Design | 5 min read

How words build a product

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We’ve always cared about words at Intercom.

This blog, our books, and our product marketing attest to that. But words within the product itself have followed a more evolutionary path.

Decoding The Product Dialect

Words in a product evolve. They start with the people who first invent the product and name its parts. They change when new teammates bring in fresh influences. And they change again when they need to communicate to a new audience. All that change happens incrementally, word by word.

It reminds me of the Ship of Theseus, a 2,500-year-old thought experiment about the nature of identity. If you change every plank in a ship while it’s on its journey, is it still the same ship when it returns?

For products made of words and pixels, words are at least 50 percent of the ship.

Words also guide what we build. We invent words to describe new features, and those choices are often an informal choice: a buzzword we use to give a loose shape to what we’re building.

But naming can be serious business. While there’s an entire corner of the branding industry devoted to inventing product names, it’s the names of individual elements — features and objects within a system — that can have unpredictable impact.

Take the name “page”. That name gave presence to “places on the internet” before we knew what those places would become. And we designed for that word and the metaphor it represented. We were so used to thinking of a page as a fixed thing that it took years to break free of that constraint.

Names unconsciously influence how we think about what we design, and working titles can quickly become real titles with unrealised baggage.

Shipping content strategy

Taking charge of language is a challenge for any company, but none more so than a growing startup. The evolution of a product dialect can cause silos to build up between teams who call things by different names, take features down detours when they’re not well described, and worst of all, create inconsistencies in product UI. That’s why you’ll often find different names for the same thing in a product, or different tones of voice everywhere.

At Intercom, content strategy has one core job: to evolve our dialect, at every level, from something organic to something intentional; to make our UI — and how we talk ourselves – consistent and coherent.

Here’s how we’ve begun to move things forward, plank by plank.

Uncovering our building blocks

We’ve categorised every visible word in Intercom’s product. Objects, views, people, actions: these are all different parts of the system with different roles to play, and some are more essential and persistent than others.

How we classify our product’s terminology

The output of this is a taxonomy itself: a model that gives us consistency and control over how we describe each part of our product, and clarifies the relationships between those parts. And doing that work of classification and definition also produced our glossary of terms used in Intercom.

Mapping our mental models

Before we could define the words in the glossary, we needed to investigate where each one originated and how they were now used.

That meant interviewing people from every team in Intercom, taking note of the words they naturally use to describe the product and how they relate those words to each other — their internal sense of how our ship was built.

The answer to this was that of any company: we’re a team with different jobs and mindsets. People who see things visually, systematically, or linguistically have different ways of seeing the world and so use different words to describe it. What we found was, like all great research, totally unsurprising once we’d discovered it: we each used the words that suited our own jobs and goals.

Our differences aren’t a failure, they’re an asset — as long as we’re aware of them, and they don’t get in the way of us understanding each other, or our customers understanding us.

Tracking our way to clear principles

Choosing names and writing UI content can feel temporal and subjective. To remove the vagaries of mood and subjectivity, it’s good to write down some principles, even if you end up evolving them later. They shouldn’t be a straitjacket – new principles will emerge, others will go into storage. But choosing principles relevant to right now is the best way to ensure your future creative choices are clear to yourself and everyone else.

These are the three principles we started with:

  1. The product speaks naturally, as people speak
  2. The product speaks directly to the user (but never for the user)
  3. The product helps the user, guiding them through complex ideas

Why we’ve arrived here now

When’s the best time for a startup to start thinking about product content strategy? Should you start crafting your product voice this way from the beginning?

On the one hand — though it can feel like a luxury — content work is never easy, so it’s wise to start considering it early on.

But in another sense, that work is at its most illuminating and transformative when it’s a little bit anthropological — when there’s an organic voice there to discover.

Rather than applying an artificial idea of what the ‘right’ voice, structures and words might be, which can easily lead to a product that sounds just like everything else, try finding the patterns already there, and bringing them to light.