Making WordPress More User Friendly – A Usability Audit of Joomla, Drupal, Blogger, Tumblr, and SquareSpace

It is safe to say that I spend more time with WordPress than I do with my wife :(

And even though WordPress and I have known each other for years, my wife has no real understanding what it is that I do, what WordPress is, or even what blogs really are.

So this weekend, when she asked how hard it would be to create a small website for a project she is working on, I took the opportunity and ran with it! She’s pretty good with maneuvering the interwebs, so I created a new WordPress site for her, told her I’d help if she had any questions, and went back to doing whatever it was that I was doing.

Sadly, 10 minutes later she came in with the news that she was giving up – she’d just create a PowerPoint for her project and be done with it.

You see, while WordPress and I are old pals, and I’ve come to love and know all of the quirks and understand the vernacular, Erika found WordPress to be intimidating and difficult to get to know.

I then set out to really figure out why…

Choices! There are so many choices!

Sometimes it can be hard to know with WordPress which way to go next!

Have you taken a look at the first screen shown to users in the dashboard when a new WordPress site is created lately?

In short, it is filled with text and tons of choices to make. Obviously, this is what scared my wife away.

A decade ago, I worked in a usability lab at The University of Texas. We ran new user experience tests and audits on websites and applications being created by the university. These were the days when image maps ruled all, search was inefficient, and the identity of the web was still being formed.

I learned during my years in the lab three important details key to web usability:

  1. Use as few words as possible
  2. Don’t confuse users with more options than necessary
  3. Have a clear path for visitors to follow with end goals in mind

It seems, that in an effort to satisfy as many use cases as possible, WordPress is going to the extreme in the other direction.

Take a look at these ‘new user experiences’ on WordPress, Joomla, Blogger, Drupal, Tumblr, and SquareSpace.

WordPress – 75 Links and 628 Words

Drupal – 19 Links and 86 Words

Tumblr – 28 Links and 67 Words

SquareSpace – 18 Links and 180 Words

Blogger – 38 Links and 311 Words

Joomla – 39 Links and 407 Words

What can we do?

There is no doubt that the core WordPress team has put in an enormous amount of work and careful thought into all of the different links and item placements in the dashboard.

It would also be fair to say that it makes sense WordPress has by far the most options when getting started because it is truly flexible and highly customizable – all really good points!

But we’ve reached a time where the every-day web user will at some point want to be able to create a web presence, and for most basic projects, they shouldn’t have to hire professionals to get the job done. If WordPress can’t simplify the new user experience, we risk losing out to easier to use platforms more and more.

The big mistake being made with WordPress is that by trying to include more contextual help and options, we’re actually scaring the new users away we are trying to help.

Some quick and dirty ideas

Here are a few ideas that if implemented, would be a great start to simplify the WordPress experience. Before you leave a trollish comment below, I know that most (if not all) can be accomplished by plugins – but that isn’t the point at all. Ideas like these need to eventually make it into the core. For context, these ideas come from daily questions we get by new users at Edublogs – mostly educators that make up a wide range of tech and web experience levels.

  • Kill the media and links menu items – Most media management is done from the page/post editor anyway. Perhaps move the media and links pages under the ‘Tools’ menu. For the most part, these are used less than others, and can be hidden a bit better.
  • Clean up the dashboard – Make the ‘WordPress Blog’, ‘Other News’, and ‘Plugins’ dashboard widgets opt-in. They’ve become a bit overwhelming, and developers interested in the feeds most likely subscribe in other ways as well.
  • Make help obvious but not intimidating – Contextual help and tool tips are excellent – but too many words to read and the user runs away. We should make the Help button stand out a bit more and keep as much help there as possible. Links to additional resources aren’t as good as help right inside the dashboard. A better goal would be to concentrate on feature placement so that help isn’t needed – items are where the user expects them to be.
  • Test different names for menu items – For example, Settings > Reading, Settings > Writing, and Settings > Discussion all might be in need of revision. Wouldn’t Settings > Comments make more sense? And instead of in the Settings menu, why not in the Comments menu where people might expect it?
  • Better use of the Plugins menu – The codex specifically says that the Plugins menu item is NOT for “configuration options for a plugin itself.” Though Automattic seems to ignore this with the configuration options for Akismet and stats menu items placed blatantly right where the rules say they “shouldn’t be”. However, I think they are on to something. My Settings menus can quickly have more than a dozen items when you start activating just a few plugins. It makes much more sense to me when plugins have just one settings page, for that settings page to be in the Plugins menu. If it were me, I’d keep the Settings menu item completely limited to core created items. Their importance get lost in the mix as it is.
  • Your Profile is where? – I’ve never understood why the Your Profile menu item is under the Users menu. The top Dashboard menu item seems like a natural home.
  • Screen Options tab – This might be another one that is better to be opt-in. I can’t tell you the number of emails we get from users that say their blog is broken because they can’t find a menu item that they have hidden under screen options sometime in the past. It is just more trouble than it is worth. Hopefully as the dashboard becomes more and more responsive in design, this tab won’t be needed at all.

What else?

Are there any ideas you have to improve the usability of WordPress?

Leave them in the comments below – we may just need to get on with creating some plugins to cover some of these to get the ball rollin’!

Featured image:  Confusion by

13 Responses

  • The article is really on something. I am a rather experencied computer user since early 90:s. And did not simply understand where to get the statics I use on one wordpress blog to another one I have, I suspect there is a difference in templates but I have no clue what it would be or where to look for it, and I must admit I couldn ´t figure exactly what sort of plugin it is that so nicely shows the statics on the blog that works with it. It would be fanstastic if WordPress was built with that kind of scalability that lead me to the only major game I play on my computer. A early Civilization was in some learning mode, that made advice through and securely lead me on the games way of functioning. I some way is the Mac experience built on going easy first and slowly leading to higher degrees of knowledge.

  • Great thinking about WordPress newbie usability in this article! I am building a network of websites for national affiliates of an unfunded health and human rights NGO/not-for-profit – 10 languages, 20 countries, 6 continents.

    I have found, not unexpectedly, that the WordPress interface baffles just about everyone. In fact even the Tumblr interface has proven a bridge too far for some.

    If you can come up with the ultimate usability plug-in I would be eternally grateful!

  • Thank you so much for articulating what I’ve been thinking recently. I’m a freelance writer and editor, and I’ve been trying — not terribly successfully — for the past few months to set up a very simple 5-page WordPress site for my business. Many people told me how easy WordPress is, so I was unprepared for what I found when I tried to set up the site. Agreed, it is very easy to START a new blog (picking a name, etc.). It comes to a screeching halt at the dashboard, however. It is overwhelming, especially to people who are new to WordPress and/or setting up websites. As you stated, there are way too many choices, and nothing that says, “To set up your site, first do this, then this, then this…”

    Everything seems to be either trial and error, slogging through the codex, or taking your chances on the forums. I know WordPress is a great platform — I just wish it was more intuitive and easier to use. Maybe your post will start a revolution!

  • As far as admin ‘welcome’ pages go you certainly have a point, but it’s not all about the first page the user sees – what’s far more important is logical interactions when creating content.

    WordPress is still way ahead of the other ‘heavy weight’ CMS’s like Joomla and Drupal when it comes to regular use.

  • Seppo Laine hit the nail on the head with: “going easy first and slowly leading to higher degrees of knowledge”.

    So, for ideas… a very simple starting interface with only the most basic items needed to get started. When you open those most basic items, a visual showing the user exactly where this feature goes on their site, why they would need it, etc. would be very helpful.

    An idea, perhaps far-fetched, but you asked :), if the dashboard could mimic the theme it might be more user friendly. For instance, putting a “Menus” area in the navigation bar, comment options in the area where a comment appears on the site, etc. If this were preceded with the first “steps” of setting up a site, thus building this template it would be even better. “What is the name of your Blog/Site? What is it about? Who are you and what would you like to tell the world about yourself?” would be enough to populate a twenty-eleven theme-based dashboard. Then instructions on changing the look/feel via theme selection, down the line to widgets and plugins would have been much easier for me!

    I agree with the idea of keeping Plugin options in the plugins menu; I get so confused as to where the settings for feature “x” end up when I add something new. With the scenario I described above, plugins would take over an area on the side of the theme-based dashboard with all of the options for each in the fly out list. Currently, I never, ever, look at the “stuff” to the right of my dashboard menu list; a waste of space in my opinion.

    One last thing – I think I read that a young (like 10 y.o.) wrote a plugin that allows you to see changes as they are made to your page from the dashboard – can you say brilliant?

    I love the idea of making WordPress more user friendly. As someone who is building a large community on a multi-site install, it would be extremely helpful to have a simplified, straight to the point dashboard for users to interact with as they go about building their own blog within the bigger community. In fact, as I type I have on my “To Do” list: Create a page that is a set of instructions on how to start a blog on the(my) site. Should be an interesting task and I imagine it will bring about its very own FAQ!

    Best of luck; I’m also a user of WPMU, so I know if anyone can do it, you all can. I am cheering on the change!

  • For nearly all my clients the answer is simple. They see their site, they see that it has ‘pages’. Pages can be created, edited, have media.

    So, almost without exception there is one thing that should be done with the back end. Get rid of it. Simple, effective front end content management, that is what they all want. Of course it can only go so far. But that far represents a huge percentage of their regular interaction with their sites. The rest, when I give it to them, is generally prefixed with an apology.

  • This is a great breakdown of the challenges of WordPress to the new user.

    I totally agree about settings/reading and /writing and /discussion
    Even after using WordPress for years I have to check both reading and writing to remember which one I was after!

  • oh i know this is a year old but i felt the need to toss in my 2 cents and ping this one back to the surface …

    I looked closely at joomla and drupal and even dotnetnuke. Wished I could figure them out, but sadly each time I gave it the old college try, I left unsatisfied.

    It’s not because they did or did not have the power I was looking for. It was because I simply could NOT navigate the back end. Try as I might, even going through all the tutorials and training scenario’s to the letter, printed them out and everything so I could follow it like a textbook … I still could NOT wrap my mind around any of those systems.

    I was seriously sad and didn’t want to use WordPress because so many would say snidely “oh that’s just a WordPress site how pathetic, you’re not a site developer.” But, WordPress was easy, I got it, I understood it, I was able to grow into creating some seriously cool stuff with it and no, I’m not a programmer (though I now want to be lol).

    What brought me to the WordPress family was how it fit like a glove, I understood and was able to fathom it, able to figure out how to make it dance. It took a while before I could do the truly neat stuff (i.e. communities, etc) but here I am today.

    I am not the type of user you speak of here though. While I am not a programmer, I have a working knowledge of code in general. I can figure out some things in code to alter it correctly to do what I want it to do, I just cannot write it myself.

    My mother, for example, I tried to get her writing just simple blog posts for our company’s website. She’s 65 now. She tried because I forced the issue then ran, handed me a print out from a word document (lol) and said “I printed this from the machine, the file’s saved on my table top, you handle it I don’t want to do that.”

    So I figure, she was frightened away like your wife was. User interface design is soooo important. This is why I wont choose to implement things into my communities that do NOT put simple interfaces for users INTO The site (i.e. under no circumstances do I want users logging into the dashboard).

    The more users we have, the more and more viable our well loved platform becomes … the more awesome plugins … the more it’s developed into a more and more powerful resource and the longer it’s around.

    So the question becomes, aside from blogging this here and discussing it last year and now a year later with this post, what do we do about it? How does this become a core code reality? What’s the next step?

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