I didn’t intend to conduct a user interview on Slack, but it happened and it was epic.
The happy accident occurred when I was using the messaging platform to recruit women who fit a provisional persona for a user survey. Prolific Interactive was putting together a design sprint for The Wing—a women’s club and co-working space—and we needed input from prospective members to guide our conversation.
What occurred on Slack ended up being one of the most incredible user interviews I’ve ever conducted, and it made me realize that this increasingly popular workplace communication tool can be an amazing research aid too.
Helping The Wing take flight
Some context about the problem we were trying to solve: The Wing is on a mission to foster the professional, social, and economic advancement of women through community. They’ve experienced exponential growth in membership, and have a vibrant and loyal network of existing members including entrepreneurs, freelancers and full-time professionals.
To better define the future of their digital experience, they needed additional input from prospective members in Wing-less markets to round out their understanding of their target audience.
I partnered with a Senior UX Designer at Prolific to map out the complete working session and research plan. We defined session goals, identified the right design exercise, completed a competitive analysis and drafted the provisional persona and survey for qualitative user research. With everything in place, we set about using multiple mechanisms to recruit survey candidates.
The accidental interview
Like so many others in tech, I use Slack for the majority of my workday to speak with my co-workers, collaborate with clients, and connect with professional groups. One of my professional Slack channels is for mBolden, a national nonprofit championing women in digital, making it a great place to recruit women to fill out this survey.
In the mBolden Slack channel, I asked a few members who fit The Wing’s target persona to participate. A few quickly replied and filled out the survey.
But Colette took it a step further.
For context, Colette Nataf is the 28-year-old CEO and Co-founder of Lightning AI, a tool for performance marketers. After she finished her survey, she messaged me on Slack to share a few additional thoughts.
She could have shared these thoughts in the final question of the survey since it was an open form field, but she messaged me instead. What started out as a few extra sentences soon turned into one of the most insightful user interviews I’ve ever conducted.
Over the course of about 45 minutes, Colette told me all about her professional challenges and frustrations, her ideal support structure, and her go-to resources for growth.
When I saw the bubbles indicating she was writing, I waited patiently.
When there was a break in the conversation, I gently prodded her to expand on some of the things she said. The whole experience was like watching a trailer for Game of Thrones—I was on the edge of my seat.
Why Slack makes sense for research (AKA “The Pros”)
I know what you’re thinking—this was just one interview. So what?
I felt the same way at first. But, as I thought about it, the potential upsides of using Slack really struck me. Here are a few reasons why Slack works well for user research:
- It’s highly contextual
Contextual research is all about meeting the user where he or she is. Colette is on her laptop and using Slack constantly. So were a majority of the women we spoke with. Plus, unlike a 1:1 interview in a quiet conference room, this format nicely mimics the real-life context of switch-tasking: the idea that your customer is likely bouncing between different tasks (and maybe different devices) while interacting with your product. Interviewing Colette on Slack was a great way to interview with context because during our conversation she answered a call and replied to a few emails.
- It combines all kinds of best practices
Another benefit to our Slack interview was that it allowed me to blend the benefits of a survey with those of a 1:1 interview. Since it was written communication, I could thoughtfully wordsmith my questions in the same way I would with a survey. At the same time, I could flow with the conversation, gently digging deeper into important points like an in-person interview.
In response, Colette provided her authentic, unfiltered thoughts—I know this because her survey responses had no emojis or expletives. Above all, even though the conversation happened in real-time, I had a record of everything Colette said in her own words, so I didn’t have to transcribe her answers from an audio recording.
- It’s ultra-efficient
Many companies have great intentions about conducting qualitative user research, but limited resources and tight timelines keep these good intentions grounded.
My interview with Colette on Slack was easy and efficient. I didn’t have to deal with the logistics of coordinating an in-person interview, or the technical issues that inevitably occur with any sort of conferencing tool.
- No more unanswered questions
How many times have you been synthesizing research and wished you could follow up on something a specific user said? Using Slack as the initial research tool means you have an open line of communication which is easy to pick up and continue, or shift in a new direction.
This asynchronous approach lowers the barrier to entry on follow-up questions and aligns nicely with some research methodologies like diary studies. Plus, much like normal conversations between friends and acquaintances, it’s easy for the participant to share a quick thought in a natural way hours or even days after the original conversation.
Where Slack falls short (AKA “The Cons”)
Clearly, there are many scenarios where Slack isn’t the right fit for user research. In order to have the best chance for success, keep these things in mind:
- Limited target audiences
Only certain groups of professionals will have and regularly use messaging software like Slack and HipChat. This significantly limits the scenarios in which it’s appropriate to use this approach.
- Evaluative user research
Similar to the limitations of conducting a survey, research on wireframes, hi-fi designs, or prototypes would not be ideal via messaging alone. While Slack does offer calling and screen sharing capabilities, there are better tools and techniques for tracking a user’s reactions to an experience in real-time.
- Research subject matter
For this project with The Wing, our research was about the challenges professional women face, a topic that is very personal and can touch a nerve. It was easy to get a lot of back-and-forth with Colette in a messaging environment like Slack, but if the topic was a bit more dry (e.g. retirement savings), you might not see as much natural engagement.
A new generation of user research
While the use cases for Slack specifically are limited, if you think broadly about real-time messaging (Facebook Messenger, WeChat or chatbots) you realize almost every single customer we want to speak with uses messaging constantly.
In striving to have the most natural conversation with our target audience, could we better align our user research techniques with the communication style of the modern world?
Dina is the Director of Product Strategy at Prolific Interactive, a mobile-focused product agency serving brands such as Sephora, American Express, 23andMe, Gap Inc. and HBO. With more than 10 years experience building and growing startup and enterprise products, Dina helps companies create experiences that strategically balance business goals and user needs. She frequently speaks and writes about how to use consumer psychology to better understand user habits and serves on the leadership team of mBolden in San Francisco.