I’ve been blogging recently about changing my website setup and one of the key elements of that is shifting from the “Classic Editor” of WordPress (pre-version 5) to the “Block Editor” (post-version 5). Nicknamed Gutenberg, the block editor has attracted a LOT of negative pushback from the WordPress community.
A recent article on WP-Tavern noted that whenever they write about the block editor, or Gutenberg in general, they get twice as many negative comments from people than on any other topic. This is not surprising as it radically changed the workflows of creating, editing and publishing posts on your blog. I lived through the work world when large organizations went from DOS-based editors to Windows-based editors that were WYSIWYG and the reactions are very similar.
However, the article’s explanation of how all these users are misguided was based on two premises:
- Blocks are the future of WordPress
- Blocks are the greatest thing since sliced bread
I don’t disagree with the first one and the second is hyperbole. What the article completely ignores is that nobody disagrees that blocks can be great. What they complain about is that the interface available to work with them generally sucks for those who are well-versed in the old editor.
Ironically, he posts a bunch of data on naysayers that is a “drop in the ocean”. Some of his stats:
- “Only” 27% of WordPress sites are running the old WordPress;
- Of the 73% running the new WordPress with the block editor, more than 5M have installed a Classic Editor plugin to allow them to edit without the block editor, and it’s growing at a steady rate of up to 1% per month.
Here’s a reality check. Many WP sites are set, as recommended, to automatically upgrade as new versions come out. Yet 27% have said “no” to upgrading to the latest version. When commercial products are released, if more than a quarter of all users world-wide say no to a FREE upgrade, that is normally considered catastrophic. And when the number of users who said yes but who are running tweaks to cripple some of the “new” features are over 5M strong and growing in number? That’s a sign that something is WAY off in your product.
However, the article notes that since blocks are the future, it asks how can we move forward constructively? I’m far from an expert in either WordPress or development, but I’ve been a user of WordPress for a long time and have suffered through the conversion to using the poor quality block editor. Here are my thoughts on what I would like to see in future versions of WordPress.
Blocks and the block editor are NOT the same thing
It would be really good if people who are discussing blocks and the future of WordPress would recognize that people hate the BLOCK EDITOR, not blocks. Telling them how great blocks are makes no difference to the conversion rate if they use the block editor, get frustrated, and switch to the Classic Editor plugin. Amazon made it easy to click one button and the site would ship you what you were looking at…no information to enter on your shipping location, credit cards, multiple approvals, etc. Click and done. Because success online is predicated on the ability to remove friction. Right now, the biggest block (no pun intended) to conversion is that the block editor creates unnecessary friction.
Why are 27% of the users not converting?
For many sites, the stat is really misleading. There are thousands of sites out there that were created, people wrote one or two posts or set up a basic website, often for a side-hustle, and then? Nothing. It fizzled. Maybe they realized blogging wasn’t for them. Maybe it was for a business that never went anywhere. Maybe they realized it was way more work than they expected. For whatever reason, it stalled. Yet the site is sitting there live, running WordPress, and showing up in the stats. To be fair, some of the “positive” numbers for those with upgraded sites are also equally dead, but they have auto-update on. It would be better if the stats broke it down the way the plugin library does, such as when the content was last updated, i.e. some estimation if the site is a live site or hasn’t been updated in 3 years.
For others, they may have no real view about the block editor, as they’ve never heard of it. Their current site works, and you don’t try to fix what ain’t broken (security issues aside, which many don’t understand)…some of them don’t upgrade ever unless forced to i.e. when something breaks.
The popular theory amongst the haters is that many of them are in the “I’m afraid of Gutenberg” camp and don’t want to upgrade or they’ve looked at it and said, “Meh”. For me, the far more important number is the 5M who looked at it long enough to decide to use Classic Editor. THAT group has engaged and found it lacking. I find it amusing that the OP dismissed these numbers considering 5M installs makes it the fourth most popular plugin in the repository. More people are using it than are using WooCommerce or Jetpack. That is shocking.
Focus on the differences between content creation, editing, formatting and desktop publishing
If you take yourself out of an online environment and think instead of print marketing and communications in a large organization, you can quickly see four key stages in a publishing process:
- Initial content creation — the writers;
- Reviewing and approving the copy — the editors;
- Page formatting — the layout designers; and,
- Product design — the publishers.
Each of those stages requires different tools. Sure, in a blogging environment, the webmaster is frequently doing all four tasks as well as acting as chief bottle washer, but that doesn’t mean they need the same tool to do all four tasks at once.
Microsoft understands this and designed Word to gently merge the first two, with a slight hint at the third. If you are writing, you see a basic page to type on. If you want to switch to an even more basic layout with no distractions, you can. Those two windows primarily allow you to create your content. Computer code editors used to do the same, even FrontPage. They had a text window and a separate code window for working in. If you wanted to see what it looked like, you went to a preview window. In Word, if you want to switch to print layout, you can. Or web layout.
For the next step up, page formatting, very few people doing graphics and layout design of a page actually compose in their graphics layout program. They write in the editor, and then copy the final content in to do the page layout in the layout interface.
WordPerfect fought this battle when they went from DOS to Windows version with the WYSIWYG reactions mentioned above. People HATED the new windows version with onscreen proportional fonts because you couldn’t tell where there were two spaces instead of just one. Editing seemed nightmarish. Or it did until screen technology caught up and people could see where things were lining up or not on the page as you went. WordPerfect did it to give people layout capabilities and better preview functions, but it totally disrupted existing workflows.
But after fighting that battle, WordPerfect decided the future was graphics layout, like the recent block editor change. “See your page develop!” So they merged features with Corel and suddenly people had to deal with a desktop publishing program rather than the simple editor they knew, and sales plummeted. They didn’t have a captive audience as WordPress does. So people voted with their feet. They don’t stick around to complain if they’re paying the bill. The fall was catastrophic as it diluted the brand. WordPerfect tanked and even Corel Graphics tanked. Two “good” products merged and people using the one for editing and other people using the other for graphics both combined to hate the merged product.
After you get through creation, editing, and layout, there are still the publishers who decide how big the page or magazine will be, what type of material will be used, how good of quality, etc. Usually that is decided in advance, and the page layout designers work within that framework, as do the editors within the parameters of what’s possible for page layout, as do the content creators within the parameters of what’s possible for writing.
In my opinion, the Block Editor is a poor man’s attempt at having writing, editing, layout and publishing options all in the same window within WordPress. WordPerfect tried it and died. Just about all publishing programs did. Microsoft still sells Publisher, but few compose or edit in it. It’s the final tool, not the first.
In my view, there should be four separate tabs/screens/windows for “creating”. We’re talking about the USER INTERFACE here, not the content of the site, so it shouldn’t be anything more than that.
Just as the old classic editor had a visual interface and a code interface, a composition window should have the ability to do inline formatting of text (much like the basic ribbon elements you see in Word). Font choices, font styles/text formats, basic paragraph styles (indent, bullets, justification, ), and the ability to do basic insertions (media, links, and tables).
The edit window could look like a stripped-down version of the block editor. You would see all the paragraphs as blocks, for example [for those going from classic editor to block editor now, it would be the equivalent of switching over and saying “Convert all to blocks”, handled seamlessly]. I would still include all the styling from the basic composition and it should be available for every block. Compared to now, it would be a merger of the basic paragraph block with the classic paragraph block to give you an advanced paragraph option. Personally, I think if the current Block Editor had this level of a paragraph block, many of the complaints about editing flows would disappear as they would have almost all the power they have in Classic Editor now. You might not even NEED the composition window, although Word still has a bare-bones/distraction-free interface option as well as their full editor.
I would add a third level window that would be a true page layout editor. You could move blocks around, almost like a page builder, but one level down. It would be the equivalent of a basic desktop publisher. A lot like the current block editor, but with the ability to see where blocks are going to wrap or not. You COULD work in this from scratch, as the styling options would be available still (to save you from having to switch windows for a quick edit), but it would also have a lot of extra tools for adjusting how things line up on the page.
For me, I think it could also go to a level 4 window, what I would call the publisher window. I’m torn on the exact level of power in this window, but to me, it should give you a graphical replacement for a page-builder with a full grid layout. Basically more granularity in the tweaking of the layout. However, at that point, you’re basically giving the user almost full control to not only “build pages” but also to almost create their own themes on the fly. Obviously, the website owner wouldn’t want that kind of power in the hand of a basic writer/user on the site, but it could/should be available to the admin.
Why would I do all this? Because CORE shouldn’t be tying one tool (editing or blocking) to one editor interface. Not everyone works the same way or has the same needs for tweaking. So why not provide four switchable views (and NOT call them derogatory terms like basic, pro, etc.) and allow website builders to allow those views for different levels of users?
Wait…where do different types of blocks come in?
But if you were going to do what I outlined above, what would you do with blocks? I think we should stop treating them like they’re some super tool that is the solution to everything that everyone needs. We already have a model for rolling out more than the basic design elements and letting people choose what pieces they need.
a. Theme directory — Do you want a new theme that will change your whole look and feel? Great, here is 2020 to start and you can add any one of millions of other ones.
b. Plugin directory — Do you want a plugin that does x, y or z? You add it to your install, activate it, and voila, your site has that functionality.
I think we should add a block directory. Maybe it is like Gutenberg where you get 20 defaults, but if you want to download one of 5000 other different ways of doing a table with different styling options, you look in the block directory. Oh, look, here’s one that uses bananas for the lines in the table! How perfect for my market-fresh site, I’ll just DL *that* block and add it to my page. It’s just a code snippet with class wrappers. Do you want a table that looks like the Brady Bunch TV grid? DL the Brady Bunch table. And make it so that it can be added to your install OR just to THAT page. I shouldn’t have to install multiple block collections as plugins to be able to use one or two out of a collection. I don’t have to install bundled themes or bundled plugins, so why would I require bundling of blocks?
Many of the block editors already come with page layout options, as do many page builders, but I feel we give those plugins way too much power over the install when it isn’t needed. What if, instead, we had a page layout directory?
What would this all mean?
For me, it would drastically help new users by showing them that they can prepare content in four separate and logical stages — composition, editing, layout, and publishing — if they want to, and at each level, they have just enough options to give them flexibility without overwhelming them with detailed block options before they’ve even written their first paragraph or added their first picture.
More importantly, it would stop WordPress from following WordPerfect down a painful path that mistakes content creation for websites with publishing.