Intercom’s product principles: Back to the basics

Software only becomes valuable when it's delivered to customers. By following fundamentals and stripping unnecessary complexity from the equation, we can do it fast and efficiently.

Over the last 10 years, we’ve worked hard to develop and iterate on our product principles to codify our approach to decision-making, which has allowed us to consistently build great products at scale. They help us make sure everyone is working towards the same goals, that every new hire is aligned with how we do things and is empowered to make decisions from the get-go.

We’ve recently kicked off a series exploring the thought process behind them, tackled by the people who do the work every day – our own R&D team. Our VP of Product Design, Emmet Connolly joined us to explain more about this series and what our principles mean to us, and VP Research and Data Science Karen Church‘s take on delivering outcomes, not outputs.

In today’s episode, we’re covering two principles. You’ll hear from Product Designer Charlotte Sferruzza about the importance of following design fundamentals and how it leaves space for Innovation and Engineering Manager Martha Moniz on building better solutions by keeping it simple. And while they may be talking about different tenets and teams, it all stems from the same goal – going back to the building blocks that allow us to better solve problems for our customers.

If you’re short on time, here are a few quick takeaways:

  • Design fundamentals enable us to focus on solving problems quickly without reinventing the wheel. The key is knowing where to follow best practices and where to innovate.
  • Using design fundamentals to build a structure that a customer is familiar with dramatically speeds the learning curve and is the best onboarding help you can offer.
  • Following design standards helps organizations speed up development and ship faster.
  • Complexity hampers our ability to move quickly. By keeping it simple, we’re choosing to be technically conservative to focus on delivering solutions to our customers as fast as possible.
  • When you break situations down to the bare bones of what is happening and why, it’s easier to focus on the simplest, smallest solution to a problem.

Looking for a little more? Check out previous episodes of our podcast here. You can follow on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, YouTube or grab the RSS feed in your player of choice.

Going back to fundamentals

Liam Geraghty: Hey there. Welcome to Inside Intercom. I’m Liam Geraghty. Every so often, we love to take a look at Intercom’s product principles with the brand editor, Niamh O’Connor. Hey, Niamh.

Niamh O’Connor: Hey Liam!

Liam Geraghty: You’ve been working on a project that puts the spotlight on our principles and how they shape what we do, as told by the people who use them, the R&D team. The last time we heard from our VP of Product Design, Emmet Connelly, who introduced our product principles, and VP of Research and Data Science, Karen Church, who spoke about delivering outcomes. Who is joining us today?

Niamh O’Connor: Well, today we’re going to hear from Martha Moniz. Martha is an engineering manager, and she’s going to talk about one of her favorite product principles, keep it simple. But to start, one of our product designers, Charlotte Sferruzza, will tell us about how following design fundamentals leaves space for innovation.

“Our strength lies in knowing when we should follow standard best practices for design and when we need to innovate and create something new”

Charlotte Sferruzza: We design simple systems that solve complex problems for our customers. That doesn’t mean we don’t obsess over user interfaces. It means spending time on the right things. Our strength lies in knowing when we should follow standard best practices for design and when we need to innovate and create something new. We believe there’s no value in innovating if it doesn’t solve our customer’s problems. We focus on the problem and finding the right design to solve it. We try to default to existing design conventions, but if those don’t exist or if they’re not good enough, we create something new that does solve the problem.

Niamh O’Connor: Psychology is at the core of design.

Charlotte Sferruzza: Design fundamentals are a set of patterns commonly followed to make products easier and more delightful to use. They are also extremely empowering for designers, enabling us to focus on solving problems quickly without getting lost in reinventing the standards. They can take the form of visual design rules, interaction design standards, or content design best practices. Most are based on human psychology, like the guest dot principles of perception, which describe how we group certain elements together in our minds, depending on how they are surfaced on an interface.

Design fundamentals make designing interfaces easier. For example, we know that the color red is ideal for error messages because it catches users’ attention. People find it easier to navigate through menu items if they’re composed of an icon and a short label. A clear information hierarchy using font size, weight, color, and white space allows people to scan the content of a page faster. These fundamentals can be challenged and updated. Some emerge gradually from increased usage. For example, a lot of people now expect to be able to pull to refresh a page on mobile.

Niamh O’Connor: Fundamentals are the starting point of great design.

“Revisiting the fundamentals of design has helped me design better experiences and focus on innovation where it’s needed – to solve complex problems”

Charlotte Sferruzza: I joined Intercom after two years as a design manager, feeling it would be the best organization to get me back to designing full time. I had been overseeing a team of designers, but as is often the case in management, I wasn’t doing much designing myself. I realized I was missing my craft and I felt I still had a lot to learn about product design. So I decided to return to an individual contributor role. Thanks to strong R&D and design principles, my transition was much smoother than I expected.

Revisiting the fundamentals of design has helped me design better experiences and focus on innovation where it’s needed – to solve complex problems. I was able to deliver value to our customers only a few weeks after joining Intercom, which boosted my confidence from the outset. At Intercom, we follow nine fundamentals of great interaction design. We want all of our customers, new and existing, to get value from Intercom quickly. Following design standards enables us to deliver value in many ways.

Niamh O’Connor: Customers become familiar with Intercom more quickly.

Charlotte Sferruzza: Intercom is a powerful tool that offers our customers an abundance of ways to meaningfully engage with their users. But that can be overwhelming at first, especially for our newest customers. Using design fundamentals to build a logical and familiar structure or an iconography set is the best onboarding aid you can offer. It allows customers to apply the knowledge they have gained from using other digital products without the need for an instruction manual. Most of our customers use a variety of tools in their day-to-day work and are accustomed to common design patterns.

Following these patterns in our design reduces the learning curve. This is why at Intercom, we often take inspiration from consumer software, products people use in their everyday life. Browsing a table, selecting multiple objects, tagging items, and managing your account from the settings page are standard experiences in most digital tools, and we avoid placing a cognitive load on our customers by reinventing these well-known interactions. Consistency is important within our products and in the way it relates to other products in the market. It makes a difference regarding accessibility as well. A lot of people rely on established digital patterns to be able to carry out their tasks online. Changing a settings icon into something cooler and more on brand can be tempting, but most of us expect the setting icons to be a cog. This is not the right place to innovate. Usability comes first.

We innovate where it matters. We care deeply about innovation. Our capacity to know when to follow fundamentals and when to innovate is one of our major strengths, allowing us to build easy-to-use products that our customers love. Instead of spending time and energy on interactions that already exist and work well, we spend time thinking about new pairings and features to delight our users.

“Software only becomes valuable when it’s delivered to customers, so we ship fast, we ship early, and we ship often”

I’m a member of the team that focuses on our automation products, designing experiences to help customers automate their conversations and create an amazing, personalized support experience for their end-users. Part of my job is to make Intercom bots easy to use and understand. An example of this is Resolution Bots, which is powered by machine learning. It is a complex technology, so relying on common patterns made it easier to build a feature our customers would understand. We decided to present Resolution Bot answers in a simple table. It allowed us to easily add more complex functionalities to answers – like the ability to sort them to compare performance – in a way that makes sense to our customers immediately. Following design fundamentals is about making the complex simple. We use recognizable patterns and experiences to empower our customers to create bots that are extremely complex under the hood, but, in the end, it’s our job to handle the complexity, not theirs.

We move faster. Following design standards makes us faster. Shipping is our heartbeat. Software only becomes valuable when it’s delivered to customers, so we ship fast, we ship early, and we ship often. Avoiding reinventing common design patterns speeds up design and development. We rely a lot on our design system, Pulse, which references common patterns we can reuse across the products. When there are many designers and engineers working on features that sometimes overlap, Pulse improves consistency and helps us build things faster.

We can move much faster as a team by not having to build and maintain multiple patterns and components, which are similar yet slightly different. Applying design fundamentals also brings more objectivity to our design critique sessions. We go with the most common pattern by default, the one most people understand. Following fundamentals leads to stronger design. Following design fundamentals is not a lazy shortcut. On the contrary, it respects our customer’s time, and it makes it easier for them to succeed. Knowing when to follow common design patterns and when to innovate is one of our biggest strengths at Intercom. Ultimately, this principle helps to focus on what’s most important – building the right product to solve our customer’s problems.

Keep it simple, stupid

Niamh O’Connor: Next up, we have Intercom manager, Martha Moniz, on how you can build better solutions by keeping it simple.

Martha Moniz: 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 are 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.

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.

“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 keep two things in mind when striving to keep our processes and solutions as simple as possible. First, 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 over-complicating 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, so it’s easy to raise concerns when problem definitions or solutions get too complex. It means creating a culture where everyone is comfortable giving and receiving feedback and growing 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 trade-offs we make, we know as soon as we start problem-solving that shipping to 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, but we also avoid constantly evaluating trade-offs, which speeds us up.

That doesn’t mean 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 our 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.

“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 code base”

Our “keep it simple” principle permeates everything, processes, technical approaches, and feedback. And it is an essential tenet of a rapidly scaling company. It’s easy to effortlessly simplify things when you’re a 10-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. 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 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 code base. Not only does the simplicity benefit the product and our speed, but 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 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.

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 products for our customers. After all, it isn’t the feature complexity that makes Intercom valuable to them, but rather the smooth integration between our simple capabilities, adding to a holistic end-to-end experience.

Liam Geraghty: Thanks to Martha Moniz, Charlotte Sferruzza, and Niamh O’Connor. We’ll have more product principles coming over the next few weeks and months, but if you are hungry for more product-focused conversation, join Intercom Co-Founder Des Traynor and Chief Product Officer, Paul Adams on our podcast, Intercom On Product, where they discuss their latest thoughts on how to build successful product at scale.