If you just want the high level summary, I can spare you the time of reading this lengthy blog article and summarize Chatter in the following image.
Salesforce Chatter is basically Facebook for the enterprise and one of the greatest things to come along since sliced bread (besides Jack Bauer). Chatter is a collaboration platform that supports status publishing and the ability to follow people and objects (Salesforce records).
After seeing a Tweet with instructions to email email@example.com to participate in the pilot program, I contacted Salesforce and got on the waiting list. I executed some standard legal agreements (Chatter is still considered pre-launch) and Chatter was enabled in our Salesforce org within a couple days. I would suggest "selling" your org in the body of your pilot program request with facts that might help the already overwhelmed Salesforce staff determine which clients might make the best case studies for using Chatter.
Chatter enables the new UI theme, which I've been requesting for several weeks since the launch of Spring '10. Awesome news since this was not available with the initial Spring 10 rollout.
Setting expectations with users.
I was the eager admin excited to get my hands on new features, then it dawned on me that other users might have questions about the change. In a company of < 10 users, this is no big deal. But I'm guessing a larger org may want to do a more methodical rollout.
After enabling Chatter I sent out an email to everyone simply stating "This is going to rock. If you've used Facebook, then you'll understand what the new feature is about. There's also a new theme activated."
Some Salesforce admins on Twitter have suggested just enabling the new UI, setting off the fire alarm as a distraction, then running out of the building. Whatever works! My feeling is that there should be no delay enabling the new UI. The majority of users will love it.
One feature that really stands out is the ability to receive an email alert whenever certain events occur. I think this is a smart move on Salesforce's part. Each user has the new ability to enable/disable email alerts under Personal Setup "My Chatter Settings".
As much as Google Wave, Wikis, and other social business software may promote the benefits of replacing email with collaboration platforms, it's just never really panned out. There are just too many Outlook and Gmail users out there with investments in email filters and routing rules for driving business process. I left these features enabled (the default setting).
Based on past experience, I had a concern that Chatter emails might eventually overwhelm my inbox (which I have a particular GTD obsession for managing), so before proceeding any further I created a GMail label and filtering rule specifically for Chatter.
Now all emails from "Salesforce Chatter" automatically get tagged and sorted into their own folder in GMail. The equivalent can be easily accomplished in Outlook Rules. This might be a good tip for Salesforce Admins to share in their Chatter rollout email.
Chatter Settings and Feed Tracking
Administrators can define which objects are enabled for Chatter collaboration and which fields on those objects will trigger automatic Chatter updates.
This is a very simple and easy to use 2 panel user interface with Objects on the left and fields on the right. You select which fields will trigger a Chatter alert when modified. The left panel has an excellent UI element that tells you how many fields are being tracked on that particular object, so you don't have to drill down to each object one at a time to identify feed tracking hot spots.
If you've worked with object history tables in Salesforce, you'll be familiar with what this interface is providing. Now with Chatter, in addition to logging history changes, you're also posting messages to the Chatter stream. History table and Chatter feeds are 2 completely separate features, athough they are semantically the same.
Some objects had feed tracking enabled by default. Most did not. Of the ones enabled, they had 2-5 fields already pre-selected. I could not discern any particular pattern as to how or why certain defaults were configured. I'd say the defaults look "balanced" and it does appear that someone put some thought into a reasonable amount of feed traffic on frequently used CRM object/field combinations. There is a "Restore Defaults" link in the right panel of each object. Clicking these restores the defaults.
People and Profile Tabs
One final Administrative step is to add the People and Profile tabs to your main applications. Just as you can view/manage your profile and find your friends in Facebook, Chatter provides Profile and People tabs to accomplish similar tasks.
Chatter will work without these tabs, but users will only be able to incrementally discover other people who comment on particular objects. I added these 2 tabs to all our applications to get the full benefit of Chatter and apply some consistency in the UI. The People tab provides a list view of all "Colleagues" within the Salesforce Org. The Profile tab allows users to define how they appear to other people; including photo, status, and description.
The "Update Photo" feature with image cropper file is probably one of the first features Chatter users will use on the Profile page.
I found it interesting that I could, as a System Administrator, edit other peoples profiles. That initially struck me as "big brother-ish" since I'm so accustomed to passively using social media platforms, and not actually administrating them. The Chatter Profile pages also contain a link to the existing User Detail page template, which I know Admins will appreciate.
One thing I really like about Chatter is that Salesforce didn't complicate the configuration by providing a full access control list (ACL) wrapper with specific Read/Write permissions per object. If you can view a object, you can jump right in and chime in on Chatter without wondering if you only have read only permissions to watch what other people are saying, but not be able to contribute yourself.
Granted somebody at some time likely raised the concern "But what if some CEO only wants employees to read his status messages and not comment on them?". I'm glad Salesforce resisted that level of access permissions in Chatter.
The first introduction to "Following" will likely be on the People page where users are given the opportunity to subscribe to what particular people are posting as their status message. In such a small org, such as ours, you can follow everyone with just a few clicks. But it made me wonder if a "Follow All" button might be handy for larger orgs.
Chatter uses what is commonly referred to as an "asymmetric follow" architecture. In other words, I can follow you but you don't necessarily have to follow me. This is how Twitter works. Facebook, however, uses a symmetric system where we must both mutually agree to be friends to follow each others posts and activities.
It makes sense Salesforce would not want to use Facebook's symmetric following because it's assumed right out of the box all users are colleagues in a single organization. You only need to decide which colleagues activity you want in your stream.
Maybe one day when Chatter is enabled in a Salesforce-to-Salesforce configuration it may be beneficial to limit who is following your activity (for example, would Michael Dell want all his suppliers following his Chatter simply because a SForce-to-SForce bridge was enabled? I'd guess not.... but only Michael can answer that question).
I can see dialogues taking place in the workspace along the lines of "Yeah, I track that industry pretty closely. Follow me on Chatter if you want more information".
I never really used the Salesforce Home page for much more than reviewing my Tasks lists. 99% of my time in Salesforce has aways been working in records. But that now changes with Chatter since the Home page is the central hub for aggregating all the people and content you are following. The home page is now "the business stream" and the potential opportunity for exploiting its power is huge.
(Note about Screenshot: Yes, Chatter can be pretty boring when you're the first person using it. Fortunately, I have the StanBot API User to keep me company (future post) until adoption catches on with the others )
The first time you drill down on any record details with Chatter feeds enabled you're prompted with some next step options and the option to view a 2 minute video on Chatter.
As developer, we can all appreciate the detail that goes into not only developing a new feature, but also deflecting support calls and questions with simple, easy to understand tutorials and documentation. I give Salesforce 5 out of 5 stars here.
Chatter is so well designed and so very similar to Facebook and other social apps, that I'd be surprised if 80% of Salesforce users couldn't click on "Close", skip the tutorials, and figure out most of Chatter on their own.
Collaboration and Development In The Cloud
While there are many cool features in Chatter, the fact that this platform is hosted in the cloud and can be extended to include pretty much any web service into the business stream is what makes it so powerful. There is no software to install, any Admin can setup Chatter in just a few minutes, and collaboration is baked into the platform as a core feature (ie there's no additional license fee to use Chatter).
Part 2 of my Chatter review will get into the specifics of Chatter enabling existing Salesforce apps and taking a peek into the Chatter API and new types of apps that can be developed. Stay tuned!