User Experience

My highlights from Inside Intercom Dublin

7 minute read

The team at Intercom are back after their extensive “World Tour” to talk about the successes, difficulties and failures of building products.

After their extensive “World Tour”, the Intercom team came back home to Dublin, to talk about the successes and failures of building products.

Intercom is a ‘Customer Communication Platform’, with a suite of products for feedback and support on websites. It’s an invaluable product I use every day, so I might be a bit biased. These were the highlights for me during the event. 

Intercom Dublin

The show opened with a spirited video showing a montage of countries visited in the last few months of their tour.

Emmet Connolly, Director of Product Design, was our MC for the night.

Fostering ambition


First up was Darragh Curren, VP of Engineering.

He began by talking about the documentary, Valley Uprising. It recounts the rivalry of two climbers who want to conquer the cliffs of Yosemite National Park. How through sheer determination and ambition over the years, the time it took to climb these cliffs dropped from 200 days in the 50s to just over two hours decades later. “It’s progression of the impossible.”

Darragh’s main contention was that as an industry we were failing to attract good talent. “We should be fostering ambition.” Ambition make great things possible and we need more people like this if we are to innovate.

It was amusing to hear about the company moving into the former Anglo Irish buildings in the city centre recently. They have just taken over another floor where the infamous money vaults were housed. Darragh investigated the vaults and unfortunately, there was “fuck all there”.

Why? Why? Why?

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Emma Meehan, Senior product researcher and Tom Richards, Group Product Manager talked about “Jobs to be Done”.

Jobs to be Done is a framework that in investigates people’s motivations as they use a product.

Emma kicked off by revealing that they now have six product researchers, showing their commitment to the user.

Both Emma and Tom work closely together. Tom went on to further explain their process. 

Tom explained that relying on Personas to discover users’ motivations was the wrong approach. The important focus was what the user wants to get done, not their attributes. This makes sense. There is less waste of energy and time in understanding the user with this approach.

So by asking “Why? Why? Why?”, the problems are reframed. “Failure is building an app that doesn’t meet users needs.”

Tom jokingly referred to yet another onion analogy, but it does tie into their process. Each layer that is peeled away after admit “why is the user doing this?”, exposes more central motivations.

They outlined their shared process:

Step 1: Talk to customers.

Step 2: Look at problems from a jobs perspective.

Steps 3: Use first principles. Peel the onion and ask why.

Keep the startup mentality


Waheed El Miladi, Product engineer gave an interesting, funny and honest talk about his relatively short time at Intercom.

Building a startup within a startup was his central theme and he came out of the gates describing his experiences as a novice when he joined Intercom.

The product he was put on to develop was Aquire and that was two years ago. He explained how daunting it was being tasked with building a new product straight out of college.

Everything seemed great when they eventually shipped Aquire. But they had issues. The usage rate of Aquire began to drop to double the rate of normal churn. Waheed was really feeling the pressure. It was still visible as he described it on stage.

The research team identified some problems. They realised that if visitors to a website can’t chat to somebody directly through Aquire, they leave and are then uncontactable. This was a major problem and a product killer. 

Their solution was to build a Chatbot feature within Aquire. If the visitor is is me to chat directly to someone, they can input their email address, chat to a “chatbot” and an Intercom team member can get back to them at a later time.

“There was a tonne going on in the background”, Waheed said for such a seemingly simple feature.

So far so good, but unfortunately things didn’t get better. Numbers of users didn’t rise and seemed to plateau.

Waheed decided to take a well needed week off and was wondering if he would be coming back.

On his return and his job intact, the team did some experiments and changed a few things about the simple interface and then things started to work.

They found that by changing the wording, and colour of the button and shade of background of the simple email feature, users uptake increased.

“Why didn’t we try it first?”

As he explained, when he had joined Intercom, he had all the financial support and access to talent he could want. Yet all this did was “kill the startup mindset.” They had relied on what they thought they knew. They became too cosseted.

Content is design


Elizabeth McGuire, Content Strategist gave one of most illuminating talks about the importance of words and content in design.

She started off by using Airbnb as an example of how content matters in directing the user. Elizabeth showed a screen shot of Airbnb map UI with all words and images blanked out. She asked us could we understand what was going if there was no content to guide us. The answer was no. Demonstrating how content is integral to the experience and then. she made a funny swipe at their redesigned logo.

“Identity is built on tiny interactions.”


She talked about building their Chatbot and how she needed to construct the tone of Chatbot’s language. Chatbot is an automated algorithm that interacts with visitors when there is no human available. It is built with natural language at its core. As she admitted, it does not always work as expected. This could be seen as negative that Chatbot was difficult to get right, “but it makes it interesting, exploring how to do it”.

One of her main tasks was to define Intercom’s three principles:

Be opinionated: They give advice.

Be clear: They explain the problem. What to do next.

Be personal: Issues with Chatbot, but making sure there is always interaction with a visitor.

Usability is key to her role and words and content has a large role in creating truly usable products.

“If you don’t understand how your users’ brain works, you’re shouting into a void. Users don’t separate words from design”.

As she says with genuine surprise, through constant research and experimentation they found out that “the words carried way more weight” than expected. She quotes 37 Signals’ mantra of “every letter matters”.

To end, she asked for more writers to enter product design, as they are needed like never before.

The present is the past


Des Traynor, “the voice of intercom” was the last speaker before the break.

He talked about keeping the product alive and outlined the phases of growth.

1. Make it work. 
2. Make it grow. 
3. Make it relevant.

He talked honestly about the huge fear of fizzling out after years of hard work, that intensified after their recent investment. There is constant pressure to make sure the juggernaut stays on the road. There is so much advice on how to start a product he says but “none of it matters if you’re facing existential threats.”

He was given some gnomic advice from a friend in similar circumstances that “the present is the past”. What it means is that your product is already done. Move on as it doesn’t involve you anymore.

He talked about how you don’t feel failure until it happens and cites the dip of sales of Garmin and Tom Tom after 2008 in the light of Google Maps. They simply missed the signs in the market.


He showed the classic clip of Steve Ballmer dissing the iPhone as an example of being either blind or willfully ignoring the warning signs of a revolution that can wash a product away.

“The things we need to do, rarely change. The ways we do them will always change.”

We need to keep relevant and never resting.

Software and shopping centres


Hugh Durkin, Senior Product Manager began his intriguing talk on how the Dayton brothers from Minneapolis, expanded their small downtown retail store into an empire.

They were competing with Sears in the early Twentieth Century for dominance in the retail market.

Austrian-born architect, Victor Gruen had ideas about the newly created American suburbia. He saw people living in a “Suburban labyrinth” wit’s its disconnected existence. He wanted to create a connected experience for these suburbanites.

Daytons teamed up with Gruen to design a new centre for people to interact and the first enclosed shopping centre was born in 1956. Daytons eventually grew into Target and Sears failed to capitalise and could never compete.

Hugh sees platforms succeeding only when they are truly open. Facebook succeeded as it was free to join and there were no upfront payments like so many networks at the time.

Every new shopping centre has important local stores that bring customers with them. There is huge Importance of these anchor tenants, which create loyalty in a product or service.

And this is the lesson learnt.

“Platforms aren’t about technology, they’re about people.” 


I was worried that it would be a PR extravaganza. I thought the team might start banging on about how great it is to work at Intercom. Yet, the talks turned out to be refreshingly honest, entertaining and well timed.

Maybe it’s enjoyable to hear about how other people screw up, but it’s also nice to hear how they got back on track. I enjoyed what I heard, and left with some interesting ideas and even more respect for a tool I use every day.


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