When he heard SFI President David Krakauer on a popular podcast last year, Toby Shannan didn’t know exactly how SFI could help him, but the interview prompted a realization: Some of his company’s biggest challenges were the byproducts of complexity.
Shannan is the vice president for customer support at Shopify, which provides services for businesses and entrepreneurs who want to set up shop on the internet. Shopify joined SFI’s Applied Complexity Network (ACtioN) in late 2016.
Building an online storefront requires combining domain support, web design, filters, shopping carts, social media, and more into an integrated interface that becomes the customer experience: it’s a classic “whole is greater than the sum of the parts” phenomenon, says Shannan.
Shopify’s challenge is to simplify how its 400,000 customers solve their problems as new online services and technologies become available. is compels the company to make good choices in a universe of software possibilities, says Shannan, by picking out products that are likely to lead to a greater degree of client satisfaction — and fewer calls to technical support.
Before the podcast interview, he had been mulling over a concept for a heuristics-based decision tool to assess the complexity of a candidate software product — essentially an objective way to ask: Is there math for scoring a product based on how difficult it is to use?
When he discussed the idea with SFI VP for Strategic Partnerships Will Tracy, Tracy invited him to present at an upcoming ACtioN meeting in Austin, TX.
“This is exactly the kind of insight we want our members to bring to us,” Tracy says. “Toby saw something in his everyday life that had some clear connections to complexity, and this was a chance to share it with our community.”
At the Austin meeting, Shannan’s talk was paired with one by SFI External Professor Simon DeDeo in a marbling of scientific and business concepts, says Tracy. DeDeo presented recent social science research, inspired by information theory, that quantifies how people interact with novelty and how they choose to adopt or reject something new, DeDeo says.
Shannan says he “found a lot of open-minded people” at the meeting who were genuinely interested in shared problems in science and business. “It was a chance to think more deeply about the problem with people who know a lot more about complexity,” he says.
It’s also inspired him to ponder the vocabulary of complexity.
“I guess initially I kind of fell under the spell of complexity as a catchall for the problems we had a Shopify,” he says. “As I read some of the scientific papers and gained a more technical understanding of the science, I began to make more tangible connections.”
“It occurred to me that the interdisciplinary nature of complexity science extends to business,” he says. “That’s not true for most of science. e vocabulary of complex systems will be quite useful in the world of businesses as it deals with increasingly rapid change. It’s absolutely going to happen.”