Ask Shopify’s UX Director Elizabeth McGuane about her career in general and content in particular and building blocks, LEGO and patchwork quilts crop up. With metaphors as vivid as her words it is no surprise that her mantra is “the words are the design”.
A wordsmith who started out as a journalist, Elizabeth’s journey has been guided by curiosity, leading her from print-media to interactive media. When she started to recognize the similarities between the editorial process with which she was so familiar, and the importance of words as a central building block of UX design, her interest was piqued.
Logical, detail-oriented and someone who gets a buzz from problem-solving and innovation, Elizabeth has embraced the ways that content design lets her be creative. Nowadays Shopify users, her team and the UX community are benefiting from her abilities to embed content into the heart of the design process for the products under her care.
Her interest in product and digital design did not arise by intention and has “felt very organic", but a love of words naturally flowed into exploring how content influences both.
Elizabeth’s first content role was at the Business Post in Dublin where she balanced EA responsibilities for editors with writing features on authors, theater, books and travel. She always knew her “interest lay in creative writing.”
The millennium was dawning and despite the arrival (and subsequent departure) of the first dot com bubble, the newsroom remained a paper-based 80s- and 90s-time capsule. Recalls Elizabeth, “I would take transcription from reporters in the field and type it up into our extremely old-school CMS.”
The internet intrigued Elizabeth who quickly became their web ‘go-to’ person, researching online for articles, many of which were exploring the explosion of interest in the internet around that time. Seeing first-hand how the web and early UX was changing her industry and others, she decided she wanted to be part of it.
Unsure how to dive into the bubbling ferment, Elizabeth “wrote to the Dublin firm IQ Content, literally because they had the word ‘content’ in their name and worked in the digital space!” Presuming they were likely to need a writer, her lack of experience might not matter.
Elizabeth’s letter landed on exactly the right desk – that of her first mentor and IQ Content Director John Wood who valued the quality of the writing and how well she made her case.
Before long, Elizabeth was Writing Manager, producing web content for Irish government, insurance companies and other large corporates; complex organizations generating content mountains. She quickly learned the importance of prioritizing, labelling and connecting content to help users complete tasks and achieve goals with minimum effort and maximum assurance.
She became increasingly aware of the need to embed the content development process seamlessly within the overall design process. Six months after starting, she made a pitch to the wider team, opening a conversation about how to integrate content and interface design as closely as possible, arguing that content authors had a ringside seat to understand user needs, “When I write the content, I have a sense of how it needs to fit together, what the flow is, what the structure is and how we need to organize this information.”
The company embraced the advantages of embedding information architecture and navigation more integrally into the design process, which led to Elizabeth’s involvement in early-stage wire framing and usability testing.
“The key learning was moving away from a focus on “pages”, which was how we thought in publishing. On the web the words express themselves interactively as building blocks.”
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Understanding the qualities that make a good feature article for a paper-based magazine provided a solid grounding in content for an interactive media environment. Elizabeth recognized the similarity with a newsroom, where content is refined and rejigged by a series of editors and designers before publication. So too when making content user-friendly.
“In newspaper, editorial, or graphic design, so much is to do with visual layout and spatial perception. How elements fit together on a physical thing, a website or web app is much more three-dimensional. How is someone navigating through it? How are things co-located together? Which pages are we grouping together? Can people find them?”
Learning to balance the creative element of writing with the analytical considerations of web writing, such as SEO, understanding and using customer language, and even user-based priorities was central to her early career.
“The key learning was moving away from a focus on “pages”, which was how we thought in publishing. On the web the words express themselves interactively as building blocks. Some will become buttons, links and other navigational items.”
This was the genesis of the patchwork quilt. Writing becomes less about pretty prose, more about placement and stitching together. Simplicity and utility become the close cousins of tone and personality.
“I felt more like an architect than a prose-writer, putting LEGO blocks together in the most useful way possible for users.”
For Elizabeth, analytical thinking comes naturally and so she embraces the roles which data and insight play in sharping the words, but she is adamant that the discipline overall needs to make room for content professionals offering differing strengths and aptitudes.
She recalls the debut content strategy forum in Europe in 2009, when job titles were “an obsession”. The consensus: content people should use the banner of “content strategist”, “because collectively they would have more impact. The industry has matured and evolved significantly since.”
Considering today’s array of labels – UX writing, content strategy, content design copywriting – Elizabeth believes “all these jobs are different, so it’s really important we don’t put everyone in one bucket. I’ve always thought about it as a spectrum; system-oriented people at one end and editorially-oriented people at the other.”
Sometimes having talent from a specific end is necessary. Brand-led projects, such as a brand website, call for a mix of skills a single person cannot offer. Possessing a strong sense of voice and style is an adjacent skill to assessing how SEO should influence content.
“UX writing, content strategy, content design copywriting – all these jobs are different, so it’s really important we don’t put everyone in one bucket.”
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Copywriting, the foundation of the content process, will always be a critical skill. Despite her love of building blocks, Elizabeth doesn’t align with those who dismiss copywriting as less important, less “architectural” – one can only work when the other is strong.
As the spheres of content design and interaction design converged, Elizabeth found herself at the vanguard of a maturing understanding of the relationship between content and layout.
She spent five years in London; a flourishing ecosystem for freelancers to contribute to stimulating and pioneering projects and to meet other UX freelancers from very diverse backgrounds. One colleague had studied history, a researcher boasted a psychology degree, and many came from industrial and physical product design. The cross-fertilization of diverse backgrounds sparked innovation and “made for really interesting collaboration”.
“This brought me back to my LEGO bricks and patchwork quilts. I was no longer producing content; I was producing content types. I spent a lot of time thinking about content, format and locales, along with content strategy and architecture.”
The early 2010s saw the arrival of several important technical advances which quickly caught the attention of content professionals wanting to marry their craft with changing user behaviors and needs. Web use was growing all the time, mobile apps were about to go viral and early-stage chat-based tools were emerging. The London years were a “wonderful time to work on early-stage technologies in an environment where we needed to innovate every day because no one had yet written the rules.”
Then former colleagues came calling. They were establishing an in-house content design discipline at Intercom in Dublin and wanted Elizabeth to be part of it. The opportunity was irresistible because of its breadth – their vision for content spanned their marketing language, product names and website design, but also new areas such as their software code and associated naming and structure standards.
“The engineering element was a novelty because people perceive a tension between content people and engineering people, but my experience is that those are the two teams that care the most about the finer details. Literally about how it’s built and what it says.”
Eventually the content team relaxed the software coding aspirations. “It is so difficult to maintain that purity of language as a digital product evolves. Digital products are meant to evolve and so we loosened our grip on uniformity for its own sake.”
The first chatbot provided an exciting greenfield project opportunity for Elizabeth, along with the chance to work along a colleague who focused on visual design. Their complementary skills enabled them to embed content consideration into every design decision across the business, always cognizant of the bigger picture. What does this say about the business? What does this say about its positioning? Beyond the product itself, what is this representing for Intercom?
“The beauty of the chatbot was that the words are literally the design. So, the words you choose are incredibly important to get the outcome you want and get the user to understand what you're trying to do.” Elizabeth came to understand words as patterns and ensure that each one was protected, because those patterns were designed with very specific outcomes in mind. “Looking back, I think we were doing the deepest type of product design possible because we were thinking about a very, very specific tool doing a very, very specific thing.” It’s an initiative which Elizabeth rightly reflects on with considerable professional pride. “At different times in my career, I've had that partnership with one designer or art director, where for both parties we achieve more than the sum of our parts.”
“We decided the best technology is something that disappears. It doesn't have to have personality, it just needs to be there and be helpful.”
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Naming the chatbot produced further insights. Much time went into investigating options. A moniker like Alexi or Siri is the handle to open voice tools, so how would this apply to a non-voice tool?
“We discovered that in text, because there is other material to engage the tool, the name does not have that same power.” Even more so in a chatbot, because the user is seeking an answer, not a conversation. Names that communicate personality get in the way of the experience.
“Our hypothesis that the name might provide an opportunity for expression and delight was invalidated pretty quickly by our research! It was like going to a department store information desk when you're really stressed out and trying to find something and the person behind the desk giving you a big song and dance of brand advertising before they answer your question.”
The contextual clues around what Intercom’s users might need and how they might be feeling as they accessed the chatbot guided the design team in a more pragmatic direction. “We decided the best technology is something that disappears. It doesn't have to have personality, it just needs to be there and be helpful. Personality can be a benefit, but it's contextual. Usually the user just wants to get their task completed.”
The interest in context has also flavored Elizabeth’s view of how a positive user experience might be defined. Sometimes a positive interaction results in delight, but more often it’s more practical and workmanlike. For her, satisfaction is the key focus. “If people are delighted, it should be because their needs were met, not that the tool itself is delightful.”
“Brands and companies want to push a certain brand message, so they end up obsessing about what they're pushing out instead of focusing on what the user is getting on the other side.”
She has also observed that, whether via messenger or email, users have an uncanny ability to sense if the response is from a human or a robot. “AI is getting us closer to seeming human, but we should wait and see what happens, because it only takes one misstep for a user’s spidey sense to hone in and go, oh wait, this isn't human.”
She’s clear that chatbot and robot designers must make smart decisions regarding the extent to which they infer their robot is human, as user expectations “vary significantly depending on who or what they think they are interacting with.”
Ultimately, users are more interested in good outcomes than they are with how those outcomes might be achieved. “We’re seeing this at the minute with ChatGPT. Currently, we are all playing with it but as it evolves its practical and pragmatic application will increasingly mean users don’t even consciously consider that it is AI. The hype cycle often starts with a fascination for the technology but that recedes and is replaced with a task-focused pragmatism.”
Having spanned the bridge between content and interface design, Elizabeth was ready to cross the Atlantic to explore a role exactly on that sweet spot. A colleague at Shopify, who similarly came from a content strategy background and had transitioned to content leadership and broader design leadership, encouraged Elizabeth to expand her leadership capabilities more deliberately beyond content and into UX design in a fuller sense.
“Currently, we are all playing with [ChatGPT] but as it evolves its practical and pragmatic application will increasingly mean users don’t even consciously consider that it is AI. The hype cycle often starts with a fascination for the technology but that recedes and is replaced with a task-focused pragmatism.”
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‘“You have been working in this field for a long time with designers and have as much ability to lead and think about design and product problems as somebody who comes from a visual background.”’
“It was just what I needed because I'd always mistrusted my visual sense. However, I had been thinking for over a decade about the principles of visual design; proximity, grouping, hierarchy and other information design building blocks. I just hadn’t got round to calling it design!”
Joining as UX Manager and more recently promoted to UX Director, Elizabeth’s responsibilities have spanned both the core platform and latterly the app platform. Her approach to leading has been to embrace and evolve the skills she learned as a content designer: close collaboration, integrating different skills, dissecting a problem as part of a team.
As a UX Director she leads a crew of 32 across four teams. Her role has brought her “full circle to the building blocks of content; information architecture and navigation design, both menu-led and search-led. I’ve never veered too far from the architectural scaffolding, making sure all the parts fit together logically for the user.”
During Covid, Elizabeth amassed her experience, insights and practical solutions in a book, Design by Definition, to be published this July.
After presenting at the 2019 Design Leadership Summit in Toronto, motion designers, illustrators and graphic designers, not just content designers, “told me I had accurately articulated a part of their design process they had never articulated before; that the words you use to describe a problem will literally shape the problem, and thus the solution you make. In other words, if you take care crafting the language used to frame a problem, it will positively shape the solution.”
In the best UX patchwork quilts, the words are the design and the solution.