WordPress 2.7 Admin Interface Usability Quick-Review

Blogging software and part CMS, WordPress, has gotten a major overhaul from version 2.6 to the just-released 2.7. Besides some very neat new features such as threaded comments, the administration interface has gotten the most work. Dubbed “Crazyhorse”, this admin update is mostly good, tweaking and building on usability work that was done for version 2.5 and 2.6. A few usability mistakes, common ones at that, remain, however, and some have been re-introduced.

As a sidenote, I love WordPress, its features and its free nature. It certainly is standing on the shoulders of giants, and when I criticise it, I hope to improve it rather than belittle it.

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The WordPress Write screen has seen the most improvement.

Regressions and as yet unfixed issues

Hyperlinks are (still) not universally underlined

Sure, some are, but the distinction between whether links are underlined or not seems random. This is probably one of the most violated usability mistakes on the web. I remember that at one point Wikipedia abandoned underlined links only to add them back later on in a popular vote. Good choice. The underline, even more so than the color blue, is synonymous with “click me and you’ll leave this page”. Don’t mess with that.

Form elements are (still) styled

This is also a classic one, straight out of web usability 101. Things are made worse as this is an administration system, where very special rules apply. Sure, it’s okay to style buttons in World of Warcraft, but this admin is supposed to be accessible to everyone; eveyone knows the look of unstyled buttons and textareas, so why should you style them? I know the answer, and vanity is thy name. That is the honest to goodness truth of it, and no matter how much you try and veil this shallow truth up in a story about “platform uniform look”, it’ll remain a damn dirty lie.

Point of note: I will make an exception of the button styling for the Flash uploader. Long story: the Flash uploader (which is available right above your Edit area), uses Adobe Flash to allow you to select several files at once and enqueue them for upload; which is a big deal considering most web interfaces, even Gmails, allow you to upload only one file at the time. The exception in this case, stems from the fact that Adobe changed the security sandbox between Flash Player 9 and 10, effectively killing the Flash uploader in WordPress 2.6. The only way to add it back in 2.7 was to have the actual “Upload” button be part of the Flash web-bug that does the uploading. So to sum things up: the Flash uploader button has to be styled, because Flash does not use native UI widgets.

Textareas are (still) styled

Like the styling of buttons, the styling of textareas is also an across-the-board bad idea. Every computer user knows what a textfied looks like, but the probably hasn’t seen your particular brand of textarea (so leave it alone). In the case of the WordPress UI, the problem is not egregious, as the background is, at least, white. Even so, this is a usability mistake. Would you style a scrollbar if you could? Wait, yeah, people would do that. And they’d be wrong about that too.

The visual hierarchy of WordPress Pages is still very basic

As opposed to posts, pages are static content holders, a feature which puts WordPress squarely into CMS country. It’s a pity, however, that the Page administration screen can be an enigma. Sure, subpages are indented below their parents and that helps a little, but the addition of pagination certainly doesn’t. Considering the value of this feature, however, I’m surprised this section doesn’t show an advanced JavaScript powered expand/collapsable page tree akin to the folder tree on your Finder or Windows Explorer.

Widgets are still a mystery

Widgets provide users with a way of simply adding, removing or resorting content boxes. Unfortunately, adding and removing these widgets is far less intuitive than it could have been. Where it could have made elegant use of drag/drop features, adding and removing widgets is now, as it was in 2.6, a matter of clicking hyperlinks in the right sequence. To make matters worse, the change of design from 2.6 to 2.7 further confuses things, by removing a few borders that helped connect the whole thing.

The case of the misunderstood use of a hyperlink

Slightly related to the styling of hyperlinks, the use of said for activating and deactivating WordPress plugins constitutes a misunderstanding of what hyperlinks do. Yes, clicking “Activate” involves a page-reload but that’s where the hyperlink metaphor ends. Because the activation of a plugin is a “toggle”, activating plugins should be done using a push-button. This has been an on/off thing for WordPress; I remember several versions which feature buttons instead of hyperlinks.

WordPress eats your formatting

In a moment of weakness, perhaps you decided to add two consecutive linebreaks, just to fix the layout here and now. I’m sure you were surprised when WordPress “corrected” this semantically unsound decision. Or did you even discover that was what happened? As it turns out, WordPress is the Soup-Nazi when it comes to semantic post authoring. If you don’t do things correctly, WordPress will “help” by correcting things for you. That means linebreaks are eaten. In case you were wondering why this is extremely bad usability, I’ll spell it out: it’s not what the user wants. It’s the second law of robotics: computers are supposed to do what we tell them to, even if we ask it to do stupid things.

Navigation buttons could be bigger

While the new sidebar navigation is superior to the topmost tab navigation found in 2.6 in almost every way, buttons are actually smaller than they used to be. In the mathematically complex looking words of Fitt’s law, a large button is easier to hit with a mouse. As such, this is a pity. I bet they could have padded things a bit without changing the layout much.

Another missed opportunity is for the sidebar buttons to have extended all the way to the left screen edge. This would make the buttons easier to hit; anyone can find a screen edge, even blindfolded. In this case, you’d only have to worry about up or down, to hit the button you wanted.

Improvements in 2.7

In case you didn’t read the disclaimer right at the top of this post, where I openly declare my love for WordPress, a love which you may have forgotten reading the criticism above, I’ll repeat it here: WordPress is mostly good. Here are some very welcome improvements over 2.6.

The sidebar navigation really is a good idea

Moving the main navigation from the top to the left of the administration theme as a collapsible sidebar may take some getting used to, but you will get used to it. There are numerous improvements, including the renaming of some odd sections such as “Themes” (which also featured Widgets) to “Appearance”. Additionally, because the menu is now a sidebar, it’s possible to have longer and therefore more descriptive section titles. This should finally also solve the problem of the plethora of configuration tabs that would appear due to plugins and then proceed to overflow miserably. Most importantly, however, you can now expand your favourite section (whose expanded or collapsed state will be cookied), allowing you quick access to the subsections of said section. Previously you had to wait for the parent section to load, before you could jump to a sub section.

Tags and categories are to the right of the post window, again

For some reason, these two semi-critical metadata tools were moved below the post window in 2.6. They’ve been moved back to the rightmost sidebar, where they’re contextual.

The Flash uploader works again

As alluded to in my push-button criticism, there were problems with the otherwise excellent multi-file uploader that was introduced in 2.6. For the better part of a month, this button did nothing, if you had Flash 10 installed. Now it works again. Hallelujah!

Icons beautify and help distinquish sections

For the first time, probably since the birth of WordPress, icons have been added to section buttons. Lovely! It helps distinguish sections by adding a silhuette.

Publish settings is more logical

Future posting, or even posting to the distant past, has become so easy that anyone can do it. Slow claps from yours truly.

Comment administration is nice

Administrating comments is faster and simpler than before and receives extra marks for the addition of keyboard shortcuts. Additionally, the ability to administrate comments directly on a corresponding post page is very nice.

The timestamp layout has presets

To change the layout of your post timestamps (say, from 12/12/2008 to December 12h 2008) has been simplified quite a bit, with the ability to select from a few presets. Previously you had to visit PHP.net to find out how to do that.

Media configuration earns its name

Tweaking media sizes for the automatic rescaling of uploaded images is somewhat easier, now that the settings are available in Settings > Media as opposed to Settings > Misc.

One thought on “WordPress 2.7 Admin Interface Usability Quick-Review”

  1. Jenny-fa says:

    Funny you should publish all these adulations regarding the latest installment of WordPress. I mean, the new bells and whistles look very nice and all (I especially like the “Quick Post/Edit” feature)… but the thing is, nothing works on my blog now; some freak error is preventing me from editing anything in the database! T________T

    I’m not a fan of those icons, incidentally. The whole interface looks rather spartan in comparison to the last one, which at least had some color.

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