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 WordPress.org’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 WordPress.org 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: WordPress.org 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, WordPress.org 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 WordPress.org 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.”