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The opportunity at Intercom

Director of Product Design, Intercom

Emmet Connolly

@thoughtwax

I recently left my job at Google to head up the Product Design team at Intercom. Here’s why I thought Intercom was worth taking the leap.

Big companies can sometimes feel like a world unto themselves. As one of the founders of the Android Wear project, I sometimes felt like I was part of a small startup that ran inside a bigger company. Maybe it was inevitable that I’d eventually want to try the real thing. Here goes.

Some differences are immediately apparent. The liberation of working within a less defined framework also comes with an exhilaration at the pace and impact of a smaller group. Each person on a startup team can make a real difference, real fast. At the same time, you’re not just designing a product. Companies don’t just manifest into existence. Culture, process, team structure, and philosophy are all, at some level, design problems.

On a day to day level, a smaller company just feels different, but what are some of the broader opportunities?

The Problem To Be Solved

I now have a dizzying range of ways to communicate with my friends and family, from email to Facebook to WhatsApp to Snapchat. But when it comes to businesses that I’m actually paying money to deal with, many of us actively avoid engaging. Why is this? Well, by and large it’s a huge pain to try to communicate plainly with faceless corporate entities, so many of us don’t even bother trying. Ticketing systems, being on hold, emails from do not reply addresses… if there’s to be a better way than this, we need better tools.

We’re not talking about reinventing human communication here. It’s simply a matter of taking proven solutions and fitting them together in a way that’s accessible and useful to all parties. There’s a long tradition of great ideas and great works of design coming about by combining or cross-connecting things together in a new and elegant way to eventually create something entirely new. Our existing tools fail not because they are inherently bad, but because they are disconnected and unnatural. On both sides of the conversation, disparate tools that are stuck in the 90’s get in the way. Talking with a business or a customer should be as effortless and personal as talking to a friend. Because even though many businesses may be perfectly nice, most of us would probably like to get back to talking to our actual friends.

With another billion or so people coming online in the next few years, internet businesses are going to continue to grow in size and importance. All businesses are to some extent becoming internet businesses, with more and more moving online to cater to this massive growth. Other businesses, previously non-existent, are becoming possible because of it. Meanwhile, online payments are about to get much easier, further greasing the wheels of online transactions.

The existing world of contact forms and email tickets are especially unsuited to supporting new ways of doing business on mobile devices. Modern products no longer rely on reams of user input, instead unbundling functionality and making smart decisions in reaction to user needs, and with as little work for the user as possible. This “Uber-fication” currently sweeping across the design of many services means that you can choose to buy something with a tap, and then pay for it with a fingerprint. Which raises the question: what does push-button support look like?

Design is an opportunity to solve problems, to make things better. These are real problems that real people experience every day. When I look at recent developments and the opportunities they create, I can’t help but see an Intercom-shaped hole that fits very nicely into this future of lightweight, on-demand, push-button interactions.

The Rise of Messaging

The strict boundaries that have thus far contained apps within a grid of app icons are beginning to dissolve. Phones and tablets are our primary computing devices now, at least outside of the office, and will continue to evolve away from interaction paradigms more suited to the desktop in favor of interactions that feel more native to mobile. It may seem surprising that typing on a formless glass keyboard emerged as one of the most comfortable ways of using these devices, but it has: most of us use our phones to message each other more than any other function. Messaging feels like a native unit of interaction on mobile. Why is this? For one thing, humans are social. We love to communicate.

There’s something else to it too, though: messaging sits somewhere in between synchronous and asynchronous communication and fits wonderfully into the real-world context in which we use these devices. I can carry on a messaging conversation with someone while cooking dinner, waiting in line, or watching TV, dipping in and out of the conversation as I get on with my life in the real world. I’m not blocked from carrying on with my business if I need to wait for a reply, or I can remain continually engaged during a fast-paced back and forth. In fact, messaging is great on mobile despite the fact that typing on a screen can be pretty terrible.

In any case, it’s undeniable that messaging has emerged as one of the central and defining interaction models of touch UIs, yet it also has many advantages on the desktop.

It’s been 25 years since IRC first appeared, and 15 years since MSN brought internet chat to the masses. Yet messaging apps are changing and developing as fast as any other product category today. It turns out there are many ways of tackling the simple act of typing a message to another person. We’re building Intercom around the concept of messaging in a way that fits right into people’s existing habits, and feels native to mobile devices.

Platform, not just a product

Intercom is like few products I’ve ever encountered. It’s vastly flexible and extensible: a business can use it to see who their customers are, get feedback from them, engage them in the product, talk back to them when they get in touch, and in some cases adapt the product in ways that nobody has thought of before. It was kind of a thrill the first time I shot out some questions to our own users in Intercom and saw the replies start to trickle in immediately. There’s an immediacy there that you don’t get in many digital products, especially in the business world.

Meanwhile there’s a whole other side to people who interact with what we make: the users who our businesses communicate with. By creating a channel through which businesses can talk personally, responsibly, and quickly, we’re helping their customers too.

In fact, calling it a product is underselling it. The many layers of what’s possible feels more like a platform.

Designing a platform brings its own set of challenges and complexities. But it also carries an opportunity: to create something that extends beyond the boundaries of a single product, and solve real problems in how people work in a potentially huge range of situations. Opportunities like that are rare. That’s why I’m so excited about the work ahead at Intercom.