The coronavirus pandemic has forced many of us to work remotely. The crisis has made digital collaboration environments more critical than they’ve been before. Many of us are spending significant portions of our days conversing with colleagues in places like Slack and Microsoft Teams. The latter’s usage has more than doubled during the crisis. And in a Twitter thread, Slack’s CEO, Stewart Butterfield, noted a surge in demand due to the pandemic:

When you have that many people working in an information environment, the structure of the place matters. Clunky navigation systems can lead to confusion, wasted time, misunderstandings, increased need for support, and more. The pain is especially acute for new users, who may be unfamiliar with how to find their way around such environments.

Last week, Slack announced a redesign that aims to clarify the environment’s navigation systems:

Every person on every team—centrally located or remote, technical or not—should be able to take advantage of the platform and collaborate together. That’s why we’re releasing a simpler, more organized experience for our users. The rollout starts today and will continue over the next several weeks (with a complementary mobile version to follow). When it arrives, you’ll be able to:

  • Navigate channels and search across your organization with a new navigation bar

  • Discover key conversations, files, apps and more—all at the top of your sidebar

  • Start a message from anywhere with a handy new compose button

  • Organize channels, messages and apps into custom, collapsible sections (you know, like folders)

  • Take swift action with your apps through shortcuts. Hasta la vista, context switching.

The post has details on the upcoming changes, which will roll out over the next few weeks. A separate post from the Slack design team has more details on the issues they set out to address, and how they tested aspects of the new navigation system with customers.

I haven’t experienced these changes yet, and can’t tell from these posts whether the redesign addresses the underlying conceptual framework or the way users move about it. (I suspect it’s the latter.) Also, some folks have questioned the wisdom of launching such major changes during a time when so many new users will be entering the environment:

(I’m swayed by this argument. Consider the many third-party tutorials that will be rendered obsolete by these changes. In times of VUCA, we need to be more mindful of changes to essential infrastructure. A directive: move more slowly and deliberately.)

That said, it’s good to see design teams focusing on improving the information architecture of their systems — especially when they’re becoming the places where we work. And it’s especially refreshing to see these teams make their IA decision-making processes public. (I’d love to see followup posts from Slack that present the effects of these changes. Did they make information more discoverable? Have they eased new user onboarding? Have they improved collaboration? Etc.)

Designing teamwork: How our customers helped shape the future of Slack