Have We Been Misleading People about WordPress?


Back in 2009, a colleague and I co-authored a blog post entitled “But I thought WordPress was supposed to be easy!

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

In 2012, when Media Bistro hired me to teach an introductory WordPress course, I suggested that it might be better to focus on WordPress.com rather than self-hosted WordPress, because Media Bistro attracted primarily journalists and writers, not people with any kind of tech background, and the class was only four sessions. (I eventually got it extended to six.)

No, no. They wanted self-hosted WordPress. Because plugins are sexy. And so are themes. Never mind that just getting a domain name and hosting are going to take up the entire first week. (The first time through, I was masochistic enough to try to make them install WordPress manually. Then I discovered some of them didn’t know what a .zip file was, never mind how to expand it.)

I found that 90% of what I could cover in four weeks—and even six—is available in WordPress.com, and would have saved my students endless headaches.

After all, WordPress.com was invented for the people who want WordPress to be easy. And it really does provide people with a very straightforward path to publishing. It imposes restrictions in exchange for its simplicity and security, but no more than does, say Blogger (where I first started blogging) or Tumblr, or Medium.

It’s entirely possible for a writer to set up a simple portfolio website on WordPress.com, or for someone running a service business to put up a brochure site with a blog added. I would certainly recommend it over something like Wix, as long as you use your own domain name from the start. (Though there are some oddities to Automattic’s handling of domain registrations.)

But somehow people have confused ease of publishing with ease of designing and even ease of developing. Mind you, for those who come from a background of design or development, working with WordPress can be easier than whatever we were doing before. (For me, it was plain HTML sites; WordPress makes some things more challenging but saves doing a lot of really tedious work.)

But for that person who didn’t know what a .zip file was? Get real.

Yet everywhere you turn, it seems there’s another WordPress product promising to give you the ability to create visually stunning, traffic-magnetizing, get-rich-quick websites almost instantaneously—and here are the magic words—without knowing code.

The primrose path and the garden path are not the same thing—but neither is one you want to head down in the metaphorical sense.
The astonishing thing is how few people seem to question the implied semantic equivalence between “without knowing code” and “without knowing anything.”

After all, you can lay out an entire book, illustrations, footnotes, index, and all, in Adobe InDesign without knowing code— but I defy you to use InDesign to make even a one-page flyer without knowing the software. (No, not even an ugly flyer with 10 different fonts on a page. InDesign is baffling.)

WordPress is software. So are those fancy drag-and-drop themes. (Some of them require more code than WordPress itself.) We looked at some of them for the East Bay WordPress Meetup recently. I liked Headway’s drawing-oriented interface, but after a few hours of contending with Ultimatum, I concluded that it would be faster and easier to build a theme by coding it than to make my way through that learning curve.

Some of the available tools are more intuitive than that. But even if something seems simple and intuitive to you, don’t assume that it’s going to be that way for a complete newbie. (I just showed a client who’s been managing her site quite competently for more than a year how to edit a link. She smacked herself on the forehead when she saw how simple it was, but the chain-link button in the editor did not have an obvious meaning for her.)

Maybe you’re not a theme or plugin developer exaggerating your product’s usability in order to make more sales. But the next time you start telling a stranger how easy it is to build a website with WordPress, stop.

Think about InDesign. Think about Photoshop.

What it’s actually easy to do is install WordPress, install a pre-designed theme, and start publishing. (Assuming that writing the content isn’t the hard part for you, which it actually is for many people.)

It’s not easy to do the rest of it until you have skills and experience. Until you understand basic design principles and how things shift in RWD and how colors work together and white space and contrast and typography and any number of other things, on top of how WordPress works and how hosting works and how plugins work and which ones don’t play well together and what should be in your theme and what should be in your plugins. And that’s apart from how much you do or don’t know about the HTML, CSS, or PHP.

If you know all those things, then you can use some of these tools to build a great WordPress site in a couple of hours.

If you don’t know them, you’re probably going to build something that looks like Geocities in 1997, and runs like it, too, no matter how long you spend working on your site.

Expecting to become a brilliant web developer by purchasing one theme is like expecting to become a brilliant car mechanic by purchasing one wrench. It isn’t going to happen.

There aren’t any shortcuts to skill. Not in any field. Good tools make a skilled practitioner better, but they won’t make up for lack of experience. We all have to go through the hopeless n00b phase, over and over again, throughout our lives. That’s actually okay. If you’re a highly-skilled investment banker, or restaurant chef, or auto mechanic, there’s no reason you should expect yourself to be a brilliant website designer—much less an overnight brilliant website designer.

Remember all the really hard things you know how to do that don’t require any code at all, and watch out for the primroses.