Shopify’s Lynsey Thornton: ‘There is a fundamental shift happening in retail’

13 Jul 2018

Lynsey Thornton, vice-president of user experience and core product at Shopify. Image: Shopify

The entire world of commerce, from bricks and mortar to mobile, is evolving. At the heart of this revolution is Dubliner Lynsey Thornton.

Lynsey Thornton is vice-president of user experience (UX) and core product at Shopify.

Shopify is an e-commerce technology company with a $19bn market cap. Headquartered in Ottawa, it develops software for online stores and retail point-of-sale systems.

‘It is already true today that more consumers purchase from Shopify stores on mobile phones than they do from desktops’

It was originally founded after its owners wrote software for their online snowboard store. The platform today powers more than 600,000 merchants, ranging from small businesses in Ireland to Fortune 500 companies engaging in e-commerce.

In the last two years, the company has grown from 50 to more than 150 employees in Ireland, and last year announced 100 new jobs across the country for people who wish to work from home.

What are some of the main responsibilities of your own role?

I run a very large product and design team across a couple of our office locations. I look after the team who create the core product and that’s where the business owners manage their products, their inventory and all of their information.

I am also the head of design for the group, and that means it is my responsibility to build products that actually solve problems for entrepreneurs, that we are the very best at doing that, and that we can get ahead of a lot of the problems we see and develop products that meet those needs.

We started as an online store provider 10 years ago but the company today really develops all sorts of products for entrepreneurs at different stages of their business. It allows them to sell in multiple different ways, not just online through a store but also through Facebook and Instagram. We were first to market with all of those third-party companies as they started facilitating commerce.

In terms of retail point of sale, we build our own card readers for hardware. On top of that, we also offer our own financial product, a capital product that funds businesses at early stages and gives them cash injections as they need it, and we also have our own payments platform.

We really have a huge range of different types of products, all aimed at removing barriers for entrepreneurs.

I am based in Canada and live between Vancouver and Ottawa, where the head office is, and I am partly remote myself. I spend a lot of time in the office but I certainly started out as a remote employee and that’s where the majority of our product teams are today.

I joined the product team around five-and-a-half years ago. I worked for Paddy Power in Dublin before I moved over to Canada. A typical Irish emigrant story, I went over with no job just to see what it would be like to work abroad for a couple of years. I came across Shopify within my first six months in Canada and just totally fell in love with the company and came in as the first researcher they had.

The team was very small at the time, fewer than 200, and they wanted to know more about how to bring the real struggles of entrepreneurs into the product development cycle so that we understand who we are building for and have that closer connection that is missing in a lot of companies.

There are lots of things happening in the retail and e-commerce space, with companies such as iZettle (acquired by PayPal), Square and Pointy coming up with innovations. Would it be fair to describe Shopify as a kind of operating system for e-commerce?

That’s a good way to look at it. There is a fundamental shift happening in retail at the moment where not only businesses but also all of the technology providers are fully realising there is no such thing as an offline or online shop – they are the same thing, just in different contexts.

For all of the businesses we are designing for, every business model is different and every business is unique.

But what they are all trying to do is develop a set of loyal customers and, for them, that means it is important they choose technology providers that give them that flexibility they need to try different angles on their business model.

Shopify’s Lynsey Thornton

Shopify’s Lynsey Thornton addressing Irish retailers in Dublin recently. Image: Shopify

UX is becoming the mantra of the business of technology. What do people need to understand about UX?

What’s commonly misunderstood about UX is that it is directly associated with usability testing or simply making a product easier to use. It is definitely a lot more than that.

It is very heavily aligned with product strategy and it is heavily linked in with the business.

It’s not really the aesthetics of a product specifically, but more around looking at what you are building in a holistic way. It is about developing and maintaining a close link with the problem you are trying to solve and the people that you are trying to solve it for as you go through the development process.

Instead of going off and locking yourself in a room for months and then launching a product – and people saying ‘What’s that?’ – we keep close ties with the people we are building for along the way and build products that solve problems people have.

Some of these products are going to solve very common everyday needs; some are looking at addressing problems that are still multiple years out, like VR or AR – so, we have a range of products.

But how they are experienced by the user, and making sure those projects and products are rooted in real-world problems that businesses are actually facing today and in the future, is a fundamental part of that role.

Shopify’s growth in Ireland has been staggering but at the same time unique because of the remote working model. Is this how the future of work will look?

Every business is unique. What we’ve certainly found is that this works better for some teams than others. Most of our product development teams colocate in offices but now we have five offices across Canada in different cities, so whether distributed across offices or fully remote, different teams are set up to do well in different ways.

We certainly found that customer support is one area we were able to design remote first. It was a very strategic decision, designed for the company where they purposely gave teams a lot of flexibility in who they can hire and the different growth paths they embark on.

That extends beyond our own company. We are seeing businesses come to the platform and start on the platform, similar to the types of people we bring on to our own teams; people who need an extra element of flexibility in their lives.

The way we work is changing and it is interesting to see it happening in how we hire people directly and how we support and encourage entrepreneurs to start their own businesses.

What are your thoughts on the future of mobile-based commerce, and how are retailers preparing for this?

We are watching this closely. It is already true today that more consumers purchase from Shopify stores on mobile phones than they do from desktops. That trend has already happened. We are well into that.

We could see this coming four years ago. We have been developing checkouts for mobile for many years now. We are trying to take a lot of that waste away from the entrepreneur.

One of the biggest barriers is to expect somebody who runs a small business to keep fully up to date on technology trends and marketing practices. Of course they need to know their own business, but part of the responsibility of the role we take as a platform is that we look after all of their infrastructure and scalability. We do a lot of the future technology thinking so they don’t have to.

Not only have we completely developed all of our themes to support mobile, we also have been going after third-party integrations that are mobile-led.

Instagram would be a good example of this, too. Our businesses for years have been seeing a lot of engagement and loyalty come from their Instagram posts. They are often jewellery makers, people who sell apparel – anybody that has any sort of a lifestyle brand gets a lot of love through Instagram.

We have made it possible for people to tag their products on Instagram and sell through it. All of those orders come back in through Shopify so they can manage them.

We are trying to do a lot of the heavy lifting on the mobile side and on the consumer trends side so that businesses can just set up and go and be confident they are getting ahead of all of these trends.

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John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years