Responsive Design Should Be Required for Themes, Says Matt Mullenweg

photo credit: Jeffrey Betts
photo credit: Jeffrey Betts

During Matt Mullenweg’s Q&A session at WordCamp Europe, an unidentified Google employee asked about making WordPress sites more mobile-friendly:

I work at Google with search and we think the web and mobile are important, but one thing that we noticed is that 28% of the new sites that choose WordPress and come online (that we’ve discovered) still choose desktop oriented themes, so they’re not going to be mobile friendly. Do you have any ideas about how to promote mobile-friendly options for less-savvy users.

That number seems rather high, given that WordPress’ default themes have been responsive for years. She didn’t share any of the metrics Google is using to determine that more than a quarter of new WordPress sites are using themes that aren’t mobile friendly. As the result of the discussion, however, Matt Mullenweg said that he thinks responsiveness should be a requirement for themes on

Brian Krogsgard referred to a responsive tag for themes in the directory, but the tag is soon to be removed. The Theme Review Team recently finalized an overhaul of the available tags and theme authors are encouraged to update their tags to reflect the changes. In the corresponding ticket for WordPress 4.6, Justin Tadlock summarized why the team opted to remove the ability to filter by responsive themes:

A note on “responsive”: It seems that this is the no. 1 searched layout tag, followed by “fluid”. Based on feedback and discussion, we believe most users are simply looking for a responsive theme. When a tag is always used by themes and by users, it becomes practically useless in distinguishing themes from one another.

The Theme Review Team has not yet discussed the possibility of requiring all new incoming themes (and possibly updates to older themes) to be responsive. Ideally, detecting if themes meet this requirement would be something that could be automated, as the team is currently trying to resolve blockages in the queue that have left hundreds of themes waiting months for approval.

During WordCamp Europe, WordPress Lead Developer Dion Hulse said that Joost de Valk approached him to run the Google Mobile-Friendly test against all themes. Hulse opted to run the test against all themes tagged with ‘responsive-layout,’ as those without that tag would fail predictably. He shared the results in the theme-review Slack channel with a link to the Google spreadsheet. The document shows that 1,692 themes have been tagged as responsive, which is less than half of the 3,979 themes available in the directory.

“Most themes pass with great results, some have issues, and some are unusable on mobile,” Hulse said. “I didn’t want to call anyone out, but take the first theme (radiance-lite) for example, it’s a brand-new theme and although it’s responsive, the menu blocks access to the site content when resized – and their scanner picked that up. Some themes appear not to work on which causes a fail in the spreadsheet too.”

Hulse said that because the test requires a public URL to crawl, it cannot be automated before themes upload. However, there may be a similar test that the team can use to automate a responsiveness determination.

Removing the ability to filter by a responsive designation, when the majority of themes on have not been tagged as being responsive, could make it difficult for users to choose a mobile-friendly theme. It forces users to determine responsiveness the hard way – through activating and testing themes on their sites. This is not ideal for promoting WordPress as a mobile-friendly platform. If the Theme Review Team is not able to find a way to automate testing for responsive design, it may be time to reconsider the removal of that tag from the filtering options.


20 responses to “Responsive Design Should Be Required for Themes, Says Matt Mullenweg”

    • I only use mobile responsive themes and if I find an issue with it I report it to the creator. Although I have never used any themes on so I am unfamiliar with all this talk going on right now.

      For the newbie bloggers or bloggers who just want a theme to do there thing, they just pick the theme that they personally like and chances are have no clue what the term mobile responsive means.

      If WordPress can do the dirty work and require all theme’s submitted to pass a mobile responsive test, that would be awesome. Perhaps some developers need more learning to do on creating a mobile responsive theme.

      Is there any documentation on how to create a basic mobile responsive theme or convert a theme to mobile responsive using the correct coding?

      You have to think about the bloggers who have no clue and just want a theme to begin there blogging journey. ”

      I am a big fan of never ever using any plugin to make a theme mobile responsive. Less plugins the better on a blog.

  1. It’s my understanding that themes that haven’t been updated in two years don’t appear in search results. Many of these old themes won’t have the tag anyway. Additionally, there are themes without the tag that are responsive.

    As for requiring all themes to be responsive, I could see that happening in the future as our automated tools get better.

  2. Matt missed a great opportunity to include accessibility in the requirements list in this interview. Brian gave him every opportunity. Lots of raised eyebrows and shaking heads in the audience. While a requirement t for responsive is a good idea, there are fringe cases where responsive is not the right solution. Accessibility on the other hand, should always be required, no exceptions.

      • If you offer a theme in the Theme Directory that is not accessible, that choice is taken away from the site owner. Your stance assumes every site owner knows how to vet a theme for accessibility. Our job as theme developers is to build solutions that “just work”. Putting the onus on WordPress users to be accessibility experts goes against the very premise of what WordPress is supposed to be: An application that democratizes publishing on the web. A site powered by an inaccessible theme is a site that restricts access to only certain users.

    • Multiple TRT admins are against the idea of requiring all themes to meet the TRT accessibility guidelines. And, honestly, I’m not totally in favor of requiring all themes to be responsive (even though I could see that being a requirement at some point because of demand).

      I think the better approach in both cases is more education and incentive for theme authors to make changes. We’ve seen a natural trend of themes becoming responsive simply because of user demand. If theme authors want to have actual users, they’ll build responsive themes. If they want good reviews, they’ll build responsive themes. If they want to upsell their “pro” version, they’ll build responsive themes.

      Users aren’t demanding accessibility-ready themes at high numbers. They’re not down-rating themes that aren’t accessibility-ready. What’s the incentive for theme authors here? A guideline that unnecessarily makes the barrier to entry even higher is not a good enough incentive.

      You know I’m in favor having more themes meet accessibility standards. Making it a requirement is not the right approach.

      One of the ideas we sometimes pitch around is finding ways to promote the good themes. We need ways of featuring the best themes that are doing things like handling RTL languages, meeting accessibility guidelines, and adapting to any device. If I were doing this myself, I’d put a new theme every month at the top of the featured list that met all of the standards we think make it one of the best themes available. Accessibility-ready could absolutely be one of those standards.

      Promote the good stuff. Provide incentives for others to do better.

      • People aren’t demanding accessibility-ready themes because they are not aware of the importance of accessibility. The onus is on us – the people who build the web – to educate the people who use it on the need for accessibility, and to provide fully accessible solutions.

        As for making accessibility a requirement being the wrong approach, you should have a chat with the EU. Or the US government. Or the Canadian government. Or any of the other governments around the world who are now legislating accessibility as a core requirement for websites. That’s the incentive: Without accessibility in themes, WordPress will rapidly become problematic for the end-user.

        • If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years when making requirements for the theme directory, it’s knowing how well a new guideline will go over with theme authors. I can flat out tell you that requiring all themes to meet the accessibility guidelines at this time will be detrimental to the entire process. We’re simply not there yet. I wish we were, but we aren’t.

          You and others passionate about accessibility could meet the TRT halfway. Many of us are not open to making the guidelines a full-on requirement at the moment, but I’m sure we’d be open to promoting these types of themes in some way. We’d probably be open to requiring certain aspects of the guidelines (e.g., theme must style the .screen-reader-text class). How about some accessibility classes via #themereview on Slack (I’d love to attend)? How about a weekly accessibility tutorial on the Make Themes blog?

        • While I agree that theme developers need to make sure their themes are accessible; accessibility is not just about a theme!

          For example – a user with no website development experience could go the extra mile and choose an accessible theme, thinking their job is done after that point. But then… they’re not filling in alt text or providing transcripts of audio files. I’ve seen it happen.

          Even I still forget to fill out the alt text field sometimes, and I’m more aware than the average user about it. I’ve gone back and edited old images on my sites that don’t have alt text, and I kick myself for forgetting it.

          If anything, a guide within wordpress itself (they provide the alt text field in the media library, but not a reason to use it) would be a nice way to address the issue of awareness. This could be as simple as a dashboard widget with a link to a user-friendly guide on how to make your wordpress site accessible (the W3 guide is useful to developers, but the verbage gets lost on average users.. we could make accessibility more accessible).

          Or how about a check and user prompt to fill in the alt text or provide a transcript within the media library if none exists on post/page insertion? A gentle reminder (or brief education) might be all that WP users need to start generating accessible content.

          It starts with the theme developers, but I agree that wordpress admins also are responsible: they are generating content.

  3. She was Maile Ohye, Developer Programs Tech Lead at Google… and she was completely right!

    I hope that responsive will be soon required for approval of the themes in the directory.

    Responsive design is not a feature but a requirement.

    • It is a requirement for consultants that charge 200$ an hour, It is a requirement for companies that sell mobile equipment as a replacement to a real PC, but for normal humans it is just what it is, an empty buzzword.

      Responsiveness has zero value, either the site is mobile friendly or not. Responsiveness by itself is at best a partial answer for that. It does not matter how many media queries the themes has, if the content contains table like users like to have then the site is not going to be responsive, and actually it would be much more useful without all media queries.

      With accessibility support in themes you are at least not likely to end in a worse position then when you do not have any at all, no matter what stupid things the user will do.


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