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Inside eFounders

How to Scale #ProductDesign, with Julien Zmiro (Intercom)

This article includes key takeaways from Julien Zmiro’s talk on how to scale product design. Check out the full video on Youtube or get the latest from our Scale series.

4 key best practices

Best practice #1: Principles against misalignment

One of the first difficulties encountered when a company starts scaling is alignement. Maintaining alignement starts at the macro-level: principles such as your company mission contribute to cementing ways of working together as well as a common goal. Intercom’s mission, make internet business personal, aside from offering a great way to explain the value of the product also helps teams shape their decisions against that mission. The design decision to put faces front and center, be it in the messenger or in the FAQ interface, is a great illustration of how principles seep into your team’s choices.

On top of that, the Intercom team also have a handful of principles to steer their efforts. Start with the problem is one of these, and serves as a reminder to understand what the team is trying to solve to mitigate risk of shipping features or products that are disconnected from the pain that Intercom seeks to relieve in its customers.

Best practice #2: Goals against distraction

The more you grow, the more projects your Product Design team have to work on, and the more they risk losing focus. Especially as the distinction between what is critical and will have a high impact on the business and what isn’t becomes fuzzy and subject to interpretation. The way the team at Intercom reduce the potential for confusion and distraction amidst their multiple projects is by creating cascading goals.

The units of time which Intercom use to set goals go from longer to shorter:

Year > Quarter > Cycle > Week > Day

And the scope to define each of these narrows, getting more focused and concrete:

Leadership sets vision for the year > Teams define their roadmap > Teams set goals for each cycle > Contributors set their weekly goals > Individuals commit themselves to daily goals

These cascading goals feed into one another, from day-to-work to the broader company vision. They allow the team to not lose sight of what matters for the business by prioritizing the right things.

Best practice #3: Forums against silos

Feedback is oxygen for your Product Design team: give it too little or too much and they will suffocate. As a company scales, silos tend to form and solidify. Reducing the opportunities Product Design teams have to collect feedback. In order to strike the right balance between too little and too much feedback, the Intercom team use two tools to manage how many people are involved in the feedback process and when they are involved.

First, product forums. For larger projects, Intercom bring together members from the engineering, sales, customer success and leadership team together every week to share progress and make decisions. This allows the Product Design team to avoid having to wait until the end of a project to receive feedback on their work.

Second, Basecamp. The team at Intercom use the project management tool as a message board to share problems, explorations, results of user testing and any information that pertains to the design challenges that they face. Writing has a way to help formulate thoughts on a subject, and posting in a public forum helps open a discussion with team members who aren’t necessarily involved in a project’s day-to-day.

Ultimately, forums such as these create room for feedback all along the process. They give better visibility, save time, and help the Product Design team to build with input from every team in the company.

Best practice #4: Process against indecision

The more a company grows, the slower it gets. This stems in a large part from the fact that it becomes harder to achieve consensus. More people means more opinions which means it gets a lot harder to arbitrate. Process helps keep the team focused on finding the next step. For Intercom, a crucial part of the process is what they call an “Inter-mission”, a document driven by the product manager that specifies what the problem is that the feature/project is attempting to solve. It starts at the macro-level, before drilling down.

In order to get into the nitty-gritty, the team do what they call “naive explorations”. These workshops are meant to raise questions, not to get ideas or to assess them. For each problem, the team lists options. The smaller and more practical the problem, the better. To guide the discussion, Julien starts with simple questions: What’s the shape? What’s the color? What’s the position? The team then postpone the decision as much as possible. It seems counterintuitive for a framework against indecision, but it prevents having to commit to a decision before having considered other options. The team can then form an opinion about each option, list pros and cons, and share feedback. By trying to combine different ideas in different ways, the team can avoid last minute feedback as well as commit to a decision having weighed out the advantages of each solution.

2 key mindsets

Mindset #1: Treat all feedback equal

A major flaw in how Product Design teams approach feedback is to weigh the importance of different requests unequally. This is in part because feedback can be of different types: it can pertain to new issues that aren’t addressed by the product, it can raise new options to address existing problems solved by the product, and it can express a new opinion. As such, feedback carries more or less ramifications depending on the nature of the feedback.

Product Design teams should strive to treat feedback of a same type equally, and not rush to conclusions. To do so, ask a few questions to qualify the type of feedback: is it a new problem? Is it a new option? Is it a new opinion? Once the feedback is qualified, apply a specific process to each different type to remain consistent in how feedback is treated.

Mindset #2: Roadmaps are for themes, not outputs

To keep things flexible, the Intercom team prefers to focus on short-term goals (see Best practice #2) and stick to broad themes in the longer cycles. This means the team doesn’t commit to specific features in the roadmap, once a project is started the team will set itself a release date. But until the work has begun, the roadmap sticks to broad-strokes, big-picture stuff. For example, one of the themes that was defined in Intercom’s roadmap last year was Intercom for Sales. The actual features and product development to implement this vision was left relatively loose to maintain focus and quality versus committing to deadlines that can feel artificial, especially for your Product Design team.

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About Julien Zmiro:

Julien is a Product Designer at Intercom, where he helps shape the way companies and their users interact. Before that, he worked on products like PayPal and Photobox. In this talk, he shares his vision on how Product Design teams can keep being successful while the business is scaling.

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