Lessons from Gutenberg


WordPress 5.0 is on the horizon. Yes, we’ve been saying it for months. But now we really are on the brink of its full release. The journey to get to this point has been quite a wild ride.

During the buildup, we’ve heard just about every argument for and against the new Gutenberg editor. And we’ve had loads of controversy (which hasn’t stopped, by the way) about one thing or another. Some people aren’t happy with process for storing data, while others think the whole concept is flawed. Then, there are all of those pre-release negative reviews. In all, it’s a lot for both web designers and users to digest.

Today, I think it’s important to look at this milestone release in another light. Instead of cheerleading or criticizing, let’s have an honest discussion about what WordPress and its community can learn from this experience.

With that, the following are a few lessons I believe that the development and launch of Gutenberg can teach us.

Change is Hard

Perhaps the most obvious lesson here is that change can be a very difficult process. And, when you’re talking about software that runs over 30% of websites, it’s especially tough. Just think of all the people and websites affected by a major change such as Gutenberg.

As someone who maintains a large number of WordPress websites, I can certainly feel the impact. There are concerns regarding compatibility, client education and changes to my workflow. This job is a challenge on a good day. Adding an unknown quantity to the mix makes things all the more stressful.

Nothing in this world stays the same forever. Therefore, it’s generally understood that change will happen. But when those changes are sweeping, as opposed to iterative, there will be a strong reaction. That’s very much what we’ve seen with Gutenberg.

Man climbing a mountain

Communication and Planning are Essential

A healthy line of communication with users can soften some of the negative effects of change. The same can be said of a steady, if not flexible, plan for implementing those changes. To be blunt, these were areas where WordPress really took it on the chin.

Certainly, there were honest attempts at communicating what was happening with Gutenberg. But it feels like things could have been much more out in the open. For instance, rather than burying information in the development blog, it could have been prominently featured on WordPress.org’s home page.

While hardcore members of the community were able to follow progress, there seemed to be a lot of people left in the dark. In my own experience, I’m finding users who still have little-to-no knowledge of what’s coming in WordPress 5.0.

The other factor is a plan that left Gutenberg’s arrival up in the air. Its launch has been a moving target, which is understandable. Software takes time to refine. But this also made things more difficult on developers.

Plugin and theme authors have been scrambling to ensure compatibility with the new React-based editor. Yet some nuances could be missed, given that Gutenberg was still in the development stage. Not to mention that the official documentation wasn’t always as clear or helpful as you’d hope.

The result was a situation that felt rushed and even a bit chaotic at times. It became impossible to tell when the next shoe would drop.

A group of people holding hands

A Large, Distributed Community is Hard to Wrangle

Like an operating system, WordPress has a diverse community that is spread out all over the globe. But unlike Apple, Google and Microsoft, WordPress can hit a wall when trying to reach their audience. Operating systems tend to be covered more by mainstream media. WordPress, on the other hand, has to rely on very niche channels of communication.

When something big is happening, getting the word out is a unique challenge. As mentioned above, communication wasn’t a strongpoint of this whole process. Things could have been done better. But it might be a stretch to think that, even with some more prominent positioning, the entire community could have been made fully aware of Gutenberg.

Then there’s the whole democratic process that is often associated with open source software. The idea is that those who contribute and use WordPress have some say in its future direction. Perhaps the road to WordPress 5.0 has been a cold hard lesson in reality.

One of the most prevalent perceptions of the Gutenberg project is that it was a very closed effort. While the community provided feedback, decisions seemed to be more top down than bottom up.

Recent news that the WordPress accessibility team faced roadblocks in both carrying out their duties and having their voices heard seem to lend credence to this idea.

To be fair, a change this big doesn’t necessarily benefit from having too many cooks in the kitchen. It could easily pull the entire project sideways. But again, it’s the two-way dialogue that seems to be missing here.

This is part of the challenge in dealing with a massive community. While you want to promote democracy, sometimes there needs to be a more authoritarian approach in order to get things done. That will inevitably ruffle some feathers.

Wild horses running

You Can’t Please Everyone

Lastly, Gutenberg is a reminder that, no matter what you do, someone will end up being unhappy. There are people out there who don’t want a new editor because they simply don’t want to change. That’s to be expected.

Maybe the biggest lesson of all is that we have only so much control over a given situation. Therefore, you should focus most of your energy on the things you can control.

If given the chance, one wonders if the leadership involved with Gutenberg would do some things differently. Perhaps better communication could have saved a lot of stress. Or maybe the project would have taken a more iterative approach to change.

Of course, it’s always easier to look at things in the rearview mirror. On the bright side, looking back helps us learn from our mistakes. Hopefully, the next big change that comes to WordPress takes those lessons to heart and results in a more positive experience for all.

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