Behind the messenger: making messaging human

Main illustration: Eric R. Mortensen

The first wave of the internet was deeply impersonal. It enabled immediacy, scale, and access.

But anonymity ruled – it made conversations transactional and disposable. If you wanted to get in touch with a business, offline was usually a far better route than online.

With Intercom, you’re no longer just a random support rep – you’re a person

At Intercom, we’re trying to change that. We want to make internet business personal. Messaging is a fundamental part of this. It allows us to express some of the richness that exists in real life, but with all the scale that technology enables.

Our previous messenger started us down this road, letting you and your customers have real conversations inside your app. And our latest version pushes the mission forward on all fronts.

Profiles for real people

One of our goals with our new messenger was to give end-users (our customers’ customers) the best messaging experience around. And we believe the best experience is a personal one.

New users of your product don’t know you – yet. But by sharing things as simple as your real name, a photo, and what you do in your company, they quickly get to know and trust you. Your profile is designed to build trust between you and your customers, to get your customers talking more easily, and more personally.

Putting a face to a name

Face and name perception has played a central role for social interaction for millions of years.
This isn’t just pseudo-psychology. When we user tested our messenger, they kept repeating the first names of the people they were messaging, as if they really knew them. “As Daniel was just telling me there.” “Oh, Daniel’s replied to me now, that’s good.” “If I had a problem I’d just ask Daniel”.

That’s why we’ve put names and faces front and center throughout the messenger, even in notifications. With Intercom, you’re no longer just a random support rep – you’re a person.

When names and faces aren’t enough

The problem is names and faces are easy to fake. Advertising has long taken advantage of our brains’ magnetic pull to faces. It’s no wonder people we’ve talked to are suspicious the people in business chat apps are who they claim to be.

They’ve good reason to be suspicious. Plenty of chat apps have faces that almost certainly are fake, or look suspiciously like stock photos.

We witnessed this distrust first hand. At one of our own events, someone reached out through our own messenger to say he’d lost his ticket, and asking could it be replaced. One of our team, Tom, replied, and worked through the details to get him sorted.

Later at the event, when the attendee was relaying the story to another of our colleagues, they offhandedly mentioned that this “Tom” must have been a fake name and profile. Turns out Tom was actually standing right behind him.

A job title means a lot more than you think

It’s too easy for businesses to hide behind the veil of anonymity when it suits them. But it almost never suits the other person. Full disclosure, our old messenger was guilty of this too.

Design for the world you’d like to live in.

Take the simple job title we’ve added to each profile. Before we put this in, I’ve seen conversations from colleagues at Intercom saying “Thanks for your suggestion, I’ll pass that on to the product team”. Even though they’re on the product team.

These sort of white lies might seem unimportant. But over time, they erode the trust you’re customers have placed in you. It’s often said you should design for the world you’d like to live in. So we designed the messenger to force ourselves, and our customers, to be more real.

Real names, real faces and real job titles force us to be more transparent. Knowing that you’re really talking to the founder who started the company, the engineer who builds the product, or the product manager who’s responsible for the roadmap has a massive impact on your messaging experience. But only if it’s real; only if you can trust it.


The where and the when matter

One of the most important ways to build in authenticity into a messenger is with system text, such as our active status label. Crucially, these can’t be changed.

This has proved controversial with some of our customers. If they hadn’t been active recently, they didn’t want the whole world knowing about it. But even then this label provides value. It:

  • makes the system feel live by giving the messenger a heartbeat.
  • helps communicate that this is an asynchronous system – if they’re not around, you’re unlikely to get an immediate reply.
  • adds a dose of reality – people are not always available to talk.
  • builds trust – it’s intentionally written to sound like system-generated text, because you can’t fake this, or remove it.

The same goes for location and local time – it’s system text you can’t change. These little details might seem irrelevant at first. Does a customer really need to know the location I’m in? But that misses the point. They don’t need to know it, but it gives the user a conviction that you’re a real person, in a real timezone, in a real place. Location and time are simple data points that resonate.

They can even add a bit of empathy to the conversation: “Oh – it’s nearly midnight for you! Why don’t we pick this conversation up tomorrow ?”. Other times, it’s something that can be the start of a natural, human conversation. “Oh, you’re from Chicago. I was just there last weekend!

The same goes for the Twitter and LinkedIn icons we’ve added to each profile. The goal isn’t to get you more followers, or god forbid, more LinkedIn messages, but to help establish that you’re legit. When I click on Paul from Tito, I see his Twitter profile. He’s a real person in a real place, not just a nameless face hiding behind a conversation.

Taken alone, these small details may seem unimportant. But assembled together, they subtly change the conversation for the better.

It’s critical that the person seems authentic. And to do that we need to be almost uncomfortably transparent. We genuinely believe these sort of transparent conversations between customers and a business are the future, even if it feels a little bit uncomfortable at first.

End users don’t think they care. Until they do.

You may be asking yourself – do users really care about this level of detail in a messaging experience?

It’s a fair question. We’re conditioned to accept anonymity from businesses. When we tested our messenger with customers, no one expected to see this information. At first we were concerned by this – had we built the digital equivalent of a waiter interrupting you with an over-eager smile and saying “Hi! My name’s Julien and I’ll be your server today!

But then we saw how people started to behave once they had seen it. As the user tests went on, we’d watch people try to click for profiles in places we hadn’t even yet built them. Once they saw a profile for one teammate, they wanted to see them for everyone. It was amazing how quickly the profiles had moved from being an unnecessary extra to becoming a component expected everywhere.

That’s because at our core we all crave connection, even if it’s lightweight, transient connections.


Years of experience building Intercom has taught us that once those connections are made, customers are more likely to trust you, to be forgiving when things go wrong, and ultimately to reward you with loyalty. With our new messenger, we’re betting big on personal.

Editor’s note: This is the second of five posts explaining the thinking behind our new Messenger.

Part 1: Reinventing messaging all over again
Part 3: The right kind of disruption
Part 4: Building a cross-platform product
Part 5: Closing the gap between data and product development