6mins

How in-app collaboration is changing the way we work

The way in which computing evolved led us to find ourselves working across different, single-player web-based tools, and communicating in a separate 'destination' like email or Slack. We can design a better way to collaborate.

The problem with rapid evolution: Blind spots and siloed tools

In biology, rapid evolution can bring about convoluted ways to solve problems. Peacocks' enormous tails are a burdensome mating signal, making the bird clumsier and an easier prey as a result. The wires of the human eye go in front of the photo-receptive cells and lead back through a hole in the middle, giving us all a tiny blind spot where the nerve fibers occlude our vision. It works, but it's not perfect.

The way we work together using computers also saw rapid evolution: We moved from desktop apps and file-based sharing to cloud-based web apps, with the average company now using over 88 different web apps, Okta reports. In building on the shoulders of giants, copying and mutating, subsequent generations of software settled on some paradigms: In browser. Based on HTML. Log-in with Google. Open APIs.

What hasn’t evolved yet, though, is a consistent way to work together in these tools. So when we need our teammates for help, approval, feedback, or for them to do their bit, we have no choice but to resort to Slack.

It’s time to build, together

The problems with this method can be hard to see, until you reimagine how you would've built it if you could control everything. Like fish in water, we're so used to the lack of communication in our work tools that we don't even notice the friction it causes. But when we're in 'deep work' mode, trying to finish, say, a marketing campaign that has to go out today, and we're unsure we put in the right graphic - why do we have to take a screenshot, context switch, find a relevant Slack channel, re-attach the screenshot, write a message, paste the link, and then keep checking the channel back for answers, as our question gets buried under new messages from other people with different asks? We have tools where we get shit done, and other tools for communication, and there's no connection between the two. Other smart folks made that observation before.

This is akin to trying to build a piece of IKEA furniture with your partner, but without being able to communicate verbally or with gestures. When you want to ask them to pass the screwdriver, or where this wooden bit fits, you have to go to another room, away from where the half-assembled cabinet is, wait for them to come in, talk about it, and go back. Except now, we're on a factory floor trying to assemble 100s of different cabinets, asynchronously, and with one room where everyone is shouting.

The magic happens when world-class communications meets context, inside the tools you use

There are great innovations in communication tools. Simplified, multiplayer, rich-text editing like Notion, voice chat apps, and even 'plain old' Slack is a major improvement over email. But SaaS tools are built for a purpose, and they do their specific job very, very well. Marketers relying on an ad-tech tool, or Devops engineers using a management console cannot and do not want to work elsewhere, so trying to force all workflows into limited capacity tools like Google Docs or your task-manager-meets-wiki-meets-chat can't be the answer. We believe the right answer is empowering these specialized tools. We want to infuse the entire stack with world-class communication.

World-class communication isn't a hyperbole. Most communication that's tacked onto a product as a lower priority feature sucks. Just try and use LinkedIn messaging for more than answering casual recruiting reach-outs for an example of that. The commenting sections of most SaaS apps are even worse. No surprise they aren’t used, causing the vendors to invest even less in improving the feature.

But imagine if communication in SaaS apps was as good, or better, than Whatsapp. They'd have search, mentions, presence, typing and 'seen' indicators, audio messages and the rest of the long list of nuances that make chat products like Whatsapp shine. Suddenly, just chatting where you're already working becomes much more convenient than Whatsapp.

If you can then interact - directly manipulate and collaborate in the tool you're having the conversation in - annotating bits of the page, editing together and creating tasks that track the work that's left to do, you become more effective. You stay in flow and leave a trail that helps others find their way and see what decisions were made and how. You don't have to go far to imagine that: No one using Google Docs ever sends you a link and says "take a look at paragraph 3 in page 5..." - they just leave an annotation there. And if this miraculous chat is accessed and used the same way across any tool you use, with a unified inbox for all your notifications, it's easier to adopt the habit and stay informed.

A unified inbox that’s not everyone’s inbox

Another reason why Slack and the other communication 'destinations' are so distracting and a poor fit for 'contextual conversations' - where there's an item to review, a transaction to complete, or an incident to investigate across several pages - is that in these channels you're essentially in everyone's inbox. In the tools you work in, there's a set of people who are relevant to the task at hand. Once you're working with them on that task, there's no reason for everyone to continually see that conversation. But no mapping exists between the people you work with on a particular task and the channels you have available in Slack: You either spam the entire #design team, or you have to find the exact group - Juan, Michelle, Dan, Celeste (but don't accidentally choose Juan, Michelle, Dan, Diane), in which case they can't ever pull new people in or find where the decision about that marketing campaign was. And once you're in that chat destination, you'll also find you now have 6 other unread channels. In all likelihood nothing there really matters to you (it's probably all people spamming the entire team to get one item done) - but there went your entire concentration and flow.

While working on our product, we encountered Kevin Kwok’s piece. So we called our version of ‘discord for work’ - Cord. We're also inspired by his drawing style.

There's a very good reason and a very good place for the townhall and phone book that Slack, Teams, etc. provide: Announcements like the company's new strategy, and DMs like "let's grab coffee" that are unrelated to a work item in a tool. But stuffing every single request for approval, help or feedback down that channel never works. As the company scales, you end up with 10,400 page long guides on communications, and thousands of channels.

We want to empower you to focus on the work, and collaborate inside your virtual workshop or atelier, or your own product, internal tool or landing page. That's what you're talking about, so it might as well be where you talk. That's why we built Cord. To curve the arc of our tools' evolution towards their collaborative potential.

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Author

Nimrod Priell

Categories

  • Features