the keys to success. Traditionally, email has been the most popular way to communicate, but having a conversation using email can often become both inefficient and time-consuming. The traditional phone call can be a great way to quickly share information or discuss strategy, but it usually leaves no record of the conversation, making it more difficult to process or act on information.
Many companies are turning to robust chat-based solutions to allow for real-time collaboration and discussion within teams and departments. In this article, we will focus on one such solution, Slack, which is being used by large and small companies and teams both to improve communication. Slack is not only a very useful tool for collaboration, but also sports a variety of accessibility features.
What is Slack?
Slack stands for “Searchable Log of All Communication and Knowledge” and is a chat and messaging app that is now used by over three quarters of Fortune 100 companies. It is available on most major platforms including Windows and Mac computers as well as iOS and Android devices.
To use slack, teams create a workspace, which will include all of the channels, users, and messages for that team. Like other chat apps, each participant can choose a username, send public or private messages, and browse or search sent messages.
Slack offers both free and paid plans. The free plan does not limit the number of channels or participants, supports one-on-one voice and video calling, allows searchable access to the last 10,000 sent messages, and accommodates up to 10 integrations (more on that below). The paid plan, which starts at $5 per user per month, does not limit the number of accessible sent messages, allows for multi-person conferences, and accommodates an unlimited number of integrations.
Slack groups conversations into channels, which can be used for virtually any purpose. Channels can be public and open to all team members or private and limited to a subset of users. A small team may be able to manage by using a single channel for everything, while larger teams will likely want to split up conversations into project-specific channels. It's easy to switch between channels or search through conversations. Messages can be threaded; files, emoji, and images can be attached to individual messages; and website links can be shared with a channel’s members.
You don't need to be online to receive messages, and you can browse through what you missed when you return. You can set up notifications to alert you of any new messages or just those that mention you, and you can set up a Do Not Disturb schedule.
One of the features that sets Slack apart from other apps is the countless integrations that extend the functionality of the app. Integrations allow Slack to work with other apps, websites, and services to provide a seamless experience. For example, you can link a Google Calendar to a Slack channel, and have notifications about new events, meeting reminders, or event cancelations sent directly to that channel. The Dropbox and Google Drive integrations let you view files that are posted on these services directly in Slack. Other integrations are just silly, such as one which dispenses random fortunes.
Accessibility Features in Slack
When using the Windows 10 app, a variety of keyboard shortcuts are included for easier navigation. For example, F6 can be used to move between major sections of the app, such as the list of messages and the new message box. Other keyboard commands are included for switching between channels, moving between messages, or changing the text size. You can press Control + Slash to get a list of keyboard shortcuts.
When a screen reader such as JAWS, NVDA, or Narrator is being used, Slack will automatically read messages in a channel when pressing the Up or Down Arrow keys. New messages are also read automatically as they are sent, and you can assign different sounds for messages in different workspaces. When typing a new message, you can use autocompletion to fill in usernames or channel names. Usernames begin with an @ sign, and typing the @ sign will bring up a list of possible matches. Typing the @ sign followed by the first few letters of the username will filter the list to matching usernames.
When using a screen reader, it's a good idea to turn off any feature that may automatically switch modes for Web content. JAWS users should turn off Auto Forms mode in Settings Center while NVDA users should turn off Automatic Focus Mode in Settings. This is because the Slack Windows app behaves much like a webpage, and Slack’s built-in keyboard shortcuts will often be overridden when a screen reader is in a virtual buffer or browse mode.
The iOS and Android apps have been tailored to work well with screen reading and magnification tools. Buttons and controls are labeled, and a variety of low-vision options are included such as Dark Mode. While we have not tested the Mac app directly, some users are reporting a less-than-optimal experience as of this writing. Slack does have dedicated accessibility engineers on their staff and has been working for the past two years to improve the usability of their apps across platforms, so improvements may very well be in the pipeline.
Slack Versus Other Tools
One comment that new users often mention when referring to Slack is that they don’t want to install yet another messaging app, since they already have a variety of tools at their disposal. While Slack is by no means a perfect solution for every task, I find it more useful than other tools for a few reasons. Facebook, for instance, requires the user to have an account on its service, something that not everyone is willing to do, and which has a tendency to blur the distinction between personal and business spaces. WhatsApp is a good app for real-time chatting, but generally links accounts to a user’s phone number, a piece of information that some may not wish to share. Twitter can be good for one-on-one messaging, but again requires an account and does not work well for group conversations. And anyone sitting with thousands of messages in their email inbox will likely speak of the pitfalls of the most classic of electronic communication styles. Slack is cross-platform, integrates with hundreds of other apps, and provides a bevy of features that help it meet the needs for millions of users.
On the flipside, it's possible to become overwhelmed by the amount of conversation in a Slack channel, and be sidetracked by never-ending chats that lead to lost productivity. Also, other forms of communication such as email may be better-suited for long-form messages.
Whether you are starting your own team for a business, nonprofit, or a group of friends, or you are planning on working for a large company that uses numerous communications tools, Slack may very well become a part of your life. Even if you do not currently have a team but are thinking of getting a job soon, go ahead and try out Slack for free so you can get used to its features and interface. It’s one more tool that can be used to increase productivity and help you, as Slack once put it, “Be less busy.
This article is made possible in part by generous funding from the James H. and Alice Teubert Charitable Trust, Huntington, West Virginia.
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