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by Michael P. Hill May 24, 2016

Last week, we discussed the key differences between common Shopify and theme-related terms that often cause confusion for store owners — however, one important distinction that wasn’t addressed in the earlier post was “theme issues” versus “theme customization."

The differences between these two are essential to understand as you delve into your Shopify theme and start working on customizing the look and feel of your store — but then encounter “issues” along the way.

Theme issues

The most common type of theme issue is probably compatibility with HTML, CSS or JavaScript code. Often these issues relate to how different browsers, operating systems and devices display your Shopify theme’s design and layout. For example, perhaps your menu looks fine in Chrome, but has all kinds of weird gaps and padding when viewed in Internet Explorer or Edge.

If you encounter such an issue, the best way to get it resolved by the theme developer is to provide detailed information such as what browser, operating system or device the issue occurs in and what steps need to be taken for them to be able to recreate the bug. From this point, the theme developer can troubleshoot the issue and roll out a fix for it once the bug has been identified and resolved.

Other common theme issues often revolve around theme customization settings. All Shopify themes come with a base set of options that can be configured under the “Customize theme” menu accessible from the Themes portion of your store’s admin.

From within this area, you can access the settings that control various elements of the theme, such as colors, fonts and sizing as well as more advanced options such as inputting text, defining URLs or menus and toggling certain options on and off.

The customize theme panels are designed to give store keepers a way to control more advanced features of their Shopify theme without needing to write code.

If you find, however, that a setting under these panels isn’t taking effect properly or causing another issue, then most likely this is a theme issue that can, just like an HTML, CSS or JavaScript bug, be fixed by the theme developer.

Behind the scenes, Shopify theme customization settings are stored in a special file in your theme. Every time you make a change through one of the customization panels, the change is updated in this file automatically.

These settings, in turn, feed into the Liquid files that make up your Shopify theme and change how and what is displayed to your shoppers.

However, it’s important to note that changing theme settings only changes the theme settings file — no other core theme files are ever touched. This is one of the essential differences between theme issues and customization issues.

Customization issues

Shopify theme customization issues, on the other hand, do involve code modifications to additional theme files beyond the theme settings file.

For example, many third party apps require store owners to directly modify the shop’s theme files such as the product.liquid or theme.liquid file, whether it’s adding a bit of code to it or modifying it in some other way.

The same applies for customizations to change the look and feel of your Shopify theme, such as adding a custom font or removing or altering some built-in theme styling for a page element, like the shape of a button or underline on page titles, for example These types of changes typically require updating CSS files.

Customization issues also extend to adding or changing features of the theme to work better for a particular store or situation, and are usually changes to the code that the merchant has done themselves or hired someone else to do

Unlike theme issues (which may stem from legitimate bugs in the original theme code) customization issues are typically very difficult for theme developers to troubleshoot and repair for several key reasons:

  • The theme developer didn’t write the new code so they aren’t familiar with the structure of the code, what it’s supposed to do and how it does that. 
  • The customizations can conflict with the existing code.
  • The new code hasn’t been fully tested.
  • Any new code also hasn’t been tested with the existing code.
  • Customization issues generally go beyond the base feature set of the theme, so they are considered “add ons” or “extras” and not native to the original theme

Because of this, theme developers typically aren’t required to provide support for customization issues as part of their theme support offerings. Remember that Shopify themes are designed to provide a pre-defined list of features, design and layout components — and not any specialized or custom shop functionality.

In many cases, the Shopify theme developer might be able to help point you in the right direction or advise you on where the best place for further assistance might be, including whether to call in an expert or not.

That said, the best way to avoid customization issues is to keep Shopify theme modifications and use of apps to an absolute minimum.

So if you’re contemplating reaching out to your theme developer for support with an issue, first try to identify if it seems to be a true problem with the original theme or if the issue may have cropped up because of modifications you made to the code yourself or apps you’ve recently installed.

If you really do suspect it’s a problem stemming from the original theme, check to see if the developer maintains a list of “known issues” in support documentation before contacting them. A reputable developer will correct any theme issue or bug as quickly as possible after it’s brought to their attention and provide you with a fix.

If it’s more likely a customization issue caused by theme file modifications, here are some alternative ways you can try to troubleshoot it on your own:

  • Revert the changes you’ve made one by one to help identify what is causing the issue.
  • Disable any 3rd-party apps one by one to see which might be causing an issue.
  • Check with the app developer for any apps you’ve installed and see if the issue you’re experiencing already has a known solution.
  • Evaluate if adding apps, adding features or performing other customizations is even necessary. 


Michael P. Hill
Michael P. Hill

Michael P. Hill is a Shopify, Shopify theme, content marketing, digital marketing and product management expert based in Chicago. Follow him on Twitter at @michaelphill or connect on LinkedIn.

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