Out of The Sandbox's Sean Campbell joins us to discuss all things theme related.
Out of The Sandbox's Sean Campbell joins us to discuss all things theme related:
Sean is a Shopify Theme project manager with 6+ years of experience helping agencies, partners, and merchants navigate the Shopify ecosystem. With a focus on Out of the Sandbox Themes, Sean possesses in-depth knowledge and experience from the perspective of shoppers, merchants, theme developers, and agencies.
The Unofficial Shopify Podcast
Kurt Elster: Today on The Unofficial Shopify Podcast, we are talking themes, themes, themes. When do you update your theme? When do you switch your theme? How do you know what’s best for your business? What are the ins and outs of themes on Shopify? Because this, probably more than any other choice with your online store, is the thing that merchants lose sleep at night over. That and those darned page speed scores. But to talk to me about it is Mr. Sean Campbell, project manager from Out of the Sandbox, a phenomenal and experienced Shopify theme developer. Mr. Campbell, thank you for joining us.
Sean Campbell: Kurt, thanks for having me on the show and for those kind words.
Kurt Elster: Let’s open with an icebreaker. Which theme is your baby?
Sean Campbell: But now you’ve really run me through the gears here. They’re all my babies, so it’s a tough one, but I’ll tell you this. I grew up on support, and when I was on support for Out of the Sandbox, Retina was the latest and greatest theme. It had just won a design award, and when I close my eyes and I picture an online store, I see Retina in my mind’s eye. I think that it is the classic, best practice, eCommerce-style shop. Now, eCommerce has changed since Retina has come out. In that time, Turbo has become exceedingly popular, and as far as functionality goes, I can’t say one bad thing about Turbo. It is just always staying a step ahead. I can’t go online shopping without seeing Turbo or Turbo styles wherever I have to go.
Kurt Elster: That’s what’s so amazing about Turbo, is A, like you go, you shop online, you quickly learn to recognize Shopify stores, and then you start recognizing Turbo. And what’s funny about it is this year, maybe like end of last year, I’ve started noticing. I’ll go, “Oh, this is Shopify in Turbo.” And then I’ll hit view source and it’s not even Shopify. It’s like a completely different platform with a theme that looks suspiciously like Turbo, and so, like the success of stores running Turbo has inspired not just… Well, has inspired merchants and developers on other platforms. That’s wild. Like you’re literally setting standards for the default best practice layout. Do you know how crazy that is? Like, think about, that’s your impact.
Sean Campbell: The standard-setting aspect is probably the biggest compliment that we can take with us in the sense that not only are we looking to offer best practices, but we’re also setting best practices by just how popular these themes become, and that the user experience is correct. It’s the right thing for online shopping. It is not necessarily specific to the product and that’s why these things stick. And whether, you’re right, whether it’s on another platform entirely, or whether I go to check out a theme, I’m sure it’s Turbo, but somebody has customized it to the degree where they’ve even take out all of the little hints that there were Turbo style sheets in there or whatever it happened to be, even when people are presenting a Turbo theme, some of them are looking to make it look like their own and we’re happy for it.
But with all of that, like we say, we recognize that Turbo header. It has become ubiquitous and that is almost the impetus for our most recent them. Flex just celebrated its one year birthday on August 7th, and it was all about presenting online stores, where you had no idea what theme it was. We put Flex themes beside each other, and they have no similarities to each other, so that was trying to in a sense give a solution for how common we see the Turbo header, so we’re happy to see were Flex goes next.
So, as far as picking my favorite, it is… I grew up on Retina. I cut my teeth on Turbo. And I can’t wait to see what Flex does next, so those would be my top three babies.
Kurt Elster: Yeah, for sure. You’re right about Retina really… I think Retina and winning that design award, and I believe it was… It was Whipping Post. Wasn’t that the merchant store that was running it?
Sean Campbell: That’s correct. Yeah, so the theme in a sense built off of Whipping Post, so it was Brad Miller working on it at the time, and he was creating the Shopify site for Whipping Post, while also creating the Retina theme, so a really ingenious way to create a theme when you have an actual storefront that you’re creating it for.
Kurt Elster: Oh, absolutely. Because you’re not just designing like with placeholders and everything just happens to work and fit right. You need to be designing around the messiness of real content, right? That makes… It makes the themes more robust. But for sure, it’s funny you mentioned that, because that’s when… Retina and Whipping Post, and then Parallax, that was the time period where I figured out like, “Oh, not all themes are made alike.” And certainly, some theme developers and themes are better than others, and it was setting up Parallax and Retina several times, and then going to other themes, and then God help me, like a ThemeForest theme. Oh! Where I went, “Uh…”
Eventually we literally said, “Okay, no.” We’re like, “We literally will not work on a theme that is not from a competent developer.”
Sean Campbell: Well, we appreciate that, and I’ll say that those products, Retina and Parallax, they are from the size of the company that Out of the Sandbox was at the time staying crappy and staying extremely nimble and responsive to support requests. We would be receiving any types of requests as far as functionality, as far as appearance, and we were very quick to be able to act on those things and make those themes into what merchants were shouting out for. And so, to have those sort of slotted into those needs really helped with their popularity.
Then, like you say, for specific developers and agencies to continually turn to the same theme whenever they’re looking to offer a solution for their client, it just gives that agency and that developer that much more familiarity with how that theme is built. And will give them that much more prowess for customizing it and for accomplishing their clients’ vision, as well.
Kurt Elster: Absolutely. Well, you’re speaking to the workflow we figured out through trial and error, right? Because eCommerce just is not that old and Shopify is not that old, so trying to figure out… So, like a lot of us are learning as we go. I don’t think anyone is truly an expert in eCommerce as a result, but no, we were in that original position where it was like, “Use whatever theme, or custom build a theme for scratch.” And it did not take long before we got to a point where we used Turbo, knew Turbo, and understood like, “All right, this has the most configurability, flexibility, options, templates, so let’s just… If we’re gonna build a custom theme, let’s just build custom templates on top of that.”
And then we retain… If there’s something we didn’t design for, then we retain all of that pre-built work inside Turbo. Just speaking to our development work.
Sean Campbell: Absolutely. The economy of using the same theme from an agency’s perspective, they impact numerous parts of that process. Whether you’re providing a design for that client… Well, a design doesn’t involve static mockups anymore. You can go ahead, configure some Turbo settings, and take a screenshot, and you’re already ready to get an approval on your design, and whenever you’re going to add some special functionality, you’re not in a sense reinventing the wheel from scratch. You’re not remaking your own framework. You’re just figuring out a way to slot this functionality into an existing platform. And the more times you do that, the easier that it will be for your subsequent clients. So, I’d love to talk to agencies all day long. I think that Turbo, Flex, these are products that have been widespread by all types of merchants, but we see so much traction with agencies using them and reusing them.
Kurt Elster: When did Turbo come out?
Sean Campbell: Turbo, I think we were in ’16. I think it was 2016. It was before Sections proper, what we see now as Sections.
Kurt Elster: Right.
Sean Campbell: So, it was indeed redeveloped for the Sections platform, which involved sort of reconfiguring your homepage, but that’s… Yeah, as those paradigm shifts happen with Shopify, we keep all of our themes up to date to leverage them as best as possible. And I think that Turbo did an amazing job with those .details templates.
Kurt Elster: Oh, .details. That was the thing where I went, “Whoa!”
Sean Campbell: Can talk all days about .details, so don’t get me started.
Kurt Elster: Well, actually… For someone who’s not familiar, has not yet tried it because the idea of setting up a theme is hard enough, and then if you’re new to it, starting to work into alternate page, product, collection, whatever templates can be intimidating. Give me the overview when you say, “Oh yeah, and that .details template was like a silver bullet.” Tell me about .details for someone who’s not familiar.
Sean Campbell: I’d love to. And this is topical in varying amounts right now because of the… We all know the upcoming changes to the Shopify editor. It’s that these changes, we’re not exactly sure when they’re gonna land. We don’t know exactly how they’re gonna look. And they’re looking to solve some problems that have been around on the platform for a little while, and a problem that we’ve been looking to address for-
Kurt Elster: Are you referencing Sections Everywhere?
Sean Campbell: I am. Yeah. Or the new online store design experience, NOSDE. I’ve also heard it referred to as new online store editor, NOSE. I quite like NOSE. So, exactly, that we do have this paradigm shifting editor in the pipeline. Exactly when it’s gonna come out, we just heard in the town hall last week that it’s sort of back in the oven right now, but we’re of course keeping our ears on the ground for when that will happen. But-
Kurt Elster: So, my next question after .details was going to be about Sections Everywhere, and you brought it up, and I had just… I had heard the news from the town hall. Tell me, like what’s the dream here with this new online store design experience, NOSDE? That’s great. And Sections Everywhere, and the difficulty in wrangling everyone working on it, it sounds like.
Sean Campbell: I don’t have a ton of insight to what’s happening at Shopify in regards to the development. It has been something we’ve been working on in tandem with Shopify for over a year now, like it was announced at Unite that was actually in real life in 2019. And what we understand, I think what everybody on the platform understands is that merchants want more robust pages. They want pages to be a little bit more unique. If we take a look at a product page right now, we’ve got a description field. One place that you can put unique content and information. People want more. They want more than just one box that they can describe their product and they want to be able to describe different products in different ways.
They want to be able to make blog posts that are more than just a block of text. They want to make a page that is more than a block of text. They want to take the flexibility that they have on the homepage to be able to order and configure various types of sections on any page on the online store. Right now, those features, that customization, is only possible on the homepage. Internal pages have their own sets of settings, but not quite that same robustness of being able to move these sections around.
So, that is I’d say the high level vision. Let’s bring that capability that capability that we have on the homepage to every page on the shop. But let’s also bring it to every product on the shop, and every blog post on the shop. And when we start to talk about actually having unique page configurations for each product and for each blog post, we’re talking about something that Shopify hasn’t supported in the past.
We’re talking about sort of major changes to not just how we configure the appearance of the store, but of how those products even build into that appearance. So, it’s… I don’t envy the task that Shopify has by any means, and I can understand how it could go in various directions, and to get that in one solid direction that everybody all the way up the chain is happy with could be an ongoing challenge. So, for now, what we know is that it is being investigated, that they’re taking a deep look at what that next iteration will be. We don’t have the developer previews to work on them anymore as they continue to work on it behind the scenes.
Kurt Elster: So, the dream of Sections Everywhere is Shopify… The way it was described at the last two, Unite and Reunite, it sounds like they entirely separate style and substance, which in web development is ideal, because it makes it way easier to upgrade themes and change themes, and so it sounded like all your content lives in its own area as part of the theme or page editor, and then just as you have sections on your homepage or individual template, those get a lot more powerful where you can mix and match them, and drop them into blog templates, et cetera.
It’s like it’s the dream of this kind of… This drag and drop, fancy, much easier editor for merchants and web designers for rapid prototyping. So, it’s pretty exciting, and I can see where this… It would be absolutely maddening to try and develop that on this working platform because you’re fundamentally changing your content management system to build it, and you’re also then affecting all these partners, so certainly… Shopify gets criticism for long feature development times, but they don’t release things that are broken, right?
They don’t release… They’re not gonna release a half-baked product, so while I’m… Like everybody else, I’m desperate for Sections Everywhere. I’m also willing to wait for them to get it right and accept that they know far better than I do when it’s right.
Sean Campbell: Well, that’s a good take on it, and you’re totally spot on. That content portability component is not going to just make updating your theme from one version to another that much easier, but also switching themes. You can go from one theme to another and let’s say the banner headline that you’ve got in your hero image, previously that would be stuck within the settings of your particular theme. Well, that’s something that would port to another theme.
So, if you had a banner image in another theme, it could be a completely different style, but that same headline is going to be able to carry over from one to the other, which will be a nice feature to have natively.
Kurt Elster: No, absolutely. All right, so now, since we don’t get Sections Everywhere right now, and we don’t know when it’s coming, my next best option is messing with .details templates. Tell me what that is.
Sean Campbell: You got it. So, that same headline of let’s take homepage sections and make them available on internal pages is the same headline for the .details templates. To be a little bit more specific, they’re not technically sections, but something called content blocks, and what we’ve done is we’ve looked to replicate all of the homepage sections that we have, whether it’s a banner image, image with text, testimonial section, featured product, there’s a whole list, have all of those available on internal pages. Whether that’s your about us page, where you want to have all of these various fancy graphics, various images, various pockets of text, or whether it’s a product page where you can have a far more robust product description, it can even include other products for sale of your selection within that layer, whether it’s with the related products or another featured product within that product page layout. So, just a way of hacking that template to be able to add various customizable blocks, and these blocks can be sort of moved around. Drag and drop is a way of saying it. We’re really just configuring the order that they appear on the page and then each of those blocks have their own settings where you can go in and configure those to make your product page or about us page look sort of as fancy, and as long, and as full as your homepage may happen to be.
So, it’s a great option in the interim. It’s been the only way to create pages like that since the sections roll out, before Sections Everywhere comes out, so we are very happy to provide that in all of our themes, and looking to keep making those .details templates better until they are obsolete and we can do it natively on the platform. Which is our story. That is what we look for. We look for those opportunities, where those problems are. We figure out what the hack is, what the solution is for now, for merchants on Shopify. They sing our praises and then within a few years, it will get rolled into the platform natively, hopefully a little bit better than the way that we’ve done it, but until then we’re happy to provide these solutions.
Kurt Elster: Well, really, I mean those alternate page templates, you made it sound like a janky hack. It’s really not. It works really well. The only limitation to it is whatever content you apply in that template lives in the template. So, if I apply .details to five different pages, they will all get the exact same content. But there’s an easy workaround if you are the tiniest bit comfortable messing with theme code. You can duplicate and rename the template, and then you can get unique .details templates going.
Sean Campbell: You got it, Kurt. I almost stopped short of providing the duplication instructions just to keep the entire audience in mind, but you are right. Not only is it… It’s fairly easy with those few steps. We have great documentation on how to duplicate these templates so that you can have multiple robust pages, you can have multiple products with unique, robust extra information below the regular product layout, and you’re right, Kurt. It’s far from a hack. Our developers are great at this.
Compared to Sections Everywhere, we’ll say that it’s not a native way of creating robust pages. It is indeed unique to the themes.
Kurt Elster: Oh, absolutely. And I will actually… I’ll include a link to the help doc about using that page.details template, because if you’re not, it’s just a really easy way to, especially an about page is probably the most common use, it’s just a really easy way to upgrade that thing.
Sean Campbell: You got it. I have a disclaimer on that to do 10. If you’re going over 10 custom, I don’t know. I think you could probably do quite a few more, but I-
Kurt Elster: I’ve seen that in the help doc. What’s the limitation?
Sean Campbell: So, what happens is once you have enough of these unique templates, all of their configurations are kept in one file. It’s the settings_data.json file. Well, each one of these is gonna add data to that file, and eventually that file will become too big for the editor to read, and the Shopify editor will hang when you try to open up a shop that has too many unique templates that all have specific settings also baked into them or applied to them. So, whenever we see people go over that number of pages, we start to suggest that they look for a metafield related solution. So, to reach out to a developer and look for a way that you can get whatever your custom template is that is gonna have all of this unique information per product, or per page, that might involve a slightly more robust solution with a different way of configuring those settings, and that would be through metafields.
That’s the way that you would have done this before the .details templates, and the .details templates eventually caused this limitation with the file size, so that’s why we’ve got that little disclaimer on there for you.
Kurt Elster: No, I’d always wondered that, and I didn’t know, and I had yet to ever slam into the limitations. We’ve definitely done-
Sean Campbell: I just don’t want you to get to 25 and then have to rewind. That’s why.
Kurt Elster: I don’t know that we’ve gotten to 25. We’ve definitely exceeded the 10 in a custom Turbo build and it didn’t break, but we don’t know how far we can go with that thing.
Sean Campbell: Likewise, and that’s why we want to play with that limit a little bit until… I did have someone with 10 that were very big pages that eventually hung the editor, so I guess that’s where that benchmark came from.
Kurt Elster: Let’s see. We covered .details. So, one of the interesting things about Out of the Sandbox is you get a Theme Updater App that lets you update, register, and then update any of the Out of the Sandbox themes. Tell me about that thing for people who aren’t familiar.
Sean Campbell: Absolutely, so that’s my project right now. I’m the product manager for the Theme Updater App, so that is my bread and butter. What the Theme Updater App does, it takes a lot of these challenges that we’ve talking about already as far as content portability, reconfiguring your settings whenever you’re updating your theme. It addresses a lot of these for you, so what I like to say is the Theme Updater App takes the updating experience, theme updating on Shopify, which is not a good experience. I will describe it for you right now.
If you’re looking to update a theme on Shopify, you need to get the new version of the theme, which is free. You either get it from the theme store where you bought it originally, or you get it from your theme provider. Then you install that default theme and you, in a sense you’ve now completed the update. Unfortunately, your shop doesn’t look anything like your previous shop does and it’s totally unconfigured. You need to-
Kurt Elster: You start over.
Sean Campbell: You start over. You start from “scratch” whenever you go to update your theme, and that means to go from version 1.1.2 to 1.1.3, you are starting over from scratch and that is a problem. That is a problem that merchants on the Shopify platform have been expressing for years and years. We want to improve our themes. We want our themes to obviously get better. We want to address bugs as they may emerge. We want to add new features. We want to add new settings. And we want you to have those, but to do that, we don’t want the message to be, “Here, you can have all of this stuff if you start over.” So, that’s where we needed to come up with a solution for updating.
So, what the Theme Updater App does is it takes these steps of the updating process and it makes them automatic. So, with the Theme Updater App installed, you can press a button to acquire the most recent version of your theme. It will install on your Shopify store. Then the app will take a look at all of your past setting configurations. It will take all those configurations and copy them over to the appropriate settings in the new version, so you don’t need to reconfigure any of your settings. If we’re talking about somebody that’s using a theme with very, very few customizations or no customizations, potentially no app installations, they’re just sort of selling ad hoc, that is a solution that can keep you updated in perpetuity. You have nothing else to worry about if your settings are being mapped onto the new version and the new versions are consistently available.
Kurt Elster: Now, let’s say I’ve got some customizations and 40 apps installed.
Sean Campbell: Absolutely.
Kurt Elster: What happens when I run this theme updater, Sean?
Sean Campbell: So, the app will go that extra step of detecting those customizations, so it will compare your theme, the code of your theme, to the default of the same version, and that way all of the customizations that you, your developer, or your app installations have made to the code base will be detected. They will in a sense pop out. And where the app can copy and merge these changes into the new version, it will.
If that merge will cause some kind of conflict, it won’t automatically carry those customizations over, but it will provide a report of which templates are going to need your special attention. So, something to keep in mind is that if you are going through the updating process without the app, you’re doing this all from scratch, you’re going to need to do all of these steps yourself manually. Using the app, you’re at least going to save yourself the time of acquiring the theme, you’re at least going to save yourself the time of reconfiguring the theme, and you’ll save some of the time of recommitting those customizations. It’s that portion that we often have a hard time expressing the value of, especially for people who haven’t done a regular update on Shopify before. It really-
Kurt Elster: Yeah. They don’t know the pain they’re missing.
Sean Campbell: And they think it’s the app that is having the trouble with carrying over these customizations when in reality, even a developer, a real, live person who may have committed the customizations originally, would also have a struggle with recommitting these customizations to a new code base. We gotta understand that updates that happen to themes could be of any variety and any size, any complexity. Likewise, customizations could be one line of CSS or it could be an overhaul of the theme.liquid template, and whether or not you can expect a tool to just automatically grab every change you’ve made to your theme and responsibly recommit it to a new version, that’s where we kind of want to stop short and make as many of those changes as we can responsibly, and then for any that do require that special attention, we want to make that a notice for the merchant and for the developer to go ahead and take a look at those templates specifically and apply those customizations manually.
So, that is the way that we are trying to help people through this required part of theme ownership that causes so much gripe, causes so much complaint. Shopify has updates that they require themes to do. Hey, we love those updates. Adding product media this year, adding multilanguage and multicurrency, these weren’t Out of the Sandbox-Pixel Union ideas. These were Shopify directives that we received the full instructions for and were happy to be able to add that extra value to the theme. But now we’re in a situation where everybody who owns the theme presently is looking for those new features. Are they gonna start from scratch to get those new features? That seems like a big ask. So, to use something like the Theme Updater App, you’re getting those new features in there. You’re not needing to reconfigure your theme. And if you do have big customizations, if you do have a lot of app installs, you’ll at least surface the information that you need to make transferring those over as easy as possible. That’s the Theme Updater App.
Kurt Elster: It’s pretty smooth, but what you should assume is you’re going to have to have a developer finish it if you’ve modified the theme at all. Just to save yourself some headache. So, essentially what happens… From personal experience, the app updater goes, “Hey, this theme’s out of date. You want to update it?” Say yes. It then duplicates the theme, preserves your settings, preserves all the stuff you’ve done, and then comes back with a list of… It goes, “All right, we updated as much as we could. Here’s the templates that you gotta do manually.”
And then we use… It’s called a diff checker and we compare. All right, new version versus the old version, and then we can see like, “Oh, okay. Well, this is the snippet that it tripped on.” And then we just copy and paste it in a new theme. And so, trying to do that full upgrade… You’re right, trying to do that full theme upgrade and then apply all the customizations and move all the settings back in, and all the content, that’s like days of work versus this theme update… If you have to do like a handful of manual customizations to preserve them, an hour, two hours in like a rough one, so it does save a dramatic amount of work.
Sean Campbell: You got it. I mean, it’s not 100% as far as one button and all of a sudden you’re into the future-
Kurt Elster: That’s the dream.
Sean Campbell: But I stand by the time savings, the convenience value, especially to serial entrepreneurs, to repeat offenders, to developers. People who are doing this constantly, you gotta understand that that’s a major economy that we’re talking about whenever you start to save days of updating time on a regular basis for a number of clients at once, so yeah, we’re very proud of the Theme Updater App. And it’s a work in progress, as well. We’re always looking to make the merging component better, to make it better and more intelligent at being able to reapply those customizations and to really hold your hand through that process. So, for where it is, needing that special attention to give you as much detail as possible.
Kurt, you mentioned that you run it through a diff checker. Is that in the app or through diffchecker.com kind of thing?
Kurt Elster: We were using diffchecker.com.
Sean Campbell: So, it’s a feature of the app, as well, that we’re constantly looking to make a little bit better. A feature of the Pro plan is that not only will it report your templates, but it will also highlight the diffs for you to get you one more step in that direction.
Kurt Elster: Oh, that’s sweet. Do you think it’s… I’m guessing the answer is no, but is it conceivable that there is a future where somehow it gets smart enough that… I don’t know, through… We’ll just make some hand wavy claim like, “Quantum machine learning.” I don’t know. Can now suddenly… It’s like the Marvel Universe. It’s quantum. Is it possible that the quantum machine learning update happens in the year 2021 and then it’s just one click automatic upgrade?
Sean Campbell: The way you describe it, maybe put that another 10 years out and maybe, but the issue here is again that… The various complexity. That I don’t know what you mean when you say customization. This could mean that you have taken every template file and modified them to be a completely different theme for all I know. So, for the app to be able to know what you want to retain out of your customizations versus what you want to have the theme show instead would be more of a… absolutely a psychic machine learning puzzle.
But as we look at things like style customizations, if you take all of your CSS customizations and you put them at the bottom of the styles.scss.liquid file, you have a very high success rate of those customizations carrying over to the new version.
Kurt Elster: Yeah, to be clear, it does try to carry over theme customizations. And the stuff… I don’t know what the logic is, but the stuff it does get always surprises me, and the stuff it doesn’t get also surprises me. It’ll be like a single script include doesn’t get moved, but like a complex, like I designed an entirely new div that’s foreign to this thing, that gets moved over. I’m like, “What?”
Sean Campbell: You got it, Kurt.
Kurt Elster: I’ll take any… If it’ll do any work for me, fabulous. But there is… Yeah, it doesn’t seem to be a ton of rhyme or reason to what it does and doesn’t trip up on.
Sean Campbell: What I can tell you is that any template that you’ve made entirely unique, where there’s no version of it in the theme by default, it will carry over 100%, because it’s not looking to merge any similar files. Whereas if you have committed a customization to a template file that is being updated during that update, so something has changed about the thumbnail, let’s say, but you have previously made a customization to the thumbnail, it will ignore your customization and it will use the new version of the theme. And so, a lot of that is based on line numbers.
If the code isn’t in the same line number position, if it’s being… If the code that’s being merged needs to go in the middle of some existing code as opposed to above, or below, or the line numbers have changed.
Kurt Elster: Oh, okay.
Sean Campbell: That’s where it starts to figure out, “You know what? This might cause a conflict if we just jab it in at line 114,” kind of thing. As opposed to, “Oh, hey. Here’s a template that hasn’t changed at all. This customization was previously on line 114. If we put it back on line 114, there won’t be a problem.” So, that’s a bit of the logic that it’s working on right now and we’re looking to make that better and better. Merge technology is always a complicated one.
Kurt Elster: Oh, yeah. No, not an envious task. So, how often should I be running this updater?
Sean Campbell: If you ask me, Sean Campbell, as soon as an update comes out. I’m obviously a big fan of that idea. As often as possible is of course my go-to line, but what I do need to recognize is that the number of customizations that you have will impact your updating process. And if updating takes that long of a time and the update from your version to the new version doesn’t represent anything that you need, then maybe you can skip that update. So, if you’re experiencing a bug that’s addressed in the update, update right now. That’s the way to address that bug. As opposed to going in and trying to do any troubleshooting, no. Use the Theme Updater App to overwrite your previous version and now have a version that doesn’t have that bug.
Similarly, with a feature, if you’re looking for a feature that’s included in that update, don’t go and start trying to buy custom development work to have product media added to your non-product media theme. Just update to the newest version.
So, it could be based on its substance, bugs and features, or if you’re looking to make your updating process as smooth as possible, I think that you should just keep doing it. Just keep updating. Because if you do have customizations that you need to carry over manually, you’ll just get practiced at it. You’ll know that like, “Oh yeah, I can’t forget about that thumbnail code I added,” and you slip it in each time you do that update. You’ll be savvy with it.
Yeah. When I hear that question, how often should I update? My question back to you is, “Is an update available?” Because go and grab it. But for sure, yeah, the more customizations that you have, the more app installs that you have, the more time that is added to your update time. So, if an update comes out next week and then another one two weeks later, I can absolutely see how that extra time that you spent on the update would be a negative. So yeah, keep your eye out on the change log to see if it’s stuff that you really want and need if you are conservative with the amount of time that you update, whereas if you’re not, I suggest updating as soon as it’s available.
Kurt Elster: I totally agree with that approach. I use the change log approach. I look at the change log and go, “That’s a feature I want,” or, “That’s a bug I didn’t know I had.” And all right, we’ll run the theme updater. And you’re also right, like we ran… We did a ton of those theme updates this year because of product media. That’s a killer feature. Oh, I could drag and drop videos right into my product.
Sean Campbell: Huge.
Kurt Elster: That’s fabulous. And 3D. I’ve got like two clients that run 3D, but native 3D, how cool is that? So, yeah, if it’s like a killer feature you really want, and it doesn’t have to be the feature that everybody’s talking about. It can be the thing you want. Like I got really excited when they added… I shouldn’t say they. When you added a lock icon to the checkout as an option-
Sean Campbell: Are you talking about you, Sean Campbell, or Out of the Sandbox? Because that was my ingenuity. I won’t lie. I got it from PayPal.
Kurt Elster: It was?
Sean Campbell: Well, I heard PayPal talk at Pursuit, and they had straight conversion stats. Add a lock icon to your-
Kurt Elster: Wow.
Sean Campbell: And you will have on mobile, on desktop, they had conversion stats for all platforms, and it was up. It’s like it’s a no brainer, no questions asked way to increase conversion. Add a lock icon. And I took that back to Ottawa with me. I’m like, “Put that on the backlog right now. That’s something that we need.” And I keep trying to find the PayPal guys, too, to thank them for the presentation. But it was Lucid’s night out there. They had popcorn, hot dogs, a few panelists, and I remember it vividly, and just so happy to see, not just to hear it from you, Kurt, but we’ve had other random notes come in. Thank you for that lock icon on the… Okay. It’s like-
Kurt Elster: You know, it was one of those things I didn’t think I needed or wanted, and then when I saw it in the change log, I don’t know. Something clicked in my brain where I went, “Oh, duh.” Should be doing that this whole time.
Sean Campbell: And I guess that how it works from a user confidence perspective, as well, is like, “Well, is there anything about that…” Did they notice the icon? I guess. Obviously, something’s happening there, so…
Kurt Elster: I mean, for all they know, it could literally just be like the ASCI for the lock emoji stuck into the label. You know, it doesn’t… But fortunately on Shopify, Shopify is PCI level one compliant, meaning it is extremely secure in processing your credit card data.
Sean Campbell: Absolutely.
Kurt Elster: So, the checkout or the lock icon is not unwarranted in that case. Let’s see.
Sean Campbell: You see the trust badges thrown around in a similar capacity, but I’d like to think that as we keep going down this eCommerce path, that Shopify will be understood as this trusted checkout, you don’t need to plaster your cart page to say, “Don’t worry, everything’s gonna be fine.” And we’ll have that consumer trust.
Kurt Elster: No, absolutely. As long as we’re on the topic of the change log and features, are there any future features coming down the pipeline I should be looking out for?
Sean Campbell: Some future features coming down the pipeline that you should look out for. What I-
Kurt Elster: Spill the beans, Sean!
Sean Campbell: Something we’re really excited about is some improvements that we’ll be making to the themes that we have on the theme store, as well. So, we’ve had a cart blanche to add as many sort of features, settings as we want to our Turbo and Flex themes being off platform. Well, we’re finding a lot more freedom on the theme store, as well, for adding new features, new settings, things that aren’t seen in other theme store themes. So, we’ve done that recently with Parallax. Parallax has a nice, fresh sort of suite of settings and a bunch of new demo shops, so we’ve got a lot of great activity happening on those theme store themes for those either first day merchants or first few week merchants, to get them savvy with the platform and get them comfortable with Out of the Sandbox themes.
We’ve had a lot of internationalization happening with the themes across the board, Pixel Union themes and Out of the Sandbox themes. Whether it’s adding more languages supported, adding the multicurrency, multilanguage features. We’ll probably see… This has happened with Pixel Union themes already and we’ll probably see it with Out of the Sandbox themes shortly. The unit pricing, that’s applicable in particular to French and German Shopify users, it’s been instructions that we’ve had from Shopify for a while, but just trying to figure out how to prioritize it. Well, it’s one that we hear a lot of requests for, so we’ll see unit pricing coming to the themes shortly, as well, to leverage that built-in Shopify feature.
Kurt Elster: Oh, there’s a couple follow ups I got there. Number one, you mentioned, “Oh, we got more flexibility in the theme store.” At Unite two years ago, I cornered someone on the themes team at Shopify. I’m like, “Hey, I got a question for you!” Right? I’m sure that’s what people want to see, me coming at you like, “I got questions!” And I said, “Hey, what’s the deal with the theme store only has…” They add very few themes a month. They’re extremely selective in their theme process and I was picking at this.
And he said one of the things they’re looking to do is for new merchants and early merchants, make the process painless. And so, if you give them the option to buy a theme like Turbo, which my original attraction to Turbo was its tremendous flexibility. Well, that comes at a cost in that there are so many settings, and options, and templates, that if you’re brand new to it, it would be intimidating. And so, they intentionally were limiting options in themes. You say you’re getting more leeway on that now, it sounds like.
Sean Campbell: You got it, Kurt. I mean, you identified the problem being that the theme store is a… It’s a piece of marketing for Shopify. It’s bringing people onto the platform and it’s one of the first places that they go whenever they become a merchant, so they need to keep the barriers to entry as low as possible. They need to make that stage of the eCommerce process as simple as possible. And introducing a huge decision of, “Well, here are all the theme developers. Here are the themes that they offer. Here are the settings and the features that they have,” is daunting, absolutely, for a new merchant.
The reaction to that, though, what you… How you interact with the theme partners based on that doesn’t necessarily need to be as… Is draconian the word? Or as strict as it in a sense has been. So, what we’re seeing is that the free themes are absolutely marketed, they’re front and center, they’re looking great on the theme store and they’re presented as a totally viable option. Then the paid themes on the theme store, they do start to want to have some differentiation between them. They want to have people picking one over the other and popularity rankings will sort of come out of this. This is something that happens with it.
So, what I think that… The feeling that I’m getting from it is that it’s a bit of course correction to instead of tell theme developers no, you can’t add this new feature, or this new feature is not gonna make it onto the theme store, instead they’re saying, “Let’s have a conversation about it. Present us the feature. Let us know what it’s gonna look like. How’s this gonna go?” And just with the fluidity and the conversations we’re having with our theme partners, those things are being green lit. They’re getting the checkmarks that they weren’t getting in the past, and I think that they’re realizing that the variety on the theme store comes from theme developers innovating. And from us rolling with the ideas that we have and not necessarily… Because what theme developers were doing, they weren’t even presenting the options. They weren’t even coming up with the ideas under the guise that, “Oh, Shopify’s gonna say no anyway, so let’s not go down this path.”
Well, that gate has opened up to say, “Well, no. Let’s at least explore it. At least talk to us about it and we’ll see if this is something that makes sense for the theme store.” And we’re getting way more green lights than we were previously.
So, looking forward to having the theme store themes a little bit more differentiated from each other and start to be able to talk about them uniquely. Why is Mobilia more appropriate for a particular type of merchant than Parallax is? What makes these different? And if we’re working under theme parity and trying to make themes as consistent as possible, that question becomes harder and harder to answer. So, now to have that extra flexibility to add more features, we’ll be able to have that differentiation and have those themes a little bit more unique, to have them live on their own.
Kurt Elster: It sounds like in the past, the answer was hard no, and no they’re saying, “Okay, pitch us. Sell us on it.”
Sean Campbell: In a sense-
Kurt Elster: And if you make a compelling case for it, they go, “Okay. Yeah, okay.”
Sean Campbell: It was almost, “Don’t even ask.” You should have known that we’ve said no enough times that… Don’t put the effort into it. And that’s where a lot of Turbo and Flex ingenuity has come from. Stuff that is not allowed on the theme store or not historically allowed on the theme store, well, let’s go ahead and add it to our off-platform themes. They’re not under these requirements. And then they become crazy popular, so I’m not sure exactly what that’s saying, but we are happy to work within the guidelines that are on the theme store, but we’re also happy to have those guidelines loosen up a little bit, especially when it comes to improving the product. That’s really what the outcome ends up being.
Kurt Elster: No, absolutely. So, let’s say I’m cruising the theme store. If I’m a merchant and I’m looking for a new theme, I’m considering a new theme, do you have any tips, any critical questions or must haves? How do I audition a theme? You know, like I could test drive a car and read reviews when I’m car shopping. What’s the car shopping approach for themes?
Sean Campbell: That’s a good question, because it’s a great analogy. I use the car analogy so often, the car being the theme and the spoiler being all of the apps that you add to it and then the holes in your trunk are somehow my responsibility. Anyway-
Kurt Elster: Oh my God, that’s brilliant!
Sean Campbell: Sorry, you got my hot take there, Kurt.
Kurt Elster: That’s really good.
Sean Campbell: What I gotta say is that even when you’re going to go buy that new car, how fast it goes is one thing, but for you to want that car, for you to be inspired by that car, to love that car, that’s almost that base level thing, like you want that inspiration is really what you want to land on. And to go to the theme store to look for inspiration, sure that’s one thing, but what I’d suggest is maybe even looking at your own internet history. Where have you been shopping recently? How is your shopping experience on that store? Really personalize it to say, “How do you want to use this?” How do you want the user experience to be designed for your product? For your particular offering?
Then go to the theme store. Try to get in your mind’s eye how you want this to look, then get into the theme store to take a look at the layout and the feature sets of these themes. One thing that is very biasing or very… Sets your decisions one way or another on the theme store is the types of products that you see in the various demos. And that’s something that you almost want to become blinded to. To try to picture your own product in that layout, even if you sell shoes and the demo is showing books, that is… The products I don’t want to say are inconsequential, but the theme will absolutely be configured to suit your products and to tell your products’ story, but I have seen every variety of product sold on Turbo. I have seen superconductors sold, I have screws sold on it, the theme itself is not opinionated to what the product that’s sold on it would be.
Potentially the catalog size, that’s something that we see more often, that people with a lot of SKUs end up wanting a theme that has a really good search feature, great navigation, good ways of finding a single product out of a haystack of products, so when we look at catalog size, that’s more of a definer than what the actual product is. So, get inspired, get on the theme store, erase the products from your vision there and start to mentally put your own products in and to see how close can I get to the vision of the site I have in my mind’s eye to the demos that the theme store is showing off here.
If it’s your first day on the platform, it’s your first time doing this, that is already going to get you a good sense of the way there. High quality product photography is obviously the next big hurdle and as a themes guy, I have no advice for you there other than get it, and then that’s pretty much where you’re at before looking at the feature set. The feature set is the features, the settings that are built into the theme itself, and that is going to be based on the unique needs of your user experience, of the user experience that you provide. Do you need some kind of countdown timer? Do you need a special way of showing sales over here? Do you need a special way of suggesting a product on the cart page whenever they’re proceeding through the store?
If these are all things that you need, you’re gonna have to check out, does that theme have that built in? Or is that something that I’m going to need app functionality for? And that’s another great guide while you’re making these theme decisions. If you had previously been using a bunch of apps with your former theme and you take a look at a new theme that actually has these features built in, then it could be a good cost savings for you to go with the theme with that built-in feature as opposed to paying a monthly fee on an app if you can sort of take the compromise that it might be in the specificity of that function.
Kurt Elster: Oh, absolutely. Yeah, if you can dodge using an app, absolutely do it, because the theme’s gonna be more performant, more reliable, and you’re gonna have less… Fewer subscription costs with it. And it should be easier updating if that is an option.
Sean Campbell: It will look right, too. Without any forethought. You don’t necessarily need to get into the styles with it. A good example there is our cart… The cart page featured product. And so, what that is, it’s just a setting for you to pick a product that is shown on your cart page, sort of a last chance to add a product to the cart before you proceed to your checkout.
Kurt Elster: A built-in cross sell.
Sean Campbell: In a sense. The thing is is that you’re just picking one product through the settings, whereas if you wanted something that was going to intelligently suggest a product based on the contents of your cart, that’s whenever you need to start to look at app functionality, an app that is specifically doing a cart page cross sell, so that you’ve got all of the options in the world-
Kurt Elster: I wonder if-
Sean Campbell: … to configure that the way that you want. But if you’re willing to take a compromise on that and just present a… to sort of do a layman’s version of that advanced functionality, that could be built into the theme and those are the types of easy wins that we look for when we add new features to Turbo and we add new features to Flex.
Kurt Elster: And let’s say I have settled on a theme. Once I’ve got a theme in mind, like, “All right, this is the one. I want this. This could make my store better.” Is there… Are there any best practices that is gonna make upgrading or switching to a new theme easier?
Sean Campbell: Absolutely. I’ve got a few suggestions here and they’re things that don’t necessarily come to mind at the time. So, if you can have my words echo in your head for when this comes up for you, that’s the way to do it, but you’re going to want to keep track of the reasons for code customizations along with the customization. So, not just, “Oh, I hired Kurt to add this line of CSS to my style sheet. I need to make sure to reapply that style to the new theme.” It’s like, well, first, why did you do that? Because maybe that’s something that’s already automatic in the new version. You might not need to carry over that customization, but you want to keep track of the reasons that you’re making a customization and then what the technical customization is. If you’ve got a text document for that, if you’ve got somewhere that you can keep that you’ll be a step ahead when it comes to switching themes or upgrading a theme.
Same with apps. Keep a good list of your apps. If you could do the best you can to make a note on how the installation went, if you had any weird problems come up with installation, because that problem may come up again whenever you’re going to repeat it in a new theme.
Something that I do want to keep in mind is the… If you had something like a .details template, let’s say you’re switching themes and you were previously an Out of the Sandbox theme user and you had this robust page configured with a .details template, and now you’re switching to another brand of theme, well, that brand of theme will not have that template, and that special configuration will in a sense be lost, and you’ll need to find some other way of presenting that type of content in the new theme. So, we talk about customizations, app installs, and then anything that is leveraging a special template. Those are things that you’re gonna want to keep in mind and keep a good eye on as you transfer to a new theme, so that all of that can be repeated as easily as possible.
Kurt Elster: 100%. And as we get to the end of our time together, right now, are you… I’ve heard that people are experiencing record levels of support inquiries. Are you experiencing this?
Sean Campbell: Yes.
Kurt Elster: And with the… The eCommerce boom has led to this, what I’ve heard two separate people describe as 2019 Black Friday levels of support, except all summer long. So, clearly that’s gotta be taxing.
Sean Campbell: It’s a two-sided sword. One side is a good side. Yeah.
Kurt Elster: With knowing that now, if I’m a merchant reaching out for support, is there anything… Not necessarily for Out of the Sandbox, just like in general, is there anything I can do to expedite my support ticket? Like any… How I describe my problem, like in the process of actually submitting it.
Sean Campbell: Absolutely. So, we’ve got… If you’re submitting through say one of our forms, we try to ask for this information up front, but if you’re submitting an email to any theme support department, to let them know what theme you’re using. Often it might be inconsequential to you. You don’t know that that theme developer might have four or five other titles. For you to just mention the title and version of your theme would be great. The URL, absolutely include that. If it’s something that will require further investigation, we’ll need to get into a collaborator account, or a staff invite. Some support departments say just go ahead and send it. Send that invite or that request with the ticket.
Maybe correspond with them once before you do that for the first time, but that does indeed save-
Kurt Elster: Yeah, that one seems a little sketchy.
Sean Campbell: It does save a whole step of correspondence, though, and if we’re talking about a queue of hundreds of tickets, so you don’t have to wait for that one to come back up to the top for you to get into that investigation. You can jump in and see the code right away. But that, again, depends also on the scope of the support that that theme developer happens to be offering.
A lot of theme support is specific to the built-in features and settings, and as soon as you get into questions about how to add customizations to the code, you’re sort of getting out of that scope and you start getting into the questions that you’re gonna want to run by a developer or an agency. So, best practices for submitting a support request, provide us all of the technical information that you can. Try to stay as calm as possible and be nice to us. That goes a long ways.
Kurt Elster: Yeah. Oh my gosh. Don’t be rude.
Sean Campbell: And if you have submitted a request and especially if you’ve received an auto responder to say that the request is received, we definitely suggest awaiting the reply ahead of resubmitting a request. There are various tools that people use that could potentially reset the time on a ticket if you resubmit a question. And if they are addressing the oldest tickets first, you’ve unfortunately just put yourself to the back of the line, so there’s some support departments that don’t have processes in place to deal with a double replied ticket, and that is something I’ve heard from a number of support departments in the past, where the angriest customer will end up unfortunately being the last one helped, because they keep pushing themselves to the back of the line. It’s unfortunate.
Kurt Elster: Oh! Just with the follow ups?
Sean Campbell: You got it.
Kurt Elster: Oh. Okay.
Sean Campbell: Because it’s resetting the time on the ticket each time that a new one comes in, and the logic on your support platform is usually going to be oldest ticket to the top, and so then they’ve just made their ticket the newest by replying to themself before you reply. So-
Kurt Elster: Whoops!
Sean Campbell: We always look for ways of catching these things, catching the things that fall through the gaps, but if you’re asking about how support departments actually prioritize tickets and go through them, if they’re dealing with oldest tickets first, then I will raise a flag that you might be timestamping your ticket by double replying.
Kurt Elster: Where can people go to learn more about Out of the Sandbox?
Sean Campbell: OutoftheSandbox.com is our home base. Head on over there, you can get yourself a copy of Flex, you can get yourself a copy of Turbo. All of our marketplace themes, theme store themes, are also sold on our site. You can get all the information and demos there, as well. There’s some information about the Theme Updater App there as well. You can search for the Theme Updater App on the app store for more information on it. PixelUnion.net, there’s a shout out for our Pixel Union themes, as well.
What else do I have for you? We’ve got our Merchant Collective, which is accessible through OutoftheSandbox.com and PixelUnion.net, and that is a place for you to go and show off, to start to talk to other merchants and get together in that community. That started up just since the shutdown here, so it is in progress, in development, and it is live, but we’re looking to have more and more people involved in that Merchant Collective. And I believe there’s a discount code. I’m not sure. Do you run an ad at the end of this?
Kurt Elster: KURT20 is the… You could use KURT20 and it’s in the show notes.
Sean Campbell: K-U-R-T-2-0.
Kurt Elster: 2-0 will get you 20% off.
Sean Campbell: It applies to Flex and Turbo. We can’t discount the theme store themes, but Flex and Turbo, absolutely go and get yourself some money off on either of those titles. And as you progress through the checkout, you can go ahead and get an annual sub for the Theme Updater App. That includes priority support. So, you can get your ticket advanced to the top of the queue by submitting it through a special form in the Theme Updater App.
Kurt Elster: Oh, I didn’t know that.
Sean Campbell: Yeah, so we’re looking to open up that priority support feature for all Pro Plan users for any incoming note that they happen to send. But for right now, Pro Plan users who go through the app, you will find a priority support link in the actions menu of any theme that’s on the Theme Updater App, and if you submit your support request through that modal, it will be marked with a priority and jump the queue, so it will be the first to be addressed out of those tickets. So, we’ll look to provide more and more priority support as time goes on, as well, but that’s currently available as a feature of the Theme Updater App.
Kurt Elster: I actually… I learned a lot. There’s several things I did not know about Out of the Sandbox, about Shopify themes, so it was good advice. I’m glad we did this.
Sean Campbell: If I can teach Kurt something, that’s a huge success. I’m happy to have been here.
Kurt Elster: Where can people go to learn more about you?
Sean Campbell: Maybe OutoftheSandbox.com is the best place to go for that, as well.
Kurt Elster: Leave Sean alone! Go buy themes.
Sean Campbell: And you know what? I’ll dox myself here. You can get in touch with me directly, Sean at OutoftheSandbox.com if you had any questions about stuff that I talked about on the podcast here. If it is for technical help with your theme, I do suggest going in through our contact portal or going in through support at outofthesandbox.com, just so you have the full support team as your disposal and not just me, and I’m not necessarily the most technically sound, and I’m only one man, so absolutely if you have any questions about stuff I talked about on the podcast here, get in touch. Sean, S-E-A-N, at outofthesandbox.com. I’ll be happy to hear from you.
Kurt Elster: Sean, thank you so much.
Sean Campbell: Thank you, Kurt. Always a pleasure.