Earlier this week, the WordPress plugin directory relaunched with a new design and an improved search algorithm. Feedback has been rolling in from Tavern readers and members of the Advanced WordPress Facebook group.
The improvements to search has received a number of positive comments in addition to people requesting the ability to sort results. The responsive design and aesthetics of the page have also received praise.
There are a number of items that plugin developers and users have reported as downsides to the new design. Some of the most notable include:
- Plugin stats are only available to the plugin author by logging into the admin.
- Tabbed layout was replaced with a series of Read more links.
- Plugin banner images are distorted.
- The Installation tab which provided instructions on how to install the plugin is gone.
- Screenshots do not open in a lightbox, but open on a new page instead.
- Links to download older versions of plugins is missing.
Many of the issues reported above are known and have been known for months. While it may seem like a lot of people are suddenly complaining and didn’t participate in the feedback loop, it’s important to look back to see how the plugin directory redesign reached this point.
From Prototypes to Open Beta
In May 2016, the WordPress Meta team published prototypes of a new design for the WordPress plugin directory. The announcement generated abundant feedback with a strong push towards adding data instead of removing it.
Many users reported that moving the plugin author, last updated, and active install information from the plugin’s listing page to the plugin’s details page was a downside. Samuel Sidler, Apollo Team Lead at Automattic, responded to the feedback explaining why he didn’t think showing the information to users was useful.
Author, as you said, is only really useful for insiders. The latter two, meanwhile, are already taken into account in the search results. If a plugin doesn’t have a recent compatible version, it will move down the list. If it’s too old, it won’t get shown at all (which is the case today).
Active installs is more interesting, but we account for it weighting search results as-is. I actually find it refreshing to not show the active installs as it allows for less-popular plugins to get more downloads. Users will be less likely to click the popular plugins (outside of familiar names) and more likely to find the plugin they actually need.
There was also a lot of discussion on how to improve and display search results.
In June 2016, at WordCamp Europe, Konstantin Obenland, WordPress core contributor, announced that the WordPress plugin directory redesign was in open beta. The team received feedback from Matt Mullenweg, co-creator of the WordPress project, on changing the direction and design of the page. “We’re really just at the beginning of design iterations,” Obenland said. “He thinks we can do better, which he’s right about. We can and we should.”
Kevan commented on the open beta and pointed out many of the same issues that were reported with the prototypes. In July 2016, Obenland announced version three of the open beta. The use of Read more links in favor of the tabbed interface was again brought up in the comments by John Blackbourn.
“I’m really concerned about the liberal use of ‘Read more’ links on individual plugin pages,” Blackbourn said. “They’re being used in order to fix the information overload problem caused by placing all the information onto one page, instead of using the tabbed interface of the current directory.”
“It’s hard to see feedback has been heard and in this case a lot of it doesn’t seem to have been taken into account (bring back tabs, no read more…).” Brown said. “I don’t see everything, or even much, so I could have certainly missed it.”
Mika Epstein responded that the feedback was not ignored and that Obenland was in the process of collecting and collating information.
Four months ago, Kenshino created a ticket on WordPress Meta that outlined usability concerns with using Read more links instead of tabs.
“Clicking on Read more – say on the change log requires me to scroll to the bottom before I’m able to reach the next section,” he said. “Essentially for me to go through all the sections, provided that they are long enough, I’d have to click, scroll a few pages, click, scroll a few pages etc until I get through all the sections.”
The ticket was closed as a duplicate of Greg Ross’ ticket. In it, he suggests a Jump section be added so users can navigate to specific sections of the Read Me without having to scroll through the entire page. The ticket has received minor support and recently had its milestone changed from version three to a future version.
WordPress Contributors Feel Ignored
In a meeting held earlier this week in the WordPress Meta Slack channel, Matt Cromwell, Head of Support and Community Outreach at WordImpress, suggested that the Meta team describe the process of collecting and acting on feedback in as much detail as possible in the announcement post.
“I’ve chatted with a lot of developers and many feel like they provided actionable feedback about the direction of the plugin directory and all advice was ignored,” Cromwell said. “Whether or not that’s an accurate assessment, it’s a real feeling that is shared by many. I’ve been here most weeks and know well that feedback was received and acted on, but there’s still a strong perception.”
Despite the concerns of using Read more links brought up during every phase of the project, they don’t appear to have been addressed. Other gripes expressed by members of the community at the outset of the redesign have largely remained. It’s no wonder that so many people feel like they’ve been ignored.
Mullenweg commented in the meeting saying he, too, felt ignored, “For what it’s worth, I feel like my feedback was ignored as well,” he said. “I hope we can do another major iteration on the directory, because I’m not really a fan of the new one.
“Perhaps the WordPress backend will make it easier to make incremental improvements in the future, as being on bbPress before was often cited as the reason things were slow to iterate previously.”
Although Mullenweg’s feedback in June 2016, was not public, his recent comments indicate not much has changed between then and now.
Alex Shiels, a member of Team Apollo at Automattic, says user feedback wasn’t ignored. “It’s not that anyone’s feedback has been ignored; just that we’ve had limited resources and a big back-end component to the project, and a lot of conflicting requests” he said. “I’ll make sure to give a clear invitation to provide feedback in the announcement post, and include something about future iteration.
The Inability to Measure the Impacts of the Redesign
Kevin Hoffman, who participated in discussions on trac about how to display screenshots, asked if there was any user data and feedback that the Meta team could share that led to some of the decisions and changes that were made. For example, changes to the UI or how often the Read more links are clicked. Shiels responded that the team does not have that data because they don’t have the tools to do it.
“There is Google Analytics tracking, but access is very limited and from what I’ve seen of it (I don’t have direct access) it’s messy and hard to draw objective conclusions from,” Shiels said. “I absolutely agree that analytics and A/B testing would be great, but we just don’t have the tools for it right now. I think that needs to be considered a next step, but a separate project by itself really.”
Hoffman stepped back from contributing to the redesign after receiving this response seven months ago from Sidler on Trac where he says much of the feedback received was from plugin developers and not representative of users.
First, we’re building the site for users, not developers. Certainly some of our users are developers, but not the vast majority. One of the WordPress core philosophies is building first for the 80%, not the 20%, and that applies in this case as well.
Second, almost all of the ‘overwhelming community feedback’ we’ve received so far is from plugin authors who are (typically) developers. It’s all great feedback and we’re obviously listening closely. But it’s not necessarily representative of the users who visit the plugin directory regularly. We’ll certainly run user tests before launching, and we can probably run a more obvious beta, with a link from the current directory to the new one. But the directory isn’t yet ready for that.
Third, this ‘self-imposted limitation’ as you call it is not arbitrary. Rather, it’s the result of research and in-person discussion with a number of designers. Will it be the final design? I dunno. But since we haven’t tested it with real users (see the paragraph above), it’s hard to say right now. I think pursuing this direction is worthy for a number of reasons, which aren’t really worth rehashing here. First and foremost though, until we build out a product that can run through user tests, we won’t know if it’s the right direction.
How can the team know that the redesign is working or is the right direction if WordPress.org doesn’t have the tools necessary to measure its impacts? There’s also the question of what data was obtained or user testing done that supports the decisions that were made? Who are these users and how does the team know what the best user experience is for them?
Iteration Is the WordPress Way
Now that the new directory is publicly available, the Meta team is reviewing feedback, gathering bug reports, and organizing tickets on Trac.
“If there are tickets that were closed or postponed during the project that you think need revisiting, then this would be a great time to start reviewing and re-opening them,” Shiels said. “We already have a bunch of tickets against the future milestone.
“The new directory has been built with future maintainability and iterative enhancement in mind. We’re looking forward to hearing feedback from the whole WordPress community, and making regular improvements and additions.”
To report a bug or enhancement with the plugin directory, you’re encouraged to create a ticket on Trac. If you have any questions concerning the directory or would like to get more involved, visit #meta on Slack.
The Vocal Minority
There are a lot of people voicing their complaints about the WordPress Plugin Directory redesign and to summarize them as a vocal minority is unfair.
“Let’s also not forget that one of WordPress’s philosophies is The Vocal Minority,” Aaron Jorbin, WordPress core contributor, said in a conversation on the Meta Slack channel concerning feedback. “Many people being loud on the internet isn’t a reason to do anything.”
As I’ve documented above, the issues people are complaining about today are roughly the same as those reported during the prototype stage more than seven months ago.
If months have passed and the issues brought up by members of the community who are part of the so-called vocal minority were not addressed before shipping to the public, can we blame them for complaining and feeling ignored? What about those who think that getting involved to be part of the solution was a waste of time? While the plugin directory design will undoubtedly improve with time, the complaints and concerns expressed by people this week are justified.