Insta Case Study: Feature Update Notifications Done Right

icon-counterKudos to Intercom for the very smart way they integrate their change notifications to the application itself. First, they use the increasingly popular “counter over an icon” notification that is not too obtrusive yet does the job (I just wish LinkedIn stopped abusing this pattern to attract my attention to weak signals I don’t care about).

Once you get there, as you’ll see in the screenshot below Intercom combines several good ideas that add up to a very smooth delivery. Keep reading to see a screenshot and learn on all that’s right about their approach:


Here’s why it’s good:

  • Show rather than tell. The stream of date-stamped events conveys the fact they practice continuous improvement. Right there they establish they’re hard at work for you without having to explicitly say do. They apply that principle in other places too.
  • Value your users’ time. They tell you right away the nature of the update: new feature, update, or bug fix. The updates are short and to the point, it’s all visually scannable very quickly.
  • Always engage. You see the face of one of their team members involved in the change, making it personable and approachable, which makes perfect sense since that’s the purpose of Intercom.
  • Be easily sociable. You can like the update, furthering the social interaction happening on this page. Added the ability to test apps from the Android app? Sounds like meh with 6 likes. Search bar for the auto-message list? Now you’re talking! (77 votes.) Of course that’s a weak signal and I’m sure they’ll measure actual in-app use, but it’s an easy way to let users feel they always have a say.

This is so simple and clean that I fear to suggest any changes that might jinx it with bloat. But if I was to touch it, I’d consider the following:

  1. Adding a very simple one-click “email me these updates” option as this looks like an easy way to re-engage dormant users. Right now the feature works for already somewhat engaged users since you need to already be in the app to see it.
  2. Tying past updates to conversations about what’s coming next, à la IdeaExchange. But Intercom is so disciplined about their product I could see why this could created misplaced expectations, and it takes a lot of energy to get net value out of a collaborative feature pipeline. See also Trello’s approach.

How do I know Intercom’s product management is disciplined, apart from my experience using their app that is? I like to poke a little bit and ask myself what’s behind a successful outcome, so here’s a couple of pointers:

  • Pick what’s on the menu. Read Product strategy means saying no, by co-founder Des Traynor. A seminal product management  entry, and look at the comment thread! Followed by Rarely say yes to feature request, which further drives the point home and is equally required reading. Trade-off cost/benefit decisions backed by a transparent thought process. Heck, read his whole series of posts on product strategy, or watch his talk. Traynor has a strong user experience background and it shows. VP of Product Paul Adams too, and it looks like there’s a deep bench of talent beyond top management, such as a marketer from Atlassian (another company that gets the Olivier Seal of Approval).
  • Support Roots. I had no idea Intercom was in Dublin, Ireland until I started looking into it. Not quite Silicon Valley, but actually a great place to develop a customer support company, since the tech sector in Ireland has historically been focused on support. And a healthy dose of Irish skepticism is a good counter to the hubris chronically and currently pervading the industry.
  • Show me the money. You think someone like COO Mark Woolway is going to mess around after high-level gigs at Paypal and Yammer?  No wonder Intercom is well funded at this point. This by itself is not a vaccine against failure, but in this case I don’t think the investment is misallocated.

Customer support/engagement/success/delight/nirvana is a busy category in the SaaS world, but what isn’t? I rank Intercom right there with early Tableau or Splunk in the “I got a good feeling about these guys” category.

See also Slack’s Release Notes.

05/11/15 update: an interview with CEO Eoghan McCabe.

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