Stand out by being invisible

Recently, I’ve been invited to review a few plugins by developers requesting early feedback. Perhaps they found me via the Gutenberg Changelog podcast. It is amazing to see the innovation happening across WordPress in response to the Block Editor. By introducing the concept of blocks, the ecosystem has become more extensible and creative.

With the creation of more plugins and further extensibility comes the continued problem of varied interfaces. Each developer wants their product to “stand out.” Plugin authors push their unique interface design in hopes that theirs will be more obvious to the user than their competitors. It becomes a race to maximalism, or at the very least, a disconnected interface within the whole of WordPress.

The Gutenberg team has been working on a long-lasting unification for WordPress by providing reusable components, and combining the interactions of website-building and content-editing into single holistic experiences. But the more we unify, the more opportunities arise for 3rd party developers to integrate their own interfaces into WordPress. It is a never-ending struggle.

There is already an existing problem as users jump from the editor to the Customizer and then into the wp-admin screens to make changes to their site. They interact with Menu screens and Widget areas that lend to more disconnection. If they are a tiny bit adventurous they might have several plugins installed as well. Each of these plugins offers a unique interface for getting things done. It is no wonder why people generally do not look at WordPress as a unifying well-designed experience.

Gutenberg is forging forward to change this. However, it is increasingly obvious that Gutenberg cannot do this alone. If we want WordPress to be regarded as a beautiful interface that is both intuitive and predictable, then we need the help of every 3rd party developer to join us in this effort. We need you to stand out by being invisible.

Good design is as little design as possible. Less, but better.

Dieter Rams

I understand this may not make sense. Product owners want their products to visually differ from the competitor and WOW their users. I get that. But by implementing this, the user experience suffers. It becomes cognitive overload and distractions instead of the solutions each plugin set out to become. Think about that. The very solution one’s product provides could be a barrier in the whole of WordPress causing anxiety and frustration instead of peace and resolution.

Become the solution

I am not suggesting to change the product, but rather to change the way in which a user interacts with it. Do you have a wp-admin menu item? Is that necessary? How many logos are visible at one time on the page? How many different ways can a user interact with your product?

Take a look at the design of Gutenberg which aims to strengthen the interface as a whole. Product designers, make use of the components and given design direction provided by WordPress. I understand it may not be your favorite flavor of design, but think about the users. The best way for a product to stand out is by looking like the rest of the interface.

When a 3rd party product takes on the visual experience of the rest of the software, it is a WIN-WIN situation. The user is not forced into a new path of interaction with the software. They see the same design patterns throughout and everything becomes predictable. Tabs look like tabs everywhere else. Font families are the same throughout WordPress. Buttons convey interactions in obvious ways. The user sees a unified interface that feels fresh and inviting.

On the other side, the 3rd party product becomes a truly integrated solution. Without the struggle to learn another interface, the product becomes memorable and recommendable. Not only does the user experience satisfaction but is filled with the joy of familiarity. WordPress remains WordPress.

An indirect result from my proposition is the positive image of WordPress in the world. Not only is it an open source means for democratizing publishing, but it becomes recognized as a beautifully designed experience. We can get there. This can be a reality for all of us. But it requires the purposeful intent of 3rd party designers and developers to create experiences that integrate seamlessly with the WordPress interface.