Disrupting WordPress

If WordPress does not self-disrupt, it will be disrupted by an external force.

The last significant visual interface update to WordPress is arguably the MP6 update introduced in WordPress 3.8 in 2013. This visual update brought a more modern feel to the wp-admin and reduced decoration in favor of simplicity and elegance. In 2019 this interface is still largely the experience of most WordPress users from website builders, developers, businesses, and personal bloggers. While it has been iterated upon and improved in various areas, it has become a part of the everyday work-flow for many.

Users of WordPress have spent hours establishing their work-flows. They have structured processes that rely heavily on a consistency in the software. Plugins are used to not only enhance WordPress but to enable workarounds when the software doesn’t support a desired outcome. There is a long standing relationship between WordPress users and the software.

Why would anyone want to change this?

The short answer is expressed best in the quote, “If you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance even less.” Software must evolve or it becomes archaic and dies.

Self-disruption

This bring us to the concept of disruptive innovation, originally conceived by Clayton Christensen. Disruptive innovation describes the process when a more simplified product or service begins to take root in an industry and advances up the market because of its ease of use and/or less expensive entry point. Larger, more established companies that provide the industry standard end up being disrupted as multitudes switch to the easier and less expensive innovation.

There are many examples of this in the world. Uber and Lyft disrupted the taxi service. Airbnb disrupted the hotel industry. Amazon disrupted brick and mortar retail. And Netflix disrupted the video rental stores.

The great companies plan for this. In fact they make efforts to self-disrupt, or innovate in ways that cause their own service or product to be disrupted. Uber shared earlier this year that cannibalization of its ride-hailing business is part of its master plan.

It requires a visionary to plan for self-disruption. Someone must survey the latest trends and discern where the industry is headed. They need to rally leadership to look beyond the status-quo and communicate the key points of disruption that can change the service or product in a positive future-proof way. Self-disruption is an uphill battle. It meets resistance at all levels of the business and consumer engagement. The business relies directly on the monetary benefits the service or product provides and has already dialed in to the standard process. Consumers, or users in the case of WordPress, have established work-flows already tweaked for the most efficient results. Any change will likely cause backlash from either of these groups. And no change will result in an archaic service or product that loses users to disruptive innovation.

WordPress has reached this intersection. It is undoubtedly the industry leader in CMSs and website building software at a market share of 35%.

While the rise of WordPress usage in the top 1 million websites continues, the top 100,000 and top 10,000 sites are dipping. According to Kinsta, the number 1 reason for using WordPress is because it’s free and open source. A secondary reason for its popularity is the extensibility of WordPress. These are both great reasons for its success.

The fact that WordPress is free is a big draw for users. However, usability studies have revealed that WordPress is not easy to set up for new users. There are various interfaces within WordPress (ie. Editor, wp-admin, Customizer, widgets and plugins) which cause a disconnect and confusion around where to go to achieve a desired action. It is difficult to get the site set up like the theme demo. And the design of wp-admin is about 6 years old.

The WordPress ecosystem and the website building industry have seen a rise in solutions to these problems. These solutions include plugins like Elementor, Divi, and other site-builders to new products entirely like Wix, Squarespace, and Shopify. All of these are disruptors in it of themselves. They push the creativity and innovation of website building software further and should be recognized for doing so. People are drawn to their simplicity or their onboarding guides, and find themselves willing to pay for these new UX solutions. Whether or not people noticed, WordPress was being disrupted.

Gutenberg

In 2018 with WordPress 5.0, the leadership and many contributors to WordPress decided to self-disrupt the open source software project with the introduction of Gutenberg. Instead of sitting idly by watching disruption happen externally, Matt Mullenweg, as the project lead, decided to push WordPress further. The feature plugin, Gutenberg, was developed with an initial desire to redesign the editing experience within WordPress. Everything would be based on blocks, content would be easier to lay out on the page, and the software would make use of JavaScript in the form of React.

Leading up to the 5.0 release, Gutenberg received a lot of negative feedback. Many in the community spoke out against it, businesses didn’t know how to work with the new block editor, and pessimism grew. Self-disruption never starts strong. The lack of communication in phase 1 left many uncertain about the future of WordPress.

But Gutenberg forged ahead. The people contributing to it saw a future that included better experiences, easier site building, and modern code that would attract people on all levels. Everything would become a block, and blocks would become the way in which people thought about building a WordPress site. The terminology fit well with common paradigms and extensibility would be well… extended with blocks.

It’s become evident as we delve further into Phase 2 and full-site editing, that Gutenberg was the self-disruption that WordPress needed. It’s naturally bringing together the various interfaces within the software, and giving more control to the users in terms of how they build their site and/or individual posts. This last year has been all about tightening up the interface and iterating on the necessary parts of wp-admin in order to help people shift to a paradigm of blocks. 2019 was slow in terms of overall feature additions, but fast in terms of improvements to existing architecture and UI elements. This was on purpose. WordPress can’t continue to forge ahead without the community or its users. The efforts involved with open communication and decision making has been amazing this year and we’ve seen much of the community and users alike come around to really enjoying how Gutenberg has matured.

The path forward

  • Phase 1 – Create a new block-based editor.
  • Phase 2 – Extend Gutenberg beyond the editor.
  • Phase 3 – Collaboration and multi-user editing.
  • Phase 4 – Official multi-lingual site support.

Phase 2 has been the focus this year. The Gutenberg team has looked at ways to introduce the editor into the widgets screen and Customizer. Now we’re looking into a unified full-site editing experience. While the year has been relatively slow, it’s now going to start picking up speed in terms of significant changes to how people might interact with WordPress. But don’t fret, the people involved take backwards compatibility very serious, and we’re working to bring everyone along with the change.

Long-time users are familiar with a few general areas in WordPress which will undoubtedly be affected in some way.

WP-CLI
API
Plugins
Themes
Shortcodes
Custom Post Types
Widgets

Widgets are becoming blocks, in fact, all core widgets have completed this transition. Shortcodes are becoming a thing of the past as Gutenberg attempts to surface shortcode operations visually as blocks. Block Templates (terminology is difficult here) will combine with CPTs to create a better page editing experience. Themes will undergo some serious transitions as Gutenberg includes more of the layout functionality. Themes will likely return to what they were initially meant to be – styles, patterns, colors, and font choices.

That last one is a serious change and effects the ecosystem of WordPress. Unfortunately, themes have become convoluted with so many various options utilizing different interfaces within WordPress that average users are often stuck. Scaling these back to only provide CSS styles and possible block patters (of Core blocks or complementing block plugins) will increase user confidence and allow users to theme switch without major ramifications to their site. It’s an exciting future for WordPress right now and we can expect to see some major shifting in the foundation. In fact, it could look something like this:

WP-CLI
API
Plugins
Themes Global styles
Shortcodes
Custom Post Types + Block Templates
Widgets
Blocks

Essentially, Gutenberg has redefined editing and layouts using blocks which attract more website builders. We’ve introduced modern code libraries like React which attracts new developers. We’ve provided an easier and more adoptable version control and repo system attracting more contributors. These changes are impacting the future of WordPress in positive ways. In fact, WordPress 5.3 included 645 generous volunteer contributors (the largest group of contributors to date).

Gutenberg isn’t a breakthrough innovation that made WordPress better. It’s a disruptive innovation making WordPress more affordable and accessible. People are contributing their valuable time to code, design, etc. It’s become an affordable (time-wise) platform to work on again. The UX is improving making it more accessible for not only people with disability needs, but new users too.

If there’s any rebel in you, or any aversion to complacency and the status-quo, then I invite you to join the disruption taking place in the open source project, WordPress. There’s a place for you.