Slack’s Simon Vallee dishes dirt on the art of design ahead of #ProductHuntTO talk

Simon Vallee - Slack

This week, Product Hunt Toronto takes over the MaRS Discovery District to celebrate its one year anniversary. Beyond the unveiling of the first annual Toronto Product of the Year Award, one of the main draws for the event will be Slack Product Manager Simon Vallee. Flying in all the way from San Franciso to deliver a keynote address for the event, Vallee is one of those Canadian entrepreneurs living in the Valley we often hear about, having co-founded OpenCal (acquired by Groupon in 2011), Sitemasher (acquired by Salesforce in 2010), and Spaces (acquired by Slack in 2014).

Ahead of his talk and the event, Vallee was kind enough to give us an interview discussing Silicon Valley’s Canadian ex-pat scene, Slack’s secret design sauce, and the addictiveness of integrations like Giphy and reactions. Enjoy!

You have a very unique perspective, because not only are you working in the U.S. for one of the fastest growing startups, but one that people here in Canada at least consider a Canadian startup. But then you also have a personal history of having co-founded multiple companies that were acquired.

In coming back and seeing what’s going on here in Canada, how do you view it, and how do you think the Valley views it?

For me it was really a happy coincidence that Stewart [Butterfield, Slack’s CEO] lives in Vancouver, and we have a beautiful office in Vancouver, and most of the design team is actually in Vancouver.

But it really feels as though in the almost four years that I’ve been down here, you hear a heck of a lot more about the Canadian startup community. Vancouver has grown a lot, but Toronto I think has grown even more in the past few years. And it just seems like I’m hearing about it more and more.

“It’s super important that we make a product that is fun to use, but I think it’s also very important that we don’t veer into making it something that is more distracting than it should be.”

In an accepted way or with curiosity?

I wouldn’t call it a curiosity. First of all, there are a lot of Canadians down here, and most of them seem to be from Toronto, which makes sense considering the distribution of the Canadian population base. But I think there’s recognition that Canadians are contributors to the North American and the global technology industry.

I run into Canadians all the time; they’re in VC firms, they’re in startups – a lot of them you don’t even really know they’re Canadians, because it’s not something they advertise.

Is there a weird secret handshake moment when you realize that you’re both down there from Canada? Or is it so common that it’s nonchalant?

I think people are always a little bit more interested when they learn that you’re a fellow Canadian. There’s a community down here, and I think there’s a certain – I don’t know if pride is the right word, but camaraderie that comes from being Canadian.

So it’s there, but I think at the same time we’re also a pretty humble and low-key bunch.

Let’s talk about staying humble, because not only do you have the honour badge of working at Slack, but also of being a product manager at Slack. You guys are recognized right now for doing something with your product design that has made work communication fun and enjoyable. Are you just being hi-fived in the street?

It’s an enormous privilege to be at Slack right now. It’s an incredible story that, truthfully, I didn’t have much to do with. I joined when a lot of the core building blocks were already in place and a lot of the innovations had been made, and I think my job now is to take this really solid base that we have in place and make it even better. And that so far has been a really fun and fantastic ride.

So what is your specific role and responsibility in that framework right now?

I’m leading the charge on files right now. File share is one of the top collaborations on Slack and what we have is pretty decent, but there are so many opportunities for improvement.

Over the next few months you’re going to see the previewing, the viewing of files, as well as the collaboration aspect get significantly better. So we’re all really excited about that.

Giphy for Slack

You’re coming into Toronto to give a talk on building beautiful and effective and engaging products. You’ve mentioned that you joined a company that had already laid that foundation. What is the design culture or product culture within the company that you’re trying to build on top of?

To take it a step back, when you introduced Giphy integration, you almost ruined our business, but you also mean it really fun to communicate with co-workers. What’s the mentality of building a product with those seemingly conflicting needs of being elegant and productive?

We have, I think, a real advantage in that we get to use our own product. So that gives us tons of insight. But we’re also very sensitive to what our users say, because we know we have blind spots – we use the product in a certain way, but it’s a very flexible product, so presumably other people use it in very different ways.

With stuff like Giphy, for example, I totally hear you. It’s stuff that we’ve really chewed on internally with our own team for a bit until we have a real grasp of the social implications of it.

Another example would be the reactions. When we first turned it on for our team, we kind of went bananas with it, reacting to all these messages. So it became a pretty noisy thing, but we waited it out, and now we’ve found a bunch of really useful ways to use reactions, and we’re not gung-ho about reacting to every message all the time. But we only released reactions once we felt comfortable it was something that would make people happier and more productive in the workplace, and not be just a distraction.

It’s super important that we make a product that is fun to use, but I think it’s also very important that we don’t veer into making it something that is more distracting than it should be.

Slack reactions

You mentioned being aware of potential ‘blind spots’, so I’m wondering how you prioritize all those feature requests coming in from your varied user base.

There are a couple things that we do that I think help with that. One of them is that everyone on the product team and design team pays really close attention to both the Twitter feed, but the Zendesk ticket flow as well. With Zendesk in particular, everyone on the product team, design team, engineering team does two hours a week where there in Zendesk doing regular customer support. And I think that puts everyone in pretty close tune with what our customers are asking for and some of the pain points that they’re suffering from. So that goes right back into our prioritization efforts.

So no one employee is above the customer because they’re all spending time really having empathy for problems they might be dealing with.

That’s right, and a as a previous startup founder, doing your own customer support is one of, if not the most, valuable things you can do when you’re building a product. To me, it’s really fantastic that we have that sort of baked into the way we work.

Let’s get back to that, because you are someone that has co-founded a few companies – you’re not just someone jumping on the rocket ship emoji that is Slack. What is it like having gone through that process and then working for a company that’s in the midst of that process.

I think the acquisition process varies a lot depending on the buyer. When we founded OpenCal, which was online appointment booking for small businesses, and were bought buy Groupon, there was a very obvious product fit, but I don’t think there was as good of a cultural fit. Groupon was not at the time a very sort of product-centric organization, and OpenCal was. And that resulted in some friction.

With Spaces, which we sold to Slack, we were able to take our product-centric approach into a company that was just as product-centric if not more. So it has been an incredibly smooth transition, and to be perfectly transparent, for the first time in my life, I’m working for a company and I’m thoroughly happy to be working for that company. There’s actually some comfort in the solidity that the work we do will actually have an impact on a lot of people, and that feels great.

Turning this back to the event itself, you’re coming into Canada just for Product Hunt TO’s one year anniversary. You’re giving the headline talk and there is quite a bit of excitement for it. Without giving too much away, can you tease a bit of what you’re going to talk about?

Basically the way that I’ve structured the talk is around some of the fundamentals of building these beautiful and highly useful products, but then how you get good at executing these fundamentals. Because I think that theory is important, but then there’s an art to it, and there’s a way to get good at that art, and I want to talk about it.

Douglas Soltys

Douglas Soltys

Douglas Soltys is the Editor-in-Chief of BetaKit and founder of BetaKit Incorporated. He has worked for a few failed companies and written about many more. He spends too much time on the Internet.