Contentious Review Process Leads Ollie Theme to Remove Innovative Onboarding Features, Amid Stagnating Block Theme Adoption

Mike McAlister, creator of the free Ollie theme, will be dropping the innovative onboarding features from the theme in favor of putting them into a separate plugin after facing pushback during the review for inclusion in’s Themes Directory.

During what McAlister described as an “unnecessarily contentious” review process that turned unproductive and combative at certain points, and where he even became the target of subtweets from a dissenting reviewer, his team decided it was not the right time to move forward with getting the whole experience approved as originally planned.

McAlister published his decision to WordPress’ Theme Review Slack channel:

We’re going to forgo putting the onboarding feature into the Ollie theme for .org.

While we appreciate the flexibility and open-mindedness to considering an exception for it, ultimately, it seems like it might not be the right time on the directory.

Maybe in the future the directory has a more defined path for experiments like this, but right now it has a potential to be a burden to reviewers and other theme developers. Not to mention a very lively (and sometimes unnecessarily contentious) discussion that distracts from the excitement and positivity around block themes and Ollie. We don’t want that! That’s a lot of energy we could be using to bring something like this to core one day.

Until then, we’re figuring out what the next steps are, but it looks like we’re going to continue with Ollie on the directory (sans onboarding) while we figure out how to deliver the onboarding experience via a plugin mechanism.

McAlister’s decision comes as a surprise after he received the green light from WordPress project leader Matt Mullenweg, who encouraged Ollie’s approval as an experiment, and WordPress Executive Director Josepha Haden Chomphosy, who attempted to embolden McAlister towards giving the experiment a chance. He also found the support of several forward-thinking members of the Themes team and much of the wider community.

“I would not be a good steward of our community of users if I didn’t suggest that getting the whole thing into the repo so it’s easy to find and use is the best experience for them,” Chomphosy said.

“There’s some risk to adding it as-is to the repo. But the potential upside, I think, is pretty substantial.

“If we’re not wanting to include it because we are worried that in the future we won’t have the skills to review more of them, then that’s not exactly the theme’s problem. That’s something where we should equip our reviewers for the future as best we can.”

She also suggested another option where the theme moves forward without removing the onboarding while contributors work towards WordPress core creating a standard for providing better onboarding experiences.

“We get the theme in (including the onboarding) and in parallel start a feature plugin process to move the onboarding to be Core-first,” Chomphosy said.

“That’s bold, I realize. But also, I did tell the entire hosting community at Cloudfest that if they wanted to one thing to help WP succeed, it was ‘better onboarding’ and if they wanted to do two things, the second was ‘better time to launch.”

Putting the onboarding solution into a plugin would reduce the long-term burden of maintenance and create a lower risk of failure from the theme, as Merlin WP themes onboarding wizard creator Rich Tabor contends, but nobody knows how long it will be before core can offer a standard solution. By then WordPress may have missed many opportunities to seamlessly onboard more block theme users.

Chomphosy’s suggestion of going ahead with the experiment in the theme while simultaneously working on a core solution allows theme authors to use training wheels to keep the momentum of block theme adoption going until a better, more elegant solution is available in core.

WordPress leadership’s public approval was critical in this instance after the unwelcoming experience McAlister had in trying to get his free theme approved for the directory. He cited other factors regarding negative perception that influenced his decision.

“There is a lot of subtle and not so subtle pressure from some higher visibility folks that feel strongly that this shouldn’t be in a theme,” McAlister said. “And I don’t want those relationships to degrade as a result of how this might play out.”

McAlister said he is still interested in bringing the onboarding experience to as a plugin, where it can be studied and experimented with, but isn’t sure how soon that can happen given the long delays in plugin reviews. The current queue has 1,247 plugins awaiting review, with wait time for an initial review at 103+ days.

Evolving Theme Reviews: Must Stop Alienating Innovators While Block Theme Adoption Is Stagnating

Although WordPress leadership was quick to respond in support of experimentation, recalcitrant plugin reviewers, clinging to antiquated rules written for Classic Themes, had already driven Ollie’s innovation away with their chilly, unfriendly reception.

Mullenweg has historically communicated his support for experimenting with themes on multiple occasions, encouraging developers to do novel things with WordPress that may not fit within the guidelines. In 2015, he went so far as to say, “I am completely okay with having something in the directory that breaks every guideline, as long as it’s interesting.”

A few months later in 2015, he recommended the review team “try to think of it as a more general opening up to interesting things that might not fit the guidelines but are novel and warrant inclusion in our directory.”

At that time, Mullenweg encouraged the team to step back and examine the submission process and the directory in a new way that would encourage creativity among theme authors with fewer guidelines and restrictions.

A fundamental culture change is necessary for this team and long overdue. It should be a matter of urgency at this point, given the tone of reviewers in Ollie’s trac ticket. Theme reviews should bend more towards enabling innovators instead of preserving familiar processes. The response to theme authors trying new things should be friendly and helpful, especially when those new things stand to greatly benefit users. The process should not be burdensome to creators who are trying to offer their work for free.

“As I mentioned earlier in the thread, another important note is that our vision for the onboarding — some of the features that people loved about it — were removed during this long review process,” McAlister said. “So even if it went live today, it doesn’t quite reach its maximum potential as is. And if we started adding some of those features back, I feel we’d be mired in more back and forth.”

This situation should be a wake up call for the review team, as WordPress’ best product creators are watching to see how this plays out when considering where to distribute their best work.

A recent spreadsheet created by Munich-based digital agency owner Hendrik Luehrsen tracks the usage of themes with the FSE tag. It shows that WordPress block theme adoption is stagnating, if not in full decline. In September 2023, the total number of active installs for block themes declined for the first time since Luehrsen started tracking. The average installs by theme are also slowly and steadily declining. This could be related to the growth of the number of FSE themes available, as active installs would presumably be spread across more themes, but the number of FSE themes is growing at a glacial pace.

“I would say it’s too early to assume definitive decline,” Luehrsen said. “But we’re most certainly not growing the FSE usage.”

“Having run a number of block theme training courses, I’m not at all surprised,” Pootlepress founder Jamie Marsland said. “Until Block Themes get easier to use for beginners, my guess is the numbers won’t change significantly. The dev team should try running a training course and see for themselves.”

Marsland recently interviewed McAlister, discussing some of the reasons for the slow uptake in block themes. Their adoption is hindered by a lack of effective marketing for their innovative features as well as the complexities involved in creating a block theme that fully supports everything a user can imagine doing with the block editor.  McAlister highlighted the necessity to create more user-friendly experiences and the importance of onboarding and better education for those using and making block themes.

“I’m not kidding when I’m saying it’s in all our interests to start making sure this becomes better soon,” Joost de Valk said in response to the latest figures from the spreadsheet tracking FSE usage. “WP stands to lose market share if we don’t get better soon.”

With block themes struggling to gain adoption, WordPress should be doing everything it can to enable any block theme that improves the user experience, especially in the absence of a core solution for onboarding. It’s important to remember that when major versions of WordPress are released, the only people who can take advantage of the latest and greatest editor features are those whose sites are using a block theme. After three years, block theme installs only account for 1.7 million sites out of an estimated 810 million.

“As someone who has been trying to get block themes to be adopted by a wider audience from early, I feel onboarding/switching to block themes is a big hurdle for users still,” ElmaStudio co-creator Ellen Baer said in the conversation in the Theme Review Slack channel.

“I personally would love to see a core solution, a standarized way that all block theme users can get familiar with. I feel unfortunately while building the site editor experience this point has been missing and block theme authors are seeing the user struggling to get started.

“I feel a bit sad that a positive innovation that helps block themes and the site editor to gain more momentum (which is what we really need) is dragged into a discussion that seemed at least from the outside not to be a productive or positive one at times.”

McAlister’s attempt to improve theme users’ onboarding experience was unsuccessful but he inadvertently highlighted some areas where the culture and process around theme reviews has stagnated and become counterproductive. This failure shed light on the need for a more dynamic, user-centric approach, as well as a reassessment of the current guidelines by which the team appears to be bizarrely and inextricably bound despite years of encouragement to experiment.

“There is a deep, deep desire for evolution of the theme directory,” McAlister said. “I think we’ve always known this, but after wading through weeks of commentary, it’s clear to me that we’ve neglected it far too long. The theme pages should be at least as good as the plugin pages, the theme demos aren’t selling the value of themes, etc.

“The hardline approach and the echos of longstanding esoteric debates need relaxing. Users largely don’t care about the theme vs plugin debate, they want to design and publish faster. That’s not to say we throw these things out, but we have to ask if they’re serving WordPress users in the ways we think they are.”


27 responses to “Contentious Review Process Leads Ollie Theme to Remove Innovative Onboarding Features, Amid Stagnating Block Theme Adoption”

  1. What a shame. I was keen to use Ollie to facilitate a course for school kids to build their own sites.
    Block themes could have a great future if this vital step of better on-boarding is implemented.
    It would be a shame if the most significant advance in WordPress in years fails due to an inability to advance/accept innovative change.

  2. Mike, great position to take. It seems like a lot of the value to the Ollie theme was the onboarding, and no doubt that took a lot of time to come up with conceptually and logically. I’m sure your vision was a pivotal utility for rapidly building block based themes, and that is good.

    If this same onboarding could be released and is theme agnostic, that could be a big value to the community, especially with onboarding new users. Then from the product side you could increase the styles and patterns available to build out a what would be previously considered a “child theme” – to core, with revenue opportunity. The main discrepancy here is including features in a theme vs. a theme that suggests installing a plugin for setup.

    I can’t speak for Matt, but it seems like his general stance is that themes should not incorporate items that could be better suited as a standalone plugin – used across multiple sites – and that may be the general basis for the pushback for the theme review.

    Most importantly you’ve handled this like a gentleman and a businessman and that is for sure important… when we’re all in this together. Hopefully Ollie makes it into the theme directory very soon.


  3. “The theme pages should be at least as good as the plugin pages, the theme demos aren’t selling the value of themes, etc.”

    This. For example, it’s puzzling that, despite readme.txt files being a requirement for themes since 2018, they are still not parsed for changelogs, screenshots, etc., or at the very least, there’s no link to them anywhere on the theme pages.

  4. The root of the problem seems to be that the theme reviewers don’t get paid or paid enough for the work they’re doing and can’t scale their review team, bad incentives.

    Why not turn the review of plugin like theme addons into a paid service?

    Same for the plugin reviews, plugins that aren’t based on interal hooks could pay for the extra auditing effort.

  5. Which such king of painful and slow adoption, maybe in 2040 we could have a working block themes, unless the paid solutions and competitors of WP are already taking all the marketshare. Like, seriously, what is happening with the “open” ecosystem of WordPress?

  6. “I’m not kidding when I’m saying it’s in all our interests to start making sure this becomes better soon,” Joost de Valk said in response to the latest figures from the spreadsheet tracking FSE usage. “WP stands to lose market share if we don’t get better soon.”

    Please pay attention! Blocks are so clunky. I can’t hand over a site to my client that uses blocks. They would be so frustrated trying to update it. Nothing about it is intuitive from an end-user standpoint. It’s fine if you want to run with that, but please leave Classic Editor and Classic Widgets alone! They are needed for people building sites for others.

    I can’t even imagine how confusing FSE will be, and I don’t even know if you can control it by user/role. My client should not have control over all the site settings.

    I continue to ask myself who blocks was made for and who FSE is being made for.

  7. I wonder if anyone knows how many active installs TT1 (the last classic default theme) had after being the default theme for the same amount of time that TT3 has now been the default. How do they compare?
    With FSE, it could be that individual themes are becoming less relevant. Block themes provide the initial styling and beyond that a lot of what the theme defines (not everything but the gap is narrowing) can be edited using a uniform set of tools, so making the theme less relevant.
    I don’t agree that the data in Hendrik Luehrsen’s spreadsheet shows block theme usage is definitely stagnating. I agree it shows that it could be stagnating, but with a lot of missing data pre-July 2023, it’s not possible to say definitively looking at a snapshot of 3 months out of 20 where we don’t have the data from 17 of those months.

  8. It’s really weird about the very low adoption of FSE themes; because we’ve been told all along this is what people are crying out for…

    Perhaps this is a more accurate reflection of the handful of people who actually want/need FSE.

  9. I feel like I am echoing my own words, but it seems Matt might not be aware that has been offering FSE themes with onboarding for quite some time. If he is keen on experimenting, he can start by gathering insights from there.

    The situation with Ollie is unfortunate, and I am in a similar position. I was getting a team ready with onboarding for theme submission, and now I find myself having to create two versions: a free one without onboarding and a pro version with it. This is to offset the unforeseen work we have had to undertake. I am not alone in this, as several FSE theme developers on Facebook Groups are grappling with the same challenge and are having to remove certain features from their themes.

    I suspect that if WordPress introduces its own onboarding feature in the future, our efforts to onboard users through our themes will once again come under scrutiny. This might compel us to pivot and adapt to a new paradigm. Ollie is not the first FSE theme to incorporate onboarding; it just garnered more attention due to Mike’s marketing tactics. It is not groundbreaking; similar approaches exist, and a bit of thorough research will reveal them.

    It often feels like we are being pushed away, which is paradoxical given WordPress’s vocal need for more FSE themes. Instead of embracing us, it seems they are diverting our efforts elsewhere. The slow adoption of FSE themes among users can largely be attributed to the absence of comprehensive documentation. Many FSE themes merely list their included patterns without providing any guidance on utilization.

    Conversely, traditional themes continue to introduce “new” features to their Customizers, with their creators suggesting that the transition to FSE is premature. I have lost count of the number of times I have had to clarify in groups that there indeed are FSE themes designed for platforms like WooCommerce. Additionally, the persistent marketing by third-party builders claiming superiority over block capabilities does not aid the situation. It only misleads users who might not be aware of block plugins that could potentially replace the more prominent builders in the market.

    I remain hopeful that the landscape will shift in the future. As it stands, WordPress appears fragmented. I am confident that theme developers wil not remain passive; they will likely create more FSE themes because, whether everyone agrees or not, that is where the trajectory is headed.

    I am intrigued to find out if Rich Tabor has intentions of updating Merlin WP, especially since I have been implementing it. The lack of recent activity on its GitHub does raise concerns.

  10. As I commented on a previous post, a lost oppertunity pushing aside the Olie onboarding experience. Perhaps there is some rational, as many mention, if these exceptonal features are picked up and incorportaed into core quickly, therefore benefiting everybody, but I fear that the monotheistic movement surrounding the core team, enforcing the rigid gospel of blocks for blogs with messianic theme, prevents these bursts of ingenuity from been seen.

    And this is the problem. I disagree with those that say that Gutenburg isn’t intuitive. The core concept od the block editor is very good, a big improvement over the classic editor in many ways. I’d counter the argument that WordPress never was intuitive and probably never will be. You can’t keep boiling something down to pure simplicity when inherintly webdesign and development is complex.

    The problem with the block editor and FSE is that it misses a few tricks.

    From inception the block editor should have allowed for some extensibilty on the each of the main default blocks. This would alllowed third parties to get on board, without having to reinvent the wheel with every new concievable block that one might need. This way all the page builders could have conformed to this new approach, composing modules with the base default blocks, adding their own interfaces, bells and whistles. Turn off any of these third party solutions or change to another, and at least the sites content and layout would remain to some degree intact. This would have been the correct carrot and stick approach. Your builder not up to scratch, conforming with the new block concept? You snooze, you loose!

    Wedded to the abov, a proper 3 to 5 breakpoint responsive layout system, not one that is tacked on in a non consitant manner by different 3rd party solutions.

    On FSE, its nearly there, just needs a bit work on things like navigating from templates to frontend and vice versa.

    Lastly is the assumption that we must use the block eidtor. Give me my page builder any day, Different strokes for differtn folks.

  11. I’m guessing that the take up of the block editor does not really compare to the established page builders. Is head office going to persist with the block editor even though there is a vast majority using page builders? Seems like a misuse of resources…

  12. When this all started I thought to myself that if McAlister really wants to get Ollie approved, he’d skip cut out the middlemen that are the theme review team (no diss meant) and go straight to Matt.

    There is no way in hell that the onboarding design and process created by McAllister would be left to languish in the theme review queue if Matt saw it providing a benefit to’s users and clients.

  13. As McAlister says in the video, it’s easy to make a block theme in the editor, but he’s aiming to make a theme as a product which is robust and coherent from end to end. He notes that making a theme like this is now MORE difficult, because of the complexity of theme.json and the various component parts.

    That’s a perspective from a small business selling a theme to thousands of people, but this experience is mirrored for any small dev business creating a bespoke theme/plugin package for a single client. In that case we’d also need to make sure all the new FSE complexities are handled, we need to add help tips for the staff who will use the site day to day. We need to modify the admin interface to reflect client work practices, add bespoke functionality and hide some features depending on role, etc.

    Those concerns he mentions which relate specifically to the complexity issues of a bespoke FSE experience are felt outside of the Theme-seller industry and have massive impacts for the “making WP sites for clients” industry

    I feel that FSE and Gutenberg are driven by academic aims toward academic targets. For example: the concept of “Intrinsic Design” seems completely logical and sensible, but in the awful messy real world we make complex sites based on client needs. The disparity between what seems academically correct and what is actually needed IRL is worlds apart.

    Trying to implement client requests for bespoke behaviours on short deadlines is far harder in the “New” WordPress. The old WP saved me time in those crucial crunch areas and became an invaluable tool, whereas the new WP causes me massive anxiety and cost in those moments.

  14. My two cents,

    I think the introduction of Gutenberg was needed. The average user needs a default page builder and post builder to design pages and post

    However, since people are not adopting it as their primary builder, that’s still OK, but I would just leave it remain and let the market make add-ons for it.

    Moreover, if I was automatic, I would use those billions of dollars to hire an independent company to design and create a new page builder for WordPress and compete in the market. I would like to see a page builder very similar to the Wixs editor or Shopify.

    You have all the money, you have the market share, you have the full advantage, you can use that as leverage to introduce a new page builder and also maybe even have it automatically installed a new install.

    I created a video on this and it seems to age well


    • I definitely think the page builder should be a plugin, not a required part of WP. I usually use WP Bakery. Or SiteOrigin, which is pretty impressive for a free plugin and fairly easy to teach my client. But let me choose please. And also let me choose to have some pages be the Classic Editor, which is crazy simple for some of my less tech savvy clients to grasp. I’m going to be livid if developers stop making themes that are compatible with WP Bakery in favor of blocks.

  15. I have a couple of thoughts on this, based on relevant experience with a large commercial theme marketplace.

    First, I think the Theme Team has a very good point that if an exception is made for one theme, they are put into a very difficult position when they try to enforce the rule with other authors. I’ve been there and it sucks. So, in general, giving exceptions is something they should fight against.

    Second however, if there is a valid reason behind the exception being asked for, then it’s time to consider whether it’s worth changing the rule for everyone. That looks to be the case here, with the valid question being “should we change the rules to allow for a better onboarding experience?”. To me, the answer would be yes, but I do acknowledge that the Theme Team would have other things to consider, such as the practicality of being to review onboarding tools, etc (if they were heavily based on a JS framework current reviewers don’t have much experience with for eg) – that might be something they’d have to address before they could change the rules, but would be something that could be worked towards.

    Third, sometimes what’s considered ‘best practice’ isn’t actually the best thing for the user. That seems to be the case here. If we agree that giving the user a nice onboarding experience is a good thing, then which experience is better – telling them to install a plugin, activate it, and then get the good onboarding experience OR just getting the good onboarding experience (because it’s built into the theme). This seems to be a clear case of needing to allow ‘plugin territory’ functionality in themes because it is actually better for the user. It’s definitely worth re-evaluating ‘best practice’ and rules when it’s not inline with user experience. Sometimes in WordPress land we lean a little too much towards being idealistic over being user-centric.

    Forth, this is definitely one of those things that would be good to be in core, so you don’t end up with many different theme authors inventing their own onboarding system (which has already happened to an extent in commercial themes). If core included a robust solution that dealt with plugin dependencies, setting up options, installing demo content / creating pages, etc that theme authors could just plug into, that would would make for a much better experience for end users. Of course that’s something that would take time, so perhaps it’s worth changing the rules in the mean time.

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