Episode 13: Gene Shannon, Shopify - Establishing a Culture of Content Strategy and UX

February 6, 2019

Gene Shannon is a content strategy lead at Shopify. In this episode, he joins Kristina to talk about what content strategy and UX look like at a large organization like Shopify. He shares how his teams have been able to advocate for themselves and clarify their roles within the organization, all while establishing a culture that truly values content and UX.

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About this week’s guest

Gene Shannon

Gene Shannon is a content strategy lead at Shopify, where he’s helped the team grow from five content strategists to more than 30 in the past three years. Before Shopify he was a senior content strategist for Google’s Content Studio, where he worked on Google Maps and travel content.

Prior to becoming a content strategist, Gene worked as a guidebook editor for Frommer’s and founded several independent magazines and community newspapers in Toronto.

You can follow him on Twitter at @Gene_Shannon.


  • Collaboration is King” – a blog post by Gene on the Shopify UX blog
  • Polaris – Shopify’s open-to-the-public design system and style guide
  • Shopify UX – Shopify’s blog, including many posts on content strategy
  • @Gene_Shannon – Gene’s Twitter handle


Episode transcript

Kristina: Hello again. Welcome to The Content Strategy Podcast. I’m your host Kristina Halvorson. This podcast is brought to you by ContentStrategy.com and Brain Traffic, a content strategy consultancy. Find out more about Brain Traffic at BrainTraffic.com.


Hello again and thanks for being here at The Content Strategy Podcast. I’m Kristina and today, we have a lovely gentleman who is going to talk to us about content strategy at Shopify where he is a content strategy lead. He has been helping the team grow from five content strategists to more than 30 in the past three years. His name is Gene Shannon.

Before Shopify, Gene was a senior content strategist for Google’s Content Studio where he worked on Google Maps and travel content. Gene, welcome to The Content Strategy Podcast.

Gene: Wonderful to be here, Kristina.

Kristina: If you would please tell me a little bit about how you came to content strategy?

Gene: Of course, yeah. Well, I think like a lot of people it was a bit of a winding road.

Kristina: Do you know, I swear to you, I think I’ve done 12 of these or something so far and every single person, everyone has said, “Oh, it’s a little bit of a winding road.” That’s awesome.

Gene: No one was a kid dreaming up like, “I’m going to be a content strategist,” right?

Kristina: No. It’s really true. It’s really true.

Gene: They found another way to be there.

Kristina: Unlike today where millions of children all over the world, “What do you want to do?”

Gene: We’re working on that. We’re going to make that happen.

Kristina: Exactly. Any day. Okay. Sorry. Go ahead.

Gene: Yeah. Well, accidentally, like most people I think, but my background was in publishing. I started off in book publishing and wanted to head that way, and then took a seven-year detour into community newspapers and magazine publishing, and then took a further diversion into travel publishing. I worked as a guidebook editor at Frommer’s for about five years and did a lot of different guidebook work there and freelance work in terms of travel writing. But then around 2012 Frommer’s was put up for sale due to the nature of the travel market and we were fortunate enough to be purchased by Google. I landed at what’s now known as Google’s Content Studio and that was kind of my introduction to software design. We did a lot of on the job learning about what that meant and started off building basic skills that way.

Kristina: Wow. Your skills are really rooted in journalism and publishing.

Gene: Yeah, it really started out that way, but it’s funny. Everything works circularly, right? Everything kind of coming back to the skills I would need for content strategy. I started with the idea that I would work on books, but when I went to a book publisher, I was working on marketing copywriting, which is very short and direct. The publishing thing taught me a lot of different skills, so we weren’t just producing the content, but we were finding the advertisers and we were working on our pitches and we were positioning things and doing all that.

That went for about seven years and then during that time, I’d also been dabbling on the side of travel writing and things like this. I landed a gig as a guidebook editor for Frommer’s, which was really fun.

Kristina: That’s fancy.

Gene: Yeah, it felt very fancy at the time.

Kristina: Did you get to travel?

Gene: Definitely did some traveling, did some press trips. Basically, my role was to like hire the people who wrote the guidebooks and then help them shape the content into something that was at the format and the tools that we had. I went into a thinking like, “Oh, we’re going to be working on books,” but as you know, travel content is really atomic level stuff, right? I mean really looking at a paragraph that communicates like huge amount of information about a place, right? That was really cool. I joined probably at the peak of travel publishing. This was in about 2007. As you know, the financial crisis hit a year later.

So our publishing success was going down for the five years that I was there, but it led to an interesting turn where 2012, they put Frommer’s up for sale and then end up being purchased by Google. That’s how I ended up in the world of software.

Kristina: Oh, no. I never knew that. Google bought Frommer’s.

Gene: Google bought Frommer’s, yeah.

Kristina: Oh, man. They buy everything.

Gene: They do. Yeah. It was definitely a nontraditional path.

Kristina: Great. So at Google, you were working on Google Maps and travel. How did you transition over to Google Maps? Was it where you’re like, “I have content skills,” and Maps said, “We need writers.” I mean what happened there?

Gene: The previous year to that, Google had bought Zagat because they were doubling down on ...

Kristina: Wait. Google also owns Zagat?

Gene: Yeah. Yeah.

Kristina: Oh, my brain is melting. Okay. Go ahead.

Gene: All roads lead back to Google because they were really interested in place content, right? Like where people search on a map, they wanted to find ways to integrate really useful content into the product for Maps. Zagat was really good at that. They crowd sourced a lot of information. Really synced up with the Google model, but the coverage that they had was kind of very limited in terms of the cities and parts of the world they had. With Frommer’s, they thought, “Well, you have a huge treasure trove of content. This will map well to what we don’t know.”

That began a really interesting process of trying to take this content intended for books and transforming it into a software product, which predictably probably didn’t go that well because we ended up probably not using a lot of that content, but the journey had started. There was about 40 or 50 of us from Frommer’s who went there and we kind of became self-taught content strategists in the process because we had to speak to everyone in the org around like what were the product requirements, what were user needs.

We kind of got a backdoor way into research and personas and design that way and ended up sort of tossing most of the content that we come with, but learned how to take the knowledge that we had and repackage it to something appropriate for something like Google.

Kristina: Well, that is so interesting. You’re going on this journey with a group of people …

Gene: Yeah.

Kristina: Because a lot of the times what will happen is people will be, “I was the only one in the room that was asking the questions about the content and I had to go around …” But this was your team was literally going out into Google and coming back and sort of honing their content strategy skills.

Gene: Yeah. It was like 50 of us feeling like we were the only ones in the room together.

Kristina: Yeah, right.

Gene: Because obviously there’s a UX team at Google as well. We weren’t embedded in that, but we started building relationships with that team and learning how they worked with other designers and researchers and all that at Google. Then we started building those practices into the Content Studio because we were really almost like an internal agency within Google that went out and helped individual teams put content into their products.

Kristina: Now, isn’t this interesting that at Google there were 50 of you. Doesn’t it seem like there should be 5,000? Oh, wait. It’s content strategy.

Gene: Exactly. I mean I will say there were definitely a number of other UX content strategists at Google and sort of different parts of the org chart. Some people from our team and went and joined those teams as well. So I don’t know, the content strategy at Google feels very spread out. Like there’s lots of content strategists embedded within teams, but they don’t act as a holistic team as much as some other places.

Kristina: Well, so now you’re at Shopify. Tell me a little bit about how Shopify’s content strategy is set up. How many folks are at the company first of all? How big is Shopify?

Gene: Shopify is a little over or more than 3,000 people now.

Kristina: Okay. All right.

Gene: Our UX team is three or 400 I think.

Kristina: No. What?

Gene: Yeah. It’s a sneaky big UX team.

Kristina: Wow. I have certainly never heard of that before.

Gene: No, exactly.

Kristina: 10%. That’s amazing.

Gene: Yeah. Yeah.

Kristina: Content strategy sits with UX?

Gene: Yeah. Content strategy is in UX along with research, design, obviously, and I guess front end development or we’re calling the UX web developers now.

Kristina: Really?

Gene: Yeah.

Kristina: We’re just putting UX in front of everything. Do they call you a UX content strategist?

Gene: At times, yeah. One of the really interesting things about the team over the last year is we’ve moved from working just within products to kind of touching a lot of other parts of the organization now. We have UX marketing content strategists. We have taxonomists who work within content strategy. We have people working on like developer documentation, on emails. I think over the past year the big change for us has been like expanding the surfaces we think content strategy applies to.

Kristina: Woah. One of the things that I see over and over is that that sort of understanding of the importance of and the power of content strategy has to ... The light bulbs got to go off pretty far up chain for content strategy to get that kind of purview into processes throughout the organization. Is that what’s going on at Shopify? Do you guys have sort of executive sponsorship from the top going, “Content strategy, it’s a thing.”

Gene: Yeah, that was certainly what started it. When I came on, it was the first year that content strategy had been part of Shopify officially. Alaine Mackenzie was leading the team back then and she did a great job of just doing advocacy and saying, “Content, content, content,” to whoever who would listen to her. Now, people like her have kind of moved up in the organization. We have her in a senior UX position. We have Amy Thibodeau who came in as a content strategy lead and has now moved up to UX director. It definitely helps to have kind of people with a content strategy background moving into these leadership roles.

Kristina: Totally. Talk to me about how then the UX function is set up at Shopify? You’ve got hundreds of people in UX. Are there teams? Are you assigned to a specific team where there are four or five of you from the different practices? Are you sort of like sent out, SWAT team missions for different projects? How does it work?

Gene: I’m definitely going to go with SWAT team missions. That sounds fantastic.

Kristina: For sure. That’s right. Isn’t every content strategy project really a SWAT team mission?

Gene: Yeah, exactly. We think of product teams at Shopify as kind of this mix between UX and engineering and product managers essentially, right? Any project is going to have staffing from those three groups assuming there’s kind of user facing content in that. Then within that, we started with content strategy at a place where because there were so few of us, we would have each content strategist working on five projects or something like that. As I’m sure a lot of your listeners know, that limits your effectiveness a lot because you’re kind of coming in and trying to build context really quickly and always feel like you’re playing catch up on a project.

Compared to a designer who’s been there the whole time, you’re not able to come in and be as effective as you want. We changed that a couple of years ago. Now, content strategists mostly sit on like a primary project. You’re usually partnered with a designer and hopefully there’s a researcher. It kind of depends on the scale of the project obviously, but a UX team generally is going to have three to eight or 10 people on it from UX.

Kristina: Wow. Okay. But the content strategy team though, you guys are basically centralized?

Gene: Not in terms of reporting. We will ...

Kristina: Okay. Okay.

Gene: Yeah. One of the interesting things is like if you are a content strategist, we created a position a couple of years ago called the UX lead. Essentially someone from any discipline, whether you’re research or content or design, can kind of lead the UX team for that project. The reporting works so that you kind of report in as a UX team, but obviously content people like to hang out with each other and learn from each other. We still have a lot of rituals around getting together every couple of weeks and sharing our work and our practices. We still do off sites together. I think one of the most appealing things for people joining the team is the chance to learn from each other. We do whatever we can to help set that up.

Kristina: But that’s happening organically? There’s not like a content strategy boss who’s saying, “Okay. We’re going to have an offsite on this date?” How is that happening?

Gene: I would say it’s mostly organically. There’s a few of us who are leads on the team who look after the craft I guess you could say and kind of keep an eye out that people are developing the right skills and that time is being made in their calendar for them to dedicate to that and helping people building a team to go do an offsite or something like that. I think that’s not unique to content at Shopify. I think there’s a value that we have that you’re not going to get good at your job unless you spend time developing your skills, right? We’re very conscious about providing time for that, but there’s ... Yeah, we see it as very much owned by everybody.

Kristina: Wow. This is blowing my mind because usually if there’s some kind of organization or a sense of community that’s being created, it’s because there’s a boss, right, who’s responsible for doing that. But you’re just saying that people just sort of are ... I mean leads, in other words, are just sort of stepping up and creating these opportunities for collaboration and knowledge share and fun-having and all that good stuff.

Gene: Yeah. A great example would be we had a like a team offsite back in September. There was 25 or so of us there. I think out of those 25 people, 14 different people made presentations and contributed in some way, right? That’s what we’re finding as like we’re not working on the same projects, but we are using the same skill set and obviously different people on the team have different strengths that can level up other people around them. If we have someone who’s great in information architecture, she can share something that will help everyone else build their skills that way.

That’s what people are really hungry for is to get better at what they do and then we’re also like people who understand each other problems and like to just nerd out on content.

Kristina: How do people find each other?

Gene: A lot of ways. Slack, of course. We have lots of different Slack channels where we just throw in funny GIFs about cats and talk about content problems that we are working on and just talk about our day to day. The important thing though is just kind of making rituals and carving out time around it. Even though there’s about 30 of us, we carve out time every second Friday in an afternoon to meet even though we’re spread across five offices to meet and share what we’re working on and just talk about things we’re interested in. Maybe bring in a guest speaker, things like that.

I think one of the things that’s worked really, really well for us in terms of like keeping those bonds really strong is feedback is really important I think for whatever UX discipline you’re in, but we’ve paired people in the team so we’ll ... They’re often groups of two or three and meet every week and share our work with each other to get critique and feedback on it, and then we’ll switch up those groups every few months so people get to build these relationships with other people on the team no matter what office they’re in.

Kristina: Do you ever, for these groups, bring in people from other disciplines within the organization and be like, “Hey, come do a content meeting so you can sort of see these little presentations and see what we’re all about.” Talk to me a little bit about how you are sort of disseminating the good word or the good work content strategy at Shopify?

Gene: Yeah.

Kristina: Do you bring them to you? Do you go out? Tell me about it.

Gene: We definitely think that there’s ... I think with everyone on the team there’s a role to play in terms of advocating for content strategy. It could be something like we invite people to our Friday meetups. Usually with something like that, we’re actually trying to learn something from somebody else. As an example, we might bring a designer to teach us how to use Sketch so that we can kind of contribute to their designs better, but we do a lot of internal education seminars. A bunch of people on the team have built different courses that people can sign up for to take an hour or two for a workshop to learn a particular content skill.

There’s a lot of appetite for that because while we have 30 people on the team, there’s way more project teams than that. There’s a lot of designers and people out there who still need to create their own content and so we’re trying to help them do that. Then our design system, Polaris, is built with content guidelines built in as well. We’re always trying to ... Even if someone drops into our Slack channel to ask us what kind of copy or content they need for a particular problem, we’re always promoting Polaris and the content guidelines that live in there so they can kind of learn to fish and learn to do these things on their own.

Kristina: I want to go back around to the first piece of this that you were talking about which is that your ... Content strategists are actually creating learning modules and delivering those to other UX folks within the organization?

Gene: Yeah. I think our team has a bit of reputation of really doubling down on that because we see the value of getting other people a baseline level of understanding in content strategy. But I think design and research are doing similar other things where we do a bunch of internal conferences and events here because I think one of our values as a UX team, we call it “growing your T.” We want to go down deep in whatever your expertise is, but you want to have kind of a baseline knowledge and development or design or research in those skills so you can do those things yourself if your project doesn’t happen to have an expert with those skills on your project.

Content is great because you can teach some basic skills in an hour or two, whether it’s teaching people how to create better error messages or things they need to think about when they’re thinking about information architecture. It’s a nice way for people on the team who have an expertise on one of those areas to kind of promote themselves a little bit and show off their expertise to people outside our team.

Kristina: This is like the most functional UX discipline I’ve ever heard of within any company of like any ...

Gene: We have no problems at all. [laughs]

Kristina: I know. Exactly. It’s the perfect marriage.

Gene: That’s right.

Kristina: Everything is great. No. One of the big questions that we get at Brain Traffic is okay, great, so we’ve got a couple people converted within the organization who are really clear on what kind of the strategy is and the benefits and so on, and how do we scale that so that it’s not just these three people, but that it’s 300 people who get it. It just sounds like there’s a real culture of learning that exist at Shopify where people are encouraged to be curious about disciplines and skills outside of sort of just their traditional purview.

Gene: Totally. Yeah, culture of learning is actually a phrase we use because I think that’s ... As much as we’re here to help entrepreneurs and build great products and do all that kind of thing, the way we think we’ll succeed is actually like lifelong continuous learning. Because if we’re not getting better at our jobs, how are we going to produce a better product over time, right?

Kristina: So tell me then … because one of the things that I also sort of see is that even on very functional UX teams, that people will come to the table as the content strategist and other UX roles, no matter how well-intentioned or how much they value the content, will kind of roll their eyes and be like, “Yeah, or a copywriter.” Like you can call yourself a content strategist, but really I just need you to write the words. Talk to me about how beyond ... I mean yes, you’re putting the learning modules. Yes, maybe somebody will take their time to come to your Friday meeting. How else are you really working to clarify to UX folks that “Hey, we’re not just here to write the error message or to fill in the blanks on your UI form that you’ve created.” Tell me a little bit about how you’re working to clarify your role?

Gene: Yeah, sure. It’s very the much the principle of show, don’t tell, right? You can tell people what you do, but unless you can actively engage and partner with them on things, that’s the way that they’ll learn more quickly. We think about different ways to engage depending on what people’s roles are. We have a blog post that put out recently called “Better Together” [updated to “Collaboration is King”]. It’s on the Shopify UX blog that goes over kind of different strategies you can use to work with different people from different disciplines.

As an example, designers are probably the people we work with most closely. We really encourage people on our team to not only sit with your designer, work with them on a day to basis, but like set aside time on your calendar to do pairing sessions with them where you actually sit down in a room together once a week or whatever it is, share your work and show how you can give feedback on that, right? I think design and content are doing very similar work, approaching the same problem from a different angle. We found that’s the way to not only improve the work, but kind of teach people the way that we can contribute. Rather than just thinking about the interface copy, it’s showing how we think about messaging hierarchies or how we think about terminology.

Once you kind of engage people in these conversations, then the light bulb starts to go on a little more where you could think and say, “Oh, well, I understand better how you can help me make this better.”

Kristina: Do you find, is there ever any sort of pushback or individuals just saying, “No, no, no. I understand that you think that you can help me make this better, but really this is just the role that I need you to stand.” Do you find that happening at all? If so, how can you navigate that?

Gene: I think it’s certainly the exception to the rule. Most cases you’re solving a problem for people, right? You’re helping them do something that they need help with, whether that’s helping them clarify a concept or … A thing we do with researchers is try to pair with them a lot on their user research and take notes for them because, you know, it’s helpful for them, but also we get to hear it directly from user’s voices like the kind of words they use and make our own kind of insights about how people are talking about the product or problem they’re working on.

I think key for us has been most people just don’t know what a content strategist can do. In our initial onboarding for people when they join the UX team at Shopify, there is an hour we have where we actually walk them through and say, “This is what content strategy is. This is how it works at Shopify. Here’s the kind of things that we can do for you.” Usually it’s as much about permission as anything else where people feel like, “Oh, I didn’t know I could ask you for that.”

Kristina: Teams aren’t set up where it’s like okay and you have this content strategy requirements. I mean, do you feel that content strategy at Shopify is more of a resource, like a consulting resource, or is it and then we will have a content strategist assigned to this team?

Gene: Yeah, honestly it’s probably a bit of both. When you have, whatever our content strategist to designer ratio is, eight to one or something, there’s going to be projects where you can have a content strategist in there from the beginning and kind of co-building the product, and then there’s going to be things that are more of a service provider, consultation kind of role.

As an example, we have a bunch of different office hours that run across the company where people from teams who don’t have content strategists on their team can book a half hour with us, show us a particular experience they’re working on and at least get our high-level feedback on like how that could be improved.

Kristina: What an amazing idea. How do you socialize that? How do people know that that resource exists?

Gene: Yeah, a few ways. We actually have a bunch of them now. So the company is divided up into different product lines. We have five or six different sets of office hours. We’ll just do something as an automatic weekly reminder in the relevant Slack channel. We have it published in sort of like our internal CMS where people can go and look for resources. We just try to include it on our communications. I’ll send out a reminder every few months to the people on our team saying, “Hey, here’s the hours that I’m available. If you need help, book that.”

Usually particularly within UX, it’s not that hard because if you’re on a team that has two or three content strategists and 20 or 30 designers, it’s not that big a group to socialize the idea to.

Kristina: What about outside of UX? Are content strategists helping ... You mentioned at Google that content strategists would sort of like go and talk to folks outside of just product design. Does that happen at Shopify as well?

Gene: Yeah, I think so. Because our teams are pretty interdisciplinary, a lot of them working on a project, the team won’t be that big, you’ll have fewer than 10 people. There maybe three or four UXers, but you get to work pretty directly with the product manager, with the engineering lead, or whoever it maybe. If it’s like, for example, a product manager, it’s really great to have regular syncs with them and say, “How do you think about what the value props of this feature are that we’re shipping? How shall we communicate that,” and just align on things like that.

Think about, make sure that you’re both thinking of the same words that we’re using. A lot of times content strategists are really lucky in that we have a lot more context about what happens across the organization. A lot of people are focused on one project, but because of the connections we have with each other, we can hear a lot about what’s going on in the other parts of the company and make sure that what we’re shipping aligns with those other experiences. A lot of people don’t always have access to that information, so they’re really happy to hear that from us.

I think whoever you’re working with, it’s sort of almost discovering what their personal pain point is. Some product managers are great at communicating benefits of what something should be about and other people are just not able to define a concept as clearly and love to have the help with that. Engineers are the same way, where some of them are used to having to create all the error messages on their own and having to think about all the different use cases where we may need an error message. And to have someone to partner on that work with and think about how we communicate these things is usually kind of a load off their shoulders.

Kristina: Talk to me a little bit about … do you all have ... Because again, I’m just so struck by this culture of learning at Shopify. Do you all have like explicitly stated content principles or shared values of content strategy? In what ways do you kind of codify your approach to learning content strategy in a way that kind of can provide you with that common foundation as a content strategy “team” as you move through day to day?

Gene: Yeah, that’s a great question. There’s a few different ways. I think we started off really simply where we just came ... back when the team was smaller, 10 of us got in a room and said, “What are the principles that we really believe in that we want everyone at the company to align on?” We wrote those down and socialize that as much as we could.

Kristina: How did you socialize it?

Gene: Every time we came across an example in the product where we’re trying to explain our rationales for something, then we point back to these principles, right? I mean you can put it on a page where people can look at it, but I think people need to see it in action. I think that’s a large part of how you build up respect for what you do. It’s not just saying it should be X or it should be Y, but explaining the rationale behind it and saying how our voice and tone has these attributes because that’s what we learned after going into the user research about what our users are like.

This is how we make sure all of us across the company are speaking the same way even though the product is really diverse and hundreds of different teams shipping to it. I think once you explain the rationale to people, then they understand it and they’re not going to challenge that. As we got larger, we built out a design system, Polaris, and that gave us the opportunity to really write a lot of the stuff down, right? We have a style guide like most people would that relates to content and the nitty-gritty granular things about why we say things a certain way or what our conventions are, but we’ve also tried to put those guidelines in places where non-content people would look.

Our design system has a bunch of different components for how certain experiences look and those components will have the code samples, but they’ll also have the design guidelines. They’ll also have the content guidelines. We’ll have like a “do this, don’t do that” for how to do a particular kind of banner or a particular kind of structure for a screen. Every time we’re debating with people as we do every day around why an experience should be this way instead of that way, we’ll try to like to point back to the design system and say, “Well, this is how we do it at Shopify,” and there’s a rationale behind that.

Gene: We’re lucky that we have a team for Polaris that’s actually constantly evolving that design system. There’s a few different people who are adding to it. It’s gotten pretty robust now.

Kristina: I don’t know anything about Polaris. Does it start with a P?

Gene: Yeah. It’s P-O-L-A-R-I-S.

Kristina: I asked because that’s a brand of snowmobile here in the Midwest.

Gene: Yeah. We discovered that soon after release. [laughs]

Kristina: Okay.

Gene: Anyone can access it. It’s Polaris.Shopify.com.

Kristina: What? Are you serious? It’s a public resource?

Gene: It’s a public resource. Yup.

Kristina: No.

Gene: We started it off as just a way to keep us aligned internally and then we realized that there was a lot of value for our partners, which are people who build things on Shopify, like our app developers and our shipper’s providers. We released it so our app developers could use it and then we just started to get a lot of anecdotal feedback other people in the design community were looking at it and using it. We want to open it up for whoever could look at it that way.

Kristina: That’s amazing. I’ve learned three things … I mean I’ve learned a lot, but Google owns Frommer’s, Google owns Zagat, and Polaris is available for the public. I will never be the same again.

Gene: There you go.

Kristina: This is fantastic. Where and how do you see ... Because as a lead, you must sort of engage in conversation about where content strategy is going to go within Shopify in the coming years. What do you guys see for that?

Gene: I think what’s really been really exciting for me is just that we’re appearing in a lot more parts of the product now. I guess we’re looking at the user experience a lot more holistically. It used to be that like our domain was everything a user saw when they sign into the product, right? But the things they saw before that, whether it be through the ads they saw on social or our marketing websites or whatever kind of got them to Shopify, were someone else and we didn’t have a connection to that. But now we have content strategists on some of those teams, and we can build a more holistic experience all the way through.

We just hired someone to work on our docs for developers. We have a really great docs team for most of our users, but what we realized is for developers, in other words, people who build apps for Shopify, docs is like probably the most critical resource for them. But the IA was not super easy to understand and we weren’t kind of speaking holistically between how they interacted with Shopify and our docs, so we have a content strategist working on that now.

I think I see content strategists working on a lot of different Shopify products now. We have a retail product, so like a point of sale product, and we have content strategists on that. It’s allowed us to really kind of connect the dots a lot more about what Shopify is and how we sound so that you’re not getting a holistic experience part of your experience with Shopify, but hopefully the goal is in all of your interactions with Shopify we sound the same and it feels like the same people providing it.

Kristina: That is the holy grail of brands everywhere I think.

Gene: Exactly. Yeah. Not there yet, but I feel like we’re making good progress on it.

Kristina: I mean the content strategy team at large at Shopify does such a good job I think of participating in kind of the larger content strategy community conversation around discipline and hot topics and where things are going. What do you wish people were discussing more out in the world of content strategy?

Gene: Oh, that’s a great question. I mean there’s a good conversation around this already, but I feel like it could really be amplified is just a lot of what Sara Wachter-Boettcher talks about around edge cases and stress cases, and I think how we think of who our users are is evolving all the time. We want to just be more tuned into that than I think we are. I guess there’s two sides of that discussion where there’s kind of thinking more broadly about who our users are and kind of making sure that we provide good experiences to all of them through thinking about accessibility and all that.

But I think also one of the means to doing that is just thinking about how the content strategy community itself is more diverse and how we bring in people from more backgrounds to that. I think it’s just a challenge at Shopify as much as anywhere, and so how do we spread the value prop and the importance of Shopify so that we can get more people involved in it and show how integral it is to design.

Kristina: You know, what’s so interesting is that … we’ve talked about that a lot actually for programming at Confab, Brain Traffic’s content strategy conference. We didn’t always have main stage speakers, but we have introduced that over the last couple of years. Because one of the things that we found so frustrating is every conference we would host, we’d have breakout session on accessibility or inclusivity or fighting bias. Nobody would go to it.

And it’s not that people don’t care. I think that it has been seen as sort of like this, “And then we’ll try to make sure that we cover off on that too,” as like a box to check versus a core value within our community that the web is for everyone and content is for everyone and things are complicated. I mean people know that things are complicated, but that it is something that is more woven into the way that people think about and practice content strategy. So I really appreciate it.

That is also why we now put topics about accessibility and inclusivity and biases on the main stage because we’re like, “Yo. You might see this as eating your vegetables, but this has got to start shaping the conversation in a much larger way.” It’s exciting to hear that folks at Shopify are thinking about that too.

Gene: It’s even broadening what we think of as accessibility. We do, as content strategists, we do a lot of work around terminology and that’s an inclusivity issue, right? Plain language is an accessibility issue. A lot of what we do in our core competencies actually has huge effects on accessibility. I think there’s some reframing that can be done that way.

Kristina: I’m just so impressed by the passion that the content strategy team and teams at Shopify clearly feel for their practice and how committed you all are to sharing your knowledge and promoting it within the organization. I admire too the many, many blog posts that the team has written over the years about content strategy. I’m so grateful that you were able to take the time to chat today about some of those best practices that you’re developing at Shopify and just look forward to hearing more from you and your team in the months and years to come about how content strategy can be ever elevated in UX and the world, the whole world.

Gene: World domination. That’s where it ends.

Kristina: Exactly. That’s where every single one of my podcast interviews ends is with world domination.

Gene: Perfect.

Kristina: All right. Gene, thank you so much for taking the time today. I really appreciate it.

Gene: Thanks so much. I enjoyed it a lot.


Kristina: You’ve been listening to The Content Strategy Podcast. I’m your host Kristina Halvorson. This podcast is brought to you by ContentStrategy.com and Brain Traffic, a content strategy consultancy. Find out more about Brain Traffic at, of course, BrainTraffic.com. Thanks and we’ll see you next time.

About the podcast

The Content Strategy Podcast is a show for people who care about content. Join host Kristina Halvorson and guests for a show dedicated to the practice (and occasional art form) of content strategy. Listen in as they discuss hot topics in digital content and share their expert insight on making content work. Brought to you by Brain Traffic, the world’s leading content strategy agency.

Follow @BrainTraffic and @halvorson on Twitter for new episode releases.