Have you ever recommended a film and then when you watch it with your mate you can see them hating it. They’re looking over at you and saying “WTF! You said this was awesome, but it sucks”. You’re saying, “Just keep going, it get’s awesome”.
That’s how I felt about WordPress.com the other day.
My partner is writing a book and needed an online presence. I advised her a WordPress.com account would be ideal. It would be updated, managed and hosted by the WordPress.com team. It had an established community to discover and propagate your posts. There was a lovely new Calypso back-end which meant ease of use.
This is a post about some of the problems I observed setting up this new site.
I have learnt a lot about user experience and product design from creating our two new startups YoGrow and YoSpec. We recently did a revamp of the YoGrow dashboard based on user feedback. We would watch how our users interacted with what we had built and used those learnings to inform how we built our product. You can read about the latest changes to YoGrow here.
So I recommended it and have helped set up the site, but wanted to look at the user experience. I’ve been using WordPress for many years and know it inside out. This is a problem. It stops you from seeing the obvious problems. So I took a step back and looked at the process of using WordPress.com as much as possible with fresh eyes.
Unfortuntly I didn’t like what I saw. Now, I’m heavily invested in WordPress. It’s where a core part of our business at Raison comes from. But I’m not evangelical to the point where I will ignore our failings. And I think there are some failings.
I’m worried that we’re not solving the right problems, and we’re going to miss out on a big opportunity to grow WordPress (both .org and .com)
I’m going to list my frustrations because I think we need a conversation about this. There are those that will think that instead of listing these pain points I should get on and create solutions. I hope that sentiment doesn’t drown out what I consider are failings of WordPress that need resolving.
No.1 Frustration – Setting Up
The onboarding for WordPress.com is slick, but once the blog is setup that is where it ends. The back-end is muddled and confusing for someone new to the platform.
Let me walk through what should be an incredibly intuitive process: setting up your home page.
- I’m on my new site – spot a Customizer button in the bottom right corner (different from wp.org installs, but ok, let’s click that).
- Spot button for Static Front page in Customizer – a dropdown to assign a page as the home page. It’s a new site, so nothing to choose from.
- I can’t see anywhere to create a page, so I click the cross and back to the homepage.
- I’m looking for somewhere to create a page. Perhaps the untitled icon on the top right of the admin bar – it’s an icon of a pen and plus. I’ll click that, oh no – it’s for creating a post.
- So, back to the home page. In the top left, there is a dropdown menu in the admin bar. Half way down there is an option to Add a page. Fantastic, click this. I create an empty page called Home.
- Now I’m back on the home page; I can click on customize and start building the page.
- In Customizer, I’m at a loss where to begin. Eventually, I discover there is a section under Widgets for the Home Page section.
That’s an example of a user journey that should not exist but is fairly typical for doing anything in WordPress. If we look at Squarespace or Wix we can see they achieve a much slicker interface.
No.2 Frustration – Poor Themes
We don’t have enough quality themes on WordPress.com. There are lots out there. Too many in my opinion. Consider the strengths of a platform like Medium or Facebook. It’s the consistency and quality.
We were looking for a theme with the following requirements:
- Home Page to have:
- Single column layout
- Modular / Widgestised
- Featured Post
- Show recent blog posts (featured image, title, excerpt)
- Footer with contact information
These requirements surely must be ubiquitous among aspiring bloggers, yet the themes out there are cluttered up with multiple sidebars and widgets. There may be a theme that does allow a single column layout, but the demo shows a sidebar and even after purchasing you will have the following unintuitive process to set it to one-column:
- Create Home Page page
- Goto Templates options
- Choose single column template with widgets (if exists)
- Edit in customizer
In summary, hard to assess if the theme has the very simple functionality required and if it does, then there is not an intuitive process to set this.
It took us an inordinate amount of time to settle on a theme within the repo that suited our needs. We chose Didi in the end.
No.3 Frustration – Support
So at this point, there is a high chance the user is frustrated they cannot easily create a home page as they require. They might want to contact support.
We did because we found the Didi widget for displaying posts was restricted by category. So if you wanted to display your latest posts you needed to add them all to a single category – not ideal.
But there is nowhere at all where Support is mentioned when on your site. Look around the backend of the Calypso dashboard. Not there.
There’s a Didi Support Forum, but it’s not linked anywhere. So we emailed the Didi theme author who told us about the forum and explained that support is managed there.
No.4 Frustation – Plugins
I initially recommended .com over .org because I liked the simple dashboard and the way that the site would not ‘break’ easily or need maintenance. WordPress.com would manage all of that.
However, I quickly regret advising this. The functionality of the site is bare minimal, but one thing the site wanted to do is capture email addresses of those visiting the site.
I understand the lockdown. It’s one of the benefits of the platform. But it’s also really limiting. Even more so it will be confusing for non-technical users who see these services with a ‘WordPress’ integration who discover it excludes WordPress.com.
I wanted to like WordPress.com, but it has a way to go to become more intuitive. I think forcing themes to use the Customizer is a good move. That kind of consistency needs to be enforced to create a unified experience.
This is not just a \</rant> about WordPress.com – in fact, many of my above gripes are even greater in the self-hosted instance of WordPress. I think these problems effect everyone in WordPress. We all want to grow that 25% market share and build a sustainable ecosystem. As a daily user of WordPress, I know how to resolve many of the above issues. I know where to look, but it’s not obvious, and I learnt like most others – by trial and error.
These are not cosmetic concerns; they are structural. Perhaps they are even borne from the open source mentality.
I’m reminded of the following quote:
A wonderful, but closed garden, cannot compete with the beauty of a wild and untamed jungle. Tim Berners-Lee
WordPress is most beautiful, but it is also wild and untamed. We would do well to learn from the walled gardens of Apple and Facebook to how they craft their user experience.