Create Beautiful, Persistent Chatrooms for Teams with Hipchat

When you’re working in a large team — especially in a distributed large environment — communication is key. You need every member of the team to know what’s happening and you also want them to get to know each other better. A central place to chat becomes the obvious solution.

Having worked on several such teams, I’ve been part of various implementations of this solution. There’s Google Talk (now Hangouts) which many prefer; there’s WhatsApp for a phone chat; and one former employer had an IRC chatroom.

But what you need is something that offers a great, professional chatroom, works perfectly on web and mobile, and is persistent — that is, anyone who logs in should be able to see all the messages since the inception of the room.

Meet Hipchat.

A Tad Complicated To Get Going

Hipchat is squarely aimed at enterprises, so in the signup process, you absolutely have to include your organisation’s name and your designation — there’s no option not to. Then, choose a unique web address for your company and you’re good to go.

The free account lets you add up to five users to your Hipchat, after which it’s $2 per user per month. When you first sign up, you get a 30-day trial period where you can add more than five users at no cost, so you can try out how the service would work for your firm before buying it.

Now, here’s the tricky part. If one of your colleagues is already signed up on Hipchat, that email address cannot be used to invite him to your chatroom. Weird, right? HipChat does not currently support the ability to login to multiple groups with one unique account (email address).

I can see how this would be useful for an organisation where everyone has their company’s email ids, but if you’re managing a bunch of freelancers and want to add them to Hipchat, it can be really messy. The person will basically have to be invited using a different ID or to delete his/her current Hipchat account.

As a freelancer, I found this quite lame. It means that if I work for two teams, both of which use Hipchat, I will have to keep signing out of one and into the other all the time — or open them in different browser windows. That’s not a user experience I would pay $2 per month for, surely!

Anyway, once you have that done, head to the lobby and create a new chatroom. Apart from a universal chat where everyone can join in, you can create multiple chatrooms, so each teams can have their own private chatrooms too — with password protection, just to be secure.

A Room With A View

The room itself is fantastic. The blue-grey-white colour scheme works splendidly and looks professional, modern and inviting. Each text entry is also colour coded — yours are shown in blue, the rest in white, notifications in grey, and app updates in yellow. When you revisit a chat after having been away for a while, this colour scheme is very helpful in guiding your eyes to what needs your attention.

The members of the room show up in a pane on the right, while all the rooms you are a part of are in the left sidebar. You also have the option to toggle your current status between Available, Away and Do Not Disturb — essential if using for a work cause.

When chatting, anyone can draw your attention to a point that mentions you with a simple “@” followed by your user name, which comes up in the form of an autocomplete box. I really liked this system because if you are someone who is going to check the chat infrequently, you know exactly where to look.

Also, Hipchat supports notifications so that you can be alerted when a message is sent in the room, you’re mentioned in a room, or a private message is sent to you.

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Ah yes, you can start a private chat with anyone in the same chatroom. Just double-click their name and it’ll open a unique, tiny chatroom that only the two of you can participate in.

Hipchat also allows for guest access, so in case you need to invite a client or a member of another team to a room for a short amount of time, you can switch guest accounts on and share a link with them. For security’s sake, they won’t be able to see the chat history before the time they log in. And you can’t send them direct messages either.

Attachments & Updates

The attachments in Hipchat are a particular favourite of mine. You can attach any file quickly into the text box, and then even write out a caption for it so that there’s a link between what you want to share and what you want to say.

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It even worked with simple drag-and-drop, and what was really cool was that it took stuff directly off the clipboard as well — I hit print screen and pressed ctrl+v in the text box and there was my screenshot, without having ever been saved on my local hard drive!

Hipchat has an open API that plugs into various popular project management services that will give you updates in the chatroom. While I didn’t test this extensively, a friend who uses Hipchat with his team vouched for it. He has hooked up his Hipchat with his team’s Github account and they get instant notifications whenever anyone creates a branch, writes in a repository, etc. Currently, apart from Github, Hipchat supports Google Apps, Heroku, Bitbucket, RSS, MailChip, Zendesk, Desk.com and several other apps.

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Final Thoughts

Despite the “one email to rule them all” approach, I really liked my time on Hipchat and would recommend it to any team looking for a collaborative environment. Once you get past the email hiccup, it’s a fantastic experience — especially since it works flawlessly on Android and iOS devices, which makes it easy to use on the go too.


Summary

Hipchat lets teams create beautiful chatrooms to talk in, with a persistent history they can search through, easy drag-and-drop file sharing, and cross-platform apps

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