Amy Thibodeau, this year’s conference opening keynoter, is a Director of User Experience at Shopify where she leads UX operations, as well as design, research, content strategy, and UX development for the Platform team. Below, she shares more about her career journey and current role.
I currently have two jobs: I lead the user experience team for Shopify’s Platform and, as of January of 2019, I also manage a small but mighty UX operations team. My job on Platform came first, over two years ago, but it led pretty directly to my work in operations and has informed our approach.
It was impossible to lead a big, cross-company team of designers, researchers, content strategists, and UX developers and be meaningfully connected to their challenges and opportunities without developing some productive discontent. There were so many good things happening to help UXers across Shopify do great work and to grow in their roles, but because the team is big and distributed, the best efforts were often localized, or would stop and start because no one was dedicated to rolling things out broadly. The UX leadership team noticed that we were duplicating effort and didn’t have great mechanisms to get the entire team aligned.
“Productive discontent is when you’re motivated to action by discontent. People who are productively discontent see problems and are proactive about generating ideas and turning them into action.”
Even though Shopify’s UX team is divided into groups that focus on different parts of the business, we’ve always believed that to create experiences that feel cohesive to our customers, people across the team have to be connected by common goals, practices, and approaches. We had a good idea of how we wanted to build this connective tissue as we scaled, but were in the classic position of struggling to create the time and space to make progress.
With the help and support of Shopify’s VP of UX Lynsey Thornton, and a steering team of fellow UX directors, I started tackling some of the gaps we were seeing as a side project. What could I do if I spent 3 hours every week working on operation challenges? The bridges I began to build weren’t big. They were more like those aluminum ladders you see mountaineers using to get across cracks in the ice—a bit rickety but better than nothing and people were using them. Even better, I noticed where people were building and laying their own ladders. At the end of 2018, we looked at all the little gains that had been made and asked ourselves, “How much more could we get done if we put some meaningful resources into operations for UX in 2019?”
That’s how I ended up leading a small UX operations team, which is now made up of five dedicated people who focus on understanding and then enabling the small and large things the people across our UX team need to be happy, healthy, and productive at work.
For a small operations group, we’re chipping away at quite a few broad areas:
- Education and context: We created and manage a centralized UX handbook that helps people get up and running and is also the source of truth guide to how designers, researchers, content strategists, and UX developers work at Shopify. We also support an education program that makes sure people have what they need to get started and opportunities for continuous learning along the way.
- UX communications: We tell the story of our UX team and work to highlight the work being done and the humans behind the scenes internally, and externally on our blog, and on social media.
- Social impact: We work to strengthen and grow the broader global UX community by supporting events, conferences, meetups, podcasts, and other opportunities. We also occasionally host events, and partner with schools to support the next generation of talent in our industry.
- Rituals: We look for ways to bring people across the team together through talks, workshops, meetups, and other programs.
- Craft-specific needs: We’ve just hired our first person who will be dedicated to the needs of one discipline. We’ll be kicking off a research operations stream of work in late September when the 6th person starts on our team.
“Instead of thinking of UX operations as a small team that’s responsible for making everything happen ourselves, we think of ourselves as a small team working on building a foundation of tools, playbooks, and systems that enable other people to make things happen.”
We’re not robots and this is a lot of ground to cover for a team small enough to fit in a minivan. Our secret to tackling so much is that we aim to take a platform approach to our work. Instead of thinking of UX operations as a small team that’s responsible for making everything happen ourselves, we think of ourselves as a small team working on building a foundation of tools, playbooks, and systems that enable other people to make things happen. For example, our job isn’t to tell UX leadership across the company what kind of rituals they should adopt to build a healthy, connected team. Instead, we offer smart defaults that we continue to evolve by trialing ideas with small groups, we document what we learn, and make it easy for people to adopt and adapt the best ideas that line up with what their teams most need. In doing this, we can multiply our impact while also accommodating the kind of flexibility and divergent thinking required to make a program work for lots of people, disciplines, teams, and locations.
Another way to think of a platform approach is to consider Lego blocks. When The Lego Group creates blocks and sets, they make sure they’re enabling:
- Modularity: All the blocks are designed to fit together with other blocks, including pieces from different sets and even those manufactured 10 years ago.
- Creativity: It’s impossible to anticipate what everyone might need or want to build. Instead of trying to do the impossible, give people the pieces and encourage them to use their blocks creatively, often in ways we couldn’t have predicted or imagined.
- Flatten the learning curve: The system is predictable and consistent and we create education to help people understand it. We keep it simple so people can get up and running and are in a position of feeling ownership and mastery enough to build and adapt.
The truth is that I’m not entirely sure what UX operations at Shopify will look like or focus on by this time next year and we still struggle a lot how and what to prioritize. There are so many things we’re excited to work on! The only thing I am certain of is that we need to continue learning and adapting based on the needs of the UXer across the company and the broader needs of the business. The flexibility of the operational platform we’re building should make it possible for us to not just flex to the changing needs of the UX team, but to actively adapt and rise to meet them.