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Greg Beldam – HeyThere
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17

Greg Beldam

Shopify

Director of Product Design
Greg is Director of Product Design at one of Canada’s hottest companies, Shopify. He's responsible for ensuring that the complex world of eCommerce is presented to us in an easy to use and enjoyable manner. We talked to him about what it takes to get people using a product and how Shopify tackles complicated design problems.
HT

You are Director of Product Design at Shopify. What was your journey to get there?

GB

I started designing in high school. I was really into Counter Strike and Day of Defeat so I started making websites for my teams, and then other teams wanted to pay me to do sites for them too. This was my first exposure into design as a service. Shortly after, I started designing Winamp skins, and that was my first foray into interface design. I loved being able to shape the look and feel of something someone was using to control software.

I went into Graphic Design at Algonquin College and then spent a year working for a local studio on all kinds of things from Flash experiences and websites, to video and motion pieces. After that I worked remotely for a few companies in the US, and then landed a job at a mobile consulting startup called Select Start Studios. I was the first designer in the company, joining 3 Computer Science graduates who had just rented office space that week. My first day involved building my desk, and we had no lights for the first month.

I scaled up the design team at Select Start to 3 people over two years, shipping apps for Freshbooks, realtor.ca and The Ottawa Hospital. Then one day, near the end of 2011, the Shopify Executives started coming into the office for meetings. I was told to start doing market research into eCommerce and work on some pitch work to redesign their mobile app. Before I could present my findings, I found out we were going to be acquired by Shopify.

I started at Shopify in early 2012 as Mobile Design Lead and spent the first year redesigning Shopify for iPhone and creating our POS product from scratch. After scaling up that team a bit I started working with the web teams, and shifted into leading most of the Product Design teams. Today I’m responsible for a group of 25 designers working on Core Product, Retail, Checkout and some upcoming special projects.

HT

In your opinion how does product design differ from traditional graphic design? What attracts you to it?

GB

I got into the field of product design through mobile, which has always been one of my main passions. I think what drew me to it was the limitations. When I used to do Flash design, it was frustrating because anything was possible on the web, so it wasn’t easy to say no to clients when they were making bad design decisions. When I started designing iOS apps, I discovered how hard it was to do anything custom. Custom tab bars, which I loved designing, were really hard for engineers to implement. These kinds of boundaries are really exciting as a designer, you begin to feel like a pioneer. You were able to work within existing guidelines and use patterns that made sense, but also push the platforms to be better. Mobile platforms developed quickly but it did so in an environment with established guidelines. This lead to a very mature field quicker than web design had developed.

Product design is really challenging. I’ve encountered some of the hardest and most rewarding challenges working on Shopify products. The talent of people who work on products is immense. You have to stretch your skills so far, and in so many directions, but it’s very, very rewarding.

I believe that product design is forcing companies to take design seriously, in the same way that companies already look at engineering groups. Design is finally getting a seat at the table.

HT

Shopify faced some rather large design challenges as it’s evolved. One being balancing the needs of the store owners with those of their customers. What considerations do you make as you work on the system?

GB

One of the biggest problems we’re encountering right now is that people don’t like change. You can see this famously every time Facebook changes anything, and users get upset. Within a few weeks those users have bought into the changes and are happy again.

There’s a wide range of people who have Shopify stores, so it’s impossible to cater to everyone’s needs. The way we have solved this is with our 3rd party App Store. We enable other developers and companies to fill the needs of our niche users, and some are making successful businesses selling on our platform. The ecosystem around Shopify is vast, and everyone is really focused on helping our merchants, which helps us with our goals.

HT

UX (user experience) is now a core discipline in digital product design. How do you approach it at Shopify?

GB

We treat “UX” uniquely compared to a lot of companies, especially agencies. We consider UX to be an umbrella that includes our Design team, Front-end Development, User Research and Content Strategy. At a lot of agencies, “UX” simply implies wireframes and systems thinking, but we have reframed it so that we have a whole group of people with one singular goal to make our product usable by all our merchants.

HT

UX is a weird subject, as some people define themselves as UX Designers, but if you’re designing for humans everything you produce is going to be experienced by a user, so how does that change if you’re doing visual design or building a functional website?

GB

Our designers are really full-stack and T-shaped. One designer can go all the way from research and strategy, through wireframing and interface design, to writing their own front-end code. What you’re working on might be wildly different week to week.

HT

When your team is implementing a new feature what’s the process of creation that happens around that? Do you have any specific techniques or systems you use?

GB

We’ve adopted the Design Sprint model (similar to IDEO and Google Ventures) to kickstart projects.

How that works at Shopify is that we have a designer who spends every week starting a new sprint. They pull in 3 other Designers from across the company along with the Tech Lead, a User-Researcher, a Content Strategist, and sometimes a PM to spend a week on one problem.

We start on Monday by defining the problem and doing wireframing exercises that everyone participates in. On Tuesday, the 4 Designers take all the ideas, and by Friday we have 4 click-through prototypes that we can show to merchants and validate. The principal Designer on that feature then takes all the prototypes and findings and continues working on it until it’s ready to ship.

It’s been working really well for us, but we’re always tweaking the process and evolving it.

HT

You guys have expanded your product offering from online storefronts to in-store POS (point of sale – i.e. the checkout) solutions. They are two very different markets. How did Shopify approach the challenge of designing for the in-store retail environment?

GB

We approach most new markets through experimenting. We spent a lot of time building our POS back in 2012 and then we launched it about a year later. I was on the project and we really weren’t sure what we were building. It was a whole new market, with radically different needs than online stores.

After we launched, we started listening to customers, talking to people who weren’t yet customers, and building features that mattered to those people.

We have a really good in-store product on iPad and now iPhone as well, but we’re still learning and changing it to make it even better.

HT

Growing and managing a team is perhaps the biggest internal issue right now with companies operating in the digital space. How do you attract and retain talent?

GB

Shopify is a truly high growth environment and we double down on people who we think are talented. We tend to hire for what we call “high future potential” which means people who have really strong fundamentals in design, but haven’t really hit their full potential yet. These kinds of people in our environment quickly grow into amazing designers, and can then help other designers do the same.

We have one of the best design cultures in technology. Designers sit and work with their product teams, but we spend a lot of time collaborating, a lot of time spent giving feedback to each other, and we have some strong mentorship programs for junior designers. We have a “Design Pod” room that allows designers to spend time working around each other, and houses our design leadership team, our UIkit team and some designers and researchers who are cross-product.

It also gives us a space to do weekly meetups where we do design challenges, photo walks, lightning talks and fun events like UX Jeopardy.

HT

As Shopify’s success grows, so to does the number of competitors. What steps do you take to stay ahead of the pack?

GB

We keep our eyes focused on what merchants need instead of paying too much attention to our competitors. We don’t want to fall into the trap of doing what others are doing. We try to just stay focused on shipping great products.

HT

A lot of companies rely on pure data to drive decisions. Does Shopify ever rely on gut instinct/emotion to push the platform in new directions?

GB

It’s a hard balance that we’re always working between. We have a dedicated data team at Shopify so that we can make data-informed decisions, but I think as designers we have to know that data isn’t an answer, it’s merely more information you can use to make an informed decision.

Designers are empowered to use their experience and judgment alongside data and research to ship a feature that they think is going to make merchants lives better.

HT

With the pressure to constantly improve and add features to software you run the risk of over-cooking it? It can become overly complicated and hard to use for new users. Does your team ever draw a line in the sand and say that “it’s done”?

GB

We work in such a huge space that we’ll never be done. Commerce is ever expanding and anywhere that anyone sells something to another person we can provide a way to make it easier and more fun.

Our CEO recently sent out an email to the R&D team along the lines of “Ship boldly”. We’ve been launching a lot of new features and humans don’t like change, but ultimately we have to break things as they are today to do better things tomorrow.

We focus on making things simpler, and while we do add new features that add a lot of complexity, we’re also constantly making processes simpler and more intuitive. Nothing is untouchable. Anything can be changed and made better.

HT

There’s a lot of attention paid to ‘Company Culture’ these days. What does it mean to you and what is Shopify striving for?

GB

A lot of companies think culture is how many ping-pong tables you have and what perks you offer. While Shopify does have a fun environment where we get free lunches and some crazy perks like house-cleaning, the real culture is the people and the environment. In all 3 of our cities we have amazing offices that allow people to work in open or closed spaces, and collaborate and communicate, and the people are some of the most talented and interesting people I’ve ever worked with – from all over the globe.

HT

There is no more corner store anymore. Platforms like Shopify open the world to people. How does it feel to work on a product that literally can change peoples live, lift some out of poverty, or allow people to achieve their dreams?

GB

It’s great knowing that you’re shipping something that 150k people are using daily and it’s empowering people to start businesses. The world is starting to be more entrepreneurial and focused on local, smaller businesses, and it’s great knowing you’re enabling people to do that.

It’s always nice going into a store in a city you’ve never been in before and seeing Shopify POS on the counter as well. I hope that keeps happening more often.


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