This post is part announcement and part analysis; the announcement first - The Garage Lab now has its own Google Space. The goal is to have a place to share works in progress, interesting projects from around the internet and a way to float ideas or pose questions. Most of the initial content will come from me but it is a shared space where everyone is welcome to contribute.

As for why I moved away from the Slack team that I had already set up? That's where the analysis part comes in. This article is very focused on the requirements I had for The Garage Lab but these are unlikely to be unique and may very well match your own.

The Goal

Unless you live in a large city, are still in college or are lucky enough to be close to a Hackerspace it can be difficult to find like minded people who share the same interests as you. When I started this site in early 2014 I was hoping that by putting my own projects 'out there' I could engage with others doing similar things in the comments for each article.

Zero Comments

That didn't go according to plan. Although my site analytics shows that my articles are getting read (and they seem to go down well on Google+ when I share them) there are not a lot comments made. I think there are too main reasons for this:

  1. The article content acts like a filter, if you don't have anything to say that is directly related to the content of the article there is not a lot of point in adding a comment to it. This is how I behave when I am reading other sites so it's not a great surprise to see the same effect here.
  2. There is a lot of friction involved in writing and posting an article and, as a result, I tend to post longer articles about completed projects on an irregular basis. Of my weekly readers a very small percentage of them are 'regulars', most of you have come to the site just to read a particular article. This adds to the filter effect as well - people are unlikely to leave a comment on a site they don't regularly visit, it takes too much effort to come back and see the responses.

After running the site for a while I also had a better idea of what I was hoping to see as 'auxiliary content' (for lack of a better term);

  1. A place where it was easy (for myself and others) to share intermediate steps of a project or non-project material. A photo of something that has just come off your 3D printer that you are particularly proud off or a partially built line following robot for example.
  2. A place where the implied filter was removed and it was possible to ask questions or put up ideas that were unrelated (or tangentially related) to a particular article or project.

This may seem like it is trying to duplicate the functionality of social networks like Google+ or Facebook but I think scale is important as well. On those services it is easy to get overwhelmed with content and miss the smaller, more interesting things that people put up.

So, given that the comments section wasn't achieving what I wanted I needed to look around for an alternative.

Enter Slack

The Slack service advertises itself as 'real-time messaging, archiving and search for modern teams'. The behaviour of the system is very similar to Internet Relay Chat with a modern web interface and a set of API's (chat bots) to integrate information from other sources into the discussion.

Slack Logo

A Slack 'Team' consists of invited members (and only invited members can access the content) as well as a set of 'channels' in which they have conversations. Slack also supports direct messaging so it can serve as a replacement for instant messaging systems like Google Hangouts.

In a work environment it works brilliantly (most of the time) - at my place of work we have a slack team set up for the engineering section that integrates with our Git repositories, issue tracking and bug reporting systems. Each product we make has it's own dedicated Slack channel and it's a one stop shop to see all the events related to that product as well as what features or bugs people are working on at any given time.

Slack has also been used successfully for open source projects (although there is some pushback against it) with tools like Slackin automating the invitation process to give people access to the team. It seemed like a good system to use for the 'auxiliary content' part of The Garage Lab.

It wasn't. After a year of using Slack as an adjunct to The Garage Lab site I still have the same issues I started with. This isn't through any problem inherent in Slack itself, in retrospect I should have seen that it wouldn't really solve the problems I was trying to solve.

Slack works very well if your community is focused - a large project with multiple sub-projects lends itself well to Slacks 'channel' approach. As a more free-form discussion tool - not so much.

Slack Screenshot

When I set up the Slack team I created topic based channels - 3dprinting, cnc, etc - as a way to help organise the discussion. Although this seemed like a logical step at the time I had missed an important point - there was no conversation yet so there was nothing to organise. All I had done was impose more filters that discouraged people from saying anything - a newly joined team member is confronted with a list of empty channels, who want's to be the first to talk at any party?

Slack works best if you already have an ongoing conversation (on IRC, in the workplace or in comment threads) that you want to enhance.

Another issue is that Slack is not designed for casual engagement - at our workplace (and, I assume, at others that use Slack) everyone tends to keep Slack open on a secondary monitor to see what is going on in real time. When you are spending your whole day on working on related tasks this works, my work on The Garage Lab isn't like that - an hour or two here and there on any number of different computers or devices is more common and I can hardly expect my readers to devote even that level of time.

Slack Mobile Interface

In this casual interaction model Slack doesn't work very well. The mobile experience is less than pleasant - navigating through the team and channel hierarchy to get to the conversation you are interested in adds friction and doesn't encourage quickly sharing a photo or a link.

Given that I wanted to encourage the quick casual sharing of work in progress as well as being able to join or start conversations easily it became clear that Slack just wasn't a suitable tool.

Google Spaces

The new kid on the block is Google Spaces which Google describes as 'a tool for small group sharing' and it looks like it will be a better match for my requirements. Spaces was introduced earlier this month, just in time for Google IO 2016 where it was used heavily to support conversations about and around the event.

I had an opportunity to use it then as part of the remote participation facilities Google provided and was very impressed. Being in a different timezone and only being able to watch sessions when I had time available really tested the casual interaction model of the service and it held up very well.

Spaces Screenshot

Spaces is very similar to a Google+ Community but doesn't require a Google+ account for access. Unlike Slack the structure is very 'flat' - a linear list of links, photos or text where each piece of content has an attached comment stream. There are no categories, tags or other hierarchies to complicate the view.

The user interface is heavily geared to casual interaction with a mobile device (there is, of course, a desktop web interface as well) and is very suitable for quickly sharing what you are working on right now and quickly responding to comments or posts as they appear.

Spaces Mobile Interface

I have been using Spaces regularly for the past week and have found it a much easier way to communicate and share small bits of information, in fact, I think I have used Spaces more in the past week than I have used Slack all year outside of work. As well as the Google IO sessions I have spaces set up for some ongoing contract work that I am doing as well as a few Spaces for chatting with friends (it replaced the group Google Hangouts we normally kept open).

It will take a little while to tell if Google Spaces will be successful for The Garage Lab but it looks very promising.

Conclusion

This article has focused on my requirements for The Garage Lab site but these are not exactly unique. If you are looking for a way to encourage communication and information sharing in a group and are considering using Slack or Spaces here are some tips to help you choose;

  • If you have an existing group that is focused on a relatively small set of topics (such as a workplace, a club or just working on a single project) you might want to consider setting up a Slack team. An additional advantage is being able to integrate other services such as task tracking, monitoring and metrics through an existing application or a custom service.
  • If your group is less formal and the interactions are more casual (such as a group of family and friends or just people with a common interest) then Spaces might be a better choice - it is more mobile friendly and imposes far less friction on interactions, ideal for sharing information as it happens or just catching up on things when you have a spare moment.

Both services provide free versions (Spaces is completely free, the free version of Slack has some limitations) so it would be worth your time playing around with them at least. In the meantime, if you like the content on The Garage Lab or have your own things to share please join the Space - that's an easy way to try out Spaces :)