The Line Between “Feature” and “Integral Part”

Last week, in light of the Evernote hack and a few others, I took the time to finally update all of my passwords to using 1Password. It’s a fantastic app that does its job very well, and I had tried it once before, but was turned off by the pop-ups, alerts, autosubmit, and the cluttered mess that auto-save created with my account (I’m OCD like that). Even though I needed to use the service, I tabled 1Password until I had “some time to get it setup correctly” (aka never, unless a security scare prompted me to).

I realize that this is similar to an issue that many newer users face in selecting themes. Often, users peruse new themes by their screenshots or demo sites, settle on one that’s especially appealing to them, and activate it only to find a stripped-out half-version of the theme due to unset (or too-set) options, missing content, page templates… the list goes on and on. I had always viewed those as first-world user problems – that people would complain about having too many options available or not having their complex site “just work” right out of the box – until I was faced with a similar issue and gave up without a second thought… and mine revolved around personal security, not a blog of pictures of my dog. :)

Hero demo site on WordPress.com vs. User theme activation

Hero demo site on WordPress.com vs. User theme activation

All of my complaints with 1Password were feature-related, not bug-related, which in particular resonated with me. A developer, or team of developers, had built these features, turned them on by default, and left them up to me to turn off. They’re cool features that I’m sure people like to use, but they’re not integral to the app, and they cluttered my new experience to the point that I walked away. This of course brought me back to something Takashi mentioned in his post about further, where one of our teammates, Philip Arthur Moore, compared theme options to a native app’s preferences and how a number of users probably never touch them:

“I wonder how many “normal” computer users start a program and never even look in the preferences page. It’s like, they open the program and that’s what they get… It makes me think themes out of the box should just work and theme options should be viewed like preferences sometimes… Food for thought.”

I’m not advocating the removal of special features from themes (or even screenshots) – I’m still a huge believer that these are some of the biggest selling points for users – I’m just wanting to keep the discussion going of where the line is between “feature” and “integral part”. It very likely shifts on a theme-by-theme basis (a banner image on Superhero, the homepage template on Responsive,  or just simply a first post in a theme like Minimalizine), and I think that there are probably a number of ways that we can make a theme either “just work” or better hold a new user’s hand through the setup of those integral parts. It’s easy to forget the first time we stepped inside the WordPress admin. I don’t know about you, but I’m comfortable saying that I was pretty lost. If making the web a more open place is ultimately our goal, I think encouraging the next generation of new users to stick with it as they start out is a great first step.

3 thoughts on “The Line Between “Feature” and “Integral Part”

  1. As a forum volunteer in the German support forums for WordPress.com I can confirm that this is a huge problem for newbies. They don’t read the theme description pages, they are just looking at the screenshots and after activating the theme, they are disappointed, because they don’t get what the screenshot says …

    Overriding settings (e.g. “The Morning After” just displays the last post and not the post count defined in WP settings) or misusing the “Sticky Post” feature for displaying Sliders or other things (and just if you have set a featured image) is definitely confusing new users.

  2. Excellent post. I’m a longtime member and a big fan of the Builder framework by iThemes & they’ve faced a similar facet of this issue. In fact I think they even have a video tutorial on how to make your site look JUST LIKE the theme demo – and they made it after hearing many baffled beginning users open up a new empty site with one of their themes – and squeal with dismay. Not exactly the same thing you are saying – but related. So, yay and hooray to such thoughtful and perceptive developers like you! It’s EXACTLY what’s needed to encourage the next generation to stick around. And I say this as a lucky Drupal esacapee who made it across the border to WordPress!

  3. Fantastic post. Perfectly outlines how I’ve felt about WP themes for years—it’s so deflating to see a theme activated after coming from a carefully crafted demo site.

    The user obviously has some work to do in putting their site together—a theme can only go so far—but the default experience is important.

    We’ve seen the two ends of the options-decisions spectrum in the last two years with the bundled TwentyEleven and TwentyTwelve. 2011 came with nice header images (that, granted, very few people ever changed) out of the box, while I can’t recall a single example of 2012 looking as good in the wild as it does here http://theme.files.wordpress.com/2012/08/twelve-show-home.png?w=640&h=480.

    I for one prefer decisions over options. I think themes should come with nice, stylish defaults (images, colours, whatever) that the user can override and change. The experience, at least for me, should be at least close to what I see in the demo. I can’t see people being anything but disappointed with their site when they install Hero, as you’ve shown above—despite its obvious potential to look great with some love and attention.

    Great post.

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