Studying TextBook

We’re pleased to announce the launch of TextBook in the WordPress.org directory. Created by Allan Cole, TextBook helps schools, colleges, and other non-profit organizations to distribute and archive information in an easy way. Supported by Jetpack, it includes a Featured Content area for highlighting key posts or pages, a social menu, and Testimonials, ideal for showcasing quotes from alumni, staff, and students.

When designing TextBook, Allan researched some of the challenges facing schools when creating their sites, and noticed that many educational sites had little access to good photography. TextBook minimizes that problem:

One of the main goals for TextBook is how it’s designed to look great when you only have a limited amount of content. Even if images are smaller, or low quality, it doesn’t take away from the design.

Check out the TextBook demo, peek at the setup guide, or download and take it for a spin.

TextBook screenshot

The Promise of Gutenberg: Themes as More Design, Less Baggage

Gutenberg promises the vision you have takes shape in the editor, instead of something you can’t see. Why’s that so powerful?

It happened again.

I sat with a potential WordPress themer, who wanted to know how to get started the right way with theme development. He’s a user experience professional by day, looking to up his coding skills.

He pointed to the WordPress editor, and said something like, “I understand HTML and CSS, but I’m not sure how to make something beyond putting it in there.”

We’ve all been there. Having that vision of what you want your site to look like, and not knowing how to get there. Gutenberg promises the vision you have takes shape in the editor, instead of some PHP file or a special plugin that isn’t truly native to WordPress. That’s powerful! It shifts much of the customization control from the themer to the person using the theme.

Today, if you’re trying to get into WordPress development, you might start by tweaking an existing theme. Then making a child theme. Then diving into a custom theme. My user-experience professional friend did just that. He’s already customized a theme and made a child theme. But the whole world of specialized WordPress theme knowledge can intimidate even professional web workers. Imagine how it feels to new users of WordPress who have never built a website before?

But with Gutenberg, people – professionals and beginners alike – can begin building what they want. Now, Gutenberg will no doubt need its own specialized knowledge. But at its heart, it will transform what a theme means to WordPress. They can become more about pure design, powered by the simplicity of CSS.

You might be saying, “But you can already use CSS now to change a theme’s design.” That’s true, but much of a theme’s structure gets determined by and locked away in template files. Hard to change unless you start learning how to “theme.” But with much of that structure and markup becoming blocks that can be added to a theme, it becomes easier for people who aren’t themers to see different possibilities.

Say goodbye to lots of custom widgets and theme options. Oh, and to limiting page templates. The future of WordPress themes can become more about empowering users to work on their vision instead of always having to learn how to “theme.” It starts in the editor and not with the theme.

Photo by Dmitri Popov.

Themes are Mission Control

When we think of space flight, we often think of the thing that gets us there: the shuttle, module or rockets that take us out of this world.

However, in the early days of space flight programs at NASA, one man realized how important control from the ground would be to quickly evolving missions. Christopher Kraft pioneered the creation of Mission Control, the place where dozens of engineers, scientists and staff on the ground assist the astronauts in carrying out their mission from thousands of miles away.

About the Flight Director, the person in charge of Mission Control, Kraft said:

[T]he guy on the ground ultimately controls the mission. There’s no question about that in my mind or in the astronauts’ minds. They are going to do what he says.

The notion of Mission Control makes a good metaphor for a WordPress theme. Themes sit at the center of the WordPress experience. They run the show. WordPress is the ship and rockets that get us there. Without a theme, the mission won’t be successful. Sure, at its core, WordPress is publishing software, but many more people interact with the front end of a site than its back end.

So how do we start thinking of themes as an experience, rather than part of the experience?

Design how the pieces fit together. Most themers see the parts of a theme experience as separate. I did too, until recently. When I say separate, I mean as different parts of one flow. We often create the theme and the documentation with little thought as to how customers get from the theme to the help text when they need it. We also don’t spend time on onboarding or setup with customers. All that matters though, and it can help get a customer to success and make them feel like a success. We need to pay more attention to how those parts connect for a better experience.

Be consistent. Themes in WordPress have this great strength because they can do nearly anything. Their biggest weakness? They can do nearly anything. This means how a theme behaves can vary widely from one to the next. We’ve tried to address this in projects like Underscores and the TUX (Themes User Experience) list, but you can never do enough. I’d like to see themes only vary greatly from the norm if it accomplishes an important design goal for the customer.

Mind the internals. Recently, we had our support team at WordPress.com share why themes frustrate our customers. So much of the frustrations boil down to what a customer might not have control over in a typical theme. Things like how an image is cropped or how WordPress Core handles some default data. Experimenting with how these types of things work for your customers can mean they’re happier in the end.

If you make these items a bigger part of your theme design process, you’ll have more control over your theme’s experience. And your customer’s missions will have a greater chance of success.

Photo courtesy of NASA.

Balancing Options vs. Overload

On WordPress.com, one thing we’ve been focusing on is making themes that just work. It’s a bit of a balancing act; it’s very tempting to allow customers to control every aspect of their theme, because it seems like the simplest way to give them what they want.

That idea may sound great to customers, but having panels of options in the Customizer and an armload of documentation to figure them out is daunting. You can change things, but you’re also faced with making dozens of small, similar decisions about various aspects of your site, and deciphering the purpose of various controls.

It is true that in WordPress themes, some options are necessary. When designing and building a theme, it’s important to distinguish what options fit the actual intent of the design, and what options are being added for the sake of adding them.

You can often figure out which is which by tracking common pain points.

One way to do this is through support requests. On WordPress.com, we have a dedicated, talented team of Happiness Engineers who interact with customers every day. As Gary Murray wrote in a recent post, support teams are an important link between our work and our customers, and an invaluable wealth of information.

For themes, the support requests often involve how to set up a theme or use different options (which is why making themes that just work from the get-go is important). But other requests have to do with customizing a theme in specific ways. Some are unique to a customer’s specific goals; others come up again and again from different customers, either in the same theme or across several different themes.

In the Ixion theme, we recently added an option to control the opacity of the overlay used on front page photos, after several customers asked about changing or removing it.

Ixion with its two new options.

One purpose of the dark overlay is to ensure the text on top is legible against the photo. But if you’re starting with a photo that’s already pretty dark, the overlay isn’t needed and can make it hard to distinguish details in the photo. We were able to add this option while maintaining the original appearance, so customers who weren’t troubled by the opacity didn’t know the change happened.

Another feature that came from frequent customer requests was Content Options. A brainchild of Thomas Guillot, Content Options are a way for customers to make small visual changes on their site, like hiding the date, author name, or featured images. Rather than adding the options to individual themes, it’s a feature available in Jetpack and WordPress.com that themes can support. That way, the options are available in several themes and implemented exactly the same way.

Both additions were guided by the goal of keeping things simple, balanced with following actual customer requests.

When looking at adding options to a theme, there are a few things that can help to keep things simpler:

First, aim to make a theme that just works on activation. If the design’s not possible without multiple options, rethink it. If options are necessary to get the theme to work well with different kinds of content, find a way to make the theme more forgiving instead. Make the theme do as much work as it can by itself.

In a similar vein, make the theme make the decision. You could allow customers to switch a sidebar position, or make the header sticky, but unless it’s a very common request it’s best left out. Chances are, one option looks best and makes the most sense for the theme you’re building — use that one.

Use existing WordPress functionality rather than custom options. I don’t mean stretch the options beyond their original intent, just don’t reinvent the wheel. For example, look to use the custom header image or featured images in the theme before adding another image upload option to the Customizer.

When adding options, rethink your approach to customization. Alright, you’ve discovered your customers can’t live without being able to change their header’s layout. Rather than having separate controls to move each individual item — logo, header image, menu, social links, site title — is there another way to approach this? Aim for simpler, more opinionated controls to limit the decisions customers have to make. Basically, make your options smart.

Last but never least, user test, talk to your customers, and work directly with them when you can. They’ll help guide you to that point where your themes can help them feel empowered, but not overwhelmed.

Photo by Patryk Grądys on Unsplash.

The Next Chapter for Themes

Every few months I read a post about how the WordPress theme business has shrunk. The authors always reach a similar conclusion. Sales have dwindled. Competition has increased. Putting food on the table, finding a niche and standing out is near impossible.

It may not be so impossible though. With a new editing interface on the horizon, the theme landscape will change in a big way. That editing interface, and eventually better site customization, means we (those who create themes) will all have a chance to redefine what a theme is and means to people who use WordPress. It will be new, fertile ground to discover – the next chapter for themes. We just can’t make the same mistakes we’ve made before.

A long time ago, especially in Internet years, you could sell a collection of well-designed WordPress themes and make a living. These became known in the WordPress space as premium themes. What made them “premium” was loosely defined. They often sported a unique look or carried interesting features. As a consumer, premium themes always seemed more special to me. They took risks. That runs against what we say on the Theme Team at WordPress.com, where we do nothing but create WordPress themes: The only difference between a free theme and a premium one is the price.

As more and more theme shops sprang up, the feature race began. Many themes became as complex as WordPress itself. Designers and developers had less time to experiment because we spent more time glancing over our shoulders. What’s the next trend? What’s this other theme shop doing?

To correct for the complexity, the larger theme ecosystem became obsessed with standards. Like making sure a theme did things the WordPress way or always met “best practices.” The web industry as a whole also continues to obsess over and rely on build tools and frameworks, sometimes to a fault. They should solve technical hurdles for us. But do they? Sometimes they do at the expense of our customers. Make no mistake, I’m not arguing against best practices or tools. We do the same thing. However, the status quo, even if it means well, can blind you to what’s important.

What’s important, you ask? Our customers. Doing the invisible things that make their experience its best. Focusing on accessibility, performance and security. Making sure the the small screens look just as good as the large screens. Gutenberg, the project name for the new editing interface, will make one theme become many. A customer using a theme will be able to bend it many different ways – turning the focal point of the theme from its capabilities to its design.

Customers want their sites to look just right. They don’t want to learn a theme. So when the new age of themes begins, promise me you’ll focus on what they want. You won’t get distracted by the many different ways to extend this new editor or become mired in all the ways to prevent the abuse of customizing it.

This matters. Your customers need you. And you’ll stand out and put more food on your table.

Photo courtesy of Hermann.

The Developer’s Guide to Supporting Your Themes

At this year’s WordCamp Europe, some members of the WordPress.org support team brainstormed how we might be able to share support skills and strategies with the broader WordPress community. We decided to offer some workshops to share support knowledge, and the first one –  by yours truly – has been announced. Details are below.

Hope to see you there!

Update: The recording, slides, and notes are available.

The Developer’s Guide to Supporting Your Themes

Providing support for your themes offers tremendous opportunities to educate WordPress users, from explaining how to make a child theme to offering simple CSS customizations. It also presents challenges, like figuring out how to help people who aren’t tech-savvy or need support beyond the scope of what you can provide. While many developers dread doing support, with some concrete strategies and techniques in hand, helping users doesn’t have to be a chore – and can even be fun! This session looks at how to make your themes’ users happy while feeling a sense of satisfaction from your own support efforts – a winning combination in the world of theme development.

When

Wednesday, August 23, 2017, 16:00 UTC. It will last for an hour and include Q&A.

How

The session will be run via videoconference and will be recorded and posted later for those who can’t make it. Please download the free Zoom app ahead of time. You can run Zoom on most desktop and mobile devices.

A link to the Zoom teleconference will be provided in the #forums WordPress.org Slack channel about 10 minutes before the session begins.

Who

In her role as Theme Whisperer on the Theme Team at Automattic, Kathryn Presner provides support for hundreds of themes. She began helping people as a volunteer in the WordPress.org forums back in 2011 and was immediately hooked.

Featured image by Pixel Fantasy (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The Future of Underscores and A New Committer

The title may strike you as a bit ominous, but fear not. Underscores, our popular starter theme for WordPress theme development, isn’t going anywhere. As we continue to push for consistency in themes and imagine what they might become with Gutenberg, we’re bringing our attention back to Underscores. 🚀

For the last year and a half, we’ve experimented with a new starter-theme generator called Components. It was a way to make a few different theme “types” comprised of different components. The starter themes born from it brought with them more code and styles, and gave theme authors a bigger head start in their work. The generator we built to piece the different components together got complex quickly, though. We created a plugin to test builds locally and struggled with a seamless way to make many starter themes from one code base.

We learned a lot, though. We worked on Components at two team meetups, made almost 900 commits to the project and launched dozens of themes with it. However, we hit a point where we realized we had over-engineered parts of the project. The original idea is still solid: make starter themes do more by crafting them out of building blocks. But we didn’t hit the mark, so we’re retiring Components, and looking to bring some of what we learned there to Underscores.

In the last year, we’ve gotten a lot of questions from the community about Underscores and whether we had abandoned it. No way! It’s a stable project, and we enjoyed working on something new, away from it. It gave us better perspective and more ideas for the future of Underscores.

We also know that involvement from the community is vital. It’s been a while since we added our first contributor external to Automattic. To that end, we’ve given long-time Underscores contributor Ulrich Pogson commit access. He’s also a contributor to WordPress, most frequently as a member of the Theme Review Team. We’re excited to have his expertise and passion for world-class themes as part of the project. Please join me in welcoming Ulrich! 🎉

It’s always hard to let go of a project, in this case, Components. But it shouldn’t be, when you walk away with more knowledge than before. It has us excited and reinvigorated about Underscores and its role in the future of theming. And we’re glad Ulrich will help us along the way!

Delightful Dara

Meet Dara, a beautiful new theme crafted by Caroline Moore, now available for download via WordPress.org. Dara has its roots in a popular theme called Sela. Caroline tells the story of how one theme led to another:

Sela, designed and developed by the Automattic Theme Team’s Ola Bodera, remains one of our most popular themes — and for good reason! It has a softer, sweeter quality not often seen in business themes.

With Dara, I wanted to refine the user experience and include some of the things Sela users regularly asked for; moving the social links closer to the top, for example, or replacing the static image in the hero area with a slider.

As someone who hangs out in the crafty space, I see Sela and Dara as perfect for small businesses and entrepreneurs who want a softer look for their sites, but the themes’ flexibility and attention to detail make them lovely for personal blogs as well.

Dara supports several handy features for business users, like testmonials that let you highlight customer feedback — available through Jetpack’s Custom Content Types module.

Explore the Dara demo or check out how to set it up.

Dara screenshot

Introducing Ixion

Meet Ixion, the latest theme to join our WordPress.org collection. Designed by Mel Choyce and developed by Caroline Moore, Ixion is a clean and professional theme geared to schools, non-profits, and organizations.

Put your most exciting news front and center with a custom header image and a call-to-action button, highlight three noteworthy accomplishments on the homepage, and – with Jetpack’s Custom Content Types module – use Testimonials to showcase your organization’s satisfied students or customers.

Visit the demo or take Ixion for a spin.

Ixion screenshot

Content Options in Jetpack 4.5

Now available through Jetpack, Content Options let users make small visual changes, like showing or hiding the author, date, featured images, and more.

Last August, we introduced a new WordPress.com Customizer panel called Content Options, which gives users an easy way to make small visual modifications across their sites – no custom CSS needed.

Content Options supports four main features: Blog Display, Author Bio, Post Details, and Featured Images.

Content Options are now available to self-hosted WordPress sites with the latest version of Jetpack (4.5). Theme developers can add support for Content Options by following the Jetpack guide.

Let’s look at the main features of Content Options in more detail.

Blog Display

Users can choose between displaying the full content of each post or an excerpt on the blog and category, tag, and date archive pages, as well as search results.

Full post blog display option in Shoreditch
Full post blog display option in Shoreditch
Post excerpt blog display option in Shoreditch
Post excerpt blog display option in Shoreditch

Default Blog Display

If a theme displays either an excerpt or the full post depending on the post’s post format, theme developers can add a “Default” blog display option to let the theme keep its default blog display settings. For example, by default a theme might always displays posts with the Quote post format as the full post, so a quote is never truncated, while other post formats like Standard might be always displayed as an excerpt.

Default blog display option in Button
Default blog display option in Button

Author Bio

On the single post view, users can opt to display the name and bio of the post’s author. This information comes directly from the author’s profile at Users  Your Profile, and their Gravatar image.

Author Bio displayed on single post in Shoreditch
Author bio displayed on single post in Shoreditch

Post Details

The post details section allows users to show or hide the post date, categories, tags, or the post author’s name.

Post Details displayed in Penscratch
Post details displayed in Penscratch
Post Details hidden in Penscratch
Post details hidden in Penscratch

Users can choose whether to display featured images on single posts and pages. They can also opt whether to display featured images on blog and archive pages, which include category, tag, and date archives as well as search-results pages.

Featured Images displayed in Sela
Featured images displayed in Sela

WordPress.com users have loved the flexibility Content Options gives them. We’re very pleased that self-hosted sites can now benefit as well!