9 Questions for Slack Chief Product Officer April Underwood

9 minute read

As Slack’s head of product, April Underwood is responsible for expanding what’s possible with the workplace productivity app that’s proliferating across offices worldwide. Formerly of Twitter and Google, Underwood credits her team’s experience with consumer software for turning Slack into a workplace app that employees actually seem to want to use — a rarity in the enterprise software world.

TIME recently spoke with Underwood about her role at Slack (also a 2018 TIME Genius Company), the features she’s most excited about bringing to the platform, and workplace chatroom etiquette. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

TIME: Tell us more about what you do at Slack.

Underwood: I’m the chief product officer here at Slack. In that role, I’m responsible for our overall product vision as well as all of the work that we do to turn that vision into practice. So, how we take the vision we see for the future of how companies are going to want to work, and transform that into our product roadmap and partner closely with engineering to actually build those capabilities into the product.

Slack is a rare example of a company that makes workplace software that people actually like to use. How did that come to be?

If you look at a lot of folks on our product, design and engineering teams, we have a lot of DNA here that comes from the consumer side. In the consumer world, you have to build software that is delightful and useful enough that people decide to use it. You have to earn every user one-by-one. In enterprise, historically those decisions don’t get made by the people who use the software day-to-day, they get made by CIOs or IT administrators, they get made based on negotiations and cost and a lot of other factors. The usefulness of the platform has historically been an afterthought. But these days that’s much less the case … Slack gets adopted in a very bottom-up fashion.

We’re part of a broader movement here. There’s a whole proliferation of software tools that are getting better and better for every type of task that you need to get done at work. They similarly are being chosen by the employees that actually need to use them, and we’re excited to sit at the center of this movement.

Slack is being used outside the workplace too, with community groups and other organizations. Is that a user base that you’re purposefully targeting, or is that happening organically?

It’s really happening organically, and it’s exciting to see — when I think about what Slack is for, it’s for groups of people to get work done. I hear amazing anecdotes of people using the software for organizing things within their own family, organizing across parent groups, student groups that are using it for class project work. Those are all types of work. They’re not idle chatter, they’re groups of people coming together with a shared purpose and specific goals they’re trying to achieve.

It’s great to see so many people find those other purposes for Slack, even outside the workplace, although our primary focus … is making sure Slack can be the foundation for how companies get work done, so that’s where we focus our product innovation.

That Slack works with so many outside services could present a big product and design challenge. How do you approach that?

It strikes me as so much more of an opportunity than a problem. We take explicit measures to make sure our customers understand what apps they install on their platform. We review every single app that gets submitted to our app directory, we do a variety of testing around security, and also just ensuring quality — does it do what it says it will do?

One of the selling points of Slack is that everyone’s suffering from email overload. But if we shift all of our communications to this new app, what’s to say that problem won’t just occur in this new app instead of email?

Slack is centered around channels. That’s a critical aspect of what makes Slack a fundamentally different way of working. Your team can set up different channels for different topics, so when you open up Slack, you’re able to see what topics actually have recent messages. It’s a very different model from email, where with email you receive a time-sorted list of all of your emails, and you the reader have to triage those many times a day. When you’re done with your work on a project, you can just leave the channel and have it out of your view.

In addition, we invest a lot in our notifications experience. Notifications on Slack give users a huge amount of flexibility that they don’t have with other communications tools. I get a push notification every time there’s a post into our executive team channel, but I’m in hundreds of other channels for which I don’t get any notifications unless my name is mentioned specifically. That gives me a sense of confidence and control that allows me to tune my use of Slack to my own needs.

What happens at our office, and I’m sure offices elsewhere, is that you get one or two people who sometimes put stuff in the wrong channel, and they’re ostracized for it. You have to learn this new Slack etiquette that’s different from email etiquette.

That’s totally true. It’s kind of quirky, but since the early days, we’ve used the raccoon emoji to indicate when something needs to go to a different channel. So we’ve created lighthearted ways to give each other feedback and normalize that process. It’s a new set of etiquette … how more senior people interact with more junior people with a level of transparency, how you install those new cultural norms is a big area of focus for us and our customer success team works closely with a lot of our customers to help them figure out how to make norms their own in their own unique ways that fit their culture.

One of my Slack pet peeves is when someone Slacks me and just says “hey,” trying to get my attention. That’s frustrating because I like to triage what’s going on, so if I don’t know the level of urgency of their request, and it’s stressful. Do you have any solutions for that?

For something like that, the best thing to do is to let your coworkers know how you like to work with them. I know people here that have made it clear that they don’t need to be thanked, because they don’t want to get a one-line message after every single thing they do that just says “thank you.” I know somebody that has that in their bio in Slack.

What’s important to us is to make sure you have the tools to be able to communicate the way you want, so things like emoji reactions for example, those are really great because they allow people to give low-calorie communication — to be able to communicate some kind of feedback without necessarily creating the interruption that comes with getting a whole new message.

What are some product updates that you’re most excited about?

Earlier this summer we launched a new search experience that’s fullscreen, it has filters that are really easy to understand where you can select messages from specific people or specific channels, and we do some of the work to recommend what filters might be useful for you. This is a big step for us, because we’re using relevance signals to help you refine your search query and get to what you’re looking for. Search is a big area of investment for us and we’re only going to continue to ensure that we have the best search experience out there across any application like ours.

This summer we acquired a company called Missions … Missions builds a no-code solution to be able to build workflows into Slack, so if you’re looking to build lightweight approval flows or other sorts of micro-applications inside Slack where you’re really adding some structures to common processes within your organization. Missions had this product that we really loved that helped our customers do that without necessarily having to be extremely technical.

You’ll see us continue to invest in the platform forever, because there’s a need and companies are using more and more third-party applications, but they also have their own internal tools and dashboards, and they need ways to get that information in front of their employees so they can make the best decision, and we think Slack is the right platform on which to do that.

What’s next for Slack?

The big things for us are continued growth — we did not have a product for companies over a couple thousand employees as of January 2017. Last year we launched Enterprise Grid, and we also launched shared channels, which allow companies to work with each other in Slack.

We’re always taking steps to make Slack more intuitive, and help people harness the true potential of what we think is possible on top of the platform. That’s the platform capabilities … as well as other investments to make it easier to format your messages, to really express yourself and do your best work inside Slack.

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