WordPress Plugins and Usability – a Match Made in Hell?

WordPress Plugins and Usability - a Match Made in Hell?Regular readers of my posts will know that I am no programmer. Far from it. My knowledge stretches to a fairly good understanding of HTML and CSS, and a rudimentary understanding of basic programming principles.

But here’s the thing – I am a bit of a usability freak. I first read Designing Web Usability ten years ago (I was a very cool 16 year old). I like to make stuff that is easy to use, and I like to use stuff that is easy to use.

Which makes it all the more frustrating to me that in certain ways, WordPress has a long way to go in terms of usability.

Plugins

Ultimately, as a WordPress user, you will spend the majority of your “fiddling” (i.e. non-writing) time with plugins. Once you’re finished with your design you’re not likely to go back to your theme files and settings much, but you’ll regularly find new and interesting plugins that can make your site even more awesome.

The problem is that such plugins are often unintuitive and difficult to use. Let me give you an idea of what I mean. The following are screenshots of where you can find plugin settings on the backend of my own blog:

WordPress Plugins Settings

WordPress Plugins Settings

WordPress Plugins Settings

WordPress Plugins Settings

Yikes.

Does the following process feel familiar to you?

  1. Install plugin.
  2. Check plugins page – settings screen not linked to. Hm.
  3. Check sidebar – plugin isn’t listed.
  4. Go to Settings menu bar – no settings screen (or perhaps it is there, but named in such a way to almost seem deliberately misleading).
  5. Go to Tools menu bar – nothing there either.
  6. Consult documentation, which may or may not hold the answer.
  7. Cue head scratching and frustration.

Every single new plugin installation is a variation on this theme. Occasionally you’ll find what you need immediately, but sometimes you’ll go some of or all the way along the above process with no joy.

The Problem

Initially I figured that there must be some plugin UI best practices listed – that it was simply the open source curse that some plugin developers don’t follow “the rules”. Rules as to when a plugin should get its own spot in the sidebar, when its settings screen should be placed in the Settings menu, what makes a plugin a “Tool”, and so on.

So I turned to my trusty friend Google. Here are a selection of articles I found, from respected WordPress-related blogs:

These articles cover common themes, such as coding standards, internationalization, and so on…but nothing at all about UI best practice.

After some further digging, I finally found WPCandy’s Completely Unofficial Guide to Plugin UI. A noble effort, certainly, but the key is in the words completely unofficial. How many plugin developers are likely to stumble upon this. And whilst the advice therein seems sensible, is it truly complete and correct?

The Solution

The WordPress development team are currently busy beavering away on improved custom headers, improvements in internationalization and localization, HTML in image captions (finally!), improved help tabs, and so on.

I would argue that providing an official guide to plugin UI best practice would be more beneficial in the long run than the sum of all the improvements that they are currently working on. Everyone uses plugins, and I believe that everyone has experienced frustration as a result of poor plugin UI usability.

Plugins are of course here to stay. They are an enormous part of the reason as to why WordPress is the world’s most popular content management system. The problem I have discussed today is not going to go away of its own accord.

If WordPress wants to be truly awesome, it needs to be so as a complete package – plugins and all. Seeing the usability wheels fall off after the installation of a few plugins is simply not good enough.

Creative Commons image courtesy of nerdegutt