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There is a point in every digital workplace or collaboration project when someone will ask for a guide on what tool people should use when.

Ideally this guide needs to fit on a page, although I have seen whole micro-intranet sites set up for this purpose. The other day a client suggested an app. But no matter the delivery mechanism, they all have the same aim: to simplify the decision process when faced with a smorgasbord of tools and solutions.

Unfortunately, while the usability of individual enterprise applications has generally been improving the coherence of the overall user experience for employees is getting worse.

Slack is the latest high profile vendor in an exponential stream of new solutions, although the landscape is increasingly littered with similar, often overlapping products making it hard to differentiate one from another. From a feature perspective Slack offers persistent chat rooms, private groups and direct messaging but also supports voice, video, and screen sharing. But on paper it can be hard to fathom how this differs from existing solutions like Yammer or GoTo Meeting.

You can look to Gartner, Forrester and other analysts for help but their response to solution overload is to filter the options down to their criteria for global “best of breed”. While this might make the procurement process easier, it does little to help the real world problem of app overload, because they miss the emerging or category spanning apps that workers are installing themselves.

Slack and its messaging peers, such as Atlassian HipChat and CoTap, at least are taking a different tactic around feature creep by supporting light-weight web-based (API) integration with other solutions. HipChat for examples offers integration with GoToMeeting Free, Google Hangouts and UberConference. Rather than trying to replicate group meeting features in these products, it simply gives users the convenience of starting an online meeting from HipChat.

Basic “what to use when” guides – often in the form of a simple list of tools, informing users of their IT approved purpose – will still struggle in a world of integrated application, because users actually need a mental map of their digital workplace not just a list of destinations tools.

What that mental map looks like will differ, depending what the tools are and how people generally expect to use them.

For example, we once created a guide for a project that explained the role of features in relation to who content was being shared with, rather than content sharing features of each technology. Even better would be an interactive guide that would allow different maps to be used, depending on user preferences or the use cases a user was interested in.

Maps, not lists, are how we learn to navigate places we do not know. Stop people getting lost in your digital workplace by giving them more than a cheat sheet and help them learn how the pieces fit together.

Image credit: CC BY-SA Dushan Hanuska.

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