Open letter to @wordpressdotcomPosted: 12.10.11
The letter that I am writing you today is a love letter. It’s a love letter because I love WordPress. I have tried Blogger; even before the somewhat recent exodus, I was never a Blogger fan. I have tried LiveJournal (no no no). I have tried other sites that I can’t even remember because I ran away as quickly as humanly possible. WordPress has ruined me for other blog experiences, I love it so much.
That having been said, I think there are some improvements that can be made to WordPress. Although I find it a very powerful blogging platform, my main issues are not with the functionality (which I love) but with the limitations of blog design (which frustrate me regularly). I’m not going to call for everyone to be able to customize their CSS for free or put scripts and flash willy-nilly on their blogs. I was a member of MySpace before it tanked and I’ve seen what happens when code falls into the wrong hands. It’s frightening, and I don’t want to go there, and I don’t want you to go there. Problems still remain for the serious user, however, that need to be addressed, and I would like to outline two of them for you right now.
Problem #1: Finding the “right” theme for your WordPress.com blog can take hours, if not all day, if not a few days, because of a serious lack of customization options.
I started a new WordPress blog recently with friends (not my second or third blog but more like my fifth or sixth–it’s a sickness), and I groaned when I realized I was going to have to go through the rigmarole of Finding A Theme. Not the “perfect” theme, I’m not a perfectionist, just a theme that doesn’t have dealbreakers. (Some examples of dealbreakers: fonts that I find hard to read or that don’t flow with my design, colors that don’t go with my color scheme, weird link or text colors that make the blog less readable, banner areas that are too small, not being able to hide the header text if I am using a banner, and once, a design feature that pushed the comments on a post down below my sidebars because the comments section was the full width of both the post and sidebar areas–I really loved that theme, and was told that it is a “design feature” and wouldn’t be changed, even though it doesn’t make sense at all for the comments to be pushed down below the sidebars!) Once I eliminate the themes that don’t have options that I need, such as custom header, custom background, and sidebars, and once I eliminate the themes with dealbreakers, I’m scrambling to find a theme that I can live with. Not that I like, but that I can live with.
Solution: Create a core of themes with powerful customization options.
It seems WordPress is always coming out with new themes to satisfy the masses, but I think focusing on a core of dynamic, versatile themes for the advanced user would be excellent. (It would also probably cause more people to use WordPress.com instead of biting the bullet and being self-hosted, which means more ad revenue for you guys, right?!) This is what I would like, ideally, out of my theme experience:
- I choose a basic theme–one of the new core themes that I’m proposing. Perhaps it’s a magazine-style theme, which might have a few different grid-based layout options, or it’s a two- or three-column theme. Unlike Sandbox, these are finished themes that can be used right away without looking like a naked page from 1996, but they’re extremely basic. They come with a title, a menu bar, basic widget areas. They lack design flourishes that might not appeal to some, and are sleek and minimalist.
- I choose my layout option. I think it would be worth noting here that some elements besides columns could be able to be moved or removed–take the menu bar, for example. Menu bar placement is all CSS, so it stands to reason that one should be able to customize it through the Theme Options menu, since the menu bar could be placed in multiple places depending on the classes and IDs used–or removed altogether. I say this because I use the Pilcrow theme at my book review blog and I really like it, for the most part–except for the fact that I intensely dislike my menu bar being above my header. Since the header is designed to catch interest and draw the eye down the page, it makes little sense for my navigation to be above the header, where it’s most likely to be missed. I find this to be a design flaw and I am loath to pay for custom CSS to change this one element. (I also really hate that the font is in all-caps and is so huge, but more on that below.)
- I am able to change standardized theme options easily. For themes with custom headers, for example, I think all of them should have the option of hiding the header text and, as I touched on above with the menu bar rant, not affecting the overall design if we choose to use the header as a banner rather than a supporting image to the header text. (Even if you still use the text, the whole thing about drawing down the eye still applies.) There’s nothing that I find more frustrating when trying to customize my blog design than when I find a theme I really like and find out that there’s a significant option missing that most other themes have.
- I am able to change other options that have not been available in most themes heretofore. I would like more control over basic blog theme elements–such as font. There are some themes I really, really would like to love, that have really, really icky fonts–or fonts that I find icky, anyway. I think having drop-down menus in the Theme Options that allow me to change the font, font-size, and font-color (and link color, which is an option in a theme or two, so I know this can be done) should be a option–not just the basic text font but also headers, the blog header, the text of the drop-down menu. I appreciate that the designers of the individual themes thought that the fonts were a good idea, but that doesn’t mean I am going to like them. I also think being able to customize the colors on certain elements, like the menu bar, would be great, and I think it would be extremely feasible since it’s a guided customization, if you will–I’m not going in and screwing around with the code myself, I’m pointing to colors in a drop-down menu, or font names. I could have more control over my design and I wouldn’t break my blog or insert bad code on accident.
I know that creating such a customizable design would be a major undertaking. I also think that it would be wildly popular. You could definitely still keep all of the old themes for people who don’t want to customize their blog so much, and continue to create pretty themes (although I would urge you to standardize the old themes for stuff like hiding the header text when being able to use a custom header). Even though this would definitely have to be a free theme (otherwise, I’d just pay for the CSS customization and do it myself), I think the benefits could be enormous by bringing in a ton of new users who don’t use WordPress because they don’t like that they can’t customize enough. Blogger seems to be alienating a lot of users right now; I know several who have jumped ship since they rolled out their changes. I bet WordPress could scoop up even more of them.
Problem #2: Widget envy.
I know I don’t have to explain this one, I’m sure you guys get it all the time. Let me be the first to say that I applaud the control that you guys exert over your site’s hosted blogs. (See again, MySpace 2007.) I don’t think we should have the ability to add our own scripts to our blogs. I agree with you on that. So how do we overcome this issue==an issue which has actually led some people I know to leave WordPress so they can have third-party widgets? (And probably many others, those are just the ones I know.)
Solution: If possible, work with some of the most popular sites to design enhanced widgets that we can add through the widget menu, while still prohibiting people to add their own scripts to the site.
Even if you can’t selectively add flash or script-based widgets without allowing users to add them to their own blogs, it would be great to have more WordPress options like we have with Twitter for other popular sites (Etsy, Zazzle, Goodreads, Shelfari, whatever other sites the kids like to visit these days). Again, I know this is going to take time and effort, but I also know for a fact that this is an issue that literally keeps people from using WordPress. I imagine that many sites would be more than happy to do a good deal of the work to help integrate themselves into WordPress, since it’s such a popular tool and it would increase traffic from WordPress to their sites. Win-win-win.
With just a few improvements, WordPress.com could effectively become the Supreme Benevolent Overlords of the Blogging Universe. WordPress is already amazing, and I have no intention of moving elsewhere unless something even more amazing comes along, but I figure a little constructive feedback never hurts. Unless you’re really sensitive, in which case, I’m sorry :( I didn’t mean to hurt you.