An interview with Lynsey Thornton, Director of UX Research @ Shopify

Lynsey was recently back in Dublin for Rebase Conference where she spoke about building and managing UX teams. Interested to hear more I caught up with Lynsey for a chat a week later, here’s what happened:


How did it all start and how did you end up at Shopify? 

My journey started with a couple of roles as a graphic/web designer and it sort of came into my mind that I didn’t have much formal business knowledge if  I wanted to have a managerial role at any stage, so I did an MBA in E-Commerce. There’s very little management training that happens as part of tech or design degrees, that’s part of the reason so many people struggle later when they are faced with the opportunity to go for a management role. I wouldn’t have been prepared to understand businesses strategy and operations as a whole, and how to lead a larger team. Yes, you learn many of these skills on the job, but it was very advantageous for me to have that business angle coming in.

After my MBA I worked as a PM for Dell, then I moved to Paddy Power where I took on my first ever proper UX role. That was a real baptism of fire for me because UX was still quite young at the time, we weren’t really doing it correctly. We all knew that however, and were trying to move things forward, after a while we started getting much better at UX. It was quite a lot of work. We decided to establish some internal focus teams like research, information architecture and that’s when things started to get really good. By the time I left we probably had a team of about 10 that was separate from the design team. I’m sure it has changed since then, that’s the thing these days, you have to keep experimenting with the structure. 

I moved to Canada to gain some international work experience, worked for a market research software company as a UI Designer, I then was approached by Shopify and the rest is history. 

What’s the team structure like at Shopify? 

Here the team is made up of frontend developers, designers, researchers and content strategy. Product are a separate group but we work really closely with them under the umbrella of R&D. 

How do you at Shopify empathise with your users? If they’re not the end user, what techniques do you employ in order to become the user when making interaction decisions? 

We have a set of personas that we use to help people understand the different types of customers at Shopify. It can be very easy to fall into the trap of imagining yourself as the customer and design for yourself, or maybe you just met a customer once, you have them in your mind very clearly. So the personas are designed as an empathy tool to help people understand that we actually have a huge variety of different customers. It’s not only the person running the business but it’s also the operational/frontline staff, who do much more manual tasks every day than a manager would. We also have a bunch of retailers who might not be tech savvy at all that are trying to move online and are looking to find an easy way to do so. 

We also try to talk about our researcher findings a lot within the R&D group so that they can get a better idea of what are people typically struggling with, what sort of assumptions we made at the start of the project that may or may not have turned out to be correct later. We do what we call a “Merchant Panel”, which is where we bring in 4 or 5 customers and interview them live on stage with a set of questions that are defined by the staff. You can up or down vote them and what ever the highest ranking ones are, we use those as the interview basis. The whole company watches this. 

To what extent do you as a large company, with a good deal of influence, look to set trends rather than follow them in UX? 

That typically is a problem that a lot of people struggle with on the design side, trying to decide when to innovate and when to follow familiar standards. As a rule I try to consider the seriousness or the accuracy with which a task needs to be done. For example, taking payments in a retail store is something that you want to be a seamless, easy experience, so don’t mess around with that stuff. Innovate but make sure that new patterns are crystal clear and can be easily followed, that are familiar to people. 

Another one is to identify where there’s historically a lot of time lost, say we notice it takes a merchant an hour to cash up at the end of the day. That’s something that we need to look at from an efficiency stand point, we can probably automate some of this and give that time back to the customer. 

How do you work with upper management and the rest of the Shopify team to propagate a user-centric approach to a products design? It’s often tough to argue user goals as priority over business goals, how do you effectively balance or prioritize these in a successful and meaningful way? 

Definitely a common problem, the first is that as researchers, we have to have a business focus as much as a customer focus so we don’t recommend things that aren’t going to benefit the business in any way. And I don’t necessarily mean monetary. It can be a really hard one to navigate, it really depends on how customer focused your product manager is.

What I found works quite well is to expose them as much as possible to the sentiment and mindset of customers, make sure they watch every usability test you do, read the transcript of every interview you ever do and they will start to understand pretty quickly that sentiment is poor because we do X, what is the business cost to changing something operationally, is it worth it from a customer retention point later.

If there isn’t an immediately obvious business advantage to doing something, you either need to work out why you’re asking the company to do it, there must be a reason. And if there is, you need to be able to back it up with something, otherwise why would the business make the change. I guess a lot of it is about proving your case, put data and some sort of monetary value behind the changes you are proposing. 

Shopify experienced a lot of growth, what were the biggest challenges you faced? 

The biggest struggle is simply finding the right people, that is 100% the biggest challenge. We are lucky enough to have a C-level UX rep, the co-founder has always been the Chief Design Officer. It’s becoming more of a norm to have people at that level representing design or UX but it’s not the norm just yet. It has always been an advantage for us, design has always been taken seriously and a priority. You still have to fight for every person you want to join the team however, and prove that they will add value. 

We look at what projects we have coming up, what might to be possible to address on the research side if we don’t have another person on the team in say  6 months time. It takes us months to hire people, it’s quite a long process. We’re also really picky about who we take on so that’s been the hardest part of the growth, trying to find the right people to join the team, make sure they’re going to diversify the team we already have. We want to keep increasing the number of viewpoints, different backgrounds that people have so that we make sure we don’t end up with clones of ourselves.  

What would be a few traits that make a researcher successful in your opinion? 

I always look for somebody who has, at any level, been able to influence some sort of change in an organization or a project. Research and UX is still relatively new in a lot of companies, you need to take on people who are able to convince others that their work is worthwhile and have historically been able to make some changes in an organization they’re with. Maybe they were the first person to ever run a usability study in their company, the first to convince their boss to hire a researcher or hire an external agency to do some research for them. 

Another important trait would be being a good listener and mediator because you’re spending maybe 40% of your time doing research projects but the rest is mediating between teams, discussing, reasoning an approach to projects. Someone who can understand why things are happening in a team and have empathy for the people involved. There are limitations, time, resource constraints and so on, you need to know when to pick your battles. 

 You started as the first researcher in Shopify, did you have to convince anyone to allow you to grow the research team? 

I was lucky that people at Shopify were really interested in research already, everyone loves building the products here but they were also very excited about the idea of finding out more about how customers use the products. That was a great start but I also tried to do a lot of projects with different teams to just give them basic exposure, show what they might get out of this research. That definitely helped to generate a lot of interest very quickly with some demonstrable results.

We’ve been adding to the research team on a slow, consistent basis, my first year we only had one new person, now we’re up to 7. It does take us a while to find and hire people, we’d struggle to increase the team any faster even if we wanted to! 

What’s your approach to attracting the right candidates? 

We’re a very autonomous company, I feel that’s been a huge selling point. I try to find out what it is the person applying for a role with us is lacking in their current job. A researcher coming from an agency background might have frustrations around budgets, control or they want to do a project and they’re not allowed to. Or maybe they just aren’t able to choose the project they’re on.

We’ve been able to give our researchers and everyone else at Shopify the ability to work on projects they find interesting. People will tend to work in large areas, where there might be 6 or 7 projects happening so they can choose which ones they feel are the most important based on a set of criteria we have – things like how much of an impact this will make on the customer, the impact you have on the project, what stage it’s at and so on. 

Anything you would like to add? 

Yes, one thing I touched on at Rebase Conference and would like to reiterate. I came to North America with the idea that because so many of the UX legends come from here, I was going to be exposed to a whole new level of UX practices. That hasn’t been the case. Of course people are doing amazing work over here but I underestimated how good the work coming out of Ireland is. I don’t see that many Irish or UK speakers at conferences here, I’d love to see a little bit more of that. There are so many conferences, they put out speaker calls 6-9 months in advance and they take applications, it would be great to see some more familiar faces speaking here.

Shopify have a number of opportunities in Design & UX, check them out here: Shopify Careers

If you have any additional questions for Lynsey feel free to send her a tweet @lynseythornton