I’ve been reading a lot about usability and user-friendliness lately, including Jonathan Shariat’s Tragic Design and Heydon Pickering’s Inclusive Design Patterns. One idea I’ve come across several times is the need for developers to remember that when you do user testing, you are not testing the user: you’re testing the interface. If the user can’t figure out the interface, the problem is with the design, not the user.
WordPress Is Hard
Most user interfaces—and not just those in software—could stand to be improved. In general, developers tend to forget that they are not the intended users of the product they’re creating. And budgets don’t always lend themselves to testing a product with a truly representative group of subjects. At least if I’m building a client website, I don’t have to worry about whether it would be easy for the general public to use. But I do have to worry about whether it’s easy for that particular client to use.
The problem clients sometimes have with this is that modifying the WordPress admin and providing thorough documentation can be as time-consuming (and therefore expensive) as building the site itself. This can—and probably should—put them in the position of wondering whether WordPress is actually the right platform to use. (Spoiler alert: it might not be.)
I’ve said before that WordPress is not intuitive, but I think that what’s sometimes overlooked by people who complain about the difficulty of WordPress is that the problem isn’t that WordPress has become more difficult than it used to be. It’s just that when WordPress first came on the scene, everything else was harder to use. That’s no longer true, and if WordPress wants to compete with the likes of Medium, SquareSpace and Wix, it needs to adapt its user interface to make it easier for people to do things that are hard to do with WordPress now.
Both plugin developers and the WordPress core team are working on doing just that, and have been for some time. Let’s leave aside for now the question of whether they’re going about it the right way and address the fact that it’s a work in progress and it’s going to be a while before those improvements are available.
Ownership and Responsibility (Extended Analogy Ahead)
As a web development client, you have a right to expect your developer to take your needs and your abilities into consideration, to simplify confusing interfaces so you aren’t overwhelmed by dozens of menu items, and to provide some level of training and documentation. But there still comes a point where you have to take ownership of, and responsibility for, that website.
I’ve said before that having a website built is more like buying a car than it is like getting a brochure designed. I keep coming back to that analogy, because it’s a good one. For Americans, owning a car is synonymous with freedom. But owning a car is also a big responsibility and a big expense. Anyone who drives has to worry about safety, security, mechanical failure, and compliance with federal, state, and local laws.
What’s more, driving a car is both difficult and dangerous. My driver’s education classes emphasized the fact that motor vehicle accidents are the leading cause of death among teens, and that’s still true (at least in the US). Outside of a very few places, most adults in the US know how to drive, and entirely too many of them have to drive back and forth to work every day.
I sometimes suspect that many Americans would be surprised to learn that owning a car is not enshrined in the Bill of Rights—but we still don’t dispute that it’s something we have to learn how to do, and then practice a lot, before we get good at it. Given how much time most of us spend driving, starting at quite a young age, you might expect the mandatory drivers education classes to be more thorough and the driving exam to be more difficult, but let’s just take a look at what the State of California requires before you can legally drive a car.
Here’s What You Have to Do to Before You Can Drive a Car
At present, California requires 25 hours of classroom instruction and 6 hours of behind-the-wheel instruction for prospective drivers under the age of 18. You have to pass a vision exam and a 46-question knowledge test based on the California Driver Handbook in order to get the provisional permit you need before you can get behind-the-wheel instruction. After an additional 50 hours of practice with a driver over the age of 25, you can take your road test (which California just calls a “driving test”), assuming you meet the insurance requirements. If you’re over 18, driver’s education classes are not mandatory, but you still have to take all the same tests.
Here are a few of the things you have to be able to do in order to drive a car:
- Know and obey the rules of the road
- Recognize and understand road signs
- Know the route to your destination
- Know how to operate your vehicle’s windows, locks, turn signals, windshield wipers, headlights, hazard lights, trunk, hood, fuel cap release, horn, seat positioning, seat belts, gearshift/PRINDLE, ignition, brakes, accelerator, emergency brake, heat, rear view mirror, side mirrors, vent/air conditioning, and of course the entertainment system
- Know what the different dials, lights, and symbols on your dashboard mean (there are so many now that I have had to look them up)
- Simultaneously watch for hazards in front of you, beside you, and behind you.
If you don’t do these things, you can be ticketed and fined—and you might even get killed. What’s more, you can get killed because someone else isn’t doing these things.
Even when not actually behind the wheel, automobile owners have to fill their fuel tanks (or charge their electric cars), get the oil changed, get regular service, replace tires when they wear down, pay insurance bills, renew license plates, and find legal parking places.
That’s just what it takes to be able to drive a car—not to repair it, and certainly not to design or build it.
And in spite of all that, most of us think driving is easy.
We didn’t always feel that way. I thought driving was really hard when I was first learning to do it. I was a nervous wreck any time I had to stop on an incline, from fear of stalling (manual transmission). It was far too much to remember to do at once, on top of figuring out where I was going in the days before GPS. But most adults in the US will tell you that driving is easy, because they’ve done it so much that it’s second nature.
What Driver’s Education Can Teach You about Website Ownership
Right, Sallie. You’ve now carried on about driving for more than 600 words. Get to the point already.
Expect to Need Instruction
It’s entirely possible to get 25 hours of “classroom instruction” on how to use WordPress. Video User Manuals produces a series of 89 training videos specifically aimed at the person who is creating and publishing content (someone with editor access). And given that it once took me more than 25 hours to create rather less instruction than these provide, they’re cost-effective for both developers and clients. Lynda.com has 1200+ beginner-level courses on WordPress; I’d recommend starting with Morten Rand-Hendricksen’s WordPress Essential Training.
The good news is that you can definitely learn the basics of how to create and edit posts and pages in less than 25 hours. In many cases, all you as a client will need to do is create and edit content. It might be more than posts and pages: testimonials, portfolio entries, products for sale, and photo galleries are all fairly common. But most of what’s involved in creating them is the same, with some additional fields to fill out for some content types.
You can get “behind the wheel” instruction, too. If your developer hasn’t offered to walk you through the steps to publish content on your website, you should ask for a live screen-sharing tour (so you can ask questions) and make sure it gets recorded so you can go over it again. Depending on the complexity of your website (and the number of questions you ask), this should take between 1 and 2 hours.
Expect to Need Maintenance
How much maintenance a website needs depends in part on what platform you use to build it, how complex the site is, and how often you update the content. A plain HTML site requires almost no maintenance, but it’s not that easy to publish on. If you use a hosted service, backups, security scans, and updates may be handled in the background by your service provider. (You should always make your own backups, though, unless you don’t mind losing your content.)
If you publish frequently, you’re going to want daily or at least weekly backups. If you have a WordPress site with a lot of plugins on it, you’re going to need to do updates quite frequently. There are services that take care of both of these things, plus security scans and other services, for very reasonable prices: the monthly cost is about equivalent to that of an an oil change. (That’s an oil change without all the up-sells that most oil change places hit you with, like a new air filter, new windshield wipers, and a system flush for your high-mileage car.)
Expect to Be Held Responsible
If someone else parks your car illegally, even without your knowledge, guess who gets the ticket? You do. If your website gets infected with malware, your hosting company will shut down your site until you get it fixed—unless security scans and fixes are part of your hosting package.
If you read the fine print of your hosting agreement, you’ll see that the hosting company is not responsible for lost data, even if they are making backups for you. While it’s unlikely (assuming your hosting company follows good practices about redundancy), you could lose your entire website. Always, always, always make your own backups.
If your site gets hacked because you used a weak password, guess whose fault that is? There is no excuse for using a weak password. Password management tools like LastPass can generate and remember long random passwords for you, so you can have a unique password for every site you use filled in automatically on all your devices, and cost less than a tank of gas.
Don’t Expect All Websites to Work the Same Way
I learned to drive on a 1973 Fiat Spider convertible. Though I’ve moved up to a mid-sized sedan, I feel uncomfortable at the wheel of an SUV. If I wanted to buy a motorcycle, I’d have to take a 15-hour motorcycle training course before I could get a motorcycle endorsement on my driver’s license. If I wanted to drive a large recreational vehicle, I’d need a noncommercial license. If I wanted to pull a trailer over 10,000 lbs, I’d need a commercial driver’s license, for which I would need a physical exam as well as a TSA security check, a new knowledge test, and a new road test.
If I wanted to drive while visiting a foreign country, I might be allowed to without getting an International Driving Permit or taking a test, but if I wanted to survive the experience, I would need to learn the rules of the road and the meaning of the road signs. I have driven a car in England (where they drive on the left side of the road) and lived to tell the tale. Shifting gears with my left hand was less difficult than I expected, but I kept looking the wrong way for the rear view mirror.
Likewise, if you’re accustomed to using one kind of website, what you learned might not apply to a website built on a different platform. You may not recognize anything when you log in. Everything seems harder when it’s new and unfamiliar. There will be reasons for the differences. They might even be good reasons. A platform like Medium can get away with a very simple interface, because you only have to be able to do one thing with it: write long-form content.
If your website has to let you schedule events, sell tickets, sell products, and teach courses in addition to letting you write long-form content, you have to expect it to be more difficult to operate. That’s not all about technology, either. Things like inventory, taxes, and shipping are complicated, either online or off.
Alternatives to Driving
If you live in a congested city with good public transportation (New York being the classic example, but San Francisco counts), you may be better off not owning a car. The cost of a parking space in some cities would pay for an apartment in the suburbs. Cities offer plenty of alternatives to driving. Buses, subway trains, taxis, ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft, car-sharing services like Zipcar, bicycles, and walking can all be effective ways to get around, and you may reach your destination faster than if you tried to drive.
Even in California, you don’t have to own a car, though it’s likely to limit your independence and your mobility as distances between things are greater and public transportation options range from nonexistent to mediocre. My husband and I are a one-car, one-driver family. He doesn’t have a California driver’s license and is not allowed to drive on his Dutch license now that he lives here. Out here in Oakley, he relies on me to drive him places, but once he gets into a city, he uses Uber to get around. (His public transportation skills range from nonexistent to mediocre.)
You can avoid some expenses by using alternatives, but you still have both costs and responsibilities. If you participate in a car-sharing program, you still have to have a valid driver’s license. (Insurance is usually bundled into the cost of the service.) If you own a bicycle, you have to learn to ride it (assuming you didn’t do this in childhood) and also obey the same rules of the road that apply to motor vehicles–and you have to be concerned about theft, worn-out tires, and damage from the weather. In order to use public transportation, you need to know the routes and schedules, and you need to buy tickets or passes. You will probably also have to stand in line, and may struggle to find a seat at rush hour.
Alternatives to Website Ownership
It’s entirely possible that you don’t have to have a website at all. If you just want to write a personal blog, you can use Medium. If you want to write a business blog, you can use LinkedIn. I’ve even known businesses to have a Facebook page and not a website—though I don’t recommend it. Moving up the scale of complexity, you can use a hosted service like Wix, Squarespace, WordPress.com, or Shopify to build a simple website, portfolio, or store. You can get started quickly, and they can be a good way to test the viability of your business idea.
Some people will never need more than these services offer. A complex self-hosted website is as much of a hindrance to them as a car in central London. (Yes, I drove a car in England. Three times. In four years. And never in London.) The effort and expense involved are far more than the value they provide to that particular client, and that’s just as true for other content management systems as it is for WordPress.
When Ownership Matters, Take Responsibility
If you are in business—and plan to stay in business—ownership matters. You might choose to rent some of your equipment, but you want to own and control your intellectual property, which definitely includes the content of your website. Having your own website gives you control over both function and design. It gives you (or certainly should give you) data portability. Getting it to be exactly right for you takes time, energy, and money.
You don’t need to learn to build a website. You don’t even need to learn to maintain it. But you are absolutely responsible for knowing how to operate it.
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