About WordPress, Usability and Open Source Development

This journal was initially powered by the excellent Movable Type. I had the ability to write entries via a neat interface, and it allowed people to comment on each entry. It came with a nice default template, but as a designer I modified this template to my own design.

But Movable Type is a commercial product, and eventually I saw more benefits in the rapid development of the open source WordPress, so I migrated.

As it would turn out, open source is not always great…

The priority recipe for any most commercial pieces of software is the following:

  1. Build the best product ever
  2. Profit!

In comparison, the recipe for most open source projects only include the first of these priorities—the product. Contrary to what one might think, this is commonly bad for usability. Having to design a product for profit means the designer has to pay very close attention to usability, because if the new user doesn’t understand a product, that user won’t purchase the product. Open source, not having this goal, often treads lightly on the area of usability. Particularly because usability is really just good design, and when it comes to design—everybody has an opinion.

Recently a friend of mine, Michael, decided to improve on the default WordPress template. The result (dubbed Kubrick) swayed some of the core WordPress developers, resulting in the possible adoption of this template as the new default template. Not soon after the announcement, the WordPress forums were boiling.

This is just an example, and in fact applies to most open source development communities. The same goes for Firefox, where any sudden visual change creates a spur of discussion. For instance, with the recent change of visual theme, I even partook in the critique myself. But knowing what I know today, I probably would’ve trusted that the core developers knew what they were doing (which in this case, they were).

The Problem

As I said on Michaels site,

War is too important to leave to the generals… wait, I meant to say the design is too important to leave to the coders. Let me elaborate.

Essentially, the default WordPress theme has two purposes.

First and foremost, it is to gather a huge user base for WordPress. Secondly, it should be so user friendly, and so simple that the layman user that would otherwise have used Blogger, will actually consider WordPress instead.

In this case, WordPress suffers from too many features, all enabled by default, all fighting for attention.

The focus on profit is clearly non-existent, and the focus on attracting new users is all but ignored. If we take an objective view of the baby-boom in the blogosphere, new bloggers seek to WordPress and Movable Type mainly for their great comments and archiving features. Both applications sport many more features, but that’s really just icing on the cake.

The problem is, if these basic commenting and archiving features are not so user friendly that anyone can easily and quickly identify, decode and use them out-of-the-box, then these up-and-coming bloggers will choose the CMS that “does it better”.

When asked to rate the usability in open source software vs. proprietary software, Jakob Nielsen (internet usability guru) replied:

Poorly, I’m sorry to say. I think the reason is that it’s biased highly for one specialized area which is the very technical such as IT systems administrators. But Linux for the average user or other open source solutions for someone who is not a geek rates particularly low.

The reason is, the motivation for open source is not because the person gets paid but the person gets prestige. The developers are designing for each other and they are so feature rich—geeks love features—and you get more prestige by adding features. For the average person fewer features is better and easier to understand.

The Solution?

“Firefox is the exception”, says Michelle Levesque:

I have five major complaints about Open Source software development, but in advance I would like to clarify two things. First of all, there will always be exceptions to every rule. For example, I believe that relatively few complaints listed here apply to the Open Source browser Firefox which continues to surpass my expectations.


Currently, WordPress is a great free open source project that enjoys wide community support and shows lots of promise. As opposed to Firefox, however, it has not yet had it’s real breakthrough. Using and loving WordPress, it would be so sad not to see it reach it’s full potential.

As I see it, there is only one way to go forward, and that is to copy the Firefox recipe. In order for WordPress to achieve a true breakthrough, focus needs to be on the following things:

  • WordPress developers and designers must pretend that profit is a concern, and always focus on the new user—not the power user
  • WordPress should have a tight closed developer circle that has absolute power (to my knowledge, that is the case currently). As Firefox developer Asa recently experienced, this means having to make difficult decisions.
  • Appreciate and listen to constructive criticism from the community, and blatantly ignore the rest
  • Disable all but the necessary features, but document and comment inside the code, so the users that want particular disabled features can easily access them
  • Features that are nice but not crucial should be visually tucked away, so their use will benefit only those who actually would use the features in question

In the end it all comes down to the end user. Starting out simple is always easiest, and let’s face it—power users will change the default template anyway.

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35 thoughts on “About WordPress, Usability and Open Source Development”

  1. Michael says:

    I am in total agreement. (Which is possibly why I like OS X so much, since that is the philosophy its built on). I try to do what I can in terms of making Kubrick as usable vs. as feature-complete as possible.

    However, it is a very delicate balance to walk. Not because I doubt my instincts, because I quite honestly don’t. I think I know a thing or two about what I do, and most importantly, I’m not afraid of being wrong (man, the number of sites I’ve done that had frames…).

    But it’s delicate, because eventually, detractors come along. As has recently been seen with WP. And they’ll start attacking your every move, regardlessly if its deserved or not. So all of the sudden it goes from being “Let’s try it this way, I think that might work, and if it doesn’t, we’ll just change it.” to “We better get this right from the get go, or this/these guy(s) is going to make such a ruckus that it’ll be potentially destructive to the community.”

    That of course, on one hand, can force one to excel. But on the other hand, it’s also potentially hampering for the innovation.

    And this is IMO regardless of whether the detractors are right or not. Newcomers pay about as much attention to that as the detractors do to facts…

    So yeah… 🙂

  2. Richard says:

    I am so glad to read this post and Michael’s comment.

    First some background: I am what many in the “thread from hell” on the WordPress support forums about Kubrick would call a “nube” or I guess it’s parent “newbie.” Just so you know who’s commenting here. I’m not a designer, php coder, or CSS geek but I’ve been around both socially and technically in the webisphere.

    My best friend who brought me to both MT and WP and all of this CMS-like stuff is an open source kinda guy. I, on the other hand, appreciate the movement but really would like a nicely designed tool to do my work that shows care in all the little details. Whatever one thinks of MT technically, it’s a tasteful application and WP tends (to my eyes) to be ugly by comparison with many rough edges.

    However, my friend convinced me that WP was was the way to go so I went and I’m not sorry. I like it and put up with an ugly back end because it’s fast and slick and it just works.

    A week ago I saw that Michael had a set of templates (Kubrick) and when I figured it out it was pretty much the same set of templates that ran his great site I was overjoyed. And, (and this is important), in his writing about the templates and about WP he said all the right stuff about usability and design and the social parts of others using his work.

    I say again, I’m not a designer nor a technical sort but I know what I like and I appreciate good UI and Kubrick has it.

    So, I downloaded it and started reading the readme file and then got cold feet because I’d need my good friend’s help and so decided to put off installing it. I mean, no rush although I did and do love the way it looks and works. This has nothing to do with the critical stuff in the thread about the .htaccess file or whatever. It was just me being an overwhelmed “noob.” (Good thing I didn’t ask for help in the WP forums, ‘eh.)

    Then somehow I found myself reading the above mentioned thread on the WP support site, a place I do not hang out at often because I’ve found (previous to that thread) a bit of arrogance there and a bit of “if you’re asking that question you don’t deserve to be using this software” kinda ‘tude. I’m undoubtedly a lot older and more secure than the people building that kind of atmosphere there so I did not let it get to me. However, my friend, who is much more technically inclined than I am have been flamed there more than once. I was amazed and it really gave me doubts about using software created by people who have it in them to be that way. I have no time or space for mean. Mean is unacceptable; I don’t care what the question or how idiotic the person on the asking side.

    No problem, I just didn’t hang there. But, I have to say that I have a lot of experience running a large online community center/threaded discussion board for a company and I know something about what is possible in these kinds of situations (people using language as a tool to intimidate). In my community we have 20 moderators who, when they see this happening gently nudge the offender back to reality. In the WP forums the offenders were and are the moderators. This was shocking but again, I let it go.

    So, I found myself reading this long thread where Michael is being dragged through mud for what? Contributing something that’s well designed to the mix and daring to say that he thought it might help people (like me) get more out of WP.

    As I told my friend, after reading that thread I felt like flaming every one of the offenders and then moving my work to MT and saying goodbye to this community of teenagers with egos the size of Nebraska and the social skills of a rock.

    I let it all go and went off and did other things hoping that someone else would take care of it. Not that I need to take care of it or do a thing but I must say that whether I use WP or ever use Kubrick, I do not like to see what happened to Michael happen to anyone. And, I’m sure it’s happened to other as well.

    I realize that this kind of thing is always possible when things are done by committee but I like the thread of the above post that says something (something like profit motive to drive manners and UI) ought to be done to change the culture or the culture will kill the project. It will certainly drive guys like Michael away and in my mind, they are as much a part of the future of the project as Matt is. I say these names like I know these people but I know no one; I just read that thread so now I know some names and a bit about who did or does what.

    Thank you for this post and thank you Michael for Kubrick and if there is anything that I can do (as I said, I’m pretty useless but I’m a nice guy) to vote or support or test or whatever, I’m more than happy to.

  3. Root says:

    Richard I think I can understand why someone coming into that thread might have found it very disconcerting., particularly if they do not have any type of technical or design background. What you witnessed was the tectonic plates moving. To my knowledge it has never happened before. Some very important issues were being discussed by people who were very close to those issues. Rightly or wrongly the WP forum is occupied largely by geeks. We speak in our own language, and without knowing the history it is very difficult for a layman to make sense of it. Unfortunately it took place in public.

    I should also add that I have read a lot of comments maybe similar to your own which are based on a misapprehension as to the true facts but this is not the time or the place.

    Michael has done his best here and elsewhere to obscure the true origins of the outrage of the WordPress community but there were / are very good reasons for it.

  4. Michael says:

    Ehm, what? ‘Obscure the true origins’ of what outrage? Okay okay, not stepping into this hopelessness again. You do whatever it is that you do, and the rest of us will get on with our lives.

    Richard: Amazing as it seems, I actually agree with Root. It was too bad that you had to step into that cat-fight. Not because we ‘speak in our own language’, but because it was the absolutely most trivial issue I’ve ever seen rise to become a flamewar…

    And thank you for offering your help, I really appreciate that. And believe it or not, but I actually could! ;)—I’m putting together a version of Kubrick, which is a good deal more ‘n00b’ friendly. I hope to have it out on Sunday. And the more that have a go at it, the faster we’ll eradicate any bugs in it.

  5. Richard says:

    Thanks for commenting on my comments, I’m totally fascinated by all of this and believe it or not, us noobs have brains and memories and experience to bring to the table. We might even think of things that geeks overlook and not just at the UI level.

    Rightly or wrongly the WP forum is occupied largely by geeks. We speak in our own language, and without knowing the history it is very difficult for a layman to make sense of it.

    I get it (that I don’t get it) and wouldn’t want it any other way. However, one does not have to be technically inclined to recognize condescending language (toward people like me) and yelling (at each other).

    This is not about WP history, this is about attitude. None of this argument was aimed at me but I felt sick reading it.

    Root, I get that knowing the WP culture and/or history would give the thread more context, but that single thread and that fact that you, who I take it are an integral part of the WP development process would cut and run because of this made me feel that this project is pretty fragile.

    I’m happy you guys have a club and I have no desire to be in it nor do I feel bad about not being in it, but that club looked rather chaotic and mean-spirited in that thread, anomaly or not.

    The issue for me is that what goes on in the basement, in the black box of geekdom, is reflected in the product and as the original post says: that hurts if you want people like me to jump on readily.

    I thought (maybe wrongly) that what Michael was doing with Kubrick was more than just a CSS upgrade but a process upgrade on the entire WP experience. Sorry if I got that wrong.

    If it wasn’t, then someone ought to be thinking that way and yes, that person ought to be talking with root (if root isn’t the one doing it) so that support issues are factored in.

    Root: was it a technical thing beyond my grasp that led you to take your templates offline?

    I’m not commenting on the right or wrong of it; just that you’re telling me that this is all too technical for mr. noob here and that doesn’t seem all that technical to me, it seems like a social statement. I might have made the same one, I have a history of it. I’m not commenting on what you did, just how you are characterizing the thread.

    Michael: the triviality of the issue is in the eyes of the beholder. My guess is that Root thinks differently about the relative triviality. But again, process, photoshop backgound editing and other things beyond my pea-brain grasp aside, it was the social culture of that thread that bothered me and it wasn’t just you two, it was many other people.

    Again, this is not the first time I’ve seen condescending language in support forums for WP and if those forums are the bulk of the tech support for the product then I’d say the whole setup needs an attitude adjustment. I’m scared to post a question there and after reading all of this would never do it.

  6. david clark says:

    there is an old expression—you should never watch two tthings being made: sausage and legislation. I would like to ad a 3rd: open source software.

    I am sorry to see personalities/egos got in the way.

    What is interesting to me is that I have been a target of Root’s flames (I just go into the “kitchen” less frequently now), but “side” with Root on this one. As exciting as it is and was for Michael, his “chest-beating” pronouncement that Kubrick was going to be in 1.3 was a disservice to the process (not to mention an overstatement of the truth). Amazingly, he has yet to modify his post.

    Could root have handled his reaction better? Without a doubt. Seeing this discord play-out “in public” may turn people away from the product, and this is what Richard is warning us of.

  7. Michael says:

    David: Hah, that’s a very true quote on sausages and legislation (and, I agree Open Source).

    But I’m curious as to why you believe that it was a mistake to post about Kubrick?

  8. Joen says:

    I am all for freedom of speech. That means I appreciate and respect each and every poster in the forum. It is better to have an active community (albeit not always constructive in its criticism) than it is to have no community at all.

    And in all fairness to Michael, perhaps going public prior to 1.3 that Kubrick was to be included as default template wasn’t the smartest move. I can’t say I wouldn’t have done the same thing myself, but knowing how laymen users react, it would probably have been better to wait, something Michael also acknowledges.

    In my experience, laymen will react to “change” with fear, laymen referring to anyone who’s not actually working on the particular change in question. By saying this, I am also saying that programmers and core developers can be laymen when it comes to design.

    Where I work, the designers (me being one of them) respect the programmers advice because it often stems from a deep and clear understanding of the code they made themselves. This helps me in my design, knowing that I have to take this or that into account when designing for their code.

    But the beauty part is, that the programmers I work with know their limitations, and respect the decisions of the designers. If I say “this is not usable”, and argue my case, they respect that.

    The lesson here is not to choke the programmers voices, but to acknowledge that design and programming are two different things.

    Sometimes change is necessary, and in the case of WordPress, it’s way overdue. I never thought the Gemini stylesheet was ugly, but I sure as hell knew that the template it styled needed a lot of work, usability wise.

    Kubrick, on the other hand, could end up the way it should be—as the perfect union between programming and design. Because with my understanding, parts of Michaels design will be integrated by Matt into a new Kubrick-like (but not Kubrick) template for WP 1.3. The result, I think, is very promising, because it will have the strenghts of better (not perfect) usability and structure, yet be coded by a master developer.

    This change annoys many because they have made WordPress tutorials that take Gemini into account. Ironically, when making a tutorial that is so specific that it takes the default template into account (thus appealing to the most basic of users), then surely the author must also know the importance of having a clear and usable default frontend. This is quite possibly what is ahead for Wordpess—so where did the train derail?

  9. david clark says:


    >But I’m curious as to why you believe that it was a mistake to post about Kubrick?

    I am not saying that it was a mistake to posts about Kubrick per se, but that it was going to be the default for 1.3.

  10. Richard says:

    Joan, thanks for that, I think that cleared a lot up for me.

    I’m still uncomfortable with us-them issues and a long time ago, in another universe I talked for a long while with Bill Atkinson about this stuff. Bill and Andy Herzfeld are smart dudes, undoubtedly decent programmers yet I never heard either one of them talk about users like idiots. On the contrary, they both took noobs as a challenge to build easier to use tools at ever level of using a Mac (resource manager, resedit to MacPaint and HyperCard).

    The thing that appealed to me (still does) about what I thought (maybe incorrectly) that Michael was doing was it was a step toward making WordPress a cleaner, tighter application for a broader range of users. I realize that many people in this discussion can build tools like this from scratch and have and I admire that, but I also think there is room for a layer running over WordPress that simplifies the process and produces a clean result.

    It would be wonderful if some of the folks who have built such beautiful sites with these tools were in on that UI design. I thought that’s what was going on with Kubrick and social history aside for a second, I think it’s a good thing and hope this leads to other projects, more templates and systems that are easy to use and look nice.

  11. Joen says:

    Richard, it’s Joen, not Joan—I’m a guy 🙂

    As for talking about users like idiots (I’m unsure as to whether you were referring to my comments on laymen), that was not my intention at all. Quite the opposite.

    The definition of layman:

    “someone who is not a clergyman or a professional person”

    » Source

    That means that every users but those who working on the project in question, is a layman user. They are the best of testers, but only when the time is right.

    For instance, if a project is in true beta, meaning “it’s final but bugs need ironing out”, then laymen users can provide a fresh set of eyes and find unknown bugs and bumps that developers have overlooked.

    On the other hand (and this is something I deal with as a designer), if you present something to a layman prematurely, he/she will think of it as “final”, and start criticizing this or that, even though you specifically noted that this or that was incomplete. This is is comparable to what happened with Kubrick.

    The bottomline is, that designing good usability is not at all designing for idiots. It is to respect the precious time of the end user by making things easy, logical and accessible.

  12. Michael says:


    > I am not saying that it was a mistake to posts about Kubrick per se, but that it was going to be the default for 1.3.

    Well I did say ‘a variation on’.

    But, the reason I’m asking, is because I still don’t see the problem. The majority of people I have talked to, all agree that Kubrick is a pretty good bet. It’s not perfect in its current incarnation. But a lot of the basic ideas about it, are really about making it easier to present relevant information to the readers.

    This was an inevitable progress for WordPress, which I’m hoping everyone agree on.

    Yet there are a select few, who seem to believe that the complexity level of WordPress should remain in a stasis, so as to not create more work for the willing supporters (whom I salute!) on the WordPress forums. But of course, every step above plain text is raising the complexity level of online publishing.

    Correct me if I’m wrong.

    With that in mind, I don’t see why this rubs people the wrong way… I mean, we know change is inevitable, so why not use what we know is wrong right now to create a better version for 1.3?

    Joen says that ‘change causes fear’ (I would go for uncertainty, but okay). And I think that’s true. And while I’m sure some people will wince at me saying this, I also think that some of the reason for all of this, is a bit of jealousy.

    As Joen says, I am sorry that I put up there, because I’d forgotten to calculate with those factors (which are bound to be renounced by ‘the other guys’).

    If 1.3 had rolled out, all equipped and ready to go (which it needs to, due to the new template system, which kicks some serious ass btw). People would probably just have been joyed that it had a new template, and that the new system will allow them to do very cool things in their own templates.

    I regret telling people what the facts were, but I don’t see how this is different to going back in time and telling people that a new template would be in 0.8 (or whenever the current template got in there)… It’s just a feature…

    To be honest, I think the main problem is with how some people see the WP community and their role in it. In their heads it looks a lot different from how the real world is put together. I do think the support people should have a say in how the new template is put together. They have this great knowledge base to draw from, so its obvious.

    But that doesn’t mean they should build it, or even decide if it goes in. On all levels of this thing, the work people do is volunteered, and the only currency being exchanged is respect.

    It’s my opinion, and has been ever since the couple of times I have doubted the WP devs, only to have my ass handed to me on a platter when they turned out to be right, that people need to respect the decisions of the devs. They are smart people.

  13. Richard says:

    Joen, my sincerest apologies for not reading and/or assuming gender.

    I wasn’t referring to your layman comments when I talked about attitude. Your original post is what stimulated me to comment that I thought and still think that tools like this need layers or skins so that some can go right to the core and others can work at higher levels.

    My guess is that everyone would like to see that happen for WordPress (except a few entrenched folks who like keeping things more oscure, hard, and clublike).

    I agree that I got to see the process with its pants down but process is process, all the way down and up the chain, no?

    I have no problem with messes, with rough edges, and with honest mistakes. I just have a problem with condescending attitude or a comparison of chops. Hey, it’s everywhere, not just here but whenever I find it, even when I happen to be in a group that’s on top, it bothers me and I either want to change it or leave.

    Simply put: if anyone actually builds a layer for WP that makes it easier for people like me to work with it, I’d hate it if the code name for that project were “idiot templates” or something like that. I can take it, I just don’t like the energy or assumption that keeping things hard or obscure serves a good function.

  14. Richard says:

    Michael, very well said. Sorry, we posted at the same time.

    One more thought: If someone decided to make a TypePad-like version of WordPress with the core developer’s support and blessing, would they get crosses burned on their lawn? I’m not saying that’s where Michael is going, nor am I planning or capable of planning this, I’m just trying to flesh out the WP as individualist thing.

    On the other hand, is that (TypePad-like UI on a shared envionment) what everyone assumes the extreme end of simple-to-use is? I don’t know, I’m just asking and also asking about the WP culture supporting efforts like that.

  15. Joen says:

    Richard, no need to apologize, it’s the price of an odd name.

    I feel as though I’ve missed out on something, or perhaps we are in perfect agreement, but just talk past each other.

    I’ve certainly designed my share of badly usable websites, and used to roam the Flash Community where Jakob Nielsen was made fun of. The usual argument “against usability” was that designing usable websites was to dis-respect the intelligence of the end user.

    Now, having actually read Jakobs books about usability, I know otherwise.

    The fact is, if I may repeat myself, that not designing usable websites, is to dis-respect the end-users time.

    The web is different from back when people made intros and websites in popup windows. Web surfers no longer have time for Mickey Mouse bullshit. There are so many better things and websites to spend time on, than deciphering mystery meat navigation.

    Today, the small things matter. That means fixing usability, and respecting the end users time. Doing so, would never be making “idiot templates”, if anything it would mean making “respecting-the-end-user templates”, and as far as WordPress is concerned, Kubrick takes a good step in the right direction.

    So to make it as clear as possible: focusing on usability is not designing for the idiots.

  16. david clark says:


    Sorry, let me try to clarify. My criticism is NOT what you did NOR how you dd it. The beauty of Kubrick is in its packaging—the help, readme, etc. I was extremely impressed with it and think it s an extremely valuable piece of wok. (I am not in ffavor of image based ui”s, but its necessary for mass apeal).

    The problem is not your work, but your self-promotion of it. You have every right to be proud of what you did—but “pre-anouncing” your contribution as “saving the day” can be off-putting to those that have been “in the trenches” doing the day-to-day support.

    I am not saying that the approach root et el took was apprmoprite, nor do I claim to have been “in the trenches” to warrant an opinion, I just think I understand the underlying sentiment.

    Egos are delicate things. Unfortunately, “incompatibilities” are not as easily debugged as code conflicts.

  17. Richard says:

    Joen: we’re on exactly the same page and as you say, making the same point past each other. Sorry, I don’t like that I did that as it means I did not fully get what you said and responded anyway.

    I just spent the last two hours painting windows (ah, the kind in a house, not the OS) which is a great time to think and in thinking a bit more about this issue I came up with another theory about why Michael got the reaction he did (David’s comments aside for a moment and I think they’re probably right as well):

    What Michael has offered folks like me is not just a worked out set of templates but a tasteful worked out set of templates. I do realize that all of this is subjective but my subjective sense says that, technicalities aside, Kubrick is an example of something I like, would like to use because I like the way it looks and works.

    The templates offered on Alex’s site, which are great and plentiful, in my, totally subjective and untechnically gounded opinion, are not as nice as Kubrick.

    So, what’s gone on up until Kubrick is that people have either started with those or knew enough to make their own. Anyone who made something great earned that greatness, the hard way.

    Michael gives people like me a free pass to visual greatness, just like some think TypePad does for people who don’t want to mess under the hood and just want to build something and be done with it, or, tinker at a higher level.

    So, is it possible (I’m asking, not telling) that there is resentment, not just for Michael, bur for anyone who builds a layer of ease that allows shlubs like me to make something of beauty while remaining relatively clueless about under the hood?

    By the way, I very much like this thread and even if it was generated from a discussion that made me ill I do think that when you parse out some of these deeper issues there is stuff to chew on here, both for the WP community and for any community of people working together.

  18. Joen says:

    Glad we agree 🙂

    So, is it possible (I?m asking, not telling) that there is resentment, not just for Michael, bur for anyone who builds a layer of ease that allows shlubs like me to make something of beauty while remaining relatively clueless about under the hood?

    I think you’re more right than you know—it’s not the only reason of course, but I’m sure it’s part of it.

    I remember being part of a Flash community a long time ago. In many ways, people acted in the same way as we’ve just experienced with the WordPress community. People were using Flash 3, and later came Flash 4 with true programming capabilities.

    I mention this because when Flash 4 came out, a secret race began as to who could code the coolest effect on their website. Upon public unveiling, that effect would be analyzed and discussed by the Flash-savvy in the forums. It was never commonplace to have the author of such an effect publicly open source it and give it away. Oh no—”that would mean everybody could do it”. People kept it to themselves.

    For the Flash community, this has changed as Flash has matured. Let’s hope the WordPress community can mature along with WordPress.

  19. Richard says:

    And this is the piece of that thread that bothered me. Michael may have stepped on a toe or two in his excitement to share the fact that his work was being considered for inclusion, but had that work been less sophisticated (closer to code than to TypePad) he would have been treated differently. Sorry, I stumble. Again, part of the reason he got flamed is because he made something that has the potential (rough edges smoothed) to bring more people like me into the WP community, which, will change that community, dumb it down, so to speak.

    I know that most would like to see the WP community grow to support folks like me (better) so I’m less chewing on the old problem thread and more the more general idea of entrenched interests and in this case, possibly trying to keep a certain technical, hackerish, ham radio flavor in the culture rather than a TypePad flavor.

    We got here first… prove yourself, etc.

    I wonder what the reaction had been had Michael not already been a respected member of the inner circle… if someone no one ever heard of before submitted Kubrick, or worse, started building a TypePad-like service with WordPress.

    Crosses on lawns?

  20. Michael says:

    Going into Kubrick, my idea was to create a template that did all the things that a default template is supposed to (it doesn’t do that right now to be honest, there are a few things missing, mostly because I’ve only been able to work in short sprints on it, so a few things fell through the net).

    And I guess you could call that the ‘Typepad’ approach (at least in terms of the way you treat the end user, though I wouldn’t know how their default templates look…), in that you’re striving to give the user as much usability up front, while also giving him the power to – almost – at the click of a button changing the look.

    I think you’re entirely right. If the actual ‘interface’ part of Kubrick hadn’t been any different from the current template, with the only differences being in the structure of the underlying code, then the reception would no doubt have been quite different (not necessarily better, just different).

    Which of course stems from the code-fixated people who seem to be at the core of the ‘problem group’ (the group having a problem with this thing, not the group that is problematic). People who are more worried about whether code validates, than they are about whether the complete package makes sense to the end user as much as it does to them.

  21. Michael says:

    I guess what I mean is what you said in this entry:

    “[…] WordPress suffers from too many features, all enabled by default, all fighting for attention.”

    This is a good way perhaps to create a template, which is supposed to tell people what features are available. But that’s what documentation is for. That’s why WordPress has a Wiki.

    Rather my approach is to create something that’s usable and easy on the eyes, first and foremost (poetic underlying code goes without saying) and sets and example second.

    I’m looking forward to seeing what Matt’s approach will be.

  22. Matt says:


    Root, I get that knowing the WP culture and/or history would give the thread more context, but that single thread and that fact that you, who I take it are an integral part of the WP development process would cut and run because of this made me feel that this project is pretty fragile.

    Just to clarify, Root is not officially involved with WordPress development, though he is active on the support forums. The “official” developers are listed on our About page. WordPress is a meritocracy and those listed are people who have earned trust through invaluable and sustained contributions to the project and generally have increased responsibilities. That said, WordPress is what it is because of the huge community that participates in development through our development mailing lists and bug tracker. (The proper venues for development discussion, the forums are intended for support.)


    Thank you very much for this post. In a time where less than useful discussion was taking place, I read this and was inspired by the constructive criticism. Please know that the issues you raise are very much in the minds of the developers. Ping me (via email) if you write any more on the subject, I wouldn’t want to miss anything. If you’d like to become more directly involved the nightly/alpha stage (which we are in now) is the best point in the release cycle to give this kind of feedback.

  23. Joen says:

    Matt, what an honor to have a core developer post on my website. I’ll be sure to notify you should I write more on the subject. Usability is (or has become) one of my big interests.

    I have just promised Michael to help him out with what usability and advice I can give him, with regards to tweaking the Kubrick template. With this done, I’d love to help out on the nightly/alpha stage. Don’t hesitate to get in touch if there’s something you think I can help out with.

  24. Richard says:

    Matt, I’m aware of who the core developers are (after all, I started with a template from Alex’s site with those links in it) and I read your weblog (and commented in your last WP problems thread).

    As this interesting discussion has moved on it has evolved into a discussion about who WP is aimed at and how it is or might be delivered to better support users like me, who lack both coding skill in php and layout and design skill with CSS.

    I’m not reading and posting here to flame about WordPress, on the contrary, I’m hooked and would like to contribute, in my way at my level. And, I would urge you to make a way for me to do this as I know there are others like me who have ideas and would like to share them.

    But, putting an idea out there and having it ripped into because it might make WP accessible to people who some find embarassing to be associated with… that seems to me to be a problem.

    I’m going to make a list of ideas I have for WP and post it. I’ll let you know when it’s up and we can go from there.

    Joen and Michael, I did the one month TypePad trial to see what it was and I’m glad I did (it’s free for a month). It was before I knew much about weblogs or what the various pieces I was controlling did but I still learned a lot.

    I would recommend that even though Kubrick is not TypePad nor is it trying to be TypePad, as you stated above Michael, your aim is to make things easier on users who do not want to spend as much time at the code and CSS level. Well, obviously, TypePad is this on steroids: a series of screens with checkboxes and radio buttons all neatly arranged to lead one through a decision making process about how something will work and look. You can backtrack at any time and easily change things once the weblog is live.

    It’s far from perfect and it’s slow as mollases (this was earlier in its evolution, it might be faster and better now) but it’s an education and is done tastefully and cleanly. I know it’s image-heavy and is based on MT but it’s surely got ideas that would be useful to see.

    I would argue (and have in more obscure discussions elsewhere) that the back end of WP needs an overhaul as well. Not just the look but the way it works.

    Whatever one thinks of MT and the Lotts, both MT and TP are clean designs that are well thought out and a heck of a lot of people use and find them accessible.

    Anyway, I’m gonna make a list for WP and see if I can get in trouble.

  25. Michael says:

    Richard: Could you post a link here, once you’ve got the entry up? I’m always on the lookout for problem areas, even if just to educate myself a bit…

    As for Kubrick ‘vs.’ TypePad (I’ll give the trial a go, just to see how they’ve got it setup. They’ve got some good designers, so it should be educational as well), I don’t believe in ‘dumbing’ down things more than strictly necessary.

    I think a ‘layout wizard’ could be kinda cool, but then on the other hand, it’s also a bit much I think. Not that I’m saying it shouldn’t be done, because I think it could help a lot of people who’re mostly interested in self-publishing, and not so much in knowing their paddings from their margins.

    I guess it’s because I consider XHTML and CSS as well as even basic PHP to be fairly simple things to work with. 99% of the time, if the base of what you’re playing with is good, you won’t have to know what font-family does, except that that’s where you put the name of your font.

    I don’t know… I can see the greatness of giving Rikke, my girlfriend, a TypePad-like solution. She won’t care about CSS, XHTML or PHP. She would only be concerned with the fact that a) it has to look good / feel homey and b) not get in the way / do what it’s told.

    And on the other hand, I think she would learn a great deal from even the smallest encounters with the underlying code, which would arm her with the option of going in and making the necessary adjustments herself…

    But of course. I’m talking like one excludes the other, aren’t I?

    That certainly isn’t the case. We can have both (please tell me you’re using Textile, Joen…) good code as well as an abstraction level like that of for instance TypePad.

    Speaking of which, I’m going to try out TypePad now 🙂

  26. Joen says:

    I am using textile, and loving it. Unfortunately my lame web host (which I should have switched away from ages ago) has a PHP memory limit that prevents me from using the far better Textile 2.

    As for Typepad, WordPress, Movable Type and the whole shebang this has developed into, I’ve been given it a lot of thought after having started this thread. I really want to think it through and flesh it out in another post, so I’ll just post few thoughts here, mostly in response to the latest comments here.

    When talking WordPress usability, and making it easy for the end user, we should not get carried away. While WordPress is an easy 5 minute setup (to my surprise that truly wasn’t a lie), it’s still a PHP/SQL powered system that requires uploading and installation. While I, and certainly all you gentlemen here, think this is easy, it’s really a quite intimidating process, that requires you know quite a lot of things about how the web works behind the scenes.

    I am saying this not because WordPress should be still easier, quite the opposite. This very install defines the target audience. We are talking an advanced CMS here, there’s a limit to how easy it can become.

    Typepad, on the other hand, is a quite different story. It is aimed at users migrating from Blogger—users that are comfortable logging into Hotmail, writing email, signing out and stretching it a little bit: choosing avatars in Messenger. It is an entirely different target audience, that as Michael says, wants it just to a) look good and b) do what it?s told.

    I’m not saying that WordPress couldn’t power a similar solution, but the package you download from WordPress.org should definately aim towards the first mentioned target audience—those who know how to install it.

    What usability we should then put into the default template that comes with that install, and how the different aspects of wordpress should work, could easily be inspired by the admittedly great usability of Typepad.

    My point is that we shouldn’t get lost in making it all ultra-simple, when WordPress will always have the initial barrier that it has to be installed.

    Richard, I know you probably wasn’t lobbying for a typepad solution, but was rather pointing at the usability of typepad, but I still wanted to mention the case for the target audience, so we don’t forget what it is we’re dealing with.

    Ack, I really should get cracking on some graphics for September right about now 🙂

  27. Richard says:

    Michael et al, yes, of course I’ll let you know when I get a list started so you can comment and I can add.

    I totally agree that TypePad may go too far in helping someone decide look and feel and where users need support and how to provide it is of course, open to interpretation.

    I do think you’re onto something in thinking about how to give Rikke a way in.

    There are many ways in and many types of people and learning and work styles. As a drummer I like to hear an entire new rhythm at full speed to get a sense of what it is before I start breaking it down to make it easier to learn and build up again. But, essentially I learn well by imitation. A good friend of mine who’s a better drummer can’t learn this way at all and has to have it written out. I wish I could read music better and he wishes he could learn by imitation better but alas, we are who we are.

    Thinking about the different types of learning and working styles (I would think that even the core developers of WP have different styles of working) is useful if not essential in building something for Rikke but also for Matt or Root.

    Obviously TypePad, even at the highest level doesn’t give one the kind of control that many WP users want and I’m not saying Kubrick or the layer on top of WP needs to be TypePad, just that there are ideas about how people work and learn built into TypePad and that the Lotts or whoever designed it did a lot of thinking about what types of users with what needs and knowledge might be using it.

    I think the key is multiple kinds of access and control and to that end, maybe what WP needs is an alternative back end. Has that ever been talked about or attempted?

  28. Joen says:

    Having thought a bit about it, it can really be summed up quite simple.

    WordPress is a great CMS, and the install literally takes 5 minutes.

    The blog, in its current state, is technically good, looks okay but is slighly confusing to navigate, search, and use.

    The result should be good looking, very easy to navigate, search, use and update.

    The only thing in the way of the latter, is the template. WordPress 1.3 might very well mark the commercial breakthrough, and 1.4 the clear winner among CMS’s.

  29. Root says:

    Well as every one is having their 2c; I may as well add to mine. Just to be absolutely clear I am a WP user and not part of the dev team. The forum likewise is populated largely by users. The devs contribute as and when but they do not necessarily stand in the front line of the thousands of new user type questions – a group incidentally for whom I have the greatest respect and to whom my work is dedicated. My issues in the thread from hell were that:

    #1 It was quite wrong for any one designer to announce on his own blog that his work was being fitted as we speak to the WP 1.3 release. In my view that should never have been allowed to happen.
    #2 In the course of that thread, my own work and contribution to the WP community, which is entirely unrelated to the cause of the thread from hell; came in for sustained and ill founded criticism both from Matt and Michael. That speaks for itself.

    #3 Putting aside, fancy graphics, and hacked copies of WordPress; my position on the default install and the work I have already done to assist hundreds of WP users in dealing with that issue is well documented.

    I do not mean to sound condescending but casual observers were only witnessing the tip of an iceberg with a very long history and technical background. I did not mean to suggest they therefore did not understand it. But the context, and the unwritten parts of many of the posts was an important element in understanding,

    the dynamics of the dialogue.

  30. Joen says:


    I think your work is very much appreciated.

    As for this work you have put into documenting the template up until now, there is something you have to understand. WordPress is still being developed upon—it is not what it used to be, and in half a year it will be different again, perhaps with an even newer template that is not Kubrick.

    It’s like when you design a car. This car will be documented thoroughly so mechanics can fix it. But with the next model, the documentation has to be updated, renewed, replaced.

    It is the same with any other application, ever. Surely the documentation for Photoshop CS differs thoroughly from the documentation from Photoshop 2.5, does it not? And I know that huge chunks of Photoshop has been re-written from the ground up.

    WordPress is no different. It is a piece of software, and it evolves. So must the documentation.

    With that said, I have myself gone over the latest 1.2.5 version of Kubrick, line by line, and let me tell you it is the cleanest, nicest, most userfriendly template I have ever seen. It will help WordPress, more so than any Gemini documentation has done so far.

    I’m not trying to belittle your work, I’m trying to explain the most important aspect of them all which is that sooner or later, things will change, and in the case of Kubrick, I have seen with my own eyes, the change is for the better. I feel I’ve said it countless times before, but I’m going to say it again: change is hard, but sometimes necessary.

    As for announcing the change in templates—there are two sides to that. a) WordPress is open-source, the change would appear in the nightlies eventually, and b) why shouldn’t it be allowed to happen? Who calls the shots in this shebang? Where are the rules as to what can, and cannot be done? With that said, I personally agree with you that it wasn’t the best idea. Even so, the end-result would’ve been the same, and wallowing in what happened will not change the outcome.

  31. Richard says:

    Let me ask a more concrete question (in the context of this thread, not the WP support forums):

    When the next version of WordPress comes out, how do we retain the work we’ve done on both our index and css files? Or, let me try again with a different take: If a version of Kubrick is the default template system and I don’t want it, how will sorting things out work so I can retain the work I’ve got and get the benefit of the new code that is deeper than my work?

    If, in fact, Kubrick is an easily separable layer, or, another way, the WordPress upgrade is easily installed without tampering with certain existing files, then I’m not sure what the issue is about Kubrick or any other set of templates for existing users.

    If, however, it’s all mixed up and hard to sort out the old from the new, then the bundling of a more complex default set of templates might cause support and other issues.

    All of what I just said is said from the point of view of a novice at all this stuff although since I last posted/replied here I’ve learned just a tad bit more and even though I think Kubrick is fantastic and undoubtedly cleaner code than what I’ve slapped together I’m rather enjoying flailing around with this stuff and would not want to lose the learning and work I’ve done by replacing it with something else.

  32. Michael says:

    Richard: It is my distinct impression, that Matt is using ideas, rather than actual code. Which essentially means, that whichever of those ideas that are put into the new template, their semblance to what Kubrick is now, is negligible.

    In other words: Nobody is interested in overly complicating things for new or old WordPress users. I haven’t looked long and hard at what’s currently in the CVS (that is, under development). But knowing how things work, I am pretty sure that nothing that doesn’t need changing, will be changed. But as the project is evolving, there will always be changes.

    Which is a great strategy for developing software IMO. Because while it can be easier in the short-term to hang onto what we have, simply because it’s what we know. In the long-term, it’s sure to come back and bite us in the ass, so to speak 😉

    If changes are made to core functions, then it’ll most certainly be for a reason. And if that means that old templates won’t work, then it won’t be the first time, and it certainly won’t be the end of the world as we know it either.

  33. Richard says:

    Okay, I get it. Wow, learning is possible.

    I get how some folks (Root maybe) might be defensive (I just felt that myself) and I get how it’s important to move forward and possibly gut some of the older stuff for newer, better ideas.

    And hey, upgrades will always be optional: it doesn’t “fork” WordPress development for me to stick with an older set of templates just like it has not stopped MT from moving on even though most MT users have not gone beyond 2.6 (or whatever the last version was before their new license came out).

  34. Root says:

    Joen you are wrong about this and you are helping to perpetuate a very harmful myth,which sprang from the thread from hell. Gemini and my other interface designs, are simply tools. And very simple tools at that. All they do is to take the default index and CSS files and alter the CSS positioning no more and no less. Critically – they are purpose built to fit the default install. They therefore leave the end user in exactly the same position he was when he got started – the ability to design his own front page using web standards, semantic and valid mark up and fully separated CSS. The big difference is that because the CSS layout changes have already been made to the index, and indeed set out separately in the CSS; a whole level of difficulty is removed.

    It is a completely erroneous and fallacious starting point to compare them either to the WP default or to Kubrick. Kubrick is a completely different beast, it springs from a different well, it represents a different vision and presumably it seeks to fill what the designer perceives as a different need. Comparisons between them are pointless.

    Likewise, any statements about their alleged aesthetic qualities, or the underlying template need to be taken in context. The Gemini, Trident and Vesuvius templates make no changes to the underlying WP php functionality at all. Nor do they have any styling details. They are simply boilerplates for the end user to design as he sees fit. A range of Gemini compliant style sheets are also available for free download.

    When I say well documented you may misunderstand me. I just say there is a track record. I am not referring to documentation. This is open source- we can all adapt. But as commentators here have observed the upgrade path for owners of hacked index files is of very great concern to them. I am not sure there is anything I need to understand thankyou.

    Finally this thread started out on useability. To suggest that early versions of Kubrick were more useable than anything is simply farcical. Hence it has already been substantially reengineered. It adds a whole layer of complexity to the install to the CSS styling by the end user and a whole rats nest of technical problems.

    Returning to WP and the 1.3 interface. It should be noted that although the app contains an index php file of course, that the divs required for CSS positioning are not to be found in it. At least not exclusively. I hope people understand the useability implications of that. The early signs are that they do not. I have my own solution which will be announced shortly.

  35. Joen says:


    I am very aware that the “Gemini template” merely stylizes the index.php, and as such has nothing to do with the core functionality. With this said, the very positioning of elements with CSS is vital to website usability.

    Kubrick, as you are well aware, re-does the index.php, and the wp-comments, as well as the stylesheet. True, this differentiates it from Gemini and other templates. However, the usability improvements that are necessary does require a rewrite of all these files, and it would require a much updated Gemini stylesheet to accompany this. That would also have been an option.

    … “the ability to design his own front page using web standards, semantic and valid mark up and fully separated CSS” …

    While I wholly agree that every website should be standards compliant and semantic, most bloggers don’t care. They just want to disable the calendar, disable the login, remove the “valid xhtml” link in the bottom, and put in a huge photo of their cat, next to their latest article on Joe Millionaire. Whether it validates or is semantic in it’s markup, why should they care? All they care about is that it looks good, and Kubrick does that.

    As for suggesting early versions of Kubrick were less usable, you are forgetting several things, twisting others, and ignoring the fact that there are two facets to usability. First of all, early versions of Kubrick were never intended for WP 1.3. Secondly, once a version of Kubrick hits WP 1.3, “it’ll already be there” in a clean WordPress install, effectively removing the installation procedure. Finally, even though early Kubricks probably weren’t usable in terms of installation, editing and setup, they were always usable on the front-end, to visitors of the website.

    This discussion is repeating itself, and no longer serving to help WordPress. For that reason, I am closing it.

    Don’t worry, you’ll all get plenty of chance to discuss further, as I have another article on WordPress usability in queue.

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