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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.

Problem Solving

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.

Onward

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.

Published by Mike McAlister

A high-powered mutant of some kind, never even considered for mass production. Too weird to live, and too rare to die. I design all the things.

9 Comments

  1. Hey Mike,

    Great post, thanks a lot. The problem of course does not come from poor design decisions, but from complete lack of decisions.

    I couldn’t agree more with your article. Us designers seem to want to avoid the responsibility of our own job, which is to create a good looking and functional design, and we “transfer” this responsibility to the customer.

    “Should I use this, or that? No problem! I’ll give the option to the customer. After all, what he will use will not be my fault…” Being a designer myself, I am well aware of what it takes to make a design decision. Especially on a WP theme design. And how easy and painless is to provide an option, and let the customer decide. We have ended to only offer packs of options, the same blunt meaningless basic design, delivered from our comfort zone. Ultra-powerful-multipurpose-super-responsive-customizable-last-theme-you-will-ever-need. Really?

    Reply
    • Thanks for your thoughts, John. From my experience, the tough design decision ends up being the more sustainable, long-term solution. This is particularly true in the WordPress industry, where theme options require endless upkeep, maintenance and support. We’ve been able to reduce the amount of friction by curating the options and making those decisions ourselves.

  2. Excellent stuff, thanks for writing this.

    Design is *always* about solving a specific problem. It’s never about giving all the control over to the user. That’s not design, it’s , well I don’t know what it is. Passing the buck, probably! The last few years of over engineered theme frameworks and the like have completely missed the point of what design is about and frankly have made a complete mess of the market place and customer expectations.

    For a while I was contemplating getting into the premium theme game myself, but the more I saw what was happening in the market and the types of customers that were buying, the more I realised how little I wanted to be in that space.

    Most theme customers aren’t designers, yet they think that with enough customisation options they will be able to design something that solves their problem. The reality is they usually can’t. The market place really should stop selling a false dream to these types of customers and instead concentrate on selling well-designed, properly thought through solutions that require minimal setup and customisation. If a customer wants a custom solution, they should be paying a professional designer to design them something specific for their needs, instead of trying to prise a solution out of a theme that probably doesn’t work for them.

    I applaud what you did with OK Themes, and now Array. It’s great to see a return to themes that focus on design and solve specific problems. I don’t know how easy it will be to bring customers back from the mindset of wanting themes that can do everything, but it does seems that the tide is turning and customers are beginning to realise that millions-of-options are more of a hindrance than a help.

    Reply
    • Rewiring the expectations of the average theme consumer is going to be a tall order! There are long-established expectations and various topics that they are uneducated about entirely. But we still have plenty of time to change the landscape, but it has to start at the product and service level. The consumer base isn’t going to change without a little direction.

  3. Hello Mike,
    Thanks for sharing this precious and not very popular thought.

    I think this is a consequence of the lack of defined rules about designing for the web.
    There are many resources out there, but the knowledge of where to look and what to look for, it is a constant absent.

    In the market of ready-made themes, it seems that the only target to be taken into account is the customers who have to buy the theme and not the final users that need to visit a website that “works”. In this way it responds “well” (in terms of: fascinate the customer to buy) for respecting “potential” wild needs of theme-ready-made’s customer, losing the true ultimate goal: some users will have to visit that site. There is a lack of awareness about what are the aspects that count. And above all, as you mentioned, the idea is that the designer having the role to promote conventions of basis-functionality, not the customer; the customer should be informed and educated to understand this.

    The paradox is that: the web that everyone knows, the “real web”(?) has rules and convention that the themes ready-for-use, often doesn’t respect. This could be a starting point of observation.

    It takes time to evolve.

    Reply
    • I think you’re absolutely right, Mario. The customer has been convinced that they should be responsible for design and functionality of their website. We need to rethink how we’re marketing and educating about the value of WordPress products.

      It seems some of the most popular commercial WordPress themes out there are breaking the most rules and conventions. This is concerning for many reasons! It’s not a good place to be in when 70,000 people buy a WordPress theme that is poorly coded and full of UX failures.

      Thanks for your thoughts!

  4. I’m not convinced that all of these “bloated,” overly customizeable themes should be for the average WordPress user. I think they’re best in the hands of agencies and skilled designers who work with clients.

    I use a free theme that has a lot of customization options as a framework theme for my projects. I can utilize my skill in design to craft a website that will be easy for clients to maintain but still retain enough flexibility to create something unique for each one. The theme also allows room for the site to grow or morph in the future, which is a huge plus for the organization I’m working for (non-profits and small businesses). As a developer using a theme with many options built in, it’s helped me to speed up delivery time while still creating unique designs for clients.

    I’d love to use themes from design houses like Array but they just don’t fit most of the organizations that I work with. They’re great for hipster portfolios and techy design firms, but when it comes to heart-of-the-country businesses and organizations (or international clients), it’s just too sparse and modern. I’d use Slate or Medium for every design, if I could. The reality, though, is that I can’t. This is the problem I have on the super-simple, scaled-down theme argument.

    I think that the theme I’ve chosen to work with is as close as I’ll come to something that has good design principles and enough options to cover the needs of a diverse clientele that just can’t afford the prices of a one-off, ground-up design.

    I hope this doesn’t dampen the mood here. I just think that designers need to consider that the market for WordPress has grown exponentially over the years (it’s not just blogs or portfolios anymore) and, at least for developers like me, having themes with some options is a really nice luxury when trying to make a living at this.

    That said, I do agree that when the average Joe gets hold of a theme with too many options that it often goes very, very wrong. Maybe a company could focus on developer-only themes that allow enough quick design options and well-written code to balance beauty and speed in the development process.

    Mike, I have been a huge fan of your work since you began with Okay Themes a few years ago. Keep creating amazing and simple themes. I love them.

    Reply
    • Thanks for your thoughts, Brian! Surely there is a time and place for minimal design, which the general populous may not be as comfortable with yet. I do, however, think that it’s important to keep introducing this aesthetic to the “heart of the country” folks. If they aren’t exposed to it, you’ll forever be forced into delivering one kind of design/product to these clients.

      Maybe you have to do it in small doses, and maybe it’s not for every client, but it’s important to educate these people not only in the intricacies of how their website will work, but why a more modern aesthetic is important. Simple design is proven to be a better user experience, and therefore can’t be pushed aside and labeled as hipster.

    • Brian, you are right in that you will not always find the perfect theme for you client’s needs, but expecting to find a theme that would apply to every use case is in fact the real problem here. A skilled developer would be able to take any design created by a professional designer and turn it into a functional theme. Design agencies should stop buying themes for their clients and instead start designing themes for their clients that solve their actual problems. If you are looking for a developer-only theme you can use as a framework on every client project, then why not look into something like Underscores. You could also just create a child-theme based on whatever theme you want to modify. My point is that a skilled designer/developer does not need themes with design options since they should be able to create those solutions for their clients the WordPress way – decisions not options.

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