Start with the problem

Intercom’s product principles: Build better solutions by keeping it simple

Complexity hampers our ability to move quickly. At Intercom, keeping it simple means being deliberate about getting things into our customers’ hands in the most straightforward way.

We often fall into the trap of assuming that the more complex a product, the more powerful it is. At Intercom, we steer away from complexity and keep things simple.

Keeping things simple leads to solutions that are easier to build and maintain, and more intuitive for our customers. It sounds easy, but it’s a skill that requires a huge amount of practice, clarity, and alignment between people.

“We ensure we’re focusing on the right problem and have a clear definition of success”

To start, we ensure we’re focusing on the right problem and have a clear definition of success. That means going right back to the fundamentals of every problem and solution, but it ultimately increases understanding, speeds up your organization, and allows you to learn faster by collecting customer feedback as you go.

In the short term, you get things into customers’ hands faster; in the long term this approach makes your solutions easier to build upon, scale, and improve. We keep two things in mind when striving to keep our processes and solutions as simple as possible.

We build a culture that prioritizes simplicity

This principle is an inherent part of our culture, so we encourage teammates to challenge each other if they fall into the trap of overcomplicating an approach. Simplification is a skill in its own right, and it’s best learned and improved by repetition.

“Building an environment that encourages simplification means making it part of our common language”

Building an environment that encourages simplification means making it part of our common language so it’s easy to raise concerns when problem definitions or solutions get too complex. It means creating a culture where everyone is comfortable to give and receive feedback – and grow from it.

Moreover, once you adopt this principle, it can spread beyond work and into your personal life: I’ve gotten into the habit of mentally breaking situations down to the bare bones of what is happening and why, leading me to focus on the simplest, smallest solution to incrementally improve things.

We’re deliberate about the trade-offs we make

In the SaaS industry, it’s common to experience friction between the desire to move forward with the product and the need to tackle gnarly technical debt that slows down engineers.

At Intercom, because we’re deliberate about the tradeoffs we make, we know as soon as we start problem-solving that shipping to our customers will take priority over building the “perfect” technical solution or using the newest programming language. Not only does this reduce the cognitive load of decision-making, we also avoid constantly evaluating tradeoffs, which speeds us up.

“Product health is assessed constantly in our roadmaps, and we encourage engineers to apply the 20% rule”

That doesn’t mean that we fall behind on technical innovation or ignore technical debt. Product health is assessed constantly in our roadmaps, and we encourage engineers to apply the 20% rule: where possible, spend 20% of execution time improving existing code or reducing technical debt as you go.

We undertake larger team projects to improve our systems when needed, and at the R&D level, we have entire foundational teams dedicated to keeping our technical stack and infrastructure efficient and up-to-date. Ultimately, our goal is to leverage our existing technology to deliver customer value quickly and securely.

“Keep it simple” applies to every situation

Our “keep it simple” principle permeates everything – processes, technical approaches, feedback – and is an essential tenet of a rapidly scaling company.

It’s easy to effortlessly simplify things when you’re a ten-employee company and everyone shares the same context, but try scaling that to a hundred, and then a thousand. The whole company can suffer from the complexities of catering to the unique needs of many different teams and product areas.

“Keeping it simple looks like deliberately choosing to be a technically conservative company in every decision we make”

Within the Intercom Engineering team, keeping it simple looks like deliberately choosing to be a technically conservative company in every decision we make. This helps to align our current engineers and allows us to be transparent with new hires about what to expect.

We have two monoliths that our whole R&D team relies on; all new starters onboard onto the same technologies, and all teams use the same codebase. Not only does this simplicity benefit the product and our speed, it also fosters an environment where engineers can easily move into other areas of impact within the organization, whether to further their own growth or to help speed up a project.

Simplicity means we build great products, fast

Our Automated Support team recently shipped Resolution Bot Preview, a brand-new feature. While we usually approach a problem by thinking big and then scoping, this project had time constraints. So instead of asking ourselves “how much time do we need to ship the cupcake?”, we identified how many weeks we had, then brainstormed how we could deliver maximum customer value within that period.

The outcome? We fully built and shipped the feature within six weeks, and customers were delighted – 54% of them started using it within a month! We couldn’t have reached that milestone so fast without keeping it simple.

“Collaboration allows us to reach a healthy balance and keep our product as simple as possible across the board”

There are times when the simplest product design isn’t the simplest to implement, and this is where close, collaborative relationships between product, design, and engineering truly shine. At Intercom, engineers are part of all conversations from the start and can provide visibility into the ways that different design directions can impact technical effort and feasibility. Collaboration allows us to reach a healthy balance and keep our product as simple as possible across the board.

We’ll continue to prioritize simplification as we scale

Keeping processes and solutions simple is what allows us to work at speed while building high quality product for our customers. After all, it isn’t deep feature complexity that makes Intercom valuable to them, but rather the smooth integration between all our simple capabilities adding up to a holistic end-to-end experience.

Do you like the sound of how we work at Intercom? Take a look at the open roles on our engineering team.

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