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5 content design lessons I used to train my pandemic puppy

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A goldendoodle puppy sitting on a white armchair, looking straight ahead.
Goldendoodle puppy, Bonzo.

Some quick tips for better content (and a better-behaved puppy, too)

Like so many others, I got a puppy last year. I was working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic, and one Sunday in November my partner and I learned a local puppy needed a home.

Shopify had decided to make remote-working permanent (and I couldn’t fill my spare time with baking because flour was sold out everywhere). It was the ideal time for us to adopt this goldendoodle puppy. So we brought home Bonzo.

Like anyone who brings home a puppy for the first time, I quickly realized just how much work a new puppy is. But, I didn’t expect to see so many parallels between training a puppy and my job designing content for users.

Not sure how they relate? Let me explain through 5 puppy-training content design lessons.

Goldendoodle puppy with head resting on a desk next to a computer screen.
An overhead image of a goldendoodle puppy with heading resting on a desk next to a keyboard.

#1 Encourage action

Match the words you use to the behavior you want.

Consider two situations. First, my puppy is jumping up at me. It’s cute when he’s little, but it certainly won’t be endearing when he’s a 70 to 90-pound dog. I can tell him “no”, but that doesn’t really help him know what he should do. Instead, it’s best to tell him what I want him to do, which is get “off”.

Now, let’s consider a user trying to submit a form with a missing field. The user won’t be able to submit the form until the missing field is complete. So, we can either provide an “error” message and leave them to guess what to do next. Or, we can encourage action and tell them what to do instead: “Enter a title”.

In both situations, the best experience happens when the puppy and the user know exactly what action to take rather than being left to guess.

A flow diagram showing two situations of a puppy jumping on me and a user trying to submit a form with a missing field. The diagram shows the words used and the subsequent result: the puppy/user doesn’t know what to do, or the puppy/user understands how to take action.

#2 Use plain language

Simple words are better.

It’s said that dogs have the intelligence of a two-year-old human, and can learn and understand up to 250 words. While this is impressive, those 250 words need to be carefully selected because that’s all they’ve got.

A goldendoodle puppy with a necktie, sitting on a grey sofa, looking straight ahead with a tilted head.

It’s also said that users only read about 20% of the words on a screen. That’s also not a lot of words. With this in mind, language for both puppies and users needs to be simple and clear, and considered; we need to communicate concepts as efficiently as possible.

As much as I’d love my puppy to understand the nuance of exactly what I mean when I call him a “sweet, angel, baby unicorn”, he’s much more likely to understand a simple “good boy”.

A flow diagram showing the different results of using simple language instead of inefficient language.

#3 Be aware of ambiguity

Get clear on when to use what word.

I remember freaking out at my partner when he saw Bonzo jumping on the kitchen counter and said, “down”, instead of “off”. It’s similar to the way I can’t help but gently correct mock-ups when they use “save” instead of “done”.

A goldendoodle puppy sitting on a grey sofa with a raised paw, giving a ‘high five’.

Similar words for different situations are tricky. Whether you’re training a puppy or writing content, getting clear on when to use what word is so important. Mixing different words for the same situation is guaranteed to confuse our puppies and users, and they may even begin to question our authority.

A flow diagram showing the different results, comparing using the words ‘off’ and ‘down’, and ‘save’ versus ‘done’.

#4 Be consistent

Things are easier when they’re familiar.

Of course, consistency is important with a specific experience, like between the words I use with Bonzo, or, like Shopify and the words we use with merchants.

But the power of consistency scales beyond that. I don’t want Bonzo to only listen to me and my unique words. I want it to be easy for him to understand what new people tell him to do. So, I use words that are consistently used with dogs, too.

The same is true for users. Yes, we want their experience on Shopify to be exceptional, but we also want it to be easy. Usually, something is easy because it’s familiar and draws on existing mental models and experiences. These consistent, known experiences and words help our audience, whether puppy or user, to understand the key concepts and actions they can take.

A diagram showing the commonly used words for dogs and users, such as sit and stay, or log in and save. A quote from Polaris reads: To help your audience understand key concepts and actions they can take, use consistent nouns and verbs wherever possible.

#5 Find the simplest way to communicate

Words aren’t always necessary.

Words absolutely matter. Period. But, sometimes words aren’t necessary to get a message across. Sometimes icons create a much simpler experience than a string of words, and they still get the message across. And, sometimes, it’s easier to remodel your entire living room than it is to spend all day repeating “leave it” when a puppy is chewing your area rug/pillows/curtains.

Sometimes it’s simpler to say it without words.

A goldendoodle puppy lying asleep on a grey sofa.
A goldendoodle puppy lying on an armchair, looking straight ahead with a grey sofa in the background.

I’d love to hear about any unexpected content lessons you’ve learned or reinforced. (Or, just send us a photo of your dog. I’d love that, too.)


5 content design lessons I used to train my pandemic puppy was originally published in Shopify UX on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.