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.

Author: Laurel Fulford

Web designer, front-end developer, coffee lover, Theme Wrangler at Automattic.

6 thoughts on “Balancing Options vs. Overload”

  1. What do you think about the default frontpage layout for magazine-style themes? I read a suggestion somewhere to use front-page.php to provide the magazine layout, so it’s on by default (making it Just Work). But that overrides the static front page native WordPress setting (which means someone who tried to change that setting gets confused that it doesn’t work). So I’d be inclined to ask the user to set a page with a magazine layout template there. Which do you favour and why?

    1. That’s a good question! 🙂 A lot depends on the theme’s intent, and its user base.

      On WordPress.com, we use front-page.php when a theme’s design includes a template that’s intended to be used only on the front page.

      Doing this creates less friction during setup – as you said, it just works! We’ve also found it results in fewer support requests. That’s not to say we don’t have customers asking to change the front page template on these themes — we do! But we find for our customers that it generates less support requests than having to manually set a front page template.

      I know this won’t hold true for all themes and their different users, but it’s what we’ve found works best in our themes.

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