Theme disconnect and discontent

Since I’ll be leading the 4.7 release cycle, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about what it might look like. Really, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about bigger projects and longer roadmaps in general, but 4.7 is pretty good motivation to kick things off.

One of the wishlist items I’ve heard throughout my five years of core contributing has been NUX – new user experience. So many abandoned sites, so much frustration in getting a site looking the way you want it to, so let’s fix it! Except that NUX is hugely broad (and itself can be thought of as N-UX and NU-X), and while individual bits have been worked on here and there (e.g. pointers), I wouldn’t exactly call it a unified effort toward a shared goal.

The part of NUX that I would like to start tackling in 4.7 is initial site setup, which also ties in with theme setup, whether that’s initially for a site or on theme switch. My premise here is that a user should be able to go from a fresh install of WordPress to being ready to show somebody else their site in a unified experience that allows for live, non-destructive previews. Initial questions that spring to mind are:

  • Where exactly do we define the start and stop of the setup phase to tackle right now?
    Perhaps post-theme selection through when you first feel comfortable sharing the site with somebody else, e.g. “check out what I’m working on”.
  • What might somebody have already in mind when they start the process of setting up a new site?
    These might be things like a general visual idea (typically inspired by a site or general trends), existing media (photography, videos), contact form, and so on.
  • How do different people conceptualize the structure of a website?
    When I taught digital portfolios for musicians, the most successful analogue was a hierarchical outline. Some people don’t think about it at all, and that’s okay, too.
  • What goes through somebody’s mind as they pick the next thing they want to change about their new site?
    For instance: I want the title of my site to look like this, now I want a logo next to it, now I want this image behind all of that, and then under that would be a menu that goes to pages with these titles, and then over there I want my contact info, etc.
  • What currently exists in WordPress that supports this goal?
    Customizer, site icon, site logo, custom header, custom background, featured images, nav menus, widgets, ???
  • What currently blocks users from accomplishing this in WordPress?
    Activating a theme might not make it look anything like the screenshot or demo you saw. Adding pages to nav menus currently requires you to leave the customizer, make a page (which confronts you with a content area that you may not be ready to think about yet), and then go back to add it. Or, add a fake link and remember to go back and change it later (and that’s for a user who understands custom links and making fake ones, etc.). Multi-part pages don’t have any sort of standard or even common editing experience. Shift-click to edit an element (which is over in a side panel) is a hidden feature with no visible hint.
  • What are other services/software projects doing in this regard? What’s working or not working for them and why?
    Time to do some market research. 🙂

With 4.7 being the final release of the year, Twenty Seventeen is also on my mind, which aligns nicely with this focus area. I have some pretty strong personal feelings about what I want it to be like, but no matter what, here’s what I want it to represent and enable for others:

  • Theme demos on .org that actually best showcase that theme. This may be static home page, specific content, layout selections, and so forth.
  • Initial option/content/whatever setting upon theme activation, so that users get the look they saw and have some prompts for what kind of content might go where. This is super tricky for a number of reasons and I think we’d want to approach it in a restricted way so that best practices have time to develop before more creative approaches appear and get copied.
  • If some kind of multi-part page is present (seems highly likely in the current climate), at least an initial exploration of the best experience for editing that in various contexts.

One of the things that was really interesting in 4.6 was the response to the proposal for creating page stubs while editing nav menus in the customizer. A lot of concerns seem to center around mixing of content and appearance editing in the customizer, and the recurring theme of worrying that the customizer is eating WordPress‡.

In regards to the mixing of what’s being edited, I don’t believe that the majority of WordPress users or even a significant percentage of us make a distinction between “content” and what our sites look like. Essentially, for most there is but a singular “this is what’s on my website”. That’s not to say that there isn’t a difference technically, and certainly for developers it’s much more evident (although nav menus and widgets still seem to be a gray area). As always, I’m happy to be wrong, but I’m also confident that I’m not.

Bottom line, what I want is to close the gap between what a user is expecting a theme to look like and what it actually looks like on their own site. Someday soon I’d also like to close the gap between what a user has in their head and finding a theme to match. If this sounds like some things that Matt’s been saying, well, we do actually talk to each other 🙂 I’ve got plenty of other things I want to have happen in 4.7, and I’m sure as things get rolling next month people will bring up tons of great ideas and bugs that need fixing, but actually planning some kind of product feature and roadmap seems like a good thing to start doing.

‡ As for the customizer eating WordPress: it’s not. But! I understand where that comes from. User trust is centrally important to WordPress – shared philosophies and its success alike. When it comes to what’s on a website (appearance and content), one of the best ways to gain and keep user trust is to provide non-destructive live previews. Right now in WordPress, TinyMCE can serve that for content, but that’s largely the area of the customizer, and that’s why things keep creeping into it – because that ability to try out changes without them showing up before you’re ready or otherwise being “punished” for them is incredibly important. But it might not be the customizer in its current form forever, and in fact, it probably shouldn’t be.

Theme disconnect and discontent

24 thoughts on “Theme disconnect and discontent

  1. binarygary says:

    NUX is important for the continued growth of WP. Very interesting to couple that with the timing on the twenty-seventeen theme. Excited to see where you go with 4.7!

    Signing up and using squarespace is probably as good a place as any to start with market research. While it logically takes a similar approach to the Woo Commerce plugin initial setup, it feels like significantly fewer and significantly easier decisions while still “scaffolding” out a basic site.

    Perhaps ambitious, but looking at many of the page builder plugins and how some approach in-view editing might be one path to making the NUX from theme selection to “look at this thing I’m doing” stage shorter.


  2. Andrea_R says:

    Oh, yes yes yes! I talk to people every day in our help desk, and they are horribly confused a lot of the time – especially when activating a theme doesn’t look like the demo. And the menus and page relations. And how the theme really just skins their content (they think they are stuck and will have to start over if they switch themes, for instance).

    Liked by 1 person

  3. […] Theme disconnect and discontent [inglés] Helen va a ser la líder del desarrollo de WordPress 4.7 y tiene en mente mejorar la experiencia de los nuevos usuarios de WordPress, tanto a nivel de administración, creación de tu primer sitio web e incluso en el próximo tema por defecto Twenty Seventeen. Muy interesante para saber hacia dónde nos dirigimos y el tipo de planteamientos que se hacen las personas al cargo antes de empezar su misión. […]


  4. As a premium theme author the focus on new user experience is exciting! 🙂 Like Andrea above I have spoken to a number of users who get confused by the setup process and the fact that their site doesn’t look like the theme demo.

    I’ve listed a few things I’d like to see at some stage:

    Some sort of recommended plugin api. The tgm plugin activation class ( is included in probaby 90% of the themes on, and even the themes have started doing something similar for Jetpack (
    A default site settings & widget import & export would be great. Perhaps a kind of scaffolding system – whereby the theme includes a text file outlining the default theme settings that a user can optionally enable after changing theme.
    Improved interface for setting a static front page. Not having to jump between customizer and page editor would be great. Many people don’t understand that you have to create a page before you can set the static front page, and the fact that a page gets hidden when you set it as the blog homepage is a bit confusing too. This was mentioned by a few people on the 4.6 wish list post –

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Love this comment. Currently, the theme authors have to write an independent tool to import site settings, widgets and even the content to help new users have the same site as the demo. This tool is different from developers and it sometimes breaks the default WP Importer plugin.

      I think this can’t be resolved in short time, but I still hope that there’s a common guideline from WordPress that can help developers / users to be on the same page.


  5. alexclarke says:


    “Activating a theme might not make it look anything like the screenshot or demo you saw” – I think a key aspect of this is also finally updating and fixing the WordPress importer. It should import theme_mods & widgets and define the homepage (reading settings) and there are a few debug errors to fix. Currently a lot of theme developers rely on this plugin to “try” and provide a replica of the live demo to the end user.


    1. Absolutely, if the importer could handle theme_mods and widgets, it would be an awesome improvement which would fix most of the issues. There are lots of themes out there that rely on widgetized front pages and for these themes the importer is basically useless to replicate the theme demo look because it just allows to import/export content.


  6. Many themes offer demo content that can be imported to make the installation match the theme demo, however this is currently a manual process with several steps required. What if there was an option in the theme directory to “Include Demo Content” when installing a new theme? Choosing this option would give the user a result that matches the theme demo. Many users would grasp the editing process more quickly by working off existing content as opposed to a blank canvas.

    While this may improve the NUX, we’d have to be careful for users with existing sites, as importing demo content could have unexpected consequences.


    1. alexclarke says:

      If this was in place, there would also need to be a “reset” setting though to prevent customers from selecting different themes and uploading sample data over and over again and really bloating things up.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I think a community-wide focus on NUX would be healthy and informative. Rather than a side project it should be front-and-center, powered by user research and hard data. We need to get a better understanding of our user base and how they use the application so we can make educated decisions about how to progress. What you’ve outlined here sounds like a solid foundation to start from, and while I disagree with you on the question of editing content in context (Customizer etc) I think this is a minor issue, and something that will be resolved as the process rolls forward.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. One of the biggest areas of disappointment with new users that I run into is the fact that installing a theme doesn’t make it look like the demo. Some premium themes have a “import demo content” feature, but it would be interesting to see something similar in the .org themes.

    User research should be the starting point, so there’s some data about how people are using WordPress. Market research would be good, to see how other solutions on-board users.

    My thoughts are that adding content creation to the Customizer (creating a new post) may be a bit much. I do think there need to be safeguards in place for importing demo content, to where existing content doesn’t get wiped out.

    The NUX initiative sounds like a great area to focus on.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Hi Helen, Ulrich sent me the link to your post. I had commented on his post In a nutshell, my concern is making WordPress at least as equally attractive as Squarespace and Wix so as not to lose potential clients. My post follows:
    Topic: Making as easy a choice as, Squarespace, Wix or Weebly. Background: I am a web developer who also hosts about 100 accounts, some of which use WordPress.
    1. Many of my clients have a preconceived idea that WordPress is harder to use than other platforms.
    2. With a setup that includes only the latest “twenty…” themes, they are either dependent on a web developer or have to browse an overwhelming number of themes knowing they are still only seeing a fraction of those available, without even getting into paid themes.
    3. There are already WAY too many themes. Why not make it easier for the less skilled web developer or the end user to create their own theme by pulling in functionality modules?
    4. My own review of themes over the years has proven frustrating. Searching by functionality yields either an unknown number or none too frequently. Many do not even specify functionality in the description, focusing on colors and other stuff that can already be seen. The description or keywords can’t be seen until clicking. In my opinion, the number of widgets, and how many are in areas other than the sidebar is the most important piece of information.
    5. Functionality should not be included in the customizer since the theme needs to be downloaded anyway. Just switch between themes to evaluate and get rid of that small piece of real estate that duplicates existing functionality or plug-ins and overrides desired CSS in many cases.
    6. A few more “most popular” themes of different varieties should be included so we hosts have the ability to capture that business.
    Thanks for any help!


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