Micah: The invention of the printing press in the mid-15th century changed the world. It ushered in the age of enlightenment, it was at the forefront of the reformation, it removed the barrier of entry between the educated aristocracy and the illiterate middle class. Now, I could go on and on, but the point is: The ability to share ideas, beliefs, and stories with the world was a really big deal. Here we are, almost 600 years later, and it’s easy for a cool millennial like myself to imagine a world without printing; because, honestly I can barely remember the last time I had to print anything. However, I can’t imagine what life would look like without the ability to learn about different topics, share ideas or creations, and listen to stories. Heck, that’s how I’m able to make this podcast. But why am I recording myself reading the history of the printing press off of Wikipedia, you ask? Well, because WordPress.
Matt Mullenweg [WordCamp Europe 2017] If the core what WordPress does is about publishing and writing, I think that we should have the best interface in the world for doing that. This is like my white whale: I will keep working on making an editor until I die. And it’s a unknown. But, like the quote that I launched things with, “you cannot learn to walk unless you are prepared to fall.” So, I am certain that we will fall a few times over the coming year. So, who here has heard of the Gutenberg editor so far? This is now available in the WordPress plugin directory.
Micah: Those were clips of the co-founder of WordPress, Matt Mullenweg, ushering in the future of WordPress at WordCamp US in 2016 and WordCamp Europe in 2017. But those announcements were just the beginning of an almost two year-long journey. Today, we’re gonna discuss that journey and dig into the community that it impacted. So friends, welcome to Hello, WP, a podcast about what it’s like to be a new WordPress user. My name is Micah, and pretty soon here you’ll hear the voice of my co-host, Josh.
Segment 1: Press In
Micah: At this point, I’ve been in over my head in WordPress for about three months, and all people seem to be talking about are Gutenberg and blocks. So, unless you’ve been under a block and not building a block, you’re probably just as confused as I was getting started. Let me explain: Gutenberg is WordPress’ new post and page editor. It re-imagines the classic editing experience that feels a lot like editing a Word doc, and allows you to build and arrange content block by block. Kinda like the movable type printing press mentioned at the top of the show, which was invented by …wait for it… Johannes Gutenberg. So before we dive in, I want to say to our WP insiders I know there’s been a lot of controversy around Gutenberg, but don’t stop listening yet. Hearing from a new guy might just be the unique perspective you need while getting started with this new editor.
Josh: Hello, Micah.
Micah: Hello, Josh.
Josh: Do you know what Gutenberg is?
Micah: I mean, you’ve mentioned it before.
Josh: I mentioned it.
Micah: Yeah, so I mean, I know that it’s a new thing coming from WordPress, but I don’t really know too much about it.
Josh: Yeah, WordPress is really undergoing kind of a massive transition right now. It’s a big topic of conversation. This is probably the most out-of-place episode for Hello, WP. But I wanted to do kind of a time capsule piece. That I think will be relevant into the future, but I also am aware by speaking of a technology that’s kind of coming out right now, we’re running the risk of going, “This is really going to be a history piece, a WordPress culture piece.”
Micah: So, we should probably set the scene, then, as we wanted to make this episode more as a community piece, right?
Micah: It’s less about Gutenberg itself and more about WordPress’ community.
Josh: Yeah, because I really think we can talk about the technology of Gutenberg–and I think that’s a good spot to frame it–but really, as we talk about Gutenberg, it branches into a much broader conversation of what it’s like to be a new WordPress user in a time of massive transition for WordPress.
Micah: I mean, I just got hired. Like I’m brand new to WPMU DEV. And with that, I’m brand new to WordPress’ community, and I agree with that statement. You’re speaking my language. This is a weird time to be joining WordPress because I feel this division within the community as I dig in.
Josh: And you’re kind of in a unique position right now to see this all kind of unfold.
Micah: That’s true.
Josh: So, today on Hello, WP, we’re gonna say hello to Gutenberg.
Micah: Greetings, Gutenberg.
Josh: Greetings, Gutenberg. And WordPress 5.0, really; because, once this episode is released and we realize where everything’s at, it won’t be talked about as the “Gutenberg plugin” anymore. It will just be WordPress core. So we’re gonna have a lot of interesting conversations, I think, around this topic. But what I wanted to kind of highlight and I can speak for a little bit for WPMU DEV, but a lot of my stuff is going to be more personal along the lines of what I see and what I’ve noticed.
Micah: Within the company?
Micah: ‘Cause I’ve been curious as to how it’s going to affect the community at large, and specifically our company. How is it gonna affect us?
Josh: The WPMU DEV statement has actually been out for a long time, and it actually came up before Gutenberg. We were already headed in a trajectory where we decided we wanna support WordPress with our services, our products. We’re continuing development on certain plugins, but we’ve really moved in this direction of optimization, security, and speed, and these kinds of things that are great for every site. And so right around the time that we were getting ready to announce that Gutenberg was approved for core, we made a statement that we’re gonna get rid of our own page builder that we had at the time and we are going to say we’re supporting now all of these page builders, including Gutenberg. And so as WordPress makes changes and shifts, we’re going with it and try to make the process of transition as smooth as we can for our users. And I think what’s going to be interesting, as you dive into this, I think this is going to be the most challenging episode to get any kind of concrete feedback on.
Micah: Why is that? Why do you think that?
Josh: I think that because there’s a lot of uncertainty in what all of this means. What needs to be clearly stated inside of this, for you, is tread lightly and one regard. I want you to press into the community at large. Because, it’s one thing for us to give a WPMU DEV statement about Gutenberg. But, I think we have to move way beyond a WPMU DEV statement if you’re gonna understand WordPress and the community that surrounds it. People are massively invested because it’s their livelihood. So this is what I think you should do. I think you need to spend a lot of time pressing into the community, talking to people around the space, and I think a good place for you to start is exploring Gutenberg and using the plugin yourself.
Micah: Yeah. Alright. Perfect.
Micah: Josh’s advice to explore Gutenberg, though wise, was not the first thing I ended up doing. I thought I’d do a tiny bit of reading first, which actually became a headlong, all in, no turning back, deep dive into all things Gutenberg. So I’d like to take this opportunity to apologize to my wife for turning every conversation into a Gutenberg conversation over the past several months. I did finally sit down to record my experience, but my goodness is it an extremely boring forty five minutes of audio. So, instead of making you suffer through too much of it, here’s a quick highlight reel.
Micah: Cool. Oh there’s one for table? Dude that’s cool. I wanna see the button thing that sounds pretty cool. Oh wow! That’s pretty awesome. Oh, I like that. That’s super cool. Oh nice… that’s cool. The color settings is pretty cool. And it looks really good in my theme. I like how that looks. Oh, man! That is so cool. This is amazing. You can build a page with Gutenberg, too? What?!
Micah: So, I liked it. Big deal! But I’m also aware that I’m basically the guy Gutenberg was designed for. You know: The non-coding, previous Squarespace- and wix-using, wannabe minimalist type. But what are people saying behind the curtain? How are long-time users, developers, business owners, and people who depend on assistive technology responding? And how did a plugin with less than two-and-a-half stars get the thumbs up for a merge with core? First of all, it’s important to state that there’s a whole lot of love, support, and hard work behind the Gutenberg Project. Many of the people who have voiced legitimate concerns also voice their unending commitment to WordPress. As far as the naysayers though, we vacuum sealed their feedback into three neat statements: “We don’t feel heard”, “We don’t think it’s ready”, and “We don’t see the point.” So, let’s hear from somebody who said all three of those things.
Scott Bowler: Hi, so my name’s Scott Bowler, and I am the crazy person who thought it be a good idea to start a WordPress fork.
Micah: Yep! You heard that correctly: Scott is forking WordPress. And no I’m not referring to some sort of medieval witch hunt (although this did start as a protest). Scott is copying WordPress’ open source code and launching a new project called ClassicPress. Now, if you’re asking yourself, “But isn’t that stealing?” like I did, it’s actually not. This is completely allowed under WordPress’ license, as long as he sites where the code came from. Fun fact: Back in 2003, WordPress started as a fork of another software. It was called B2.
Micah: Can you tell me the origin story of ClassicPress?
Scott: Sure, so, as a kind of a day job one of the things I do is manage customer websites. So, I look after about 50 websites, and they’re all power by WordPress. And the way we’ve set all our websites up is very specific to our needs. And we actually have our own page builder, so Gutenberg is a page builder and we have our own, and there’s lots of pros to page builders. But, Gutenberg was going to pretty much destroy all the websites we’ve created. We’d have to migrate everything and it would’ve caused all sorts of problems. So, my first step in this whole process was just to go and leave a review, and the feedback kind of fell on deaf ears. If you ever get a chance to look through the reviews, you’ll see that the same topics come up over and over and over again. People don’t have an issue with Gutenberg as a thing, as a page builder; but, they do have an issue with it becoming part of WordPress. So my suggestion was, just keep it as a plugin. If it’s this great plugin, and it’s this great feature that people are going to want, then why bring it into the core of WordPress? It didn’t make much sense to me. And lots of people were saying exactly the same thing. But the kind of meat of the conversation was ignored. And the more I dug into it, I realized that it is a case of: This is coming whether you like it or not.
At that point I thought, “Okay, what can I do?” And so I thought, “Well, let’s start a petition.” That might be a way to get the attention of people like Matt Mullenweg. And, let’s see if we can get enough signatures to kind of raise the awareness. So, I started the petition, and at the same time I thought, “Well, let’s put a landing page up and say let’s have a fork”. If this petition doesn’t work, the only other option left to me–as a business–is to have another optional altogether. So ClassicPress was born.
And it kind of exploded. So, next thing I know, I’m getting emails, I got invited to interviews, and it’s kind of snowballed from there. We’ve had volunteers–pretty much from day one–appear offering to help with the fork. Not everybody’s got exactly the same reasoning behind not wanting to use Gutenberg, but there’s a large number of people who are not happy with the current situation. I guess we’re two and a half months in. We’ve got well over 150 people on our slack channel. I kind of lost count of the number of contributors we’ve got, but we’ve probably reached about 30 to 40 volunteers. And it’s just gone from there, really.
The whole thing behind it it started as a protest; it evolved very quickly to being actually something real, and then from that point…if we’re going to become a fork, and become something in our own right, we can’t then just permanently be a protest against Gutenberg. So we decided to evolve what we’re doing, and our vision now is to focus this fork on serving the business users of WordPress.
Micah: Why do you see Gutenberg as the wrong move for WordPress? The reason I ask this is–and maybe this is just because I am a newer user–but isn’t a more modern and user-friendly experience a good move?
Scott: Well the thing is: There’s already options. The beauty of WordPress is, everybody’s got choice. Where as this… this isn’t a choice. This is, “You will use Gutenberg.” Even though, I personally think it’s one of the weakest options in terms of page builders.
Micah: While researching for this series I found that WordPress grew into the creature it is today because of its community. But, this conversation with Scott kinda left me wondering if I was missing something. While Scott believes WordPress has drawn a clear line in the sand as far as who their target market is, there are people who say WordPress is trying to serve too broad a market. For this opinion, we must go outside of WordPress’ walls to our friend’s backyard. No! I mean, literally! We recorded an interview in our friend’s backyard! Kyle Campos is our resident “WordPress hater” and “tech master”. For 20 years, he’s been a leader in the DevOps world and is often requested to speak on panels alongside people like Michael Dell, the founder of Dell computers. When Josh and I asked him what his dream content management system would be, he said…
Kyle: If I was putting my Biz Dev hat on for WordPress, I probably would say…“The flexibility is sort of the core value proposition we have, but we have to treat it better. And we have to make it not so difficult and brittle.” Brittleness is the problem, essentially. So how do we help people navigate the complexity of that flexibility?
Micah: When we told Kyle about what was coming to WordPress with Gutenberg, he actually responded by affirming this new direction.
Kyle: I think that’s a really positive direction, because it retains the flexibility, but it brings in convention to that flexibility. It’s like, “Yeah, you can be totally flexible, but here’s the mechanisms by which you explore.” You kind of create a safe playground for that flexibility. Too much choice is a bad thing. You want to be able to bring helpful conventions to your engineers. If you’re trying to solve this type of problem, here’s the way we like to solve that type of problem. So, fall under that convention. And so, similarly I think WordPress could learn the lessons that other software development companies have been learning over the past–you know–years, and apply it to their own framework.
Micah: Okay, this gets into something that I’ve been diving into with the release of Gutenberg and WordPress. Despite the struggles that WordPress is going through with this Gutenberg thing, I still feel like they’re trying to be inclusive, from non-techie people who just want to build a blog, to the people who want to make a functional website, to the people who wanna build really big businesses. And maybe that’s the problem! Maybe they’re trying to cater to too many people.
Kyle: There’s these things called personas, which are essentially who are the types of people that are gonna be interacting with this particular product or part of a product? And you actually develop, like Persona A is a thirty five year old, you know, bro who loves this and that. He’s got these types of skills–
Micah: He loves his beers, and he love his bros.
Kyle: Yeah. [laughing] And he wants to build a blog about beers and bros….You can’t have an unending list of personas. Like oh…the dude that just learned PHP, he needs to be able to build a website. Like…maybe not?
Micah: So is the grass really gonna be greener on the other side of Gutenberg? And how could something so small like a new editor cause this splintering? Well first off, probably because many people don’t like change, including myself. I mean, why reinvent the printing press? This type of change requires time, possibly some money, and of course…education. And that’s where this guy found his niche in the WordPress community.
Male Voice: Hello, hello! Can you hear me okay?
Micah: Yeah! How you doin’?
Male Voice: I’m good. Hold on let me throw these headphones in…
Micah: What’s your involvement with Gutenberg?
Zac: Most of the work I do–my background is in education and teaching–so end of last year, I put out a Gutenberg development course. So, I’ve learned a lot just from building it and answering people’s questions who’ve taken it, and I did a theme course after that and now I’m working on an advanced Gutenberg one.
Micah: So, the more that I’ve dug into WordPress and Gutenberg, the more I’ve realized how incredibly polarized people are about it. On one end, people are saying, “Oh this is the new beginning for WordPress”, and then on the other end they’re saying that it’s the beginning of the end. You know? Does that seem like a fair assessment?
Zac: I think that that is quite a fair assessment, especially if you try to look at it at a high level and figure out what’s going on. You nailed it that it is polarizing and there’s a lot of different views that aren’t even always about the interface and the editor itself. It’s how it’s being rolled out, it’s what it means, and all of that. Yeah I agree.
Micah: And then, from a new user perspective, the drama around it is quite off putting and slightly overwhelming for me. Does that kind of make things weird for you? When you’re traveling around or teaching these classes? Do you ever feel that tension?
Zac: Oh, I feel it. In fact, I try to be masterful in how I interact with it! [laughs]
Micah: Oh, get into that! I’d like to hear about that.
Zac: Yeah so, to start with, for the new user so… You know we’ve done some workshops and demonstrations of Gutenberg and folks who are new to it really enjoy it. They’re like, “Oh this is cool,” like, “Oh, I can do this and this”, and they’re already playing around. They’re like “You don’t need to tell me about it! I can do it!” And then when you hear how much drama goes on behind it, as a new user, that’s like so off putting! You’re like, “Wait, should I not like this? Should I be afraid? Is there stuff that doesn’t work? Like did I not try stuff?” And that’s real. And that’s unfortunate. I take the approach of: my job is an educator. I’m gonna teach this, and I’m gonna show you how to use what is being rolled out. We’re seeing a lot of people affected in different ways and reacting to it in different ways, and uh… hashtag welcome to WordPress community [laughs]. It’s an interesting time to join, but I do want to reiterate that the software is pretty cool, and for the average user we’re getting something great.
Micah: From what I understand, Gutenberg’s code is different or more modern than what WordPress has used in the past. Can you explain that a bit?
Micah: No, that’s super helpful. So it’s kind of a thing that’s been around for like five years, but we haven’t done too much with it.
Zac: Yeah, and it’s a type of interaction–like if you use Facebook or Twitter–and things can automatically get updated. Or, if you’ve used [clears throat]–not to mention these–but like, Wix or Squarespace, or even just within WordPress if you use page builder plugins like Divi or Beaver Builder that allow you to kind of more visually design stuff–those are the changes. The old stuff ain’t goin’ away. We’re just adding more on top of it.
Micah: Does Gutenberg make WordPress more clunky? Or does it slow it down at all?
Micah: What do you wish people understood or saw that would turn them into Gutenberg believers?
Zac: Hmm… Well okay, this is my sales pitch as an educator. Regardless of what happens with Gutenberg, if you take a course like mine or anybody that’s teaching it, it’s a lot easier to learn React and these modern tools than you think. I can promise you I’ve literally seen hundreds of people go through this: After a weekend of playing around, they’re 50 percent through this process of learning all these new skills a lot faster than they thought, cause’ WordPress does make it easier. And then, if you keep learning that for a couple months or over the course of a year picking this stuff up, you have a whole new skill set, and it’s a modern one, it’s one that makes money, it’s one that you can use in WordPress because it’s in huge demand, and it’s one that you can use outside of WordPress. So you’re not losing anything out personally by doing this, even if Gutenberg were to tank. How’s that? Is that a good sales pitch?
Micah: I like it! I’m sold! [laughs]
Micah: There is at least one area of agreement between Scott, Kyle, and Zack, and that is that it’s time for WordPress to go in a different direction. The differences, however, are in their responses to the chosen direction. For example, while Scott is calling people away from Gutenberg, Zack is embracing it and inviting others to do the same. I wondered, though, are these conflicting opinions and responses having any sort of impact on Gutenberg’s development? So, I went directly to the source.
Micah: After this break, I talked to… the source.
Micah: This episode of Hello, WP is brought to you by WPMU DEV, now with Managed Hosting.
Josh: Heck, yes, it is!
Micah: It’s a party!
Josh: This is a big deal. It’s been a dream for a long time, my friend. But, the framework–
Micah: Oh, thank you, my friend.
Josh: The framework has been [laughter]… we’re talking about hosting? Who better to call than Ronnie Burt?
Josh: Ronnie. Talk to me. Where are you right now?
Ronnie: I’m in my driveway.
Josh: What makes WPMU DEV hosting exciting?
Ronnie: The fact that we’re offering dedicated hosting, dedicated resources, full-on support managed hosting for shared-hosting prices.
Josh: Thanks for taking the call with us.
Josh: You’re a busy man.
Ronnie: I just lost a tennis match, so I’m in a bad mood.
Josh: Oh, no! You just lost? Ladies and gentlemen, there you have it: Ronnie Burt just lost tennis, but he’s a part of a massive organization that’s providing hosting to its clients, and now he can be happy again.
Micah: You may have lost tennis, but you won on the internet.
Ronnie: Ah, I win the internet. Alright, thank you.
Micah: You, too, can win on the internet with WPMU DEV’s fully loaded, managed hosting. Get started today, at WPMUDEV.com.
Segment #2: Stakeholders
Micah: Unfortunately, the project lead, and afore-mentioned WordPress co-founder, Matt Mullenweg declined my request for an interview, and my request to WordPress.com’s parent company Automattic went unanswered. My last resort was a call into the dark on the WordPress open Slack channel. My first response was from Tammy, Gutenberg’s design lead, kindly suggesting I wait till 5.0 is released to get an interview, or write the story based on what I see outside of interviews. But finally I received a different kind of response.
Micah: So, can we just start with an introduction? Just say your name and and what you do and and then we’ll go from there.
Chris van Patten: I am Chris van Patten. I run a small digital agency in New York City for magazine publishers, but I’m also a contributor to the Gutenberg project for WordPress.
Micah: So, what is your involvement in the development of Gutenberg? What particular job have you taken on?
Chris: A lot of the contributions that I’ve made are driven by things that I found we needed in our client projects. sSo, if I am building something for a client and I notice a bug, or I noticed the way that something could be better based on the way that I’m using it, that might mean that I submit a new ticket about that or report the bug. It might mean that I look and see–you know, there been cases where somebody already has submitted a ticket for that, and so I’ve been able to go in and just say, “Hey, that that matters to me too.” If I feel like it’s something that I can do, I’ll go in and I’ll make a copy of the Gutenberg code and I’ll make the changes, and I submit that as a pull request, which says, “Hey, Gutenberg leaders: Here’s some code that I think solves this particular problem or adds this particular feature.”
Also something that more recently I’ve taken on is that I’m gonna be working to coordinate and be an air traffic controller for the different documentation efforts that are happening right now for WordPress 5.0.
Micah: Do you think that there’s a common misunderstanding about Gutenberg?
Micah: So, it’s no secret that there’s been a lot of drama around the release of Gutenberg. Do you feel that any of this drama has impacted the development of Gutenberg?
Chris: I wouldn’t say that it has, like, dramatically shifted the development in one direction or the other. But I would say, I think when these discussions come up it definitely nudges us, which I think is appropriate, because it is different. And I think that that kind of change can be very scary. As much as possible we want to, of course, be open to that feedback, but also appreciating that, I think, change is inevitable and I think a lot of the times the question is just are there small ways that we can make that change a little more intuitive or a little less painful.
Micah: I think that’s really cool the idea that you guys have to be aware that there’s people on the other end of this.
Chris: Absolutely, and for those of us who are working with clients, of course, we’re thinking about how are we going to integrate Gutenberg for our clients. Certainly, have clients who I know are interested and we have clients we’ve launched on Gutenberg already. But I also have another set of clients where, you know, I’ll be the first to admit: We’re not gonna have them on Gutenberg on day one. We may not have them on Gutenberg for six months or a year or more. And that’s okay, right? There is the classic editor plugin. That experience is going to be protected for a while to come. And it’s totally fine to say, “You know what? I’m not ready for this.” It might surprise people that, even myself, as somebody contributing actively to Gutenberg, that there are going to be many of my clients who I say, “You know what? This isn’t right for you right now.” It could be that their use case is so small and specific enough that Gutenberg wouldn’t make a big enough difference for them.
Micah: Would you mind giving a brief example of what that kind of use case would be?
Chris: I think people who are using page builders should be a little hesitant to jump to Gutenberg. I think the long-term vision is that Gutenberg will work really nicely with those page builders and can augment those experiences. But, I think right now, if you’re using that you might want to be very careful.
Micah: Okay, I want to pause here for a minute to address this concern about page builders interacting with Gutenberg. This isn’t the first time I’ve heard this warning, so I reached out to the folks behind three of the most popular WordPress page builders: Elementor, Beaver Builder, and Elegant Themes–AKA, the creators of Divi. Elegant Themes content manager Nathan Wellard responded by saying:
When it comes to Divi in Gutenberg, we’ve already released an update that brings a base level of compatibility. For those worried about what will happen with their existing websites upon the release of WordPress 5.0, they can rest easy. As far as the next stage of Gutenberg support, and how exactly the two will work together in the future, there are still a lot of unanswered questions. At the end of the day, it’s out of our hands and the solution we choose will depend on the decisions the Gutenberg Dev team make.
I was able to get on calls with Beaver Builder an Elementor, and they expressed similar sentiments here is Elementor’s CMO Ben Pines.
Micah: So, I’ve heard that the release of Gutenberg will most affect websites that are using page builders, and I was wondering if this is accurate.
Ben: No, completely not accurate.
Micah: Really? Can you can you get into that a little bit?
Ben: Well, first of all there was an editor before Gutenberg. I mean, you had a WordPress editor and you had the page builders. I don’t know about other page builders; I can tell you about our page builder: First of all, we made sure to create full compatibility with Gutenberg, go of course. So, you can switch back and forth: If you’re writing a blog post, then decide to switch to Elementor and design it, you can do that. Plus, recently we released what we call Elementor Blocks for Gutenberg. It’s an external plugin that allows you to embed Elementor-created templates within your Gutenberg blocks. Eventually, we’ll include it in the core of our plugin. I get a lot of questions, “Are you threatened by Gutenberg?” And I say no, because it’s like asking: Will Draw replaced Photoshop? I’m not sure if that’s the best comparison, but there’s so much to be done in the web design industry. There’s so much more that can be done in WordPress that are still in our pipeline, that having WordPress improve the experience it offers the users is great. I mean, more users to WordPress, more users to Elementor, and we’ll continue to advance it as a professional design tool.
Micah: Oddly enough, Robbie McCullough, co-founder of Beaver Builder, also had a Photoshop example. But my talk with him was also the most open and honest in regards to their feelings of uncertainty for the future.
Robbie McCullough: During this whole year of kinda learning about Gutenberg and the project and watching it progress–I guess it’s almost two years now–I would be lying if I said that there wasn’t some genuine concern from us that Gutenberg was gonna encroach on what we’re doing and no one was gonna wanna use Beaver Builder anymore. But as it’s kind of played out…I think there’s gonna be room for for page builders in Gutenberg. Of course, that’s my hopeful answer, too.
Micah: Do you think you’re gonna find a way to fit into that?
Robbie: Yeah, we’ve written a little bit about it throughout this last two years on our blog. We’re Gutenberg supporters. I think the Gutenberg project is a good thing for WordPress, and anything that’s gonna help grow WordPress is gonna be beneficial to folks like ourselves and other people that are running businesses on top of that platform. WordPress runs on 30 percent plus of the web. Gutenberg is going to be the core editor. So, it needs to be usable by this mass audience. I like to compare with Instagram versus Photoshop. I would love to see Gutenberg kind of be the Instagram, where it continues to allow WordPress to grow and take market share. Whereas we can then kind of focus in on those power users and provide better solutions to the problems that they’re seeing on that end of the spectrum.
Micah: I think you get the point. At least these three page builders support Gutenberg and look forward to seeing how things unfold with this new editing experience. Okay, let’s jump back to our WordPress contributor Chris. He was in the middle of giving use case examples for people who might hold off on switching to Gutenberg.
Chris: I think there are cases where…we have clients who had their site unchanged for four, five, six years, even. We’re just running WordPress updates. I think for them, there’s of course some inertia there that they’re used to a certain thing and, maybe it’s just better to not change it. We try to adapt, you know, based on the different situations.
Micah: There is another group of people who will most likely have to wait on adopting the Gutenberg editing experience: the accessibility community. The majority of the conversation happening around this topic has been a result of Gutenberg’s accessibility team publicly speaking out. This happened on several occasions throughout Gutenberg’s development. But the resignation of accessibility team lead Rian Rietvelt was especially sobering. In the blog post she shared explaining her decision, she said, “The last year, especially the last few weeks, has been too politically complicated for me. It’s better that someone else takes the lead now.” She then goes on to list all the ways she and her team evaluated and tested Gutenberg’s accessibility and what efforts were made to educate and collaborate with the rest of the development team.
To answer the question, “How accessible is Gutenberg?” she cited a quote from fellow accessibility team member Andrea Fercia, which says, “While the Gutenberg team has worked hard to implement some fundamental accessibility features, the overall user experience is terribly complicated.” Andrea then says, “Gutenberg is actually a regression in terms of accessibility level compared to the previous editor.” In short, the accessibility team felt that they were largely left out of the process–like some sort of afterthought–and these issues are just the effects of that. Nearly three weeks after Rian’s resignation, the team put out another statement with an extensive list of concerns. And this led me to do some research of my own.
Micah: I reached out to a friend of mine to see if I could get his insight on this topic.
Male Voice: Is it necessary for the person who’s listening to the audio recording to understand my screen reader? [computerized voice speaks in background] Because I can do that… [computerized voice] It actually sounds like a very cranky voice when it’s slow.
Micah: Say your name and what you do and whatever kind accolades you want to include in that.
Matthew Bullis: Hi, this is Matthew Bullis and I’ve been a technology teacher of blind and visually impaired adults for a little over six years now, and I’ve personally been using a screen reader on a computer for over twenty years. I’ve been blind all my life, and the world of computers is very open to those who are blind and visually impaired if we just learned the right skills and the techniques. But even with that, there’s still accessibility and usability and efficiency issues that are still present in this day and age.
Micah: I wanted Matthew to try Gutenberg so we could get an understanding of what a new blind or visually impaired user’s experience might be when navigating Gutenberg with assistive technology. And yes, I did say new blind or visually impaired user, because this is Matthew’s first time on WordPress.
Computerized Voice: …There are blocks available for all kinds of content … clickable. Can insert text any images list and lots more clickable.
Micah: Okay, so now there’s a there’s a way to add a block, so can you go to the “add block” button?
[computerized voice speaking quickly]
Matthew: Oh, here’s the block.
Micah: There I go. [computerized voice speaking quickly] And then let’s add a paragraph block, so there’s going to be a button for you [computerized voice] Oh, it switched.
Matthew: To what?
Micah: To image button.
Matthew: Huh, interesting.
Micah: Can you go back to the block you made and try to change it?
Matthew: I’ll look for the word ‘change’ on the page [computerized voice]
Micah: What did that say?
Matthew: Nothing. I couldn’t find the screen result. [computerized voice] So, I’m gonna look for the word block. [computerized voice]
Micah: This process went on for about an hour and a half, so when we got to a clear stopping point, I asked Matthew to summarize the issues he ran into.
Matthew: So, the challenges that I came up with while trying to use this interface was it was unclear to me where I was most of the time. I found that when I would arrow through the text, I could move between the text if I was moving to the right across what’s already been written, but as soon as I left arrowed, just before the text started, it would bounce me out into another section of the website. There’s no reason for a sighted person to use the arrow keys unless they’re going somewhere else on the website, and for screen reader user, you need to be able to go sequentially. Another issue we came across was when you made changes such as font size, and bold, and italics, if you got to where you could apply the setting, there was no indication from the screen reader that it actually changed the setting. If you go into the front picker, when I moved it between the options from large to huge to small to medium, I could press enter on that and it would change, but again no auditory feedback from the screen reader that told me that it had actually changed. It was hard to get out of that control because it was a non-standard control. The normal control for something like this would be a combo box. That’s the correct way that a standard controls should work.
Micah: The first time I met Matthew, I saw him tapping away on his iPhone with so much ease. This was the first time I had ever seen accessibility technology in action, and I remember thinking he’s literally navigating that thing better and faster than I can. I realize my ignorance in that situation, but this is a regular occurrence for Matthew and I: I say something ignorant and he graciously corrects me. It actually happened while I was recording with him.
Micah: You’ve taught me a lot about technology for blind and visually impaired people and you’ve also talked a lot to the idea that you’re not disabled… how have you explained that to me before?
Matthew: I don’t have a problem with saying the word disabled, because it is a disability. But, it becomes less of a disability when things are improved as far as efficiency and accessibility and barriers to technology aren’t there. And, this is not a worse life; it’s a different life.
Micah: Matthew often tells me he doesn’t want to be treated like some sort of inspiration just because he knows how to use his phone and computer. He says, the technology is amazing but I’m normal. And honestly, I think that’s what Gutenberg’s entire team is striving to create: amazing technology for normal people.
Matthew: The fact that we are having these little these issues here today would not be a showstopper for me. I would have my workarounds, or I would do as much as I could and then get some sighted assistance. Somebody has called the ‘blind time tax,’ where some might take me two and a half hours, it would take you five minutes: click this, click this, click. And if a workaround is what I need to do, that’s what I’ll do.
Micah: Thankfully, the classic editor can be that workaround for the foreseeable future. But in the meantime, people continue to test, fix issues, and test some more. As of the time of this recording, we are under two weeks away from 5.0’s release. There are eighty eight open issues that are tagged accessibility in Github, and 308 closed. Let me tell you, there was a time that those numbers looked very different.
Micah: I think my biggest takeaway is that living in the community and making a living in the community isn’t always easy. People can be ignorant, things can start to change, and lots of mistakes are made. For community to be successful, sacrifices are required from everyone. Sacrifices for the sake of the whole, and sacrifices that ensure no one is left in the margins–similar to a family. It’s a tough balancing act, but maybe the only way for communities to really thrive is for everyone to look out for the needs of others, and that requires a lot of intentional effort and a willingness to let go sometimes.
Micah: Hello, WP is a podcast by WPMU DEV. It is produced by me, Micah Dailey, and Josh Dailey. I also did the editing and original score for this episode. Our show’s art was designed by our super design team: Julian Yudy, and Osh. A special thanks to Scott, Kyle, Zack, Chris, Ben, Robbie and Matthew for chatting with me on this episode. We really couldn’t have done it without you. I’d also like to thank all the folks I bugged on WordPress’ open Slack channel: Your insight was super valuable in the making of this episode.