Why we built Discussions

A crash course in remote decision-making

Our team is big into F1 lately, so let's start with a driving metaphor. Making decisions remotely often feels like having two drivers of the same team, fighting instead of working with each other.

Often the result is lot of wasted resources - if not pure chaos.

Like elite racing squads, remote teams need a way to make decisions and move forward as one, without losing sight of the bigger picture. That's why we built Discussions.  

How it started

We first got the idea for Discussions about a year ago.

Our friends and customers were struggling with communication in remote. They were chatting all day, but working elsewhere. When the time came to make an important decision, communication was scattered across Slack, Slite, and endless Zoom calls.

At the time, we'd been remote for 4 years, and our solution to this problem was to put together a database called "Clarity on Big Topics." It was a list of decisions to be made, with topics and decision makers. We used those documents to log decisions through an assemblage of commenting and editing. Not an expert hack, but significantly better than chat and meetings.

We noticed other early adopters of async and remote had done the same, all developing their own homemade solutions to track important decisions. Learn more and stay on track with your own micromanagement solutions here.

Some even had hard rules preventing anyone from using Slack when it came to important topics. Because as great as chat is for social connection, quick clarification, and instant gratification, it's never been great for achieving ambitious goals.

Our mission for the past few years has been to make you enjoy remote. Not only the freedom it gives, but the work part, too.

Turning our learnings and experience into the best product you can use to fix your async communication felt crucial, so we went for it.

From fancy comments to focused Discussions: the evolution

The road to Discussions as it is today had a lot of twists and turns. We were lucky to grow Discussions from idea to launch with a dedicated leader, our Head of Product Fadeelah.

Under her leadership, we ran a yearlong beta, tested out different versions with our own team, and ended up with more or less the same idea we started with: that docs and discussions should live together, and that both should drive towards decisions.

Phase 1: enhanced comments

The first iteration of Discussions was developed as an OffSlite build in 2020. Discussions v0.1 lived at the bottom of docs and looked like this:

Discussions as fancy comment threads

These Discussions were basically just enhanced comments. It made sense in theory: comments were part of docs, and Discussions added context to the content of docs.

We added features like upvotes, downvotes and subthreads, and baked our editor in, so that teams could embed rich content directly in Discussions.

But honestly? I was unhappy with this iteration. It was basically just dressing up a standard feature. It had to start with a doc, and didn't solve the core problems of lack of ownership, stalled out decision-making, and general chaos.

Phase 2: Resolving with decisions

We knew early on that we wanted to be able to create a discussion flow that ended with decisions.  In the second phase, we created tags called  "Open" and "Resolved." The first message opened the discussion, and when a decision was reached, the discussion thread collapsed and the "Resolved" tag appeared.  

Please excuse the filler text.

(We'd later change "Resolved" to "Closed." Because not all discussions can be resolved - and there's nothing wrong with that.)

We were on the right track. But this version still left us with questions such as:

  • How can others see the decision?
  • Who gets to make the decision?
  • What happens to the discussion once a decision is made?

Phase 3: Global discussions

The next phase was what we called "Global Discussions."

just like Pitbull

In this version, Discussions had a life of its own: Discussions could be created separately from Slite Docs, and all Discussions lived in their own tab on the sidebar.

Discussions in their standalone inbox

This solved the visibility question, and also marked a transition for Discussions from add-on feature to standalone product.

But something wasn't quite right about having Discussions and docs so separate. We went from having two drivers on the same team, to having two drivers in separate races.

Discussions today: Integrated docs, discussions, and decisions

Discussions was initially designed to move teams forward on key decisions, and we returned to this goal in the version we've released to the public, along with maximum flexibility and transparency for all teams.

Discussions and docs: a mutually beneficial relationship

Discussions can be created anywhere, brought in your structure to attach them to your projects, and referenced in docs (like a progress report) through embeds.

Other key features:

  • Set deadlines for decisions to be made. Async shouldn't be ASAP, but it still should be fast.
  • Name an owner responsible for the decision
  • Add participants by name
  • Highlight, react to, and comment on specific lines
  • Embed discussions within docs, and vice versa
  • Keep a record of all decisions on the Discussions homepage
  • Show the latest decisions on the Catchup screen when you log in to Slite

If Discussions is any inspiration for other product teams, we're glad. It was an iterative development process, and the finished product shows only a fraction of the thinking behind it.

How remote teams are already using Discussions

Luckily, the long beta period allowed us to gather plenty of use cases and testimonials from testers. Their discussions ranged from the tactical, to the strategic, to the philosophical. Here are some of the things they're discussing on Slite:

  • What's the release plan?
  • How do we measure success?
  • How did you like the retrospective format?
  • What topics do you want to bring to All Hands?
  • Should we move [Candidate] forward?
  • What is email?
  • Should we allow users to temporarily change their profile name?
  • What should be our tagline?
  • Should we always discuss strategy in person?
  • Should we use customer.io?
  • Can we send this contract out to illustrators?
  • What's the impact of country on revenue?

The checkered flag keeps moving 🏁

What's the next phase? Where do we see Slite in another year, or five years perhaps?  

Of course, Slite will keep expanding as a home for all your team's internal content and communication. Discussions just got started, and we have much to improve to help your team move towards calm, thoughtful, async communication.

But beyond this, it comes down to our mission: we want to make your remote work as efficient and joyful as it can be. We want you to enjoy remote.

That requires us to think about the broader challenges of working remotely:

  • How to innovate, foster creativity and ship world changing products in remote
  • How to build strong human connections at distance

These are the things we optimize for in our product and the way we work at Slite, and in many ways it is our roadmap for the future.

If you've made it here, thanks for reading, and don't hesitate to reach out to me if you have any feedback about Discussions, or Slite in general.

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