Not two days ago, I hurled myself into the fray once more, discussing usability with the WordPress developers. The topic of discussion was a recently unveiled demo site showing off work being done to improve the backend design for the next version.
I do usability reviews for a living. Among other things, I’ve worked with LEGO on Mindstorms. I’ve been through the motions for years now, and I’ve learned to avoid a few common pitfalls in the process. The great thing about usability is that it empowers products. You might have an incredible product that won’t sell because it’s not user friendly. Then you have a bad product that succeeds against all odds because it’s easy to use. Finally you have the cream of the crop that’s both. Compare it to cell phones; there’s the feature-laden but ultimately complex LG or Siemens phone, there’s the trusty old boring but simple Nokia 3310 and then there’s the iPhone. Do you think the iPhone would have succeeded, was it not for it’s delicious user friendly interface? Me either.
I love WordPress. I think it’s a fantastic piece of free blogging software that does so much more than just blogging. It’s extensible and has a great support community. But do not mistake love of a product with mute obedience; I’ve said it countless times: I criticize because I love. And with WordPress, there’s a whole heap of moronic usability decisions to tackle and ridicule. That’s right, ridicule. I don’t remember anyone, ever, saying “wow that was quick” about anything other than the WordPress install process and even that could be changed from “quick” to “quick and pleasant”1.
It’s now 2008. Let’s go back in time to an article I wrote in August 2004:
The priority recipe for most commercial pieces of software is the following:
- Build the best product ever
In comparison, the recipe for most open source projects only include the first of these priorities—the product.
Now, 4 years later, I’m unsure whether I was right or wrong; WordPress does have a “profit” element today. It’s called WordPress.com. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no longer blind sighted by open source idealism: I do think that profit is a good thing, it works for Firefox. The problem is, it doesn’t seem to have mattered in the case of WordPress. Writing a post or creating a page is still akin to solving an enigma hidden in a maze, wrapped in the same tough plastic that CDs come in. That means it’s tedious and overly complex. Profit, apparently, made no difference. Then again, that’s why the iPhone can enter a market that’s otherwise so heavily dominated by Nokia and Sony Ericsson.
We come now to the crux of this story. I examined the nightly-build demo site and decided to give what advice I could muster. I wrote a quick usability review and submitted it to the discussion. I tried to do this before, via more official channels. Being part of a so-called “Shuttle” project, I joined forces with several others in advising the WordPress team. It was a miserable failure and the end result was a bluish bastard child appearing in WordPress 2.0. Months of work from a team of several was hacked to pieces and implemented in what looked like a completely ad-hoc process. Naturally the end result, from which WordPress 2.3 is still reeling, wasn’t very user-friendly at all.
What I see on the demo site may be a “work in progress”, in fact that’s the main counter argument, but there’s a real problem with that. It’s not that I mind baby blue and curry red. The problem is that a usability-work-in-progress doesn’t look like that, that there is a “live redesign”2—at best. Usability is not achieved thusly. Usability is a process that starts with identifying user tasks and then moves on to visualizing those tasks either with pen and paper, faux screenshots or actual prototypes in Flash or what have you. Personally I’d find it a striking waste of time to jump right in, pick some colors and start playing. Usability is not a Jackson Pollock painting.
You’d think that would scare me from ever trying to advise the WordPress team again. No. Despite all my misgivings, WordPress is still the best blogging tool out there. It is no coincidence that it’s beaten Movable Type to such a pulp as to have them finally open source. Imagine where WordPress could have been today, had they just focused on usability? Habari, probably wouldn’t have existed. Habari is an open source alternative to WordPress that’s slowly gaining traction. It’s built ground-up for “todays bloggers”, and it is built primarily by talented ex-Wordpress developers. Perhaps it’s not quite an alternative to WordPress just yet, but unless WordPress ramps up, it might become the iPhone of blogging. Both WordPress and Habari blog, but one does it deliciously and with a sprinkle of user friendliness.
You can download the review in PDF format. Even if the nightly build has moved on from the screenshots in the review, I’d wager the advice is still useful.
In case you were wondering how this could be done, my advice would be add an install-script that asked for database information instead of asking users to enter information in a cryptic looking text-file. ↩
“Live redesign” is the web 2.0 term for “Under construction”. It means redesigning your website, aimlessly, while users can watch you work. ↩