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.


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


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

15 Responses

  • Tom, I couldn’t agree more! WordPress is such an excellent tool for creating and managing high-powered, functional websites – but usability begins to suffer when addons create menu clutter and confusion.

    The average user simply can’t guess where to go to look for stuff. It can turn people off unless they have a good teacher by their side and that is just a tragedy because it is simply not necessary.

    I love WordPress and I am proud to proclaim it as my publishing platform of choice but even great things have room for improvement and this is definitely one for WordPress developers everywhere to consider.

    Thank you so much for your post.


  • I’ve been waiting for someone to do an article on this. I wish there were some kind of standards for plugins and themes. I hate looking all over for settings all the time. They need to work on a standard place for settings and a standard place for theme options.

    • Hosting & Biz Dev

      Ah, but the codex says that plugins shouldn’t add anything to the “Plugins” menu item – even though Akismet apparently gets a free pass to do so. I think the best “quick” solution is to encourage plugin developers to take advantage of the “Settings” link right on the plugins.php page. Then users can start going to the plugins page to find menu items.

      • Don’t downplay what you’ve got to offer. It’s end users who often locate usability issues – developers can be so immersed in the code that it’s difficult to see it from the perspective of the person who is using it. The people who are actually using the plugin/theme/software offer a different perspective and pick up on issues that a developer may miss.

        btw, I just saw this comment. Is there any way to subscribe to comments?

  • Recently, I wanted to play with post statuses. I realised that the documentation (Codex) on them was fairly poor. So, after I had taught myself (similar to you Googling for those articles) I improved that Codex article.

    No permission required, I just logged in and did it. That article is now much more useful for everyone else: http://codex.wordpress.org/index.php?title=Function_Reference%2Fregister_post_status&diff=114519&oldid=112118

    Anyone can do it. In the time it took to write this blog post you could have written the codex article ;)

  • I agree about the problem – plugins do tend to put menus where they want. There is some recommended practice documented though, see this page: http://codex.wordpress.org/Adding_Administration_Menus#Determining_Location_for_New_Menus (although arguably the fact that the problem persists shows that the documentation isn’t working). I think a lot of plugin authors see the placement on the menu as an advert for their company/product, rather than putting it where it is most useful.

    Another solution (which doesn’t help with your general point about usability) is an admin menu editor (like this one: http://wordpress.org/extend/plugins/admin-menu-editor/) that you can use to put items where you want, not where the plugin writers want.

  • While I understand that there might be some confusion around where to find settings, I think the problem is not solved by a standard place for where to add settings. In fact, even if you came up with one, developers would just blatantly ignore it because it may not make sense for a particular use case. I know I would.

    Part of what makes WordPress great is that it is endlessly changeable. We can insert menu items anywhere we want. Just based on the examples you showed, one plugin added features for users. Well, it makes sense that it added a menu under Users. I have one that bulk resizes images. Wouldn’t that make sense under Media?

    If a plugin has several subpages of menus, it does not make sense to give them just one menu item in the Settings menu. It needs its own Main menu item, so that we can add submenus under it.

    The sheer number of features that have been added to WordPress and the many that have not been thought of yet make it next to impossible to just say “put your settings here”. Some plugins don’t have or need settings. To keep the possibilities of open source pluggable software as open as possible, you can’t start placing confining rules on it.

    The admin menu editor plugin might allow you to rearrange how you want, but you are dealing with another plugin (who know where that menu ended up or should be? – Appearance? ).

    I can imagine a setup where we could somehow find and list all menus and where they came from though… For example, without plugin authors needing to think about it, would it be possible to add a simple listing page that listed all plugins alphabetically, then showed any menus added and where they are. An even better addon to this for help troubleshooting would be to list all functions that plugin hooked into.

    So you get a page listing all plugins alphabetically and you see this plugin added a menu under Settings and hooks into ‘wp_head’ and so on…

    The problem is… This would be a plugin and where would that menu go? I would put it under “Plugins”. :)

  • Some sort of standards (or hey, even strongly-recommended best practices) for plugin development would be FANTASTIC. I’m a “push buttons first, read the documentation second” type of user (also my approach to assembling furniture). In addition to the better usability, it’d just make the admin dashboard so much cleaner.

  • This is one of my complaints with Plugins, also. In fact, I’ve written about a dozen plugins and one of the reasons several of them haven’t been released is because I’m not comfortable with the menu placement – and haven’t been able to determine where they really belong. Nevertheless, the FIRST STEP is to always put the main settings link on the plugins page next to the description (activate/deactivate/settings). Regardless of all the other menus, this is the most obvious place for the settings link.

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