Game Thinking Teardown: 3 killer design lessons from Slack

Why is Slack a breakout success in a crowded field? Dig into what makes Slack’s journey to mastery work and core learning loop work so well for so many.

Slack is a runaway hit — and everyone wants to know why. There are lots of online collaboration tools with similar features. Why did Slack take off when others didn’t?

One thing we know for sure: it’s not because of gamification. Slack lacks the outer trappings of a game — no points, badges, leaderboards, or energy bars in sight. Instead, Slack feels game-like — it pulls you along by unfolding new opportunities for customization and extensibility as your skills grow stronger — and the need arises.

The essence of a game isn’t the outer trappings — it’s the journey towards mastery.

Slack feels game-like because the essence of a game isn’t the outer trappings — it’s the journey towards mastery. I wrote a widely-shared piece outlining Slack’s journey to mastery — it’s great background reading. Here, I’m going to share 3 design lessons from Slack that help to get people hooked and keep them coming back.

Lesson 1: Solve a real, high-need problem for a small group of people

Slack arose from the ashes of Glitch — an massively multiplayer online game (MMO) based around player creativity. The team had collaborated for years using an in-house tool — and when that ambitious game didn’t work financially, they pivoted & turned that tool into Slack.

Their early practices set the stage for rapid growth

Think about it. when Slack launched, the core product experience had been iterated on for 3 years by internal teams. They solved a real problem for a small group of people with a high need — and their solution turned out to be useful to others.

So how did these practices setup Slack for rapid growth?

They didn’t pour customers into a leaky bucket

Simple: they built their product on top of a compelling core experience that people used everyday. When they were ready to grow, they weren’t pouring people into a leaky bucket (like so many startups) —instead, they were sending people into a repeatable, pleasurable Learning Loop.

Lesson 2: Create a pleasurable daily habit with skill-building feedback

The core Slack experience is back-and-forth communication: you and your teammates create & share messages, files and conversations — in groups and 1:1. You learn the basics from @Slackbot during single-player on-boarding — and then jump into the multi-player environment and use Slack to communicate, collaborate and work with your team-mates.

An effective Learning Loop has 4 key elements:

  1. pleasurable, repeatable activity, triggered by an internal urge or need
  2. skill-building feedback that drives learning & competence
  3. progression & investment systems that unfold new challenges
  4. engaged triggers with meaningful, personalized stats & messages

In Slack, the pleasurable activity is reading and responding to messages — and simple, effective feedback shows you when you’ve read all your messages. The internal urge is FOMO — fear of missing out — the urge to stay on top of your workflow and communications, and be part of an increasingly effective team.

Skill-building feedback comes in as you use and customize your UX and messaging options. You learn the ropes from your team-mates — and from Slackbot, who occasionally pops up with a useful tip that takes into account what you’ve done so far.

Lesson 3: Give your Customer Journey a coherent through-line

What makes Slack compelling and game-like isn’t the individual elements — it’s the way they work together to deliver a coherent, evolving experience. First you learn the ropes — then as you become familiar with Slack and build your skills, you start to discover new powers & challenges — customizing your emojis, tweaking your welcome bot , maybe even building your own bots and apps.

Customization is the through-line

Similar to Minecraft, Slack team invested in their APIs so other developers could extend or “MOD” their service. They also added hooks for everyday Slack users to customize their identity and emotions.

Along with the playful colors, casual tone, and other myriad design decisions, BOTs, MODs and customization options give Slack a game-like feel — and create an experience that people want to share, extend, and make their own. The coherent through-line — the “red thread” — is customization & challenge

Work better, faster, smarter by tricking out your channel

Slack opted to enable openness through MODS (aka open APIs) & customization options that enable self-expression — a sensibility that evolved from Glitch. Like Minecraft, Slack is fun in plain vanilla mode — but it’s when you start customizing the system that the fun really begins. You can lead a team, customize your integrations, write MODs, and create custom bot scripts. This “ramped learning” and ever-evolving experience is common in online games — less so in enterprise tools.

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Game designer, startup coach, author, entrepreneur