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Streamline Your Team Communications With Slack

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Over the years there have been a lot of messaging services designed to help teams collaborate more effectively. They’ve each offered their own set of interesting features, appealing to specific sets of users, and unfortunately most of them have either disappeared or are no longer being actively developed.

That’s where Slack comes in. It’s a cross-platform communication service established by the people that brought us Flickr back in the day, and it combines team chat with top-notch integrations with the other web apps your team is already using.

In this tutorial, I’m going to give you a tour of its basic features and help you get started communicating better with your team.

The Features

A promotional image from Slack.

Before I begin, I’d like to explain the core features that Slack offers so you have a better idea of what you can do with a free account.

Chat

Slack’s main feature is instant messaging, which has been a great way to get in touch with people since the days of AOL. It works a bit like IRC, using channels preceded by a # as a way of organizing topics. You can also make your own private group and send private messages to a colleague to develop sinister secondary plans on the side of your day job.

Search

The second feature Slack sports is its search. If a few people within your team were talking about a project you needed finished tomorrow, you can quickly look through the history of your channels and find out if any progress has been made. Even better, Slack’s search is global, so it will show a private message between you and another team member as well as results in any channels you belong to. Search on free accounts is limited to the last 20,000 messages, but you can upgrade to Standard for $8 per user per month if you need unlimited access.

Service Integrations

Lastly, Slack is very proud of its ability to connect with other services your team uses every day. On its Service Integrations page, you can add anything from GoSquared and New Relic to Twitter and Trello. There are even custom slash commands and a full Slack API Integration for advanced users. The level of connection Slack offers to third-party tools is unparalleled.

Signing Up

Signing up for an account on Slack takes about five minutes. Here’s the step-by-step rundown:

The sign up confirmation screen.
  1. Head to Slack’s homepage and input your email address and company name, then click Sign Up for Free. I suggest using your company email (a custom domain) if you have one because Slack will offer to add additional emails with that domain to your team automatically when they sign up.
  2. Check your email for a message titled “Invitation to Slack”. Within it, click the blue Set up your team now button to get started.
  3. You’ll be asked if the email address you’re using is the right one. Click Yes, that’s the right address if so; Switch to a different email will send a confirmation to a new address.
  4. Next, choose assign a name to your team. It might be a group of writers, designers, or coders. When you’re finished, click Next and make a username for your account.
  5. Choose a URL for your team. It will need to be something unique, because Slack gives you a subdomain on its website (your-team.slack.com). Click Next when you’re finished with that.
  6. Conclude the setup process by adding your domain to the team settings. If you’d like to invite more people to your team, input their email addresses on the next screen.
  7. If everything went according to plan, you’ll now be redirected to the Slack Web app.

That’s all there is to setting up a team on Slack. Now it’s time to start using the service.

Inviting Team Members

If you neglected to send them an email in the setup stage, now is still a good time to invite your team members to Slack. To do so, click the left arrow icon on the right side of the main Slack interface, select Team Directory, and click the Invite some link. You’ll be taken to the Send Invitations page. Enter as many email addresses as you want in the first field and channels in the second. Note that the general channel will be added by default. When you’re finished, click Send Invitations to dispatch emails to your team, which is most likely on the balcony having a party just to show how proud of you they are.

Making sure the usual folks are in my team.

Make sure to tell your team to check their emails, including their spam folders, for an invite to Slack.

Conversations with Slackbot

The witty Slackbot helps you get started.

Each user will be greeted with welcome tips when he first visits your team Slack. If you wish to opt out of them on a per-user basis, click the Opt out of these tips link at the bottom of one and they’ll leave you alone. Regardless of the annoyance factor, I recommend taking Slack’s guided tour to give you an idea how things work.

When you’ve finished the little tour, you’ll be informed about all the wonderful apps Slack offers. Then you’ll see a small bubble beside Slackbot in the Direct Messages section of the sidebar. It will help you and other users set up a profile, beginning by asking your first name. You can reply and it will add it to your profile. The bot will continue to ask you various questions, like whether you wish to add your Skype username to your profile and if you have anyone else to invite to the team. All this takes about two minutes.

Using Channels

If you’re familiar with IRC technology, channels may not be a new concept to you. In the context of Slack, Channels are used as a way to separate different topics — distinct chatrooms. You can use them to manage different projects within the same company, and you can always have #random sitting around just in case someone feels sociable.

Need a new channel? One click, two fields, one more click, and you've got it.

Tip: If you have a lot of channels and always want one to be easily accessible, select it, hover over its name, and star it to put it at the top of your sidebar.

When you first set up Slack, you’ll see two channels in the sidebar: general and random. You can add a new one by clicking the Create a channel link below the first two. When you do so, you’ll be asked to give it a title and description. When you’re finished, click Create Channel and it’ll be added to your team’s channels. You can also create a Private Group, which will only be seen by team members with access. These members will also be the only ones who can search the group. This can be handy if you need digital walls between your cohorts.

Getting Notified

Make your notifications custom.

Now that you have grips with things, it’s a good idea to switch on notifications if you haven’t already. Slack supports desktop notifications in the browser and its native apps. It also supports push notifications on iPhone and Android.

If you’re not getting alerts when someone mentions you in a channel, you may need to enable notifications. In the Mac and Web apps, you can do this by waiting for Slack to ask for permission or by heading to Safari’s Preferences, selecting Notifications, and switching the selection beside team-name.slack.com to Allow.

Tip: Mention someone’s username in a channel and they will receive an alert by default.

Allowing browser notifications in Safari is key to Slack's alerts working properly.

If Slack’s notifications are not enabled, you can fix that by clicking the ^ button beside your profile in the bottom left corner and selecting Preferences. In the Notifications tab, make sure one of the first two boxes under Desktop Notifications is highlighted. The first will send you a notification any time something happens in your channels, and the second will only send you one when you’ve been mentioned or sent a direct message.

Should you want to keep up with certain terms in your channels, you can do so by adding them to the Highlight Words field, which will work if notifications are active. Each time this word is used in your channels, you’ll be alerted on your devices.

Notifications can also be overridden on a per-channel basis. Clicking the down arrow beside the channel name will reveal a configuration menu. Select Channel notification preferences and you’ll be able to override global notifications, with the exception of what Highlight Words to use.

Integrating

Say you want to quickly share some project drafts with your team. You could email them all the Dropbox link, or you could add the Dropbox integration to your Slack team. Google Drive is supported too if you prefer that. Even better, there’s Pingdom integration if you want your Web developer team to know when your site goes down. It will send alerts to the entire channel and one of them can quickly respond to the issue. Another good usage case would be RSS for your team of journalists. If there’s something new in the Associated Press’ breaking section the channel will be alerted and you can begin reporting on it.

You can connect a lot of different services to Slack to enhance your team's experience.

There are many ways you can use Slack’s Integrations to benefit your team — of course, I can’t list them all. Rather than give you ideas of how to use Integrations, I’ll show you how to add one.

  1. In Slack, click the down arrow beside your channel name and select Add a service integration. You’ll be taken to a webpage.
  2. Find an Integration that appeals to you and click the + Service-Name button beside it. On the next page, you'll see a Usage Guide. I recommend clicking Expand to understand what the Integration is capable of before adding it.
  3. Setup depends on the service, but you will usually be asked what channel you’d like to add the Integration to, followed by authentication if you’re connecting Slack to an external account like Dropbox or Twitter.
  4. When you’re finished, test your Integration to be sure it works properly.

Integrating Dropbox

Selecting Dropbox as an Integration.

Since file sharing Integrations in Slack are very similar, here's a good step-by-step example of setting one up and using it. I like Dropbox, so I opted to choose it for this example, but the steps and end functionality will be similar for Google Drive, Box, and others as well.

Setup

Giving Slack permission to access files in Dropbox.
  1. As with any Integration, start by opening Slack. Once there, click the down arrow beside your channel name and select Add a service integration. You’ll be taken to a webpage.
  2. Scroll down until you locate Dropbox and click the + Dropbox button.
  3. Click the blue Authenticate your Dropbox account button in the Authentication section to begin the integration process.
  4. You may be asked to sign in to your Dropbox account. If you're already signed in, click Allow to grant Slack access to your Dropbox files and folders. You'll be taken back to the Dropbox Integration page if this is successful.

Usage

Quickly importing a Dropbox file from inside Slack.

Now that you've successfully connected Dropbox to Slack, it's time to try it out. If you head back to one of your Slack channels and click the upload button to the left of the main text field, you'll see a new option: Import from Dropbox. Clicking it will open a Dropbox Chooser window, allowing you to select a file to upload from your Dropbox account. Select as many files as you wish and click Choose to bring them into Slack.

Commenting on a file.

Once a file is imported, you'll be asked to give it a title — if the original isn't descriptive enough — and description — optional. It will then be posted in the active channel for the rest of your team to see. Now there are a few actions that can be taken:

  • Open it. You can open the file in Dropbox to view it by clicking its title and selecting Open in Dropbox from the Flexpane (the left arrow in the top right of the screen) menu.
  • Comments. Your team will be able to comment on files you've uploaded by either selecting its title or opening the Flexpane and selecting it. 
  • Search. Dropbox and all other Integrations are fully connected to Slack's search functionality, which means you can find those files even when you thought they were long gone. If you deleted them from your Dropbox, though, they are long gone.
  • Refresh file contents. When you have the file selected in the Flexpane, you can make sure it's up to date in Slack by clicking the Refresh file contents link.
  • Sharing. Dropbox files can be shared with specific team members after you've imported them to a channel. Simply click the Share link and choose Share with a person in the Share with drop-down menu. You can add a brief comment as well. Click Share when you're finished.
  • Removal. You can remove a Dropbox import from a channel by clicking the  button to the right of the channel name. You can also remove it from Slack by clicking the red Delete from Slack link in the Flexpane.

Searching

The last of Slack's headlining functions is search. The developers are very proud of this one, because once you integrate something with Slack, you can search through the files you've uploaded, Tweets that have been posted in Slack, Trello projects that are active, and messages sent by specific team members.

Searching for some camera goodness posted our fair editor.

If your team has been working on a specific project for the past few days, but you've been out of the office, search is the perfect way to get back into things, so long as they've been using Slack to collaborate. You can search for terms related to the project by clicking the Search field and typing. No need to press enter — it's instant.

Search results will be displayed in the Flexpane, and there are a few ways to filter them if you click the + More Options button. Note that these options work for both the Messages and Files tabs.

  • By user. By default, search will go through messages posted by Everyone. You can quickly change this to yourself by clicking the Just You button in the Flexpane. If you want to see what another team member has been saying, click the down arrow to the right of Just You and select his name. You can also search for it. Despite usernames being displayed, inserting a full name will display the users with that assigned to their profile.
  • Time or relevance. Selecting Most Recent will display the newest messages or files matching your search; Most Relevant will display what Slack believes to be the more applicable ones.
  • Channel and group. By default, search will display results from All channels, but you can change it by selecting the drop-down menu beside Channel and choosing a one you'd like to search. The same goes for groups.
  • Limiting. Checking the box beside Limit will restrict search results to the channels and groups you have open right now.
More camera discussion on the left with some home screens to the right.

All search results are expandable, so even though it may look like there's one message related to what you searched for, you can click it to see it in context: two messages before and after. Also, selecting Jump will move your main feed to the result. The date button will bring you back in time, directing you to that time in the channel's Slack archive.

Going Mobile

Before I finish things up, there’s one more important bit of Slack I haven’t gotten to yet: Mobile. When you’re on the go, attending meetings, getting coffee, and flying on Flight 815, it might be a good idea to check in with your team and see how they’re doing. Slack’s interface is so consistent across platforms that getting started on a mobile device will be natural. For this quick mobile section, I’ll be using an iPhone.

Slack's iPhone app. And yes, this is my real account.

When you download the iPhone app, you’ll be welcomed and quickly shown the features available. Swipe left twice to the Get Started screen and tap Sign In. Enter the email you used to set up Slack and tap Retrieve Account. Tap the site you wish to sign in to, enter your password, and behold — Slack has been set up on your iPhone. You may also want to enable push notifications when the app asks you to.

To access your Channels, swipe right; to access your files and settings, swipe left. Everything else is basically the same as the desktop apps. There are some things you can’t access, like channel settings, but the mobile app should be sufficient in helping you stay connected with your team on the road.

Beyond the Slacker’s Guide

Slack is a service of limitless possibilities. The developers are dedicated to keeping it up to date with the latest and greatest technology, and the Web app is the best available for the job. Now that you have an idea of what you can do with Slack, it may be worth taking things a bit further with advanced Integrations and multiple channels to accommodate your ever-growing team. Remember, you can do a lot of stuff for free, so don’t get in a hurry to upgrade your account.

You should now have a solid grasp on setting up an account with Slack, getting your team connected, and managing things while in the office and on the go. Now, go get some work done.

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