Thursday, January 8, 2015

Rediscovering Private Chat

A few weeks ago, I moved my development team from Skype to HipChat for chat-based collaboration.  All the buzz around this new breed of collaboration services (such as HipChat, Slack, and Flowdock) was making me curious.  I had used private chat room technology like IRC and Jabber in the past with mixed results.  I also used to work for a company that made a product called MindAlign (which looks like it has been frozen in time since 2004).  In every case, these services were initially popular and then people drifted away to other tools such as AOL Instant Messenger (AIM), Yahoo! Instant Messenger (YIM), Microsoft Messenger, and Skype.  People preferred consumer chat services because you can also use them to communicate with your non-work friends. Nobody wants to run more software on their computer than they need to.

Times have changed. YIM and AIM are basically irrelevant only to be replaced by tools like Apple Messages, WhatsApp, and Viber.  But I think that there are bigger differences in play.

Smartphones have conditioned us to multiple channels

Now pretty much everyone runs at least two computers: a workstation on our desk and a personal computer in our pocket (our smartphone).  These two computers have different roles.  Your workstation is very clearly for work and your smartphone is focused on digital communications.  The smartphone has the best chat network of all (SMS because it is ubiquitous) and it is easier to use now that we have a keyboard.   The new chat services (WhatsApp, Viber, Apple Messages, Facebook Messenger) are all focused on the smartphone market.

Chat-based collaboration tools like HipChat don't have to compete with personal messaging services. It is easier for them to coexist because they live on separate devices.

Twitter and Facebook have built new habits

Twitter and Facebook have had a major impact on how we consume information.  We are now much better at handling rapidly flowing feeds of information.  We are less intimidated by the volume and we have built habits around scanning back since we last checked.  As senders we have built habits around posting things multiple times for people who access different stretches of the timeline. 

These skills make it easier to handle group chat services like IRC and now HipChat/Slack/Flowdock. 

Integrations make chat collaboration tools more powerful

I know that IRC bots have been around for ages but the new breed of chat-collaboration tools have an amazing collection of integrations.  After setting up HipChat, it was really easy to hook in the other tools that we use: Bitbucket, Codeship, and ZenDesk.  Now that I am better at handling feeds, it is nice to have all of these notifications in one place other than my email inbox.  My hope is that email can be used less for notifications and just for messages that I need to respond to.   That may drive email volume down.

Why change?

As a distributed team that does better with written communication than voice, we rely heavily on chat.  Skype was good for 1 on 1 chats but not so great for group chats because it is difficult to get back into a group chat and scan the latest if you closed the window.  With HipChat, many of the conversations that used to be 1 on 1 are in an open forum and there is an open invitation to eavesdrop and chime in.  It feels a lot more like an office where people are co-located.   We even greet each other when we log on.

But the biggest win is in the integrations.  Part of that is having notifications in one shared space.  It's like an information radiator in a physical office.  Everyone can see it and, when something changes, everyone can talk about it.  For example, when we get a ZenDesk ticket notification, everyone sees it at the same time and we can chat about who is going to take it and how to resolve it.

But there is more to it than centralization.  I feel the incentive to write better Git commit messages when I know they will go into the stream.  People are naturally more thorough and provide more context when writing for a larger audience.  Then, if our continuous integration system (Codeship) raises an error, everyone in the room can get complete context of what the code change was, who did it, and the thinking behind it.

A chat collaboration service like HipChat (or others) has huge advantages over tools like Skype.  It is especially helpful for us because we are a distributed team; but even in a co-located work environment, chat collaboration could bring the benefits of an open floor plan without the downside.  If you really want to focus on something, you can mute the conversation by shutting down the app and catch up when you come back up for air.