Opinion: WordPress Gutenberg and the responsibility of owning a website

I heard a thing today which made me realise something about what has happened with WordPress’s new “Gutenberg” editor.

I have been really frustrated that people like me that build websites for others seemed to be a bit left out with both WHAT Gutenberg is and HOW is was delivered.

I’ve always known that the new block editor in WordPress is designed to help WordPress compete with website builders like Wix and SquareSpace and Weebly.

What I had ignored or forgotten was that website builders like those are intended to help people build websites on their own, without small agency owners like me being involved.

And so WordPress, in moving to this model, is actually moving to a space where people like me aren’t needed. Or at least, to a space where IT APPEARS that people like me aren’t needed.

For example, take the fact that Gutenberg allows someone writing a post or page to change the font size or text colour. People like me are cross about this because we spend time designing sites, and paying attention to details like font sizes and colours that should be consistent across the site. So we’re frustrated that people will now be able to come along and use text sizes and colours inconsistently and mess up our nice designs.

But regular people who want to build a website are probably thinking: “Woo hoo! I can edit text colour and size, and even change the background colour of a block. I don’t need to ask my web developer person to do this any more, I can build the site myself!”

Now, I’m not complaining that Gutenberg is taking my work away. That’s not the point I want to make.

I’m also not complaining that Gutenberg is bad. At least, not the IDEA of Gutenberg. I think the idea of a block editor is exactly the right thing. I just think Gutenberg is the WRONG block editor.

The point I want to make is that making a good website requires skill, knowledge and experience. The Wix’s and Weebly’s give the impression that someone with very little knowledge can, for a few dollars a month, have a beautiful, functional website.

And to some extent that’s true. But then I look at the stuff that people make with these tools and it’s often very poor. And I look at the code that the builder creates, and the speed of the site, and other “under the bonnet” technical things, and it turns out that these platforms are really bad at the technology stuff.

Gutenberg is intended to give this same veneer: you don’t need someone to help you; you can make a website yourself!

This may enable WordPress to compete better with the site builders. To maintain and grow it’s already-enormous market share. But at what cost?

At the cost of annoying many people like me who previously recommended WordPress to people but who are now seriously considering alternatives, or have already jumped ship?

At the cost of tricking people into thinking they can build a site by themselves when actually what they need is some help to do it properly?

At the cost of raising the bar of what’s needed to develop for WordPress by including React and lots of complicated build processes?

Has the project lost its way chasing user numbers rather than focusing on its mission?

A different Gutenberg might have said “OK, let’s let Wix and Weebly do their thing, and we’ll do our thing. They might take some people away from WordPress at first because those tools appear easier. But WE will guide people along a better path.”

And these thoughts lead me to having a better understanding of why the WordPress governance project has sprung up (best explained here on the recent WordPress Weekly podcast). Who was making the decisions to chase after these things? Where are the bigger decisions about the direction of the project not documented? Why are some of these processes so opaque?

This is just opinion, of course. But I do think it was an important realisation to have: WordPress isn’t focussed on agencies and developers right now – it wants users who can fend for themselves.

7 thoughts on “Opinion: WordPress Gutenberg and the responsibility of owning a website

  1. Hmm… you’re showing classic symptoms of someone making their way along the change curve. My guess is that if you stay developing for WordPress you’ll look back in a year’s time and wonder what all the fuss was about.

    I’m sure I recall similar things being said about Blogger and WordPress when they first came to prominence – these horrible platforms making people think they can easily create a website when really all websites need a proper developer and a proper (i.e. expensive) content management system. Website developers and their ilk seem to have survived despite WordPress’s success, with some people making careers mainly around supporting those that use WordPress.

    You suggest that WordPress might be chasing numbers rather than focusing on its mission. Yet its mission begins

    “WordPress is software designed for everyone, emphasising accessibility, performance, security, and ease of use. We believe great software should work with minimum set up, so you can focus on sharing your story, product, or services freely.”

    The new block editor seems consistent with that. I don’t think the block editor is going to be “tricking people” into thinking they can build a website without assistance that wouldn’t have been of that opinion (rightly or wrongly) before it existed. I also don’t think the block editor is particularly easy to use (compared to the classic editor), unless you’re someone already accustomed to page layout software: it’s a way of thinking of producing content that most people just won’t be familiar with and I wouldn’t expect many to find it intuitive.

    1. Hi there, and thanks for commenting as always (Someone still writes actually meaningful comments on a web page! Yay!)

      You’re probably right. Though I’d be interested to know what stage you think I’m at. Bargaining perhaps?

      I do think that WordPress’s direction has changed though. Back when they introduced custom post types and custom taxonomies it looked like it might be heading towards being a more general purpose CMS. But Gutenberg seems to be to be a step back towards being a straight-up publishing platform. And this is what I’m really getting at here: yes, we’re still on the same journey with the same ship, but the destination has changed.

      And it’s odd, because Matt Mullenweg – the “owner” of WordPress – had said not long ago that he saw WordPress as having potential for being “an operating system for the web”. Gutenberg feels like a step back the other way.

      In terms of WordPress’s mission, it’s main stated goal is “Democratizing publishing”. And Gutenberg certainly helps that by bringing this page builder functionality to the world for no cost. But I don’t think it’s designed for everyone, it’s accessibility is much debated, and I don’t find it easy to use at all! So I’m not sure it does meet most of these specifics.

      In addition the WordPress philosophy includes things that Gutenberg has failed quite spectacularly on like:

      – “Decisions, not options” (the new interface contains a multitude of options)
      – “Clean, lean and mean” (Will 80% of people use a drop cap? Or a verse block? Or ‘Spotlight mode’?)
      – “Striving for simplicity” (Really, this version of WordPress is NOT easier to use than the last)

  2. Well I think this may be a kneejerk reaction, I also think you really don’t need to worry. As a reasonably experienced WordPress user, I still think having a designer is a necessity, especially these days when the standards are so high, design-wise. I am a writer and do the architecture, but have no illusions about being a design maven- its simply not my strength. And I have to do a lot of digging around to accomplish some reasonably simple things. One thing all that digging has not accomplished is finding one good explanation, for a newbie, of what Gutenberg actually does. How, for example, is it materially different than a builder like Divi or Fusion? Automattic, in the servitude of open source, has utterly failed to communicate in simple, non-techie terms, what their groundbreaking upgrade does.
    And BTW, the five stages of Kubler Ross grief are not sequential- they are experienced randomly!

    1. Hmm…maybe. I’ve actually been thinking pretty hard about Gutenberg for a long time so it doesn’t feel kneejerk. But maybe you’re right.

      As a reasonably experienced user, I don’t think you are the kind of person that Gutenberg is trying to pull in to using WordPress. You sound happy with the classic editor, and know what you need, so Gutenberg isn’t going to sway you when choosing a website builder. You’re not the kind of person that I’m really talking about in the article.

      But good to know you think my job is safe!

      Thanks for the comment!

  3. I am a small agency owner and many of my clients does not care how easy is the software, they don’t want to deal with it.
    I am very happy about “progress” and when they announced Gutemberg i was happy… i love Medium UI (and also linkedin)…
    And I often use Visual composer.
    In my mind having them integrated in the core was a real time saver

    but then the beta come out…. i installed it… and man, what a mess.
    i waited for the final version… and it became even worse.

    I am still in for the idea, but man that was a big fail (PR-wise was even a bigger fail)

  4. The good news is that you can actually restrict the available color palette, which can help keep the client from turning the site into Geocities–a risk that already existed due to page-building plugins–which many agencies found could help them build client sites faster and be more profitable.

    Also, I don’t think you’re likely to see a big drop-off in client demand, because the kind of clients who really like doing things themselves are mostly doing that already. If the client company has a budget, it’s better for them to hire someone to build the website so they can focus on their main business and make money.

    As for the CMS part, Gutenberg actually brings a HUGE improvement in the creation of custom post types, because you can assign block templates to CPTs to make it easier for clients to fill in content in a consistent way. This is entirely possible to do if you’re a PHP person rather than a JS person, which I am. (And then there are the ACF blocks for cases where the specific data really does belong in post meta.)

    I firmly believe we’re going to be able to build better websites that are easier for our clients to use, and we can do it without mastering React. The transition won’t be easy, especially if you have complex sites to convert, but I agree with the first commenter that by the time a year has passed, we’ll all be much more comfortable.

  5. I do not think the average user of WordPress will be thrilled with Gutenberg. I really can’t understand how the the WordPress Powers to Be (TWPTB) believe this UI is easier for the average user. It is not.
    People who can build their pages/sites using Gutenberg were already doing it with “classic” WordPress.
    But how many are the target audience of Gutenberg?
    WP is supposed to “own| 30% of the sites of the whole internet.
    How many from this 30% can have the time/money/ability to happily play with Gutenberg-like tools/platforms?
    I mean really, for whom this huge change happened in WP?
    For the existent users? For future new users? Just to feed the vanity of TWPTB?
    Personally I fail to understand. I assume TWPTB have researched the Market and have data and numbers that justify Gutenberg.
    In any case, the vast majority of business sites are not made by their owners. Most of working people do not have the time to bother with something as complicated as Gutenberg, or build pages etc etc, they just want to be able to add content fast and easily.
    So in WordPress or elsewhere, we will still be needed 🙂

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