WordPress, Habari And The iPhone

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” (( 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. )).

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:

  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.

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” (( “Live redesign” is the web 2.0 term for “Under construction”. It means redesigning your website, aimlessly, while users can watch you work. ))—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.

12 thoughts on “WordPress, Habari And The iPhone”

  1. Dustin says:

    Simply put, it seems the powers behind WordPress have lost site of what the ‘product’ is about and what the community wants. I could go on but i believe it all boils down to losing touch with the people that helped make WordPress as popular as it is today, the people.

  2. Andrea_R says:

    Oddly enough, for WordPressMU, the install process does just that – asks for details and builds its own config file.

  3. This actually leads me to another topic you’ve written about: Management.

    The Mozilla/Firefox project was nowhere for a while too, until solid people, good goals and proper management were in place.

  4. Joen says:

    Oddly enough, for WordPressMU, the install process does just that – asks for details and builds its own config file.

    Interesting… WPMU also happens to be the primary “profit” aspect of Automattic… I wonder if there’s any reason it couldn’t be ported to WP.

    The Mozilla/Firefox project was nowhere for a while too, until solid people, good goals and proper management were in place.

    True that.

  5. Brendan says:

    I’m not entirely convinced Matt really sees a strong future in the .org space. The ever present pushing of the .com product really announces more than anything where Matt’s heart lies now. The new design combined with the increasingly closed “we know what you want, indeed we’ll tell you what you want.. you can talk to us but no-one is listening” mentality is really starting to illustrate the increasing gulf between user and developer.

    WordPress needs a UI overhaul. It’s beyond over-dude. And the 11th hour UI changes to 2.5 is at best a vague stab in the dark. There has never been a decent roadmap for the UI or the template engine and that’s not going to change any time soon.

    The best single attempt has to have been ‘Shuttle’. If half a dozen of the (then) top WordPress UI masters couldn’t get the point across, what will? The ever present consternation surrounding “change” will see to that, indeed even trivial changes often end up being debated endlessly.

    The Mozilla foundation has succeeded lately because it has re-engineered it’s goals and philosophy. It took the risks both in how it operated and how it’s software needed to be positioned — changes it new it must take to move forward.

    I just can’t imagine such a fundamental change could happen in WordPress circles. And it’s why I just don’t see a future in the platform as it now stands.

  6. chris d says:

    soon, i too will be enjoying the freedom of blogging with this powerful tool.

  7. Donncha O Caoimh says:

    What a great post! Joen – I had no idea you were so involved in usability, but I’ve been enjoying your blog ever since you left a comment on my blog a while back.

    Anyway, I just want to throw my own 2 cents into the discussion.

    WordPress does have a web based installer. From what I remember when you visit the blog’s URL before install it gives you a link to click to begin the configuration.

    The WordPress MU installer is much the same, although it has more error reporting with hints about how to set permissions.

    BTW – I think Brendan is completely wrong about Matt. He’s a very strong supporter of GPLed software. Sure, WordPress.com is getting a lot of attention but without .org where would the .com site be? Nowhere. Matt totally understands the power, obligations and responsibilities of the GPL. Have no fear of that.

    Why aren’t there more projects doing a redesign of the backend? Can it be that hard to develop a competing project based on the WP functionality? Here are a few for starters, must try some of them: http://weblogtoolscollection.com/archives/2007/12/28/9-wordpress-admin-themes/

  8. Pingback: archGFX | Graded.
  9. Owen says:

    Hi Joen — I’m not sure how this post about blog admin usability escaped my notice for these months.

    I’m glad you’re seeing positive progress in Habari, and I’d love (as I’m sure Michael and the rest of the community would, too) any feedback you could offer on our admin design, especially from a usability standpoint.

    I believe that blog software is a simple commodity at this point. Nobody’s really doing a better job of the fundamentals – edit a post, display a site, publish a feed, etc. In the fringe of the application is where we can offer improvements – usability, flexibility, extensibility. With these features based in the notion that the community comes first, I’m unsure how we could otherwise produce a better product.

Comments are closed.