Data-Centric Machine Learning: Building Shopify Inbox’s Message Classification Model

By Eric Fung and Diego Castañeda

Shopify Inbox is a single business chat app that manages all Shopify merchants’ customer communications in one place, and turns chats into conversions. As we were building the product it was essential for us to understand how our merchants’ customers were using chat applications. Were they reaching out looking for product recommendations? Wondering if an item would ship to their destination? Or were they just saying hello? With this information we could help merchants prioritize responses that would convert into sales and guide our product team on what functionality to build next. However, with millions of unique messages exchanged in Shopify Inbox per month, this was going to be a challenging natural language processing (NLP) task. 

Our team didn’t need to start from scratch, though: off-the-shelf NLP models are widely available to everyone. With this in mind, we decided to apply a newly popular machine learning process—the data-centric approach. We wanted to focus on fine-tuning these pre-trained models on our own data to yield the highest model accuracy, and deliver the best experience for our merchants.

A merchant’s Shopify Inbox screen titled Customers that displays snippets of messages from customers that are labelled with things for easy identification like product details, checkout, and edit order.
Message Classification in Shopify Inbox

We’ll share our journey of building a message classification model for Shopify Inbox by applying the data-centric approach. From defining our classification taxonomy to carefully training our annotators on labeling, we dive into how a data-centric approach, coupled with a state-of-the-art pre-trained model, led to a very accurate prediction service we’re now running in production.

Why a Data-Centric Approach?

A traditional development model for machine learning begins with obtaining training data, then successively trying different model architectures to overcome any poor data points. This model-centric process is typically followed by researchers looking to advance the state-of-the-art, or by those who don't have the resources to clean a crowd-sourced dataset.

By contrast, a data-centric approach focuses on iteratively making the training data better to reduce inconsistencies, thereby yielding better results for a range of models. Since anyone can download a well-performing, pre-trained model, getting a quality dataset is the key differentiator in being able to produce a high-quality system. At Shopify, we believe that better training data yields machine learning models that can serve our merchants better. If you’re interested in hearing more about the benefits of the data-centric approach, check out Andrew Ng’s talk on MLOps: From Model-centric to Data-centric.

Our First Prototype

Our first step was to build an internal prototype that we could ship quickly. Why? We wanted to build something that would enable us to understand what buyers were saying. It didn’t have to be perfect or complex, it just had to prove that we could deliver something with impact. We could iterate afterwards. 

For our first prototype, we didn't want to spend a lot of time on the exploration, so we had to construct both the model and training data with limited resources. Our team chose a pre-trained model available on TensorFlow Hub called Universal Sentence Encoder. This model can output embeddings for whole sentences while taking into account the order of words. This is crucial for understanding meaning. For example, the two messages below use the same set of words, but they have very different sentiments:

  • “Love! More please. Don’t stop baking these cookies.”
  • “Please stop baking more cookies! Don’t love these.”

To rapidly build our training dataset, we sought to identify groups of messages with similar meaning, using various dimensionality reduction and clustering techniques, including UMAP and HDBScan. After manually assigning topics to around 20 message clusters, we applied a semi-supervised technique. This approach takes a small amount of labeled data, combined with a larger amount of unlabeled data. We hand-labeled a few representative seed messages from each topic, and used them to find additional examples that were similar. For instance, given a seed message of “Can you help me order?”, we used the embeddings to help us find similar messages such as “How to order?” and “How can I get my orders?”. We then sampled from these to iteratively build the training data.

A visualization using a scatter plot of message clusters during one of our explorations.
A visualization of message clusters during one of our explorations.

We used this dataset to train a simple predictive model containing an embedding layer, followed by two fully connected, dense layers. Our last layer contained the logits array for the number of classes to predict on.

This model gave us some interesting insights. For example, we observed that a lot of chat messages are about the status of an order. This helped inform our decision to build an order status request as part of Shopify Inbox’s Instant Answers FAQ feature. However, our internal prototype had a lot of room for improvement. Overall, our model achieved a 70 percent accuracy rate and could only classify 35 percent of all messages with high confidence (what we call coverage). While our scrappy approach of using embeddings to label messages was fast, the labels weren’t always the ground truth for each message. Clearly, we had some work to do.

We know that our merchants have busy lives and want to respond quickly to buyer messages, so we needed to increase the accuracy, coverage, and speed for version 2.0. Wanting to follow a data-centric approach, we focused on how we could improve our data to improve our performance. We made the decision to put additional effort into defining the training data by re-visiting the message labels, while also getting help to manually annotate more messages. We sought to do all of this in a more systematic way.

Creating A New Taxonomy

First, we dug deeper into the topics and message clusters used to train our prototype. We found several broad topics containing hundreds of examples that conflated distinct semantic meanings. For example, messages asking about shipping availability to various destinations (pre-purchase) were grouped in the same topic as those asking about what the status of an order was (post-purchase).

Other topics had very few examples, while a large number of messages didn’t belong to any specific topic at all. It’s no wonder that a model trained on such a highly unbalanced dataset wasn’t able to achieve high accuracy or coverage.

We needed a new labeling system that would be accurate and useful for our merchants. It also had to be unambiguous and easy to understand by annotators, so that labels would be applied consistently. A win-win for everybody!

This got us thinking: who could help us with the taxonomy definition and the annotation process? Fortunately, we have a talented group of colleagues. We worked with our staff content designer and product researcher who have domain expertise in Shopify Inbox. We were also able to secure part-time help from a group of support advisors who deeply understand Shopify and our merchants (and by extension, their buyers).

Over a period of two months, we got to work sifting through hundreds of messages and came up with a new taxonomy. We listed each new topic in a spreadsheet, along with a detailed description, cross-references, disambiguations, and sample messages. This document would serve as the source of truth for everyone in the project (data scientists, software engineers, and annotators).

In parallel with the taxonomy work, we also looked at the latest pre-trained NLP models, with the aim of fine-tuning one of them for our needs. The Transformer family is one of the most popular, and we were already using that architecture in our product categorization model. We settled on DistilBERT, a model that promised a good balance between performance, resource usage, and accuracy. Some prototyping on a small dataset built from our nascent taxonomy was very promising: the model was already performing better than version 1.0, so we decided to double down on obtaining a high-quality, labeled dataset.

Our final taxonomy contained more than 40 topics, grouped under five categories: 

  • Products
  • Pre-Purchase
  • Post-Purchase
  • Store
  • Miscellaneous

We arrived at this hierarchy by thinking about how an annotator might approach classifying a message, viewed through the lens of a buyer. The first thing to determine is: where was the buyer on their purchase journey when the message was sent? Were they asking about a detail of the product, like its color or size? Or, was the buyer inquiring about payment methods? Or, maybe the product was broken, and they wanted a refund? Identifying the category helped to narrow down our topic list during the annotation process.

Our in-house annotation tool displaying the message to classify at top of screen with a list possible topics grouped by category below
Our in-house annotation tool displaying the message to classify, along with some of the possible topics, grouped by category

Each category contains an other topic to group the messages that don’t have enough content to be clearly associated with a specific topic. We decided to not train the model with the examples classified as other because, by definition, they were messages we couldn’t classify ourselves in the proposed taxonomy. In production, these messages get classified by the model with low probabilities. By setting a probability threshold on every topic in the taxonomy, we could decide later on whether to ignore them or not.

Since this taxonomy was pretty large, we wanted to make sure that everyone interpreted it consistently. We held several training sessions with our annotation team to describe our classification project and philosophy. We divided the annotators into two groups so they could annotate the same set of messages using our taxonomy. This exercise had a two-fold benefit:

  1. It gave annotators first-hand experience using our in-house annotation tool.
  2. It allowed us to measure inter-annotator agreement.

This process was time-consuming as we needed to do several rounds of exercises. But, the training led us to refine the taxonomy itself by eliminating inconsistencies, clarifying descriptions, adding additional examples, and adding or removing topics. It also gave us reassurance that the annotators were aligned on the task of classifying messages.

Let The Annotation Begin

Once we and the annotators felt that they were ready, the group began to annotate messages. We set up a Slack channel for everyone to collaborate and work through tricky messages as they arose. This allowed everyone to see the thought process used to arrive at a classification.

During the preprocessing of training data, we discarded single-character messages and messages consisting of only emojis. During the annotation phase, we excluded other kinds of noise from our training data. Annotators also flagged content that wasn’t actually a message typed by a buyer, such as when a buyer cut-and-pastes the body of an email they’ve received from a Shopify store confirming their purchase. As the old saying goes, garbage in, garbage out. Lastly, due to our current scope and resource constraints, we had to set aside non-English messages.

Handling Sensitive Information

You might be wondering how we dealt with personal information (PI) like emails or phone numbers. PI occasionally shows up in buyer messages and we took special care to ensure that it was handled appropriately. This was a complicated, and at times manual, process that involved many steps and tools.

To avoid training our machine learning model on any messages containing PI, we couldn’t just ignore them. That would likely bias our model. Instead, we wanted to identify the messages with PI, then replace it with realistic, mock data. In this way, we would have examples of real messages that wouldn’t be identifiable to any real person.

This anonymization process began with our annotators flagging messages containing PI. Next, we used an open-source library called Presidio to analyze and anonymize the PI. This tool ran in our data warehouse, keeping our merchants’ data within Shopify’s systems. Presidio is able to recognize many different types of PI, and the anonymizer provides different kinds of operators that can transform the instances of PI into something else. For example, you could completely remove it, mask part of it, or replace it with something else.

In our case, we used another open-source tool called Faker to replace the PI. This library is customizable and localized, and its providers can generate realistic addresses, names, locations, URLs, and more. Here’s an example of its Python API:

Combining Presidio and Faker allowed us to semi-automate the PI replacement, see below for a fabricated example:


can i pickup today? i ordered this am: Sahar Singh my phone is 852 5555 1234. Email is


can i pickup today? i ordered this am: Sahar Singh my phone is 090-722-7549. Email is


If you’re a sharp eyed reader, you’ll notice (as we did), that our tools missed identifying a bit of fabricated PI in the above example (hint: the name). Despite Presidio using a variety of techniques (regular expressions, named entity recognition, and checksums), some PI slipped through the cracks. Names and addresses have a lot of variability and are hard to recognize reliably. This meant that we still needed to inspect the before and after output to identify whether any PI was still present. Any PI was manually replaced with a placeholder (for example, the name Sahar Singh was replaced with <PERSON>). Finally, we ran another script to replace the placeholders with Faker-generated data.

A Little Help From The Trends

Towards the end of our annotation project, we noticed a trend that persisted throughout the campaign: some topics in our taxonomy were overrepresented in the training data. It turns out that buyers ask a lot of questions about products!

Our annotators had already gone through thousands of messages. We couldn’t afford to split up the topics with the most popular messages and re-classify them, but how could we ensure our model performed well on the minority classes? We needed to get more training examples from the underrepresented topics.

Since we were continuously training a model on the labeled messages as they became available, we decided to use it to help us find additional messages. Using the model’s predictions, we excluded any messages classified with the overrepresented topics. The remaining examples belonged to the other topics, or were ones that the model was uncertain about. These messages were then manually labeled by our annotators.


So, after all of this effort to create a high-quality, consistently labeled dataset, what was the outcome? How did it compare to our first prototype? Not bad at all. We achieved our goal of higher accuracy and coverage:


Version 1.0 Prototype

Version 2.0 in Production

Size of training set



Annotation strategy

Based on embedding similarity

Human labeled

Taxonomy classes



Model accuracy



High confidence coverage




Another key part of our success was working collaboratively with diverse subject matter experts. Bringing in our support advisors, staff content designer, and product researcher provided perspectives and expertise that we as data scientists couldn’t achieve alone.

While we shipped something we’re proud of, our work isn’t done. This is a living project that will require continued development. As trends and sentiments change over time, the topics of conversations happening in Shopify Inbox will shift accordingly. We’ll need to keep our taxonomy and training data up-to-date and create new models to continue to keep our standards high.

If you want to learn more about the data work behind Shopify Inbox, check out Building a Real-time Buyer Signal Data Pipeline for Shopify Inbox that details the real-time buyer signal data pipeline we built.

Eric Fung is a senior data scientist on the Messaging team at Shopify. He loves baking and will always pick something he’s never tried at a restaurant. Follow Eric on Twitter.

Diego Castañeda is a senior data scientist on the Core Optimize Data team at Shopify. Previously, he was part of the Messaging team and helped create machine learning powered features for Inbox. He loves computers, astronomy and soccer. Connect with Diego on LinkedIn.

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