Themes are Mission Control

Overall view of Mission Control Center with dozens of people sitting at computer terminals

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.

Author: David A. Kennedy

I work as a Theminator (that's my official title) at the ever-awesome Automattic. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, ftw.

6 thoughts on “Themes are Mission Control”

  1. I’m having trouble understanding this, as it pertains to your recent post related to theming:

    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 the ship [sic] 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.

    Are you saying that themes “ultimately controls the mission” [sic]? Because it sure doesn’t feel that way. It seems as though themes are at the periphery of Core consideration when developing a WordPress for the future, despite themes, I would argue, being the #1 reason why WordPress has thrived and will continue to thrive. Themes are not the mission control. They are the interior design of an otherwise cookie-cutter WordPress. They allow people to believe that what they have is unique, meaningful, and theirs and only theirs, even when it’s for millions. (I’m okay with that, also.)

    I’d much rather themes be spoken about truthfully (they thrive despite WordPress, not because of it) than flipping that around and proposing that themes are what allow WordPress to land on the moon safely. WordPress, Wix, Squarespace, Shopify, WooCommerce, EDD, Xanga, Livejournal, you name it. Themes or templates or paint are what people care about, but they most certainly are not what keeps a house from collapsing in on itself.

    Maybe not mission control. Maybe the shuttle paint or the flag on the moon. That’s what people notice.

    1. Are you saying that themes “ultimately controls the mission” [sic]? Because it sure doesn’t feel that way. It seems as though themes are at the periphery of Core consideration when developing a WordPress for the future, despite themes, I would argue, being the #1 reason why WordPress has thrived and will continue to thrive. Themes are not the mission control. They are the interior design of an otherwise cookie-cutter WordPress. They allow people to believe that what they have is unique, meaningful, and theirs and only theirs, even when it’s for millions. (I’m okay with that, also.)

      I can see how you can read it that way. I could have been clearer. The theme doesn’t ultimately control the mission, no. But the mission won’t succeed without the theme, much like a space flight won’t happen without mission control. In many ways, WordPress does what the theme says, so to speak. The theme is the connective tissue to many things people want to do with WordPress, like sell products, get more traffic, etc.

      I do think Core could be better at not having themes on the periphery. But Gutenberg and customization improvements will help that in a big way.

      I’d much rather themes be spoken about truthfully (they thrive despite WordPress, not because of it) than flipping that around and proposing that themes are what allow WordPress to land on the moon safely. WordPress, Wix, Squarespace, Shopify, WooCommerce, EDD, Xanga, Livejournal, you name it. Themes or templates or paint are what people care about, but they most certainly are not what keeps a house from collapsing in on itself.

      Maybe not mission control. Maybe the shuttle paint or the flag on the moon. That’s what people notice.

      I agree with parts of this. People definitely see themes as paint. I often use the fashion metaphor when describing themes to new users of WordPress. A theme lets your site put on a new set of clothes that makes it look different.

      That said, themes are more than that. And often, customers don’t know what’s what. They may report a bug that’s really a Core issue or plugin issue, but the theme connects it all, makes it work. Without themes, WordPress is just some input fields with some APIs.

  2. I’m not in disagreement with the post. I do agree that consistency matters, and the entire experience of the user should be taken into consideration when creating a theme. In the past, I think the biggest disconnect for new users is the viewing of a theme demo with pages, content and images. Then installing the theme only to be presented with a sample page and “Hello World” blog post. It’s like purchasing IKEA furniture if you didn’t know ahead of time that you had to assemble it all yourself. I think this has been among the bigger challenges of creating WordPress themes for new users, which has only recently been somewhat addressed using starter content.

    I like space travel as much as the next nerd, but I think a better analogy could have been used. When describing a WordPress powered website to a technically challenged individual, I often refer to real estate analogies. Hosting is the land upon which your house resides. The domain is your address. WordPress itself and plugins are the foundation, plumbing and electrical. Themes are the house. They are what you see — the paint, doors, windows, landscaping, etc. In the vast majority of cases, the house is the primary interest and reason a property sells. By comparison, themes sell WordPress.

    1. I said some similar things in reply to Philip’s comment above. I often use the fashion metaphor when describing themes to new users of WordPress. A theme lets your site put on a new set of clothes that makes it look different. It’s similar to your real estate metaphor. Those are good ways to communicate to customers. But I wrote the above to themers. The theme is the connective tissue to many things people want to do with WordPress, like sell products, get more traffic, etc. It goes way beyond what you see.

  3. The home and fashion metaphors work well. Thanks, Dave. I feel like we’re 80% there with how we see this, which is better than 79%, so I’ll take it. We’re all themers who are obviously quite passionate about this working out for everyone (our users are at the top of that list, not all users; if I make a chocolate cake then my concern is for chocolate cake lovers).

    Just as there are niche themes, there are niche needs and niche users and niche interests when it comes to WordPress and theming. Blanket assumptions only work at their most binary, basic levels, so the only one I’m pretty much always willing to go off of is that users want stuff that works well for their wants and needs. Outside of that, all bets are off and everything else depends on a hundred factors that are specific to the niches in which we operate, sell, and support.

    Every support ticket we handle is unique. Absolutely every one. Themes are no different and customization improvements and Gutenberg won’t change a thing as far as need satisfaction (which themes fulfill) goes. They are improvements to an otherwise slow site building process but in no way, address root needs or wishes like i. I need to sell something now, now, now; ii. I need to move that nav bar there, iii. my SEO stinks, iv. I want a slider, or v. I want new fonts.

    Sometimes themes need to be complicated because Core is terrible. Sometimes themes are too complicated because Core already has 99% of the functionality baked in. There is no one size fits all theme or user and sometimes themes need to fill gaps that Core ignores on purpose, through neglect, or through a more critical focus on other high priority items.

    There is a movement towards “simple” that makes a gross assumption that users, people, are simple. We are not, and sometimes Core just cannot keep up with a complex reality of needs. That’s why premium themes and premium plugins will never go away; too many people like us are willing to tackle the hard work that WordPress itself doesn’t have the bandwidth for or the care for.

    I’m okay with us being seen as interior decoration or clothing to users if, in the end, they have what they need.

    But our work is far more than that, and going simple when people’s needs are so complex and unheard by everyone else but us and plugin makers means that we too become part of the problem.

    I feel a “this belongs in a post not a comment” moment coming.

    Thanks again for your writing. Always appreciated and always a pleasure seeing other people who give a care.

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