Slack’s design is not secret sauce

Design is important, but it’s not enough

I read this article Andrew Wilkinson published a couple of days ago by the agency who designed the branding and original UI for Slack.

Full disclosure: I’m a designer at Atlassian and have been focused on HipChat for the last few months.

The views expressed here are my own, and not representative of Atlassian.

Let’s start this off right and give credit where credit is due. Slack is an incredible product and the company has done extremely well. Atlassian’s relationship with Slack has been great too. Their co-founder, Stewart Butterfield, interviewed with Pando daily inside our San Francisco office recently. There is absolutely no bad blood between us.

Now that we’ve established what I agree with — that Slack is a great product — here’s what I take issue with in Wilkinson’s article: Slack’s design is one part of the success of any product, and a very important part, but it is still only one part.

I can’t deny that Slack has a nicer aesthetic than HipChat. It does look nice and it is fun to use. But here’s the thing — a lot of nicely designed products never take off or get noticed. Good design is not enough. There are so many pieces to consider and things you have to nail to get a product out ahead of the pack.

Here’s my list.

The timing needs to be right

Slack’s timing was perfect. HipChat had been on the market since 2009. HipChat pulled users out of IRC, GChat and email, and was first in the space, but it never really got over the top and converted enough teams. Slack emerged just in time to capitalize on this space.

Selling a purpose, not a chat tool

The ‘We Don’t Sell Saddles Here’ article from Stewart hits the nail on the head. I read that article every month. It’s 100% true but incredibly hard to achieve. Slack didn’t come in and compare itself to HipChat, it just said that this was the new way to work as a team. The messaging around Slack has been amazing. You most definitely need to have the product to back it up too and Slack has that.


Stewart was the co-founder of Flickr. There are years and years of wisdom here that allows him to be in the position to create the fastest growing enterprise product of all time. There aren’t a lot of people in the world even capable of doing this.

The media hype machine

If I had a startup and called up the WSJ and said “I’ve got a product that will revolutionize team communication” they would hang up the phone. When Marc Andreesen calls up the WSJ and says the co-founder of Flickr has something that will change team communication and we’ve invested in it, journalists listen.

Existing team

Slack had a core team of people that knew how to work together. They pivoted from a game company so they were probably a well oiled machine when they started on this idea. This is totally different to starting a company from scratch and hiring people you have never worked with. Building teams is really hard and this is ultimately what has them out in front right now.

All the things

You can have a well designed product but if you don’t have great marketing then no one knows it exists. If you have great marketing but a shitty product, no one will use it. If you don’t solve a real problem but have good design and good marketing, no one will use it. Slack has executed in every area of building a product.

I honestly couldn’t be happier for Slack. It’s a great product and I doubt I will see something take off like this again in my lifetime. Sure, I wish Slack wasn’t a competitor, but that’s not why I’m writing.

Ultimately I hope we can keep design out of an ivory tower and continue to acknowledge that teams make great software, not designers. Ironically that’s exactly what the app enables — better team communication. Slack’s design is not secret sauce. It’s one ingredient in a delicious recipe.