For anyone who is interested, here is a written version of my presentation.
The Future of the Visual Editor
WordPress is popular for many reasons, but the biggest of those reasons is surely that it is really easy to use. It makes it super easy to publish and edit content on the web.
That’s why we use it. And that’s why most of our clients use it.
Even though the WordPress editor is better than it has ever been, it is not as good as it used to be.
How can that be?
I know it sounds like a strange contradiction, but stick with me for a minute.
What I mean is that although WP has continued to improve, people’s expectations are growing even faster. We’ve been working with WordPress for 7 years and our customers have always loved WordPress, but this year for the first time ever we had some people (some clients, some not) who said that they didn’t really like the WordPress editor.
It has been a very small minority of people, but a minority of people that didn’t used to exist. This got my attention and got me thinking that perhaps this minority of people have a point and maybe we should be listening to them more carefully as a community.
So what is the problem with the visual editor?
When I have probed into these concerns, the answers have been that it’s a bit old fashioned, clunky, slow and complicated.
When people used to always praise it for being exactly the opposite, I figured it must be expectations that have changed rather than the technology itself.
Expectations have changed in several ways in the last couple of years:
- Control – People are wanting more and more control to format their content. They have seen all sorts of fancy formatting on other people’s websites and they want to be able to do it on their own. Columns, buttons, icons, pricing tables etc. They are not big things, but they are not easy to do out of the box in WordPress.
- User Experience – People are using more and more web and mobile apps and are getting used to some really slick user experiences as these apps evolve quickly. They now want a CMS experience that is on a par with the very best mobile app user experience.
- WYSIWYG – People want to be able to see what they are editing. Some people used to refer to the visual editor as a WYSIWYG editor, but now people actually want to see what they are going to get. In WordPress, the visual editor is more of a What You See Is A Rough Representation of What You Will Get (WYSIRROWYG) editor.
- Mobile – People increasingly want to edit their content on mobile devices
The ease of use that has always been one of WordPress’s greatest strengths could soon become one of its greatest weaknesses.
Look at the Ghost CMS. I don’t necessarily think it is a rival to WordPress (yet), but the very fact that Ghost even exists is representative of the fact that WordPress is not perceived as being as easy to use as it once was. It is a warning that we need to work harder to stay ahead.
So where should we be heading?
There are many possibilities that people are already working on (itself evidence that we need to move forward). Here’s a quick overview to get you thinking:
Multiple Content Areas and Custom Fields
These have been around for a long time and can be really great if you have a very structured page design. And custom fields have improved so that they are much more intuitive to use. This is great, and I think there will always be a place for this, but it doesn’t fundamentally address the issues that I’ve raised above.
Loads of us are using shortcodes these days. They have been a huge help in allowing people to add more advanced formatting to their content through the visual editor. But they are a short term fix. They are not elegant, you can’t see what you are doing, and as a WordPress user recently told me:
“It’s stupid because the visual editor is supposed to allow me to format content without knowing any code. And then I have to use short codes!”
These are a clever way to allow people to use shortcodes in a slightly more visual manner. I think it is a good step forward, but they are not inherently intuitive, providing more of a layout schematic than a visual editing environment. They seem to be a love it or hate it thing.
Live previews show you what the page will look like as you are editing it in the back end. I really like this approach as it is pretty intuitive, but it can’t be denied that it is a huge waste of space on your screen to show the same thing twice in different forms. It also doesn’t work well on responsive sites because the preview shrinks to a mobile/tablet view due to the limited space available to render the preview. Also, unlike the Live Preview plugin shown below, you ideally would want the preview to update itself in near real time.
Front End Editors
If you want to edit the front end of your website, why do you need to do it from the back?
If we want to create great content for our visitors, then surely we should create that content from the perspective of the people that are going to read it. They will read it on the front end and I believe that it is only logical that we should be creating our content on the front end too.
Yes, it might be difficult to enable all editing functionality directly on the front end, but it should surely be the goal for the visual editor. More and more web apps allow us to edit content and profile pages in a true WYSIWYG editor and there is no good reason why WP shouldn’t evolve to allow the same.
It’s inevitable that more and more people are going to want to edit their websites on mobile devices. As such, whatever the visual editor evolves into, it needs to cater well for mobile users. This applies to the whole dashboard, not just the editor. This will present some challenges, but it is a fact that can’t be ignored. Matt Mullenweg recently said:
“It’s not a matter of a responsive stylesheet or incremental UX improvements, it’s re-imagining and radically simplifying what we currently do, thinking outside the box of wp-admin.”
So what should our goal be?
I don’t know what the visual editor will evolve into, but I believe it needs to be an intuitive front end editor with advanced formatting options AND a simplified mobile interface.
People have already started to do this, and I think we need to start experimenting with these tools, share ideas and feedback and create a common vision for how the core visual editor should evolve.
It won’t be easy
Although I think this vision is essential to the very survival of WordPress in the medium to long term, I don’t underestimate the size of the challenge. Just a few of the issues to overcome will be:
- Getting everyone to agree
- Uniting the front end with the back end seamlessly
- Ensuring that the solution is simple
- Compatibility with existing themes & plugins
If you are a user of WordPress then get involved by thinking about what you would want from a visual editor in your ideal world. We shouldn’t be thinking of incremental improvements, but daring to dream.
Experiment with different editing tools and plugins, even other CMS’s. Share ideas and listen to other users. Comment on this blog post with your thoughts and if you feel passionate about this project, get involved with the Front-end Editor project on Make WordPress UI