Doubling Down On Design
Every year, we see a new wave of popular features and trends that pop up in commercial WordPress themes that tend to dominate the market before the next trend kicks in. Two years ago, everyone was crazy about theme options panels. Then it was shortcodes. Then it was content sliders. Now we’re in the drag and drop page builder era and next year, like clockwork, it will be something else.
These features were initially marketed as time savers and as a means of simple customization. In hindsight, though, we can see these “features” had some serious implications, as most shortcuts do when it comes to trying to build a quality website.
Theme options panels went from bloated to obscenely bloated once the marketplace caught wind that users were willing to pay good money for headaches.
[column][accordion]Shortcodes dump a bunch of tags into your post content and don’t travel well when you switch themes, leaving your content [button style=”red round”]messy[/button] and dependent on proprietary features.[/accordion][/column]. Look familiar?
Content sliders are notoriously terrible for user experience and proven to kill conversions, yet they’re the first content you see on the homepage of an incredible number of WordPress powered websites.
Surely, the argument can be made that these features have their place, if used responsibly and in moderation, but marketing these flaws as features in a commercial product is disingenuous and disrespectful to those who put their hard earned money and faith in your products. Yet, even with these precedents, we’re still trying to complicate things further.
Drag and Drop Mediocrity
The ability to build your own page layouts and drag and drop blocks of content within WordPress sounds like quick, painless and super awesome way to build a website, doesn’t it? Like its predecessors, page builders promise great results while requiring little effort from the user. Everything for nothing — except the cost of the plugin or paid upgrade, of course. If we dig just a little deeper, we can see that page builders come with their own set of complications.
The dilemma with the page builder concept is that it proposes that people should do work they’re not skilled in doing instead of focusing on the thing they’re good at. Instead of spending their time producing great content, the page builder concept implies people should spend hours, days, and weeks fumbling with all the knobs and switches to get a website that works and looks good. The part they don’t mention is that unless you have a decent sense of design, layout, UX, and content architecture, the website you end up with is often only a marginal improvement, if not a step back, from what you’d get if you would have just found a theme that was well-crafted to begin with. As you can see, these kinds of shortcuts rarely meet the expectation or promises they offer at checkout.
Although page builders are growing in popularity, it’s not hard to see that they, too, will ultimately suffer the same fate. As long as these solutions are complicating content and website creation, rather than enabling and empowering it, they will not remain as a viable or sustainable feature of WordPress.
All of this makes me wonder, why are users increasingly more interested in complex layouts, accordion shortcodes and the ability to add widgets in the middle of a page, anyway? Is this the kind of website they envision at the outset, or an idea that they are sold on when browsing for a commercial WordPress theme? Do they want “complete control” or would they rather have a website that simply works? At a time when so much depends on how accessible your content is, it’s alarming to see content creation being exponentially complicated with superfluous bells and whistles. It’s alarming to think that this is what theme providers want for their users or the community at large.
There is, however, one feature that we seem to have forgotten about. A feature that has incredible marketing potential, requires no plugins, requires no user intervention and works with every version of WordPress: Design. Good old fashioned design.
When design is done right, it can negate the use and dependency on shortcodes, page builders and all distractions in between. When design is done right, users spend more time creating content than reading help files.
When we take those design decisions into our own hands, we liberate the user of these interruptions and confusing technical choices. We have to remember that they are using WordPress so they can create something, and we should never get in the way of that.
There are those who believe that the role the designer must play is fixed and determined by the socio-economic climate; that he must discover his functional niche and fit himself into it. It seems to me that this ready-made image ignores the part the artist can play in creating this climate. — Paul Rand
The trend, lately, to offload the responsibility of design and the decisions that go along with it to the user, has once again been marketed as a feature. Some users are convinced that they should be responsible for serious usability decisions that we’re supposed to be professionally versed in and creating solutions to address.
If we take a look at the WordPress Philosophy, we can see that there are a few great guidelines to use when making WordPress products, both commercial and free.
- Provide solutions that require little configuration and setup.
- Make smart design decisions and avoid putting the weight of technical choices on our end users.
- Provide an environment where a user can create content without problems or interruption.
- Strive for simplicity in ways that are positive for the overall WordPress user experience.
It’s no coincidence that page builders and trendy quick fixes don’t fit into this philosophy. In fact, it should be no surprise that the WordPress philosophy seems to be inherently opposed to these kinds of features.
I encourage theme providers to take a step back from the feature craze and start building themes with a more organic approach, leaning on the power of design and creative, eclectic problem-solving to make informed decisions for users and marketing them as such. Let us revisit and refocus on the world of typography, layout, whitespace, balance, color theory, content architecture, user experience and accessibility. Let us get back to being professionals of our craft, owning decisions, empowering users and educating them on the merits of lean and sustainable WordPress products.
Here at Array, we are going to continue fighting for the user and promoting simplicity and design as the solution. This way of doing business has proven to be an increasingly viable model and rewarding experience, and we can’t wait to see where it takes us.