The Road to a Simpler WordPress Dashboard

The Road to a Simpler WordPress Dashboard

In face of the many conversations around the complexity of WordPress' dashboard, Brian presents a practical, hands-on approach and his own opinion as to the direction of the dashboard's UI.

WordPress is a terrific publishing tool and you probably agree with me if you are reading this blog. But that does not mean there isn’t a learning curve, especially for users that aren’t very tech savvy. When we build websites for our clients, or even perhaps for WordPress verticals, it is important that we put ourselves in the shoes of the users, identify their pain points, and help them along so that they aren’t intimidated by the system.

I will show you how to make the current interface simpler on your websites, with currently available tools. We’ll also look forward to the future of the platform and its level of administrative simplicity in general.

Consider your user

I work at an interactive web development firm as the Lead WordPress Developer and, throughout the day, I talk mostly to other coworkers who understand technology. However, as a provider of web services to a mostly local audience, our clients’ technical abilities span the spectrum, and I often forget just how little some of them know about technology and the web.

It’s amazing how often I end up, as a consultant, explaining the difference between an operating system and a browser, or explaining the advancement of technology and standards between browsers (like IE 8 versus IE9 or Chrome). All of a sudden, when I consider that I even need to explain these relatively basic concepts,  the prospect of suddenly showing the WordPress dashboard and workflow to a client starts to feel more challenging.

The first take at the WordPress dashboard is overwhelming

If your clients have full access to the WordPress dashboard, then it is likely they will be overwhelmed the first time they log in.

Thankfully, the simple task of logging in has become easier since version 3.4. We don’t have to explain “go to your website, and then type in slash W, P, dash… no, a hyphen, not a forward slash… ADMIN.” Anymore, a simple, “slash login” will suffice. This is a good example of the type of small things we can do to make life simpler for users.

Once logged in, think about all the things a user will see. A myriad of dashboard widgets are visible, many of which make no sense if you know nothing about WordPress. And the left hand navigation is overloaded with ten items in a base install, and likely many more for a finished website.

wp-default-dash

There are ways to clean up the dashbaord so that it’s not as overwhelming. I personally use the White Label CMS plugin for all of our clients. In addition to the ability to selectively remove navigation tabs and dashboard widgets, I can also brand the dashboard however I like, insert a login redirect URL, hide confusing post meta boxes, easily insert custom admin CSS, and more. Collectively, I’m able to really limit what the user will see when they log in; in my experience, they are appreciative of this. It’s also nice that I can export and import settings from White Label CMS, for easy configuration.

This is just a start of the customization that can be done with the WordPress dashboard, however.

They’re logged in. Now what?

We’ve just eliminated a bunch of stuff from the admin, but I also want to provide useful information that helps the user in guiding them in what they want to do. There are a few ways to do this. I tend to stick with the custom meta box that ships with the WP Help plugin, which we’ll go into more detail shortly, but it can extend to something as custom as the habbytables dashboard, which offers a progress meter for completing a user’s profile, and a completely custom skin.

 

happytables-dash

 

Docs in the Dash

WP Help is an invaluable plugin by Mark Jaquith. It allows me to create an entire documentation repository for my clients that is accessible right from the dashboard. Moreover, I can manage the documentation from one central installation of WordPress and sync all of my different client sites to that one set of documentation.

This is amazing for keeping up to date documentation across the board and not having to separately update the documentation in every location each time something in WordPress changes. Also, I can add site-specific documentation in WP Help to each website, so that my various modules and custom functionality can be documented on a per-site basis.

I recommend anyone that manages client sites to consider WP Help for their site documentation.

Third party video documentation services

There are quite a few people creating tools to educate users how to use WordPress. A number of video tutorial services are available, including WP 101 and Video User Manuals. Both of these services offer really great video tutorials to help users get accustomed to the various aspects of managing WordPress. As an added bonus, they offer plans for rebranding the videos so that they appear to be custom made by your business.

Having these videos available for clients to reference is great, but what I really like is that both WP101 and Video User Manuals can be integrated into the WordPress dashboard, so that a specific video is available as the client is performing a specific action.

Help Tabs

help-tabs

In addition to site-wide documentation with WP Help and instructional videos, another handy feature to help direct users is custom help tabs.

Help tabs were introduced as we know them, in WordPress 3.3. Pippin Williamson has an article and instructional video to help guide you through creating help tabs.

Core uses help tabs for some documentation, and it’s a nice (and probably under-used) feature for plugin and theme developers to use to provide additional contextual help for particular areas of the WordPress admin.

Is help enough? Is WordPress just too complicated?

As you can see, there are certainly methods for helping users along the way. With the tools I’ve discussed so far, you can slim down the dashboard, offer significant amounts of WordPress and custom development documentation, and even re-brand or re-skin the admin entirely. But is it enough? Is WordPress just too complicated?

In my opinion, the answer itself is complicated.

WordPress is easy – by comparison to its closest cousins, at least. Compared to other powerful CMS offerings like Joomla, Drupal, or many other CMS platforms, WordPress is a user’s dream. But in today’s reality, WordPress is used by a lot more than tech-savvy site admins and developers. It’s used by millions and millions of regular users.

For some of them, WordPress can be overwhelming and complicated. From my experience, many users just don’t know what to do. They’ve been spoiled by social networks and the millions of dollars and thousands of hours that went into creating incredibly user-friendly, agile, social and mobile interfaces. Compared to Twitter, Pinterest, or even Tumblr, WordPress is too hard. There’s just too much stuff going on at first glance.

Even worse, there aren’t any real calls to action in the admin. Considering that this is the backend for websites which rely on calls to action on the frontend, that’s kind of sad. We tell users on the frontend where to go and what to do on the website, but we fail to do the same for the backend users.

It is clear that there is a demand for simple interfaces; Tumblr has exploded in growth, and there’s a ton of buzz around hosted platforms like Svbtle. Even “tinkerers” are enthralled by a simpler approach. I’ve heard quite a bit about developers moving their blogs to static site generators, where some think it’s easier to tinker than dealing with a dynamic site. While that’s a little different than just a new admin, it’s runs along the same theme, which is that WordPress may be trying to wear too many hats.

Radical simplification

Thankfully, it’s pretty well known that WordPress can be overwhelming. Even Matt Mullenweg talked about how he’d like a “radically simplified” WordPress in the future during a talk in May of 2012. The whole post is great, but I especially appreciate his note that WordPress was entering its fourth pivot at the time.

Have you ever thought of WordPress as software that had truly pivoted?

I hadn’t. I’d call it more evolving, but either way, he’s right. It’s gone from a blogging platform, to a CMS, to an application framework, and finally to a social/mobile framework.

The first three iterations of WordPress hardly require simplification. Taking WordPress from a simple blogging app to a full-fledged CMS and application framework requires features, options, and extensibility. While it’s important to be careful to add wisely, it’s inevitable that software will get slightly more complicated to use making such changes.

The latest iteration for WordPress, making it a more mobile and social space is, in my opinion, the most complex yet, but not as complex as in features as it is complex in its simplicity. How can WordPress maintain its flexibility and its extensibility gained in earlier iterations, while moving to a space which requires it to be dead simple to use on all devices?

Various proposals for simplification

ghost

One of the first conversations I remember on the topic was when Joshua Strebel questioned whether it was time for a WordPress Light. The conversation that followed was quite worthwhile.

I also think that Noel Tock’s work on happytables did a great deal to move this discussion forward. He recognized that WordPress wouldn’t work “as is” for the average restaurant owner – and fixed it for his startup. He has taken his experiences and written a post on how he thinks theming the WordPress admin would be easier if preprocessors were available in core.

WordPress.com clearly knew they needed a simpler interface too. The homepage of their website has been transformed into a light dashboard for all logged in users, with all the important stuff quickly available, with a nice user interface.

John O’Nolan sparked enormous conversation with his Ghost concept. And now he’s working on it. He’s planning to build Ghost as its own application, even though his first iteration will be a plugin. Whether you agree with his methods or not, his concepts are good for the project and moves the discussion forward.

Tung Do, owner of DevPress, has also been designing some mockups for a different admin theme that’s simpler, even if no less feature-full, than the current design.

The WordPress UI Team

I would be completely remiss if I didn’t talk about what WordPress contributors are already doing in core, by way of the UI team. The Make WordPress UI blog is the best place to see it all, but they have been gradually improving the UI, and making it easier for others to interface with WordPress’ admin.

Some recent rockstars on the UI team include Automattic employee Dave Martin (often known as @lessbloat), and 10up Lead UI Engineer Helen Hou-Sandi.

Decisions in the WordPress admin are being made more often on user testing than aesthetic, and each with attention to detail. Despite much of the criticism, if you use WordPress 3.0 and then WordPress 3.5, you will be astounded how much nicer and how much easier to use it is. The reason I think we are so demanding now, as users, is because the bar is just so high.

If you are interested in making WordPress simpler for users, your clients, or yourself, the UI blog is probably the best place to get involved. The main UI project for WordPress 3.6 is likely to implement a method for handling post formats – a great place for you to contribute!

What I think will happen longer term

The call for a simpler WordPress is strong, and so is the opposition. Developers that rely on WordPress’ CMS capabilities may worry that a simpler WordPress means one that isn’t as good for their purposes. People who don’t want all of the CMS baggage and want WordPress to be “just a blogging engine”, sometimes call for a complete rewrite or fork. I believe these are extremes and that the end result will allow for both a simpler interface and a powerful platform.

I’m confident that WordPress’ community of contributors will continue to innovate with clever solutions to maintain power while drastically improving its ease of use; that is, after all, how it got so popular in the first place. Before WordPress, it could be pretty hard to start a blog. Now we can start blogging in minutes.

I think WordPress will continue to iterate responsibly, even if also iterating drastically. It’s really fun to see things people are creating and dreaming up.

I look forward to the future of the platform, its involvement into this fourth pivot, and especially seeing my clients and other people I introduce to the system fly through their first steps as a new WordPress user. I hope you all can use the tools I’ve shared for now and continue to be excited for the future of the dashboard.

photo credit

Comments

  1. says

    Helpful, helpful and helpul article, Brian.
    I was already using White Label CMS for clients, but I´d never heard of WP Help yet. After reading your post I´ve tried that plugin and I´m already loving it. The sync feature is just fantastic. I was actually looking for something like that!
    Thanks a lot.

  2. says

    I’m all for using tools like White Label CMS and WP Help to help make my clients’ lives easier when they log in. They see only what the need to see and there’s help there if they need it. Makes for a much easier transition and fewer phone calls.

  3. says

    Excellent post, Brian. There are definitely extreme opinions about making the admin interface super simple or keeping it flexible for developers. As you suggest, I don’t think they are mutually exclusive.

    I recall some talk (or maybe various conversations in different groups) about creating options during installation to choose a “really simple blog to get up and going quickly” or a developer-type install meant for changes off the bat.

    While there are a lot of things to consider with a configuration like that (like the ability to switch from “blog” to “developer” if the time comes that you need more extensibility), I think that it’s getting the thoughts flowing.

  4. says

    Great post thanks for sharing, we have been ploughing code into our functions files to modify the login screen, change visible menus for roles etc but as we are pushing the capabilities of wordpress more and more this file is becomming rather large so it is great to use a few recommended plugins to do this job for us. The sync feature is definately something I’ll be sure to check out.

  5. Eirik Leirgulen says

    Thanks for a great blog post!

    What are the Social Media and Social Proof menus you have in the admin panel?

  6. says

    Great post! Definitely agree that the dashboard and admin can be cleaner and simpler. Have you seen what @devpress is doing? some incredible design work and simplified thinking happening there!

  7. storefrontthemes says

    I was actually looking to get a simplified admin dashboard on Friday and I ended up just taking a few hours and making one…it’s not simplified in the sense that anything is removed, but rather just has a more contrasting color palette and a bit more padding and all of that makes for a less distracting admin since the main window is the only thing that is white. I through it up on CodeCanyon yesterday if you want to check it out at http://bit.ly/YgNKZR or just read my blog post at http://bit.ly/14r5164.

  8. says

    How exactly do you set up the progress bar and the steps? I can’t figure it out with WP Help.

    Thanks for broadening my view about customizing the dashboard. :D

  9. says

    Niiiiiice! Great post and lots of good information!
    In the orange wp-admin area, is this a plugin or custom designed….that looks pretty cool!

    • Phil Erb says

      Carl – the orange interface is the admin interface for happytables, which is a hosted restaurant web site platform by Noel Tock, built on WordPress.

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