If WordPress Had A Voice, What Would It Sound Like?

Back in March, Fred Meyer, shared his thoughts on why the core of WordPress needs a writing style guide. The post generated a healthy conversation, including this comment by Matt Mullenweg:

WP has always been optionated software with a lot of personality. Every year or two people try to neuter it, remove a bt of its soul, and sometimes it gets through. There are always convincing reasons, like this post, but it’s sad nonetheless. If anyone is going to stop using the software over these we probably didn’t create something very compelling in the first place. You could also create a “dry” localization of the software and see if it gets much traction.

After the conversation subsided, Meyer created a survey to determine the thoughts and opinions of users. The results are now available with a total of 69 respondents completing the survey. While the small sample size makes it hard to conclude anything, there are two things that came to light based on the results.

The first is that WordPress could improve the text so it’s spoken with a clear, well-defined voice. Second, irreverent and goofy humor is rarely a user’s preferred way to receive WordPress messages. Instead, users appear to prefer content that is as clear as possible in its technical details.

Meyer’s Next Course Of Action

I asked Meyer what his next course of action is now that he’s had a chance to analyze the results. He said he “plans to move forward with advocating for a tone review, with the intent of seeing if it can be added to the to-do list for WordPress 4.0”. I asked if anything about the results surprised him:

One thing that surprised me about the survey was how dry people’s favored content was–e.g., “Powered by WordPress” instead of even “Proudly Powered by WordPress.” I really think there’s a danger (again, as Matt said) that a content review, particularly one done by committee, could squeeze the color out of WordPress, in favor of writing that is really safe and technical and that no one can possibly take issue with.

The survey seems to reinforce Mullenweg’s opinion that this issue isn’t something that will make or break people’s decision to use WordPress. At the same time, the survey showed users would appreciate textual content that is better suited to them, content that is more helpful and contains a more consistent tone.

Time To Decide Which Voice We Want WordPress To Have

Meyer said that the community will need to decide the tone of the language used in WordPress. Focusing on colorful language that is consistent, helpful and inviting to English speakers outside of North America.

If you’d like to follow along with the project and contribute to the cause, follow Meyer on WPShout.com. He’ll be using the site to inform those interested of the progress. You can also get in touch with him directly via email, fred@pressupinc.com.

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  1. This issue once again brings to light the diversified nature of WordPress and the fact that what was once an Open Source application for Open Source developers is now a professional application used by every level of society – from the blogger to the developer to the business owner to the multi-national corporation. While I agree with Matt that we need to protect the personality of WordPress I do not agree that this personality would take a hit if the messaging within WordPress was improved. WordPress is at times snarky, and all too often unhelpful in its messaging. This is not unique – when Chrome crashes it claims someone named Jim is dead – but it is also not helpful or professional and leaves the user feeling like she is being looked down upon. We can do a better job with messaging while still retaining all the personality in the world.


    1. We can do a better job with messaging while still retaining all the personality in the world.

      And that my friend is the crux of Fred’s entire discussion summed up in one sentence :) Will you be collaborating with Fred to try and help on this front?


      1. Yes, I am involved in this. Language is important and important to get right so that everyone gets the information they need in an understandable and entertaining way.


    2. WordPress is at times snarky, and all too often unhelpful in its messaging. This is not unique – when Chrome crashes it claims someone named Jim is dead – but it is also not helpful or professional and leaves the user feeling like she is being looked down upon.

      I like that side of Chrome.
      I’ve never considered that unhelpful, since it should be obvious that your browser tab just died.


      1. For reference Chrome abandoned the “It’s dead, Jim!” warning a while ago and replaced it with “Aw, snap!”. While Star Trek references are cool for us who watch Star Trek they require that you’ve watched Star Trek to make sense. And however much we want it to be, Star Trek is not mandatory viewing for everyone.


      2. “Aw, snap!” is, to me, a lot more snarky than “It’s dead, Jim.” Neither offends me, and both make me feel a little less angsty when my browser crashes because I laugh and my BP lowers :)


      3. “Aw, snap!” is a pop culture reference with a much broader reach than “It’s dead, Jim.” While Star Trek is available 24/7 on network TV in North America, it is a curiosity in the rest of the world. I didn’t see a single episode until I was 22 because none of the shows were readily available in Norway where I grew up. I bet if you look into the change you’ll see Google did it because people don’t get the reference.

        This is a red herring though. I’m afraid I led the conversation down the wrong rabbit hole.


  2. I’m not sure anything can be gleaned from those results, except that those who are very interested in this subject tend to have the opinions found in that poll result. Even if there were more respondents, I don’t think it could have been treated as representative of the community as a whole. It is nice to see the results though. I assumed they would be a lot more skewed than they were, but it seems fairly balanced, with most votes being somewhere around neutral.

    It’s nice to see that people have read the comments sections. I often fill those out and wondering if anybody every actually reads them. This time, they copy and pasted my comment into their announcement post :) (my comment was about the American English vs regular English issue which they seem to have corrected)


  3. I, for one (and i think most coders and tech people will agree with me), enjoy the snarky personality of software such as WordPress and chrome. Most of it is nerd culture or pop culture references.
    “He’s Dead, Jim!” is a Star Trek Reference (Dr. McCoy speaking to Captain Kirk, informing him that someone died). It’s pretty obvious that the tab crashed, why do we need to have super dry, emotionless (in keeping with the trend “Vulcan”) language?
    When something goes wrong, i’d rather have the snarky cultural references to lighten the mood.

    I have always appreciated this type of personality in software (as most under 40 probably do).
    The software is starting to be toned to the people that will be using it the most moving forward i.e. the tail end of genX and the melennials, etc. And i personally think it should stay that way


  4. As someone who relies on developers and WordPress I appreciate the dryer side of the developer community. But I believe there has to be a balance. Every developer I have worked with on WordPress projects has brought different insight and personality to the project. I’m not so sure about the personality of the software, to me it’s about the community and what they pull from WordPress.


  5. I, for one (and i think most coders and tech people will agree with me), enjoy the snarky personality of software such as WordPress and chrome. Most of it is nerd culture or pop culture references.

    This is precisely my point: The current wording is targeted toward the people who build WordPress. People like you and me enjoy and understand these references. But we are not the end-user. The majority of people who use WordPress do not fall into either the coders or tech category.

    The language discussion is really a discussion about target audience. WordPress used to be an application for the people who build it. That is no longer accurate. WordPress is now a publishing application for everyone and as such the wording needs to be for everyone. Does that mean it needs to be more generic? Yes. Does it mean it has to be bland? No.

    The wording in an application tells the first-time user what is expected of her when she uses that application. While casual and geeky language works well for bloggers and techies, it does not fit the framework of the professional workspace. I’ve been in meeting with executives who have expressed concern that the application “sounds like a teenager” and sets the wrong tone.

    Just as importantly the wording in an application should clearly explain to the user what is going on. The most grievous example of WordPress not doing this is the “Are you sure you want to do that?” message. It says nothing about what the user just did or what went wrong but indicates the user did something wrong. In reality this message is usually triggered when something went wrong between the browser and the server and it has nothing to do with the intent of the user.

    A proper scientific study of this would be to put the messaging of WordPress in front of a random selection of the target population and asking what they understand from each of the messages. This would be expensive and time consuming but considering the wide reach of WordPress and its impact on the web in general it is worth asking the question if it isn’t time we do something like this to get a better picture of who the end-user is and how that person perceives both WordPress’ messaging and the application itself.


    1. Just an example to prove my point:

      In place of “Are you sure you want to do this?” the error message could be something like:

      “WordPress, the database, and your browser are having a disagreement about who’s in charge. You didn’t do anything wrong and your data has not been lost. Try again and everything should work.”

      This is still colloquial, still has an attitude, and explains not only what is happening but ensures the user it is not their fault and nothing has been lost in the process.


      1. Your version of the error message is awesome and I get a chuckle imagining the DB, WP, and the browser beating each other up.


      2. When I teach WordPress I like to give the application, the database, and the browser actual voices.

        Browser: “Hey, here’s some new content!”
        WordPress: “Who is this? I don’t recognize you…”
        DB interjects “I dunno. What are you looking at me for?”
        Browser: “Come on! Just do it already!”
        WordPress: “Are you sure you want to do this?”


      3. I also like your replacement for “Are you sure you want to do this?”. Perhaps you should write a patch for that? I think that wording would be quite popular.


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