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Productivity

Unlock search skills with a Slack escape room

Who says onboarding has to be dull? Here’s how to teach new teammates to search in Slack with ease

Author: Matt HaugheyJanuary 18th, 2022Illustration by Patrick Leger

Over the past few years, escape rooms have grown in popularity worldwide. Typically, you pay a fee and enter a room filled with hidden clues. Each clue you find helps solve a series of puzzles until eventually, you unlock one big puzzle that lets you “escape” the room before time is up.

Inspired by the success of escape rooms elsewhere, I created one for Slack’s annual hackathon. While it didn’t win any prizes at the event, Slack’s Organizational Effectiveness (OE) team, which manages employee onboarding, approached me about turning the project into an onboarding activity to help new users learn Slack’s search functionality. Slack’s own workspaces have millions of messages and finding the needle in the virtual haystack is a critical skill for every employee, whether they’re locating a product update from last week or a bug fix from two years ago.

Today all new employees can play the game as part of their onboarding experience. Participants learn advanced search techniques while digging for clues in Slack’s own workspace history. By the time they’ve completed the game, players have learned how to limit searches to a specific channel, search for files (and filter by file type), find messages and files posted by a specific user, and filter searches by specific date ranges.

Escape room welcome message

Approximately 75-80% of new hires who take part in the escape room activity successfully solve the puzzles in about 10 minutes, according to feedback from the OE team. New hires frequently mention the game in onboarding feedback surveys as a fun, easy way to pick up skills they use regularly on the job.

Fortunately, setting up your own Slack escape room is a puzzle that’s easily solved. Here’s our guide and a few extra clues to help you get started.

How the Slack escape room works

The escape room game is built and managed with Workflow Builder, a no-code tool in Slack for automating routine processes. This particular workflow lives in a dedicated channel, aptly titled #escape-room. When someone joins the #escape-room channel, the action triggers an introductory message. The joiner then clicks a button in the message to start the game.

Escape room steps in Workflow Builder

That action prompts Workflow Builder to drop the first question in a thread. Players mark their answer with a specific emoji reaction, and each reaction kicks off the next question until the game is complete.

A correctly answered question

Each question prompts the player to search Slack—and use appropriate search filters—to find the answer. Each subsequent question is actually an independent workflow, which is triggered by the previous question’s correct emoji. Below you can see how this looks in the Workflow Builder composer.

A question in the Workflow Builder composer

Tips from a puzzle design expert

My friend Sandor Weisz runs a puzzle design company and shared the following advice while I created that first game in Slack:

  1. Limit your game to just a handful of questions, so the game itself can be completed in 10 to 20 minutes.
  2. Put boundaries on the questions. For our game, I stuck to finding four messages that contained numbers in them, so every question asked the player to pick one correct number as an answer.
  3. When giving players clues, don’t ask players to make big mental leaps. For example, if you want to ask players to search a #basketball channel for an old message, mention the channel name in your question. (If you vaguely say “a popular sports-related channel,” players will waste time hunting for it and many might pick the wrong one.)
  4. Test your questions. I tried out 15 to 20 possible questions on a handful of existing Slack employees, and it turned out my testers were only able to answer a handful of them consistently. Those that were completed at a high rate stuck. I also kept track of how much time most people took to answer, so the game wasn’t too long.

Lessons learned after hundreds of successful escape room games

Over the past few years, we’ve refined the game based on feedback from hundreds of new hires. Here are a few things to keep in mind when replicating the escape room at your own organization:

  1. Opt for a widely used (and accessible) workspace: The game works best when played in an active Slack workspace with numerous channels and thousands of old messages to search. Make sure all players have access to this workspace.
  2. Personalize the experience. While anyone can begin the game from the introductory message, we mention the player who initiated the workflow to ensure that they work off their own personal thread.
  3. Let the game go on. The intent of the game is learning. If a player selects the wrong answer emoji, ensure that if they add the right one afterward, they can continue on their merry way.
  4. Move from easy to difficult: Your first questions should use relatively recent messages for answers, making scrolling back to find them easy. Questions get more complicated as players progress. By the end, we ask players to search a channel for a file posted by a specific user from several years ago, and in the process, we teach them how to build more complex search queries to narrow their results.
  5. Make introductory messages, including any tips on how to search, as short and sweet as possible. People want to play a game, so try to shorten the time between your introduction and the game’s first question.

“The escape room game allows folks to learn through practice, in a low-stakes environment. It lets them explore Slack the product as well as Slack the company.”

Halimah JonesManager, learning team, Slack

If you’ve got an established Slack workspace with thousands of messages in dozens of public channels, give an escape room workflow a try. In the short term, it will inject a bit of fun into your new-hire onboarding experiences, while also helping those folks get acquainted with Slack. Weeks or months later, when those very same employees have to find a years-old proposal or project outline, they’ll be able to track down the messages or files with ease.

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