WordPress: Paving cow paths
A few days ago WordPress users got a letter from Matt — Matt Mullenweg, WP’s founding developer — reporting on the growth of his baby. In the course of his presentation (“State of the Word 2011”), he spoke of WP’s reliance on “Desire Paths” to determine the company’s direction. He likened it to paving cow paths, something anyone who has ever been on a college campus recognizes immediately. Campus designers can build all the pretty sidewalks they want, but students will create their own paths along the routes they want to use, regardless of where the sidewalks go. Wise planners pave the paths created by the students.
Anyway, it prompted me to compile this post and add my two cents’ worth to the nearest cow path.
Stuff I look for when choosing a theme
I like custom headers where I can include my own art and title in whatever font I might have chosen as my “trademark.” This header must be instead of, not in addition to, some default title. I must be able to turn off or hide the default title without hiding my blog from search engines. And while we’re on the subject of headers, why does everyone think a header needs to be a couple of inches high? That’s often just wasted vertical real estate. One reason I like the Enterprise theme is its shallow header. I was able to “make it mine” within that space. I saved even more space by eliminating one of the menu bars. Big, deep headers are nice if they are functional, if they contain live links, a search box, menus, etc. But I’m not a fan of a big static header. Of course, all this depends on the design of the theme and how the various design elements are incorporated.
I see no real use for footer widgets except for copyright information. If widget information is important, put it on the side where it’s obvious and accessible. If it’s not important, why show it at all? I see no point in making readers scroll clear to the bottom of the page looking for something that might or might not be there.
I want a full dateline — including the year — on each post. And I want the date at the top of the post. No reader wants to read an entire post, thinking they are getting current information, and discover at the end that the post is two years old. Or worse, not discover that the post is two years old — because the complete date is either missing or so inconspicuous as to be overlooked. True, on a relatively young blog, this may not be a major concern. But on a blog like this, that spans years, I think it’s very important.
Custom backgrounds are a wonderful feature. Next to a custom header, nothing helps more in establishing a unique look than a custom background. Vigilance makes it very easy to change the background colors, and that’s a great option for someone who doesn’t want to do a lot of custom tweaking. Ideally, though I’d like the option of adding background images. I may not do so, but I like having the option. Transparent elements are a nice touch in conjunction with custom backgrounds. They really add a lot of depth.
The main column should be wide enough to show off a big picture or design options like block quotes. The sidebars should not compete with the main column for attention.
The front page layout should be functional and attractive, not busy and cluttered with too many bells and whistles. Of course, one person’s bells and whistles may be the next person’s functionality.
That said, I’m a sucker for cool stuff like dynamic menus and horizontally scrolling posts. Beautiful typography, beautiful colors, grunge designs. Sure, I might not be using them today, but come back tomorrow or next week.
My wish list
On the list of CSS revisions (CSS stylesheet editor), provide a way to label the revisions to assist the blogger in locating a specific older one. And although I’m sure someone’s storage is at stake, I’ve wished more than once there were more than 25 revisions available. Also, as I fine-tune this post, it occurs to me that a more robust revisions list for posts could be useful.
Provide a toggle to keep my comments/replies from appearing in the “Recent Comments” widget. My thinking is the “Recent Comments” widget exists to show (and therefore publicize) the different visitors who have commented and the posts they have commented on. Including my comments in that widget serves no purpose; in fact, I think it can leave a negative impression when my comments start to dominate (particularly if I’ve replied to a number of comments in one sitting). I’d much prefer my comments not be listed. In the past I’ve gotten around this by using my edit privileges to enter my reply directly under the visitor’s comment, in the same box. This also keeps my comments from being added to the comment total in the WP stats — good if you want a raw number of comments not including your own, bad if you think a higher count per post draws readership. This approach gets tedious since I have to enter edit comment mode, then use rules, bold, ital, indent, etc. to set my text apart from the comment above it. And it wrecks the nice thread structure.
Personally, I’d love to have a big red warning message saying “Are you SURE you want to PUBLISH this post?” before I can do so. I am far too likely to click “Publish” when I intend to click “Preview.” I can scramble fast and take it down (from WordPress AND Facebook AND Twitter!), but by then all my subscribers (all three of them) have been notified and come looking for a new post — which is no longer there. Perhaps the default setting for a post could be “Private” and/or have a toggle for this. Or provide a “Notepad” setting as a default, that would have to be toggled to “Publish.” This is the one time I’d like a good ol’ nagging Vista-style interface asking me three different times, in three different ways, if I’m absolutely, positively sure I want to publish a post. I should have a fail-safe system, where I need another person with a second key before I can launch …
Love all the WP stats. I’m sort of a stat whore. It seems like it should be possible to provide Total Words Published, since WP already provides Total Posts and a word count for each post. How hard would it be for WP computers to total everything? It would be fun to know if I’ve completed my first bestseller or am half way through the third one.
On all themes, we can specify the number of posts per page to display. I prefer to keep the number fairly low so as to keep attention on the most recent post(s) and not create a long scroll down for the reader (particularly important if I happen to have included some worthwhile footer widgets. (I realize some readers might prefer a long, single-page scroll just to see what sort of stuff I’m posting.) Unfortunately, the number of posts per page also determines the number of items per archive/category page. Limiting a front page to 3 posts seems like a good idea; limiting an archive list to 3 items gets pretty ridiculous with themes that only list titles or excerpts instead of complete posts (eg, Vigilance, zBench). And in those themes that show the entire posts, having to click “Older posts” after scanning just three titles gets annoying in a hurry. It would be great if the number of posts per page and the number of posts/items per archive page could be set independently.
Since every theme is different, there’s probably no universal fix, but it would be nice to have a simple way to add my one-line copyright notice (Copyright © 2011 PiedType.com} to any footer. Not wanting to disturb the designer or WP credit. Just want to add mine, since the footer is the customary location for a copyright notice. I know I’m not the only user who hasn’t figured out the “position: absolute” workaround.
I’m in awe of the WordPress folks, knowing that they have developed and maintain some 130 different themes, all of which must be coded to work properly on at least three different operating systems (in all their various versions) and at least five different browsers (with all their many versions). Oh, and that’s only for us bloggers on WordPress.com. We are but a small part of the WordPress empire.
Thanks, WP, for giving me my favorite toy and hobby. (Not so much for turning me into a couch potato, but at least I’m keeping my brain cells active.)
P.S. to my wish list: Give commenters a way to edit their comments, for a limited period of time (maybe an hour or two). I’m sure there isn’t one among us who hasn’t wanted to adjust a comment, correct a misspelled word, fix a broken link, etc., usually within 60 seconds of posting the original comment. It hurts to post a well-thought out reply, only to notice a moment too late that there’s a glaring error in the middle of it.