Women in UX: Meet Amy Thibodeau, Senior UX Lead at Shopify
Amy Thibodeau can’t wait to get her dog. The little Chihuahua mix was found wandering along the border between Mexico and Texas wearing a purple rhinestone collar and a purple t-shirt. A rescue group will be transporting him up through the entire country, dropping him off at the final stop in Toronto, Canada, where Thibodeau now calls home. The small dog and townhouse she recently purchased in Toronto’s King Street West area are a nod to finally putting down roots.
“I’ve moved around a lot. I’ve moved so much,” Amy said.
Originally from the Canadian prairies, she studied women’s studies and English before launching her career in communications at the MacKenzie Art Gallery in Regina, Saskatchewan. One of her proudest accomplishments there was promoting and licensing a big Andy Warhol Exhibit. She traveled to Pittsburgh to spend time with the Warhol Foundation and to research the life and origins of the famous artist. It represents just one of many travels inspired by curiosity and learning.
From the Prairies to France
The Canadian prairies span across three provinces and stretch down to the Minnesota border. They consist largely of grasslands that appear in stark contrast to the massive mountain range found along the west coast and the vast boreal forest located to the north.
Amy had spent her whole life in Saskatchewan, and was looking for a change. She moved across the pond to London, England, and found herself working closely with a small UX team. She decided to take a year off to travel around the world with her boyfriend (now husband).
During this time, she started writing more about UX and content strategy on her blog. At the time, a lot of content strategy was focused on web interfaces, but Amy was interested in product interfaces and UX. She was learning as she went along, and her work caught the attention of Facebook.
“They were looking to build out their product content strategy team, so they got in touch. I did a bunch of interviews with them from Southeast Asia, and then they flew me to California and I did a full day of interviews, very jet-lagged. It worked out because they offered me a job. I moved to California and worked for Facebook there for two years, and then transferred to their London, UK, office where they previously didn’t have a UX team, and helped to start the UX team there,” Amy said.
After four years, she traded Facebook in for the South of France. She and her husband bought a house in a small village called Bize Minervois and she spent six months recharging, fixing up the place, and being intentional about her next move. Eventually, she started freelancing again with product companies in the Bay Area.
She found herself working on a lot of chatbot projects and, because it was new to her, took some time to write about what she was learning. Around this time, the Canadian e-commerce company Shopify had acquired a personal assistant chatbot named Kit, and contacted Amy to chat about how she was approaching conversational content design. She was impressed and found herself excited to join a team again, so once again she found herself on the move.
She joined Shopify at their New York office in January 2016 to lead the content strategy team, and work on Polaris, Shopify’s design system. Amy is now a senior UX lead for the App and Partner Platform product line based out of one of the company’s three downtown Toronto offices.
“I lead a team of designers, researchers, and content strategists. We’re looking at areas like our app store and building experiences that allow our partner network to build apps for Shopify merchants, and provide them with services they need to grow their business,” she said.
Web Content UX vs. Product Content UX
Amy has transitioned into a more generalist UX role, but her niche in product content UX was fundamental in her success. We asked her how web content strategy differs from product content strategy.
“Foundationally, they’re very similar. You should always be thinking about the core thing that the user needs to know and learn, and prioritizing that information. I think the biggest difference is the skill set of being able to think across multiple use cases and states in product, which you don’t have to do as much on a website. The user journey [on a website] tends to be a little bit more linear, whereas with a product, it’s more like a choose-your-own adventure. There are multiple different paths that people can take, multiple decision points, and multiple choices,” Amy said.
“It’s really about thinking through edge and stress cases. I think that is the primary difference. One of the things that I talk about sometimes with my team is designing for the before, during, and after, not just the screen you’re currently looking at. You need to be thinking about where somebody’s come from, where they’re going to go afterwards, and their state of mind throughout that journey.”
For those curious, Amy recommends the book Design for Real Life by Sara Wachter-Boettcher and Eric Meyers.
Shopify’s four disciplines of UX design
With the launch of Shopify Polaris, Amy and her team found themselves eager to share their learnings.
“Polaris was primarily built to help us build higher quality experiences more quickly here at Shopify, but what we wanted to do was make it available publicly — so that all of the partners who also built things like apps for Shopify could have the benefit of using our building blocks to build their own experiences,” Amy said.
While it’s written with internal Shopify UX people in mind, the system is a rich resource for all UX designers, and includes guidance on topics such as color, typography, accessibility, icons, content, data visualization, and more.
It also speaks to Shopify’s four UX disciplines, which include:
- Content strategy.
- Front-end development.
“If you build an experience without considering one of these elements, you’re going to have a gap that is probably going to be felt by the user,” Amy said.
“For example, if you have something that is thoughtfully designed by a product designer, but the content doesn’t make sense or isn’t aligned to how the product speaks in other parts of the product, then it won’t work very well. If user research isn’t a part of how we make our decisions, then chances are we’re going to be building for ourselves and not for our users. If front-end development isn’t involved, then our product may not be accessible or responsive, or it may be slow. All of these things blend together to create a good, holistic user experience.”
Amy’s five tips for becoming a successful UX leader
If you’re looking for tips on intuitive cooking, or how to nail a killer karaoke rendition of “Welcome to the Jungle” by Guns N’ Roses, Amy’s your girl. If you want some tips on how you can enhance your UX leadership skills — she’s got those, too.
We leave you with Amy’s tips for becoming a better UX designer, contributor, and, ultimately, a better UX leader.
- Be curious about people: “Be curious about what they care about, and start to pay attention to the way people get things done in their lives. Fundamentally, UX is about thinking through the experience that a human is having and having the desire to understand that experience and to improve it. Practice that curiosity.”
- Get good at asking questions: “I spend a lot of time in critiques and product reviews, and I never want my role in those reviews to be as a judge. My role in those reviews as a UX leader is to ask really good questions that will help other people think differently about their work and push their work forward.”
- Practice communication skills: “In whatever field you go into, whether it’s general UX, design, content strategy, research, or development, it’s important to be able to represent your work to others. Communication skills are a solid investment. They help you rationalize and explain the decisions and trade-offs you need to make.”
- Avoid the big reveal: “I’ve worked with people in the past who had the instinct to squirrel away, work on the project, and then wait until they think they’ve come to the right answer or the perfect solution before they reveal it,” Amy said. “This doesn’t work. It’s important to be open to sharing your process and getting feedback so you can iterate.”
- Get comfortable with being uncomfortable: “Giving and receiving challenging feedback, with showing your work — even when it feels imperfectly formed or not fully considered — is hard. When I’m interviewing job candidates, one of my red flags is if I feel like they’re going to be afraid to show imperfect work. Being afraid to contribute imperfect ideas is probably one of the biggest limiters I see for people if they want a career in UX.”