Why Front-End Editing Is A Drag And Should Be Dropped

Why Front-End Editing Is A Drag And Should Be Dropped

It’s a curious contradiction that a new drag-n-drop page builder can have the WordPress community hyperventilating whilst it simultaneously goes dizzy over the decidedly back-end post editing interfaces of Draft, Ghost and the marvels of Markdown.

Perhaps it’s the fear of missing out on being an early endorser of the ‘Next Big Thing’, or perhaps there is a genuine excitement about the perceived advantages of front-end page builders and content editors… or perhaps the WordPress community is just generally predisposed to shiny new objects.

Whatever the motivations, front-end editing is gathering momentum, but will it result in WordPress’ very own diabolical incarnation of Frontpage and should we be grabbing the stakes and killing it off before it wreaks bloodsucking carnage on the WordPress ecosystem?

Photo of girls clapping and cheering
Everyone gets excited about front-end editing, don’t they?

In the last few days, VelocityPage, a drag-n-drop page builder plugin from WordPress lead developer Mark Jaquith has been generating a fair amount of commentary.

Every announcement of a product that brings some back-end functionality to the front-end seems to get the same reaction. As we also know, the WordPress Core Team are working on a solution, so the front-end editing of content could soon be part of the WordPress core.

But why? What problem is it trying to solve?

Or is it, to paraphrase Jeff Goldblum’s character in Jurassic park that “[the developers] were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should”?

What Is Wrong With Front-End Editing?

There are three main issues with front-end editing:

What Happened To The Separation of Content and Design?

For as long as I can remember, the mantra of website development has been the separation of content from design. This has driven the development of the HTML spec, was responsible for the rise of XML and was, ironically, the very reason that content management systems like WordPress were created.

Creating content in a separate interface was a very deliberate act; being able to swap themes in and out without any impact on the content was critical to WordPress’s success. It was the reason that applications like FrontPage and its ilk ultimately died.

A dedicated interface for content creation allows the author to focus solely on the content and is the reason that Medium and Ghost cause plenty of envious looks. But you can’t have both. You can’t have a distraction-free writing interface on the front-end because the front-end is a distraction.

FEE resurrects the FrontPage ethos and starts winding back all the advantages of separation that WordPress and its CMS buddies brought us.

We Are Not All Designers

Jakobian WordPress theme
Somebody thought this was good design

I can’t design. I can barely color-coordinate my clothes of a morning. So I don’t try. If I need a design for a site, I go looking for a premium theme from a source I trust that is close to what I want. Then, my choice is either to tweak the theme or just live with it, the latter nearly always being the best option.

FEE says that anyone can be a designer.

It provides all the tools to allow anyone to lay out a page but that’s not designing. That’s like giving me an infinite array of pants and shirts with no guidance as to what goes with what.

Design is a talent and a skill that is concentrated in a lucky few. That’s why premium theme sellers exist as they can build great looking themes for the design-challenged amongst us.

A Threat To Continuity

There is actually something very reassuring about the design for a site being completed up front. That each content type and page layout has been thought about and already designed. That a common look and feel has been determined and visitors will know what to expect and how to interact as they navigate the site.

If FEE allows every page or post to be a different layout then the obvious danger is sites where this continuity is lost, visual cues change from page to page and the ultimately the browsing experience is impacted.

This is post-design design and is surely undesirable especially if the original designer is not involved in the page building / layout process?

Is FEE the Next Big Thing?

Photo of a Sinclair C5
The 1985 NBT in personal transport – where’s your Sinclair C5 parked?

There is no doubt that FEE has a future, simply because a lot of time and resources are going into producing standalone FEE plugins or embedding FEE functionality in new themes and even in the core.

But it won’t be the Next Big Thing for WordPress for a couple of reasons.

Trying To Solve A problem That Doesn’t Exist

Why is front-end editing of content better than in the back end? Is it simply that it saves developers and designers from having to teach their clients how to use the Admin interface? If that’s the case then there’s plenty of other potential solutions.

Why do we need front-end editing of page layouts and content when WordPress already has post formats and page templates? Is it just to bypass paying a designer?

Of course, the argument might be that the WordPress Admin interface is daunting for new users and not particularly user-friendly and that FEE provides a great solution. In that case, perhaps the time would be better spent addressing those issues, especially by the core team?

FEE Has Plenty Of Competition.

Screenshot of Gust editing screen
Gust shows that editing interfaces needn’t be tied to either front or back end

Focus on the content creation experience extends well beyond FEE and there are a number of solutions to genuine content creation issues that may well steal FEE’s limelight.

The excellent Gust plugin is a revelation and a genuine reason to get excited. It successfully proves that editing interfaces don’t have to be shoehorned into the Admin interface or bolted onto the public interface but can live alongside both and are, in fact, liberated in doing so. Let’s hope that Gust is the first of many content creation interfaces that interact with, rather than become an integral part of, a WordPress install.

Competition is most fierce in the design arena. There are a swag of themes that have page builders built into them that work effortlessly in the Admin interface and several existing admin interface-based page builder plugins that have already built strong fan bases. It’s going to take something very special to get these users to shift across.

What’s especially interesting about the page builder market is that it is already starting to fragment with plugin developers concentrating on providing builders for specific types of pages. There have always been the landing page builders, focussed on producing pages optimized for conversion but the recent release of the promising Aesop Story Engine, a plugin dedicated to laying out longer-form articles raises the question of whether generic FEEs will be able to compete in a market of a specialist products.

FEE Is Just A Tool

Photo of a titanium hammer
A titanium hammer won’t make me a master DIYer

Whether it is a drag-n-drop theme or a front-end content editor, FEE is just a tool and therefore can only be as good as the final end-user and never as good as a custom-designed solution.

Maybe I’m a little old fashioned but I believe that the best sites are built by specialists: content designed and created by writers, delivered to the end user using an interface designed by designers, and generally managed by site managers.

FEE disrupts this model even though the model doesn’t seem to be particularly broken. It says anyone can be a designer; it says don’t worry about the publishing process; it says worry about about how your content looks not what it says.

And that is no a great step forward for WordPress.

What do you think about front-end editing? Is it the Next Big Thing or just a fad? Will it bring great design to the masses or will it create a morass of ugly sites and pages? Most importantly, will you, or do you, use it?

Photo Credit: WhiteHouse.org, Wikipedia, WordPress.org