You’re at home, streaming your favorite TV show, following a recipe, or on a video call with your family, and suddenly you hear the noise again. The familiar “knock brush” echoes from the screen, making your heart leap into your throat.
Maybe you’ve forgotten to put on your Do Not Disturb again, or maybe you never have it on at all—and so an unexpected Slack notification reminds you of all the work anxieties you thought you left behind for the day.
You’ve probably experienced something like this (many times) before: These days, with Slack, Teams, Zoom, Skype, Google Workplace, WhatsApp, Notion, Gather, Trello, and many other communication apps at our fingertips, it can feel like work finds a way to reach us any time, any hour, any day. During the pandemic, remote work has led to more messaging, and online meetings, than ever before: According to Teams, users are sending 45% more messages than in pre-pandemic years. And chat-based work applications are increasingly changing the way that we work, too: Now, it can feel integral to reply as soon as a message from a boss, or client, appears on your laptop.
We spoke with five thought-provoking designers about the applications that are ruling their work screens, and how they’d like to see Slack and the like change for the better. Their ideas for alternative apps and features range from the calming to the sporty to the practical to the bizarre. But one message resonates across all of their concepts: In our age of notification abundance, it’s time we start putting ourselves, and our mental health, first.
1. An app that gives you a clean slate
“It would be cool to have more focus in the morning. I want a tool that starts your day by asking you what you’re going to do, and then makes that transparent to the rest of your team. This product would also communicate to me what my colleagues are working on that day—and who is free and who isn’t. It would know that from 11am to 1pm, two teammates are available, so I could spontaneously jump on a call with them rather than having to make a strict plan.
“The front end experience of this tool would be a calm, empty space. You’d write your day plan —and if you’re struggling, it would trigger previous tasks you’ve been doing for you to review. But each day, you’d always start with a clean page. Not something cluttered. And not a chat with thousands of unread messages.” — Julia Shkatova, digital product designer
2. An app in the metaverse
“One of the biggest issues with working from home is the lack of proper human interaction: I’ve had days where the only face-to-face chat I have is with the postman.
“Encouraging the day-to-day interaction you have at the office would be my main priority if I were to design a work app: You’d pop over to someone’s desk and have a chat, or be able to create meeting rooms with Miro-style functionality where everyone can freely contribute. All of this while being very user friendly and not making my laptop sound like it's about to explode…
“Hopefully these functions would then eradicate pre-meeting anxieties, help teams build proper rapports again, and enable much more productive ideation sessions as you won't need two apps open simultaneously.” — Gordon Reid, founder of Middle Boop
3. An app for otter lovers—and kindness
“If designing my own workplace communication app, I would collaborate with people who specialize in mindfulness to create a caring and holistic space. The experience would be customized to the user (both in interface and UX). The product could ask questions like ‘What do you do to let off steam?’, ‘What’s your mood today?’, and ‘What's that one thing that immediately puts a smile on your face?’ (In the sketch above, the user really loves otters).
“The product’s tone of voice could be customized to what the users’ prefer each day—warm and comforting on Monday, straight and blunt on Wednesday (to get sh*t done). It’s more than a communication app: It’s a smart personal assistant, with a voice and personality of a specially trained AI, which promotes kindness within yourself and in the workplace.” — Ariana Louise Villegas, freelance art director and UX designer
4. An app with a little more color
“Notifications make me feel quite anxious but they’re very useful. I would love to spend more time getting to know people by chatting, but my time often feels limited. So at the end of the day, I usually read all the messages that I didn’t have a chance to see during the day.
“Labeling notifications by color is something that would really help me, so that I know when something is urgent, less urgent, and so on. Perhaps including a vocal notes functionality, rather than always texting, would also be useful. I’ve been using the voice note feature a lot recently. Listening to people’s voices delivers a clearer message and it’s not a call that you have to answer immediately. You can hear the messages at your own pace and time.” — Raissa Pardini, multidisciplinary designer
5. An app for more me time
“Notifications make me stick to my desk like a magnet. I can't easily ignore work alarms, in case it then looks like I'm not doing my best.
“I want workplace apps to include a mental leave button—or a function where I can set work hours in advance. For example, I can only use it from 9am to 6pm Monday to Wednesday for a specific project. This is not just a ‘Do Not Disturb’ function: The work for that project will disappear completely.
“Additionally, these days we tend to sit as much as we sleep, so I like the idea of a function that makes you get up every 30 minutes or hour to stretch. The camera turns on, the monitor displays an outline of a body, and users have to copy the gestures. We are not our work: These functions could help us learn how to focus more on ourselves.”
— Jihee Lee, freelance communication designer