We’re Ruining WordPress

Every single time that someone experiences warnings, error messages, a white screen of death, or confusion, perception suffers. It doesn’t matter that a PHP fatal was caused by a plugin deactivation and a custom theme template tag not wrapped in a function_exists check. To the end user, it’s a problem with WordPress. No software is perfect, especially in the case of open-source software, because every time that a developer touches it he has the ability to either become its greatest ambassador or biggest enemy through choices made in coding practices, philosophical leanings, or business decisions.

I’m not a WordPress purist. I do not believe that it is a sacred cow. Other technologies excite me. Mobile thrills me. The WordPress Way isn’t always the right way. I do not believe that the word of Matt is gospel. I think WordPress is bigger than one man. I certainly don’t believe that the GPL is a matter of “good person” versus “bad person”. I generally think that the online community can be insular, aggressive, coercive, and naive at times. And I generally think that most of us are doing a good job of hiding our insecurities about not being smart enough or good enough for each other.

There’s a But.

The reason I enjoyed devoting myself to growing premium themes at WordPress.com was because I was able to empathize with real developers who have real customers and real business needs, but also take intimate note of what was considered The WordPress Way. Nobody does it better than Automattic. Ask any of the shops who I worked with—from WooThemes to Obox to Graph Paper Press to Organic Themes—and they’ll tell you how maniacal I was about making their code better for use by millions. Automattic taught me how to think at scale.

Not a single theme that was sent into WordPress.com was perfect and ready to go from Day 1. They all needed work. And putting the burden of quality heavily on theme authors over profit and quantity was an argument I was willing to have any day of the week with anyone, even at Automattic. Quality and quantity are at odds in life. Lie to yourself that they aren’t, but the more quickly and less deep you make anything, tangible or intangible, the chances of it lacking in quality increase. This is especially evident in the premium theme space, where themers have stupidly raced to the bottom with pricing and made up for this lack of business training by making more. And more. And more.

It didn’t have to be this way. No one mandated that themes should be sold at $50, $75, or $25. They were numbers that amateurs picked out of the ether because they saw other amateurs doing it. Consumers became anchored to the pricing, and now amateurs are frantically trying to figure out a way to reprogram the consumer without losing their companies.

How important is your business to you? Would you pay $150 or $250 or $350 or $450 per year to have a complete online presence that makes you money? Would you pay $1000 to ensure that you have a beautiful website that’s secure, error-free, fast, and reliable? I would and I do, and I’m a web engineer who does this for a living. I pay other web engineers to keep my business stable. Imagine how much I would be willing to pay if I were an average consumer who knew nothing of the web?

I’m asking you all to start making better choices because the way things are now, we’re hurting WordPress.

Here’s what I’d like to see. All ThemeForest authors need to turn on WP_DEBUG. I don’t care about your GPL choices or your mega-menus or your features arms race towards taking a 70% cut on $40 USD for an unsustainable lifetime of support and free updates. All I care about is that you turn on WP_DEBUG. Your buggy products are hurting WordPress and making everyone in the WordPress community miserable, from support people to developers to consumers. You’re ruining trust in WordPress and you’re making the platform seem amateurish and childish.

Here’s what I’d like to see: theme shops smart enough to roll their own businesses with higher pricing and an obscene level of precision and dedication to making good products. This means making documentation (both inline and external), code testing, usability testing, and accessibility a top priority. This means selling one theme at $100 instead of two at $50 to reduce support and give more time to making rock-solid, beautiful, well-maintained products that are delightful to use for longer than six months.

Here’s what I’d like to see: WordPress.com being able to open its doors and make good on its promise to enable all theme authors who want to make things with care and do them in The WordPress Way. Automattic can build as many scanners and checkers as possible but if your themes are a nightmare to use, buggy, think that shipping untested 3rd-party plugins inside of a theme is okay, or ugly, they simply will not fly. WordPress.com has a very small number of very overworked and over-stressed theme makers who would love for their users to be given more choices. That can happen if you as a developer and designer clean up your skills. This can also happen if Automattic invests more resources into theme innovation.

Here’s what I’d like to see: Extremely focused, extremely niche theme shops that do one thing and one thing well. Shops that own verticals. Shops that make 30 wedding themes and not 1 token nod to them. Shops that are more passionate about the products it makes than its users are. Shops that bring web design and delight back to WordPress themes. Shops that make something the people at A List Apart would be inspired to talk about.

I’d like for themers to be taken more seriously. The only way that this happens is if we become better in areas that no one else owns right now. We need to own usability. We need to own interactions. We need to own design, typography, and beauty. This also happens if we become better in areas traditionally ascribed to plugin and core developers. Code debugging must be a first priority. Looking at core files first and then Google for answers must become a priority. Understanding emerging needs in JavaScript and mobile must become a priority. Right now we look like amateurs making PSD to HTML passes and throwing copy/pasted PHP and JavaScript into themes without thinking about how or why.

We must do better. The way things are now is unacceptable. If you’re in this for money, okay. But have the dignity not to screw up the entire ecosystem while you’re getting yours.

I’m in this for money, always have been. I’m not a hippie. I prefer to make six figures per year. I prefer to know how my bills will be paid. Sometimes things are tight, sometimes money is hard, but I absolutely refuse to ruin WordPress because of it. Get yours. Charge more. Don’t do Free. But be a damned professional about it and stop making crap.

I’m in this for money. Always have been. But I’m also in this for an open web, a beautiful web, and a thoughtful web. Always have been. I’m riding with WordPress until I die. If you’re in this for a quick buck then all I ask I that you turn on WP_DEBUG. That’s it.

For everyone else who wants to succeed, start with quality first. That’s it. Build quality around your messaging as much as your code as much as your design and help fight against this tide of mediocrity and damaged trust in our product.

Author: Philip Arthur Moore

CEO at We Cobble. We build digital products for people.™