In design workshops, the hardest sessions are always those that ask, “Given infinite resources, what could the product we have today, become?” It’s a great question, but pretty much impossible for most people to answer.
One reason for this may be the anchoring effect of starting with an existing product. Very often, the results of these workshops tend toward variations of incremental change (to what was there before). Coming up with something totally fresh is hard.
In the last few weeks, I have become involved in various conversations around design changes planned for the WordPress core editor. My interest in this area impacts my role as designer at Ephox, the company behind the TinyMCE editor. In my exploration, I tracked down Reid Peifer’s excellent talk on reimagining content creation. The series of slides in Reid’s talk on WordPress editor history illustrates the incremental change phenomenon really well.
Reid beautifully articulates his thoughts and offers it with the spirit of caring, not criticism. In the same vein, what follows here are my personal musings on editor futures, which I hope will contribute to the discussion.
Asking the right questions
If asking the “What could this product become?” question is not the right one, then what is? When I run a design workshop, I find that I get a wider range of ideas if I start with a blank page and a very tangible question like, “what is hard about using your product today?” and solving for that set of problems. In this context, the question that could also be asked is, “what is hard about making a website with WordPress today?”
I have not run a formal study asking the above question, so what follows is my opinion based on anecdotes from conversations from a year of WordPress meetups in Brisbane, coupled with my own experience using WordPress, and reflections on recent internal projects we have deployed at Ephox using WordPress.
So, in answer to the question of, “what is currently hard about editing in WordPress”, I offer:
- WordPress makes it easy to put a super simple website online.
- Themes are excellent, as long as you don’t want to make any changes.
- There is no guarantee that using a WordPress theme (or plugins) will result in a usable, well-designed website.
- For all other cases, creating a professional quality website is hard and requires the hand of someone with software development experience.
Now, if editing in WordPress is difficult (anecdotally), and we are considering changing the editor, what could we do to make creating content easier?
Last year, I ran an in-house research project which looked at the web sites of 40 leading open source companies that sell software-as-a-service solutions. From this analysis, we extracted a number of design patterns that represent the current “best practice” for open source SaaS sites.
For example, the general structure of the home page for an open source SaaS company looks like this:
If I want to build a new home page that follows this design pattern using WordPress, I have a few choices:
- Build the page from scratch.
- Find a theme whose home pages matches these layouts exactly.
- Use a page builder to build a page layout of generic elements that follows this design pattern.
In all of the above cases, I am still left with the homework of figuring out what type of content I need to fill into each of the containers on the page. This is hard (which is exactly why there is a strong commercial ecosystem around creating websites with WordPress).
Could this process be easier?
If we think about the task of content creation abstractly, we can reason that it is a process of assembling components from a spectrum of content creation elements. In my mind’s eye it looks something like this:
On the one extreme, we have very basic HTML elements that can be stitched together into a specific webpage. Things like text (
<p></p>) and images (
<img />) form the basic building blocks of an HTML page. These are the atomic components which can be assembled together to “create content”.
On the other extreme, we have fully instantiated web pages, or content, which are consumed by people in their homes, on trains, planes in every corner of the world. At this end of the spectrum, all generic elements have been given specific values: text areas are assigned specific words, which are styled in a specific way.
In between the two extremes are gradually more specific instances and combinations of the base elements. In the discussions around designs for the new WordPress editor core, the conversations have focused on shifting the needle of WordPress core further to the right (on the above spectrum). That is, ideas around including more complex components as basic building blocks inside the core editor.
Can we give content creators less homework?
Now, let’s say we shift the core editor further to the right on the content creation spectrum. Would this solve the problem that current WordPress users have in their experience of creating websites? I propose that any solutions on the current content creation spectrum do not address issues around why creating a great, professional looking and well-designed website using WordPress is still really hard. What may be needed, is a change to the content creation spectrum itself.
Digging deeper into the problem of why creating well-designed websites is hard, the root issues are largely that even with themes and page builders, there is still a large disconnect between the abstract “placeholder” element, and the optimal content instance that will fill the placeholder in the published post or page. Could we close this gap for content creators? In my mind, the content creation spectrum could look like this:
Could we take away some of the homework for content creators by extending the WordPress core editor to provide more guidance around best practices in web design through the creation of native elements that are bound to specific content types? Could these in turn be used to create page templates and themes which close the gap between very general page layouts and best practice content instances? Could this lead to more effortless content creation?
References that inspired these thoughts
Reimagining content creation by Reid Peifer
Thoughts on a Visual Editor redesign by Ella Iseulde
Focus on tech and design leads by Matt Mullenweg
What makes a great editor by Joen Asmussen
What are little blocks made of by Joen Asmussen
Atomic Design by Brad Frost