Elizabeth McGuane is a UX director at Shopify and the author of Design by Definition, a book about the impact of language in user experience. As you might imagine, that’s a subject I’m keenly interested in, so I was excited to speak with Elizabeth about it.
- Elizabeth McGuane - LinkedIn
- Elizabeth McGuane – Medium
- Design by Definition by Elizabeth McGuane
- Eames chairs
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Jorge: Elizabeth, welcome to the show.
Elizabeth: Thanks for having me.
Jorge: I’m excited to have you. You recently published a book that I’m very excited to discuss.
About Elizabeth and Design by Definition
Jorge: But, for folks who don’t know you, how do you go about introducing yourself?
Elizabeth: Yeah. The book is called Design by Definition, which feels both a long time ago and like yesterday. It was a very packed year. I am a UX director and a content designer. I’ve been working in the industry since 2007. Prior to that, I worked in journalism and print journalism. And yeah, I work at Shopify.
And yeah, this book was basically the culmination of, I think, like fifteen years of thinking about content design and my job, and what it’s all about, and why I come to work every day. So yeah, those are some of the things that I tend to mention when I’m introducing myself.
Jorge: That’s great. I’m sure that with that intro, folks are now curious about what the book is about.
Jorge: It’s called Design by Definition, right?
Elizabeth: It’s called Design by Definition. The name was something I thought of early on.
Jorge: I wanna talk about the name, but yeah, tell us more.
Elizabeth: Yeah, I wanted to write a book… Let me actually preface that by saying I didn’t wanna write a book. I had actually resisted the idea of writing a book for a really long time. I think when you work in content or in language or words adjacent, a lot of people will be like, “Oh, of course you should write a book!” Because it’s just so easy. You go from writing tiny microcopy strings or articles and then write a book.
So I resisted the idea for a long time. There are a lot of great content design books already out there and have been for a long time, so I didn’t wanna just write something that felt like it was adding on to the thinking that had already been done. Although inevitably that’s what you’re doing. Like, there are no new ideas really. But yeah, the book came out of a talk.
I gave a talk at a conference in Toronto in 2019, and I believe I called it Design Through Definition because what I wanted to talk about in that talk was the matter of defining terms and defining concepts and how that drives design in certain directions, often in unexamined directions, because we tend to think of naming as an end point that we get to, as opposed to the thing that actually shapes the product or shapes the idea.
And of course, it does have a role in shaping things. So that’s really where it started and then it evolved from Design Through Definition to Design by Definition because it’s a little bit of a play on words. That I’m defining design, but I’m also talking about the process of definition as a design practice.
The Power of Words in Design
Jorge: At one point, you say, “Words are at the root of everything we design.” And that sentence stood out to me. Why focus on words?
Elizabeth: So, if I zoom out, especially as someone who has worked both inwardly as a practitioner, as a crafter, and then as a leader of people who come from lots of different backgrounds that are not word specialists, not language specialists, I think that words are a lens that you can find into design, just like other things are a lens that you can find into design.
But for me, they’re very powerful because they are the way that we shape and define the thing we’re making. You have to describe something to someone else before you can actually make a picture of it or do a schematic or a wireframe, or whatever it might be. You have to be able to describe the problem. You have to be able to describe the concept, the objects in the system. All of those things are… I mean, code is effectively language, and we’re seeing that even more now with AI, which I don’t want to get into right away. That, everything is reduced to language and reduced to how we describe things.
And when we talk about words, it’s not just the name existing on its own as an abstract, it’s also the way that we group things, the way that we categorize things. I think that categorization is this very powerful idea that doesn’t get examined very much because it’s something that exists in algorithms, something that exists.
It’s really the way that we experience the internet is through how we are categorized, how we are, what cohorts we sit within, how we are targeted. So all of those things have to do with language. All those things have to be named, they have to be organized through language. And so, to me, it is fundamental in a way that not other aspects of design aren’t fundamentals, but it’s certainly an area that is interesting to me because we tend to look at it as a finishing touch instead of as a foundational thing when to me it really is foundational.
Jorge: I think that this is where perhaps the ‘definition’ in the title comes in. The sense that I got was that — and I’m going to be reflecting things back at you…
Elizabeth: Please, yeah.
Jorge: …and trying to see if I got it right and then, if not, I think clarification would be helpful for folks. The way that I understood it is that when we are designing something… let me take a step back. I had a teacher when I was a young lad who said something that stuck with me. She said, “If you don’t say what you mean, you don’t mean what you say.” And the way that I understood the book was that it’s really important when we’re designing anything, a product — and I think it’s primarily aimed at product and perhaps even digital product design. Correct me if I’m wrong.
Elizabeth: Absolutely. That’s the space I’m coming from. So, that certainly is a big part of it.
Jorge: So when you’re designing something like that, like a website or an application or something like that, you have to really think about what it is that you’re making. Is that fair?
Elizabeth: Absolutely. Yeah. You have to think about what it is that you’re making, which seems so self-evident when you say it, but at the same time, my experience has been that the way that we use language, especially in corporations, is so convoluted and so confusing that often we don’t say what we mean and therefore we don’t mean what we say, and we get a lot of different interpretations of what we’re trying to make. And I think that the fact that I’m talking about digital products, yes, it’s because that’s my experience and it has been my experience for fifteen years.
So, when I lived in London particularly, I worked with a lot of user experience designers who came from an industrial design background whose training was in making physical products and they had a passion for physical products. And it was really inspiring to me, and I found them uniquely pragmatic and very good at defining what it was that they meant. Because I think if you are building a chair or designing a chair, eventually it’s going to be a chair and people will be able to point at it and say, “that’s what that is,” without having to say it’s a chair.
It’s self-evident, right? If you make something physical in the real world, there’s evidence that exists outside language for what it is. And certainly, you can design a really weird-looking chair that you might need to tell people it’s a chair, but certainly, that’s something that you don’t get in digital, in the digital world, whether you’re making a website or a digital product, it exists in numbers and in code and in images that sort of define what it should look like. But really, the language is what shapes it because if you can’t describe it, you certainly can’t make it real in a digital context because it’s so ephemeral.
And I think there are some interesting strands from that idea that I didn’t really deeply explore in the book. I’m really interested in the ways that visual patterns, particularly in digital products and in websites, have… what’s the right word? They’ve stultified a little bit. I think that there are eras of design where we tend to experiment a lot, and then there are eras when things become quite rigid and by design, we copy each other and we try to find conventions, and we’re designing for the user; the user doesn’t want everything to be completely novel all the time.
But what’s interesting to me is that part of that is, if I’m copying what someone else has done, I don’t have to necessarily define it very deeply. And the only danger of that is when we are copying the appearance of something without understanding all the thinking behind it, the meaning behind it. So I think there are just interesting things that happen in a digital context because it’s not “real,” it’s not physical, and so, it’s much more elastic by nature.
Jorge: The image of the chair is a valuable one because I think that even if we did not have words… so I’m going to say something without having expert knowledge in the field, but I would imagine that our distant ancestors, our pre-verbal hominid ancestors had the experience of sitting on things, right? So, there’s this notion that in designing digital artifacts of some sort, we are dealing with this degree of abstraction that is very unfamiliar to us as embodied beings, right?
Elizabeth: Yeah, I think that’s probably quite true. It’s not something I’m an expert in as well, as an anthropologist or a scientist in any way. But yes, I know that you can sit, even if you don’t know that it’s a chair, you can still sit on it. And humans sit on things that aren’t chairs all the time. So I think that’s a really interesting and funny way of looking at it. But yes, the world that we’re in, in a digital context, both has to be defined in order to make it, but also it exists through language, both at the code layer, but also the, we have labels on buttons, we have menus, we have lots of linguistic description. That’s part of the interface.
That’s the classic conception of content design or UX writing is that it’s the language within the interface that you’re moving within. So it, yeah, the language, and this was part of the complexity of writing the book is, words actually appear at all sorts of different zoom levels. Not just at that bottom layer, but all the way up.
Jorge: It’s concepts all the way down, right? And you’re divvying up the world in these conceptual distinctions that are… you use this image of zooming up and down, and that’s an image I often bring up. I often say that my work consists of zooming up and down levels of abstraction of some sort.
The Importance of Defining Concepts in Design
Jorge: And I certainly got the sense in the book that clarifying the meaning that you’re trying to convey with these distinctions seems to somehow be a central concern you’re exploring here.
Elizabeth: It is. I think it’s a central concern of mine, just the way my brain works, and it has been a central concern of my work for sure. And what’s interesting to me, and this is maybe part of the thing about a zoom level, maybe not—I’m not an expert in zoom lenses and cameras either—but what I find interesting is that, yes, you can move up and down between the layers, and you can say that it is really important to define things at each layer.
But what’s interesting to me is that each layer also has its own kind of relaxed and then focused version. I think there is a sense sometimes that there is one right way to define something at its foundational layer, that there is a correct first position that you should take. What’s interesting to me is that often, there are many different routes that you could take in that initial layer; there are many different definitions, and each one of those will then shape the layer above it.
So, if you start to say, “This concept is gonna be grouped in this category, like a chair is gonna be grouped with furniture and not tree stumps,” let’s say, right? Then that is gonna push us in a certain direction, in a more stylized direction and less organic direction. And so, what’s interesting then is if you go all the way up, if you’re making a website about chairs and you’re all the way up at the web page layer, and you’re now writing content, you also have the ability to make choices at that layer as well, because you can then make choices about style and expression or brevity or length, and all of those also give shape to not just the nature of the concepts, like “This is a chair,” but also “What kind of chair is it?” and “How do I want someone to feel about it?”
So what I really love is dialing into each layer and then figuring out what’s needed at each layer. For a long time, I thought of myself as a really technical content designer because I loved categorization and information architecture and systems and how we group and organize things and what that does to the system.
I loved that sort of bird’s-eye view of the whole problem and all of the objects in the system and thinking about, “There’s an action here and there’s an object over here, and how do they interrelate?” and I didn’t think of myself as a stylistic content designer because I love the act of writing and the process of writing, but to me, it was less interesting than those sort of thorny problems.
But now, the longer I’m in my career, the more I see that there is just as much complexity and just as much fine-tuning to be done at that expressive layer as there is at the lower layer. So, yeah, writing the book was a real process of self-discovery in that way—thinking about not just concepts, but how I have employed them and what’s interesting to me about them.
The Difference Between Content and Context
Jorge: This is something that I wanted to discuss with you because I don’t know if I got the sense from the book, but it’s certainly come up in this conversation that you’re coming at this from the lens of content design. And what you’re describing here…
First of all, you’re describing my world in some ways. Like, I’ve told people that I see my work as designing places made of language. I’m primarily an information architect, and I believe that when you structure information — when you create these distinctions that we’ve been talking about — you create particular types of contexts in people’s minds that change their understanding of the words.
And a distinction in my mind is a distinction between the content that is published in the system versus the structures in which that content is experienced. And I think that the sort of definitions that you are talking about apply at both levels. Now, the question there is, whose responsibility is this? Who, where, and how do these conversations happen in the org? Because it’s so abstract and so meta in some ways.
Elizabeth: It’s true. I will say, I hope I’m interpreting what you said. I’m glad if content design was not at the forefront when you were reading the book, because that was by design, that was by intention. I didn’t want to write a book only for content designers because what I have realized is that everybody — and I would say yes, definitely information architects and content designers, maybe especially — but I have said this a few times in talking about the book, but one of the reasons I decided that I should write it is that when I gave that talk in Toronto, the person who came up to me afterwards and was like, this was revelatory for me and this defined a problem that I’ve been trying to grapple with. Then something that is part of my practice that I don’t have a name for, it was in motion designer. So someone that I would think of as like very far away on the spectrum of design for me. Yet all designers, this is to me like the big house of design, right? This is the big house of chairs, tree stumps and Eames chairs are both existing within it. They’re all places to sit. And to me, that’s the big house of design, right? We are all actually trying to grapple with these problems.
So if this is truly fundamental, then it is everyone’s problem, at least at the conceptual level, to say, “Are we really clear about what we’re doing? Have we really thought deeply about the language that we’re using to express this idea and can we go back and forth between the visual and the linguistic to get to a tighter definition?” I don’t think it’s about resisting the visual exploration. I think it’s about understanding that the visual and the linguistic are in conversation with each other. And when I say linguistic, it could be not necessarily just prose definitions or glossaries. It could be more at information architecture-style deliverables. So the question of who is responsible is really important.
However, and especially in the current climate of design, I think one of the reasons that I adopted the term “content strategist” back in 2009, and then “content designer” later, to me was much more about the community of practice than it was about this being exactly the right term, because I think there is no harder thing to define than these like thin slices of design specialism that we tend to come up with and they all have their role and purpose at the time, usually to do with getting people with certain abilities into the room so they can do some good work. That’s what it’s all about.
But right now when design teams are being, I would say decimated, at least in the dictionary definition of that word, reduced in size and in power. I think that’s a good time for us to share responsibility for these things rather than say, “This is your job or my job.” And maybe I’m wrong about that, but certainly that’s how I feel and that’s probably driven by my own journey, which has been from specialism to generalism and especially when you’re leading people from multiple backgrounds and that could be research, visual design, motion design, content design, and then classic product design. I don’t know what classic is anymore.
I see a lot more similarities than I do differences in the people that I work with, both in the things that they worry about with their jobs, the things that they want to have happen, but also their abilities. I often find that people have more ability in one area or another than they expect. Our world tries to put us into little neat boxes and I’ve met lots of product designers who are very good at the linguistic side of things, but it’s just not something that they feel is a strength of theirs.
Jorge: I’m going to reflect back the distinction I’m hearing from you, this distinction between style and what you’re calling more linguistic… you’ve used the word “linguistic” a couple of times. In my mind it’s more like the kind of conceptual agreement, somehow… the fact that we’ve landed on “What is this, what does it mean?” I think that kind of conceptual agreement comes before, or it should inform stylistic decisions, as opposed to the opposite. I guess that a design could be led from some kind of stylistic position first, but I would think that’s a recipe for confusion. I don’t know.
Elizabeth: I think you’re generally right. I think in practice, what tends to happen is that if we run ahead of ourselves and we move toward — I mean, it depends on what we mean by style, right? — so we define our terms all the way along, but if we run towards the visual too early, we’ll do some things like we’ll end up just copying other people’s ideas without closely examining them, and we’ll maybe never come back to the roots here. And I say this in the book, I’ve seen this so many times where we’re at the point of go to market, and we don’t know what it is we’ve made. Like, we don’t have a way to define it. And that to me is a classic example of that happening.
However, when I try to take things out of the corporate realm, which is complicated by human communication and all the complexities involved in just getting lots of people who aren’t even designers to agree on what it is you’re doing. And I think about the classic example again of the chair, stylistic choices in design I think at their root they have an inherent meaning within them, like they come from certain sort of trends or phases in design all come from… they’re all conceptual. They all come from something, some idea that someone had to deconstruct a certain way of expressing something. They’re all high concept. That’s what design is by nature.
And I think a very smart and capable and self-sufficient designer who was not maybe held back by corporate requirements and the need to communicate with lots of cross-functional teams could very easily start out with something that is an expressive idea and then move backward and say, “Okay, what is it that I’m trying to convey with this idea?” but they would have to have the power to stop themselves and do that thinking, and this is where it might get closer to more like an artistic practice where you might be sketching and knowing that you’re not going to hold yourself to those ideas and that they are a way of moving closer to an idea.
And like this is very much a beautiful reality that I don’t think exists in the workplace very often, but I don’t think it’s necessarily impossible in design to move back and forth in that way. I should say, I have a bias. Both my parents are visual artists or painters. And so, I’ve grown up my whole life watching people do this, like taking notes. And I will say that my mother’s a painter and she takes copious notes in words. And I have many memories of her like shouting into me like, “How do you spell this?” She’s a terrible speller. And then, taking lots of notes about, it might be box fugues. And then she’s like, “I’m going to do something about pattern and I want to think about the fugues, and I want to think about how that relates to patterns.” So there’ll always be a conceptual relationship between the visual and the…
And so, I think those things are honestly just super interesting, that’s just how the creative mind works. So yeah, I agree with you a hundred percent in the workplace. I think that there is a reality where designers have that ability to be much more fluid. And wouldn’t it be wonderful if the workplace enabled that? What kinds of work could we do if we were a little less tied to consensus?
Who is Responsible for Conceptual Definition?
Jorge: The reason I ask the question about who is responsible for this is because even though I think that both can be quite subjective — both the stylistic and conceptual approaches… the discussions around what the thing should be and what the thing should look like can be equally subjective to some degree — I think that the “What does the thing want to be?” conversation… I can’t generalize, but I’ll say it tends to be more strategic, right? In some ways, you end up in these conversations that are kind of existential. It’s “Who are we? What are we in the world?”
I have this long-running joke with clients that I say that a lot of our organizations need chief ontology officers. Like, the person who is calling the shots for “Okay, what is an account in our world? What do we call our users?” Because user is a generic term. Are we dealing with patients? Are we dealing with artists? Are we dealing with homemakers? And what you call those users will influence how you think about the experience you’re designing.
Elizabeth: A hundred percent. And I talk about this in the book a little bit. When I joined Intercom, which was the first product company I worked at, that was the ask. That’s what they asked me to do, to help them with. They called it naming, but it really was an ontology problem. They were thinking about what they called their users, what they called all of the types of messages that they had in their system. It’s a support, not primary, just a support product, but certainly that was its first use case.
And at the time, they called their users ‘admins’ and I was like, “This is a very technical term for a group of people that we’re designing for.” And what I found when I did research was that the lexicon and the words that I heard people use organically, especially in sales and support teams, who were the ones who were talking directly to customers, to users, to admins, didn’t use that word very often, right? So, they were teams and teammates were things that they talked about, because this is what they’re designing for. They’re not just designing for one individual support person, they’re designing for a team and support people working together. So that, to me, was a really powerful concept for us to build on, and I believe that’s one that they still use today.
Jorge: That story about whether we call our users, admins or what have you, that sounds like the classic, “We’re designing for ourselves.” And then, the breakthrough of, “Hey, let’s do some research. Let’s get out there in the world and see what mental models the people who will be interacting with our systems actually bring to the experience, and let’s reflect that back to them,” right?
Elizabeth: Exactly, yes. And there were some other folks that I spoke to when I did research for the book itself that had been through similar experiences. What I find really interesting is when people have done a lot of thought about how they want to reflect a certain idea back to their audience, and then their audience is like, “No, I don’t see myself in that mirror; that isn’t me, that isn’t who I am.”
And there were a few different examples that I have as case studies in the book where people pivoted, they changed whether it was the name of their users or a subset of a certain type of user group or the name of a product itself, where people’s expectations based on the word alone were very much off, or even twenty degrees off what the product team thought they were pointing towards. And it’s not that they had come up with a name in a lazy way. They had done it with a lot of intention, but it wasn’t what the audience was hearing.
And what’s really powerful — and this kind of brings us to what we haven’t talked about a lot yet — is the user. Which is the other side of communication is the person being communicated to. And communication lives or dies by how well it’s understood. Ultimately, that’s what you’re trying to do when you’re defining a concept: trying to match your ontology, your grouping mechanisms, your naming itself, in the way that you express those ideas with that audience, right?
That’s what all of our interfaces are, is that form of communication. And yet, it’s so easy for us to lose sight of that. And sometimes people feel that we should use conventional terms because that’s what people will be comfortable with. And sometimes that is true, right? Like, a term that’s an industry standard, even if that industry standard term is confusing or arcane or very specific.
I found this a lot working on developer products. Developers have their own sets of nomenclature for things, and what was interesting to me was, even for something as fundamental as the developer experience or development experience. You might think of it as a sandbox for someone to work within lots of people, lots of developers that we spoke to had very different concepts of what does that actually contain? What is the technical reality of that concept of a sandbox? And even these habitual terms have a lot of different takes, a lot of different mental models surrounding them.
Everyday Language and System Language
Jorge: In the book, you make a distinction between everyday language and system language. Can you speak to that? Because it helped me clarify this understanding of what it is that users know versus what we want them to know. Is that a fair read on that?
Elizabeth: Absolutely. Yeah. Those terms came from a colleague of mine at Shopify, Quentin. And I really loved it as well. I just lifted it wholesale. He had this idea of ‘everyday language’ and ‘system language.’ I really feel that system language is what I thought of as the conceptual model, which is the agreed-upon set of terms that we’re using to define a problem set, an area. And this would be maybe what you were saying earlier, the containers that the language sits within, that the experience sits within. These are the kind of container sets.
And then, everyday language can be somewhat fluid beyond that, and that inflects to meet the audience where they are. Because you do need, again, coming back to this idea of the digital reality is very ephemeral, you need a certain kind of grounding and consistency. If you’re gonna call an ‘article’ product, you’re gonna call it an ‘article.’ You’re not gonna call it a ‘page’ in another part of the product. You need sort of a system reality, otherwise, the whole thing starts to fall apart and feel quite different.
Jorge: Would it be fair to summarize the book as a call for designing system language in a way that is understandable and thoughtful and intentional? I think that’s a word that kinda sticks in my mind.
Elizabeth: I think that’s a fair read and I think a really nice way of looking at it. And what’s interesting for me, creatively, is that if you can do those things, if you can design these sort of conceptual realities with intention, you can then free yourself up to do a lot of kind of creative expression around those conventions that you create. But when you don’t design with intention, you just have a lot of muddle and it can be very hard to know when to break with certain linguistic patterns.
We experienced this at Shopify a little bit. We have quite a verbose user interface; it’s a complex system. There are a lot of different moving parts in it. Often there’s a lot of description. If you’re describing to someone how to set up their taxes on the Shopify backend. Those are complex, meaningful, and it’s important to get it right. You need to say things in a certain way and you need to say them clearly.
Certainly, we always have a drive to make the product as lean as it can be. And so, if you have really clear system language and you have really clear conventions that you’ve explored and examined, you would then, I think, free yourself up from having to… What I think of as explain the interface to someone, right? You want the interface to be as intuitive as possible. You actually want to be able to remove language from it if you can, because the conventions, the conceptual conventions are so clear.
And ideally, you can even sometimes express those conceptual conventions with shapes and color and not just words. If they are really clear and really baked in. And that gives you a lot more freedom. Because none of us want walls of text, right? That’s not the goal. The goal is conceptual clarity. I just say this over and over again to my teams: don’t explain the interface to me. The interface should be what’s doing the explaining. And then use the language in the interface as a way of guiding and supporting somebody through that experience.
Jorge: You used the phrase “The goal is conceptual clarity.” And I think I’m going to use that as the pull quote for this episode because that articulates it, right? It’s the North Star here. And I think your book does a good job of explaining the issues around it.
Jorge: Where can folks follow up with you to learn more?
Elizabeth: Yeah. I am currently not on Threads, not on X, or any social media. But you can find me on Medium. I post sort of semi-regularly there. And obviously, the book is available both on the A Book Apart website. But more recently, they have started selling via other providers as well, but particularly because they want to be more available to folks in Europe. So you can find it through booksellers in Europe as well. And I think you can even go into your local bookstore and ask them to order it and then they can get it in directly. Yeah, the book’s available through lots of different means now, which is awesome.
Jorge: And again, it’s Design by Definition, folks, so if you’re going to Google it, that’s what you Google for.
Elizabeth: That’s what you Google for, yeah. And a nice green cover.
Jorge: Right. Elizabeth, thank you so much for sharing it with us.
Elizabeth: Thank you so much. It was a pleasure.