Tools, templates, and other confusing words

Working on Gutenberg, the block editor for WordPress, has exposed me to how crucial and yet so frequently fumbled our use of words can be. These days I feel like we rarely get the wording right when trying to label something in the interface. It is not from a lack of trying. We spend lots of time – months even – debating single words. And yet we still manage to use the wrong one.

This was recently brought to light as we debated the renaming of our Block Inserter categories. The current labels are not easy for a user to parse.

“Common Blocks,” “Formatting,” “Layout Elements” – these terms are ambiguous and do not really tell me what I am going to find. For regular users who do not jive with the jargon, it can be difficult to remember where a particular block exists.

For these reasons we decided these categories should undergo a new naming convention. The issue was opened in November 2018 – obviously, we do not make rash decisions here. After going through a series of back and forth, we settled on something fairly simple and comprehensible.

These words, while still debated, began to make much more sense. We recognized that we may never get it perfect, but we felt quite close. That is until we noticed that various other places within the interface also use the word “Tools.” Yep, with this new addition, we would have three different interface sections labeled as “Tools.”

The Edit and Selection Tools.

And the Options and Tools settings.

Adding a third section called “Tools” in the interface is just going too far. And now our year-long word debate for the Block Inserter categories will go another round of back and forth until we get it right. It is exhausting. And we are working in English, the language in which Gutenberg is built. Imagine having to translate these words that took years upon which to agree. I am surprised WordPress translators do such an amazing job. This is not easy. Kudos to them for their work!

Noun or Verb

Languages tend to either be verb-focused or noun-focused. English, for example, is a noun-focused language. The emphasis is always placed on the noun or subject. In Hebrew, however, the emphasis is on the verb, or the action that is being performed. This paradigm generally dictates how we use language in the world. This brings me to the Block Inserter as referenced above.

The name, Block Inserter, depicted an action. It was the interface by which one inserted a block onto the page. This, however, has largely been replaced with “Block Library.” A library is a noun, a place where one goes to find blocks. Both work from different angles. I would argue that Block Library is easier to parse for most people. Still, this is another case in which the words just did not quite get it right. It took plenty of usage to determine if Inserter conveyed what we hoped it would. But finally, Library won out because it worked for more people.

Full-site editing

In light of full-site editing, a part of Phase 2 for the Gutenberg project, we have a whole other set of terms in which we have become extremely lost. Here is a list:

  • Template
  • Template parts
  • Layout
  • Block Patterns

While I love the word “template” because it engenders the concept of a basic foundation by which I can build upon, I completely understand that this can apply to just about anything. There is a template for document creation. There are templates for websites, templates for drawing, templates for molecules called DNA, templates for 3D design and manufacturing, etc. In addition, the word has very specific meaning in the world of WordPress. Theme authors use it like candy. And now we, Gutenbuilders (how do you like that word?), are using it to express a more visual structure for users. You would think following the same pattern set forth by existing WordPress usage would be the way to go in Gutenberg too, but you would be wrong. In WordPress, a template defines any part of a webpage that is generated by a theme. The naming of these templates are normally quite simple and include a template hierarchy of sorts.

In Gutenberg, we are adhering to that only partially. Our terminology is still being worked through, but we are exploring templates as full-blown layouts of a page. Most templates on the php side of WordPress refer to php partials that can be included into a post or page. In Gutenberg, these smaller partials are being referred to as “template parts.” So a template can include a series of template parts. If you’re a theme author, this may cause some confusion. These terms were explored in previous rounds of terminology back in November of 2019, but have since been leaning toward this later usage.

As we work on the design of full-site editing I find myself using templates and template parts to convey the UX flows simply because they are the terms being used by the developers. I want to make sure they understand what my designs are hoping to communicate, and this is where I end up. Obviously, a user is not going to respond well to templates and template parts, so while we use these words to collaborate, it remains in the back of my mind that we will need to figure out a more user-centric word. And because I know we like to spend years debating words, I just keep putting off this inevitable hurdle. Good idea, right?

The other term in this list is Block Patterns. These are sections of blocks that adhere to a common web design pattern (ie. a pricing table). Gutenberg blocks can be organized into particular patterns and will be shareable and exportable with others. The word, pattern, does not necessarily translate well to non-designers, but we are relying on the variety it brings rather than resorting to templates. This one is sticking a bit better due to the issue created in GitHub using that terminology.

Navigating the navigators

Remember the Tools dilemma above? It should be obvious by now that when a word works, we like to use it everywhere. But in this case, we thought to throw a little inconsistency to liven up your experience.

Gutenberg rolled out with something called the Block navigation. This little tool (yep, I just called it that) allows the user to traverse the block structure of their site without having to click through each and every block on the page.

It is really a nice way to navigate the structure of blocks on the page. I use it frequently with nested block scenarios. Because of the value it introduces, we decided to include this in the Navigation block too. Surely the user would need some help from the Block navigation to navigate the Navigation block. Yes, I’m serious. But instead of keeping the same name, it morphed into the Block Navigator.

And yo dawg, because we heard you like navigators inside your navigation, we also included the Block navigation/Block Navigator in the block sidebar settings! Except this time we called it Navigation Structure.

You are welcome. 🙂 Yes, words are hard… or wait, they are difficult.

Publish, then publish again

When you find the right word, make sure you get the most use out of it. That is my motto. Just take a look at the publishing flow in Gutenberg. When you are all ready to Publish, just click the “Publish…” button.

Did you notice the ellipses at the end? Yea, no one really ever does, but it is there to help you understand that the Publish… button does not really publish the post. Instead, it opens a slideout that offers another Publish button which does not include an ellipses. All clear now?

It started long before Gutenberg

This fun exercise highlights many of the word challenges we face in Gutenberg, but it did not start here. I believe words have always been a difficult thing in WordPress. It is beautiful irony actually. A software called, WordPress, dedicated to democratizing the publishing of words, struggles with words on a daily basis. Take a look at the age-old Pages vs. Posts dichotomy. A post is really just a page. Really. Or how about those things called widgets. What do these do? Well, they can add content to your site outside the editor. What should we call them? Widgets! And do not forget about categories and tags. It is always perfectly clear which does what, right?

My point with all this is that words are really difficult. Our community cares about them so much that we dedicate hours upon hours of our time to ensure the open source project continues to make it possible for others to publish their words online. Freedom of speech is a beloved Constitutional Amendment in the USA. It is important to use our words to help build each other up, to help encourage each other. Sometimes mistakes happen, just like they do in the software interface. We should all be willing to assume positive intent.

Summing it up

We think deeply about the words of a UI enabling others to write the words that cause us to think deeper.

Word up!