An Interview with Amy Thibodeau, Director of UX at Shopify

Get to know Designers from some of the world's leading companies in our new series of interviews, Designers Spilling Tea.

What was the moment you knew you wanted to work in design?

How did you get to where you are now?

I worked hard and I was lucky enough to take risks that paid off. Regardless of your craft, I subscribe to the belief that no one becomes an expert without a lot of hard work. I’ve always been a good writer, but understanding how to structure language to take people through an experience is a learned skill that I worked hard at.

I’ve also taken a lot of risks in my career. I left my job as the head of marketing in a digital agency in London to travel and focus on building products while traveling around the world.

As I was doing that, I wrote about what I was learning online and that’s how Facebook found me. When they made me an offer, I moved to California and then to London where I was the first person on their now gigantic UK-based design team. Since then I’ve lived in France, New York, and now Toronto where I work for Shopify.

“I’ve never been afraid to put my hand up and say yes to opportunities and that’s been invaluable to me.”

Anything you’d do differently?

I don’t think there’s anything I’d do differently. I’ve learned an incredible amount with each step of my career even though it’s often been challenging and I’ve certainly made mistakes.

What did your teachers think of you?

My most influential teachers were in elementary school and high school. I can think of two female teachers I had in particular who really encouraged my love of writing and their praise made me feel brave enough to continue.

On the negative side, I suspect a lot of my teachers would say I talked too much in class and was always a bit stubborn and contrarian. I like a good debate!

What does a typical day look like to you? And what makes a day, a good day, for you?

In my current role as Director of UX for Shopify’s App and Partner Platform, I spend a lot of time thinking about what makes a good experience for our customers and debating our priorities and focus with other people on my leadership team.

I lead a user experience team of around 30 people including designers, researchers, content strategists, and even a few photographers. I’m really invested in their success and in empowering them to do great work.

“I am a strong believer in the value of having chunks of time blocked off to focus on deeper maker work and thinking.”

I would say that during the best days, I spend most of my morning reading, writing, and doing work that connects directly into the experiences we’re designing and building. I am a strong believer in the value of having chunks of time blocked off to focus on deeper maker work and thinking.

The afternoons are spent in meetings and workshops where we debate out product decisions and priorities, in 1:1s with my team, in critiques, and just working through things collaboratively.

How do you handle design to developer handoff?

In my current role I’m a bit farther away from the work in that I’m leading a large team and the strategic direction for an area so I’m not doing much individual contributor work. I’ve always believed and reinforce with my team that UX people and developers should be collaborators.

“Designers need to work with developers to understand technical constraints and tradeoffs to inform their work. Developers need to work with designers on technical decisions because they absolutely impact what we can do from a user experience perspective.”

So, I guess I would say that there should be no handoff. There should be a through line of collaboration for the duration of a project.

What’s it like working for a fast moving company like Shopify?

I love the pace. I’m a firm believer in shipping iteratively so that we can provide our customers with value and get their feedback quickly. We always want to make sure we understand the problems we’re solving (and that they’re the most important ones) before creating solutions, but we’re fortunate to have access to a lot of direct connection with our customers and they’re generous with their feedback.

Can you outline the major points of your design process?

At Shopify, we talk about the process of building great user experiences and that includes design, user research, content strategy, and front-end development. We work collaboratively with people from different disciplines like product management and engineering on a holistic process rather than one that’s just focused on design.

“I’m a big believer that cross functional teams with a lot of diversity of thought get us to better results.”

We do have a general project cycle that we all use at Shopify that we call GSD (get shit done). It’s flexible but generally includes a phase at the beginning where we’re focused on defining our idea, thinking and exploring the problem to converge on a solution, building it (which is when we create deliverables like mocks, content docs, and code), shipping it iteratively, and then tweaking as we learn and get feedback.

How do you measure the success of your work?

It really depends from project to project. We always want to make sure each project we’re working on has clear performance indicators that are connected to the problem we’re trying to solve. We also do a lot of user research and we look at feedback we receive through channels like our support folks who answer calls and questions from our customers every day.

Do you draw inspiration from any other creative field?

I am a word nerd and an avid reader. I’m always interested in how narratives are structured, particularly in fiction where the story manages to propel you forward often through hundreds of pages. I think people working on user experiences can use a lot of the tools of storytelling to onboard people and teach them how to navigate and use a digital product.

What excites you about the future of design?

I’m really excited that user experience teams are becoming more diverse. I think it’s going to lead to us noticing more interesting problems to be solved and also to finding new and different ways to do things. When I hire for my team, in addition to hiring people with traditional education and experience, I try to look at people who can bring something different. For example, I have someone on my team who used to do game design and another one of my leads comes from a wearable tech background.

I’m seeing more and more UX teams embrace people with alternative types of skills and backgrounds and I can’t wait to see how that influences the future of our industry.

How do you incorporate feedback into your designs? What’s a time you received hard criticism for your work?

I’m not an individual contributor so I don’t really produce designs. On my team we have a lot of rituals to make sure everyone is getting feedback early and often, ideally from people who are further away from the work and can look at it with a fresh perspective.

The important thing to me is that critiques should be structured to be focused on ideas and approaches and not on the person showing their work.

It’s natural for people to occasionally feel defensive in critiques, which is why scheduling regular opportunities to give and receive feedback is so important as well as setting some ground rules. Getting good at it and getting comfortable takes practice.

I have a lot of trust in the people on my team and I know they think deeply about the problems they’re solving. My main expectation is for everyone to listen deeply to and consider feedback, but it’s up to each product team to make the right tradeoffs and decisions on their own work.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?

“When an opportunity crosses your path, even if you’re not sure if you are qualified, say yes.”

Design trends that should die?

I’m not sure. I think people should be thoughtful about using quirky language in their products. If people are coming to do a job, they’re not necessarily looking to be distracted by an experience with a big personality.

Oh and I hate it when people shame their users by putting manipulative content on secondary action buttons. For example: [Yes, sign up] [No, I don’t like nice things]. Honestly, it infuriates me.

Agile or waterfall?

Generally, more agile and iterative, though I think different approaches work for different kinds of projects. Flexibility above all.

What are you watching on Netflix right now? What are you reading/listening to right now?

On Netflix I’m watching Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, which is a beautiful four part documentary series about traveling, cooking and eating that’s beautifully shot. It’s based on a cookbook that I love by Samin Nosrat and the series and the book are just gorgeous.

I’m currently reading Educated by Tara Westover and Pachinko by Min Jin Lee. I highly recommend both.

Who’s work do you follow and admire?

I’m inspired by a lot of people:

I was recently at a conference where I saw a fellow named Jon Crowley speak about how he thinks about the difference between insights and data and how to incorporate both into your UX thinking and it knocked my socks off. Glossier has just hired some ex-Facebook folks like Maykel Loomans to lead design and although I don’t know what’s up their sleeve I’m excited to learn more … I could go on.

We’re living in a magic time where we have the opportunity to be inspired and influenced by people from a range of different disciplines and I’m incredibly excited by that.

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Writing for Marvel. Writing for fun. Eating everywhere, all the time.

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