The other day a friend of mine at Automattic shared the following.
So I bought this theme for my personal website and I wanted to make it look nice before I activate it, of course, so I go into the Customizer and nothing looks like in the demo. Then I read the docs that tell me to create the frontpage using one of the page templates supplied by the theme so I try that but the template doesn’t show up in the dropdown. and then I realize that I probably need to activate the theme before I can use the templates but it will look ugly until I’ve set everything up. Why is this so hard?
You may have heard something like this before. Maybe it was your friend. Or maybe it was even you. This one is hard because it’s hard.
I’ve been thinking about how people make web sites using WordPress for roughly 10 years now. I think that’s a fairly long time but for most of that time I was only thinking about how people like me make web sites using WordPress. There were some benefits to this: I always worried I was slow at making websites with WordPress so I was always looking for ways to make it faster and easier for people like me. It helped me achieve a lot of success. That said, there were probably just as many negatives — if not more — in that approach.
The days before I knew everything
We have a creed at Automattic to help guide us in our day to day work. One of the ideals in the creed is to “remember the days before I knew everything.”
What kind of person was I back when I started using WordPress? Before I “knew everything?” I was a display designer who wouldn’t stop trying to get everyone in the art department using Quicksilver or recording macros in Photoshop. I really liked Photoshop and for fun, I’d look up old tutorials from the days before filters and try reproducing them. I had managed to work through several HTML and CSS guides and achieved a basic understanding of web design fundamentals. I made the time to read through dozens of articles on things like how to move a blog to WordPress, learn how to buy a domain, understand hosting, and install WordPress.
There was already an “everything I knew” before the everything I needed to know just to get started with WordPress. I was the kind of person who liked to figure things out, enjoyed cool hacks and cool tools, and had the time to learn all these new things. I didn’t realize this at the time. I thought this was all easy and fun. Already I was excluding people who weren’t like me.
Making a site in WordPress seemed simpler back then. Though it might have been because the needs of people using WordPress were simpler. Looking back it’s often felt to me like WordPress themes were always intended to be more like Winamp skins or browser themes. These static things that were draped over a static set of content and design elements. In the case of WordPress, something you’d drape over a blogging system that, as of WordPress 1.5, had just added Pages outside the normal “river of news” as a feature.
Since then there have been many features and changes for the front-end of WordPress via themes, templates and template tags, theme frameworks, settings screens, and now a wide variety of different “builder” plugins that have allowed it to present content in different ways. All that variety, and resulting complexity, can often feel like we’re still “playing with templates in bizarre ways.” The conceptual model of posts and simple pages hadn’t really changed and sometimes, well, sometimes everything can feel like a big hack.
Especially if you don’t “know everything” about WordPress yet.
Working on WordPress.com where we don’t expect or force people to learn everything — you can create a site without having to understand hosting, domain registration, or how to install WordPress — I’ve been able to see many people crash into the walls of that conceptual model. Crash into the walls put up when different themes and plugins play with or alter that model in those “bizarre ways.” We’ve continued to drape themes over posts and pages but the drapes have folded in on themselves like an origami creation some people just can’t undo.
I’ve been able to watch usability tests of ordinary people who don’t “know everything” yet struggle with some “simple” website creation and customization tasks. I’ve helped these people in Live Chat sessions. They’re ordinary people like my wife, my neighbours, my friends, and my family members. They just want to get something done.
We can help them.
The future with Gutenberg
Knowing all the above it might be easier to see why a person like me would be so excited about the Gutenberg Editor. What is it? Some people will see it as “just another way to add content to your site” — except now that content is added as a “block.” A chunk of content that you can grab and easily move around. Other people will see it as an exciting new tool for creating websites with WordPress. It’s definitely the latter in my mind.
The possibility of providing structured content in the form of blocks of content posts in posts and pages — potentially across every element on the whole front-end — blocks that can remain consistent from site to site and theme to theme will be a dramatic improvement for people making web sites with WordPress. A consistent, standard, user interface, and conceptual model for every WordPress customization product, theme, and builder plugin. I mean — well, that’s just amazing. Every single complex block introduced is one less theme and plugin hack. One less thing that ordinary people will have to learn and re-learn. My friend above will be able to preview complex content and design across any theme because it’ll be built out of basic blocks and not custom templates in a theme struggling to find a complex solution for a complex design.
The only WordPress project I can think of more exciting than this would be Time Travel — so we could go back in time and start it even earlier. When I see what’s happening in Gutenberg and the potential it has I see a way to cut out a whole category of things that might be excluding people from getting on board with WordPress. Something that can help people just plain “get things done.”
I wanted to tell a story about why I’m so excited about the new Gutenberg Editor for WordPress but it’s also wound up being a bit of WordPress history (from my perspective at least) and something like a story about how easy it can be to exclude people in the things we design and build. I hope it’ll help you reflect and shake out any walls you might have put up around who you’re designing for. And maybe that you’ll start looking forward to the future of WordPress with as much excitement as me.
I’m pretty excited.
The image featured in this post is North-east view from the northern top of Mount Kosciusko by Eugene von Guerard, via Wikimedia Commons.