Today I want to share something a little bit different.
This is a post I’ve been sitting on for a few months, and felt L2D would be a good place to share it. It’s less related to the practical design decisions that happen everyday in creating software, and more about trying to understand where a product is going, and how it differs from other products in the marketplace.
Open versus easy, and where design fits at WordPress
WordPress as an open source project
The growth of WordPress, and all of the projects and companies that have grown around it has enabled a host of opportunities for millions of people around the world. The freedom that comes with using, building upon, tinkering with, and sharing open source software is pretty amazing.
We’re at an interesting point in the history of WordPress. In December, 2018 a new editor was launched for WordPress, code named Gutenberg.
There were many discussions along the way about its benefits, its shortcomings, and where it would take the WordPress community. At the time I watched the discussions with mostly positive feelings about Gutenberg, contributing where I could to the design of this new and exciting project.
Learning from Ghost
In an article outlining learnings from creating the Ghost CMS, the authors shared a concept that really stuck with me, and has drawn parallels to WordPress in my mind.
Centralised wins on simplicity, Open source wins on flexibility
So, an open source Content Management System (CMS) can be flexible, but a centralized CMS will often win on simplicity. At its heart a project like WordPress belongs to its community, and can be shaped and led by a number of interests, organizations, and individuals. All of that care and attention can help the software to morph into something that meets the needs of many, but struggles to solve some problems in a simple way.
In the early days of building Ghost the team sought to be simple and flexible with their product. They finally realized it was important to pick.
Picking one side
Can we have our cake and eat it too with WordPress? I agree with the team at Ghost that a CMS can be open or easy to use. It’s hard to be both.
With WordPress you can build almost anything, and it’s free to use. It can be challenging though, and can leave many new users unsure how to proceed.
I’ve helped friends and family setup websites on WordPress over the years, and have watched them use it to manage their websites. Once the sites are setup, and guardrails are in place, they often are able to do what they need, and love it. But the initial setup can be challenging, especially since there are so many ways to build a website.
A competitor, such as Squarespace, is relatively easier to use in specific use cases. I’ve also sent a few folks in the direction of Squarespace, with positive results as well. A website builder like Squarespace can win out on helping someone get up and running fast, so long as they don’t want to change much. WordPress wins by allowing almost anything to be built, provided the expertise or time is available to figure it out.
WordPress is messy and wild and useful and open. You can do anything with it. Gutenberg has also just started to open the door for new possibilities.
The question I am debating is whether WordPress can stay open and flexible, and clean up some of its usability challenges without sacrificing that openness.
I believe this can happen.
For anyone working on a product, it’s helpful to understand the perspective you’re viewing it through. If you can see that perspective properly, you’ll be able to make decisions that aren’t fighting against the product’s natural strengths.