The Software is Wrong, Not the People

It was a small moment at the WordPress DC Meetup. One of the creators of WordPress, Matt Mullenweg, was in town. He had come to this monthly meeting at Fathom Creative to learn what the local community wanted in the next version of his web publishing software.

The media library in WordPress was discussed. Mullenweg admitted that it is confusing and gets difficult to manage once you have lots of images in the library. A man in the audience brought up a technical issue he had with the library. Mullenweg explained that you could actually do what the man wanted to in WordPress but stated:

The software is wrong, not the people.

This is a revolutionary statement. Mullenweg could have just told the man that “you’re doing it wrong” before telling him the “right” way to work with WordPress. Instead, the fact that users had problems with the media library told him that the software needed to be improved.

It’s a contrary notion. We all adapt to clunky and ever-changing software, relearning the basic tasks needed to accomplish our work – where’d they move the print button?

And we cope with this increasing complexity without complaint. Because no one wants to look stupid. You can’t figure out the ribbon in Microsoft Word? You must be the idiot, not the software.

This is especially true in the world of content management systems for web sites. I’ve worked on large-scale web sites for more than a dozen years as a web editor, producer and site manager. I remember when we did things in HTML. I have fond memories for Claris HomePage. Compared to the complexity of managing a large site in Dreamweaver, a CMS seemed like a brilliant idea.

Be careful what you wish for. Over time, I’ve had the fortune/misfortune to use nearly every major CMS out there.

The simple publishing tools that we used back in the 90s “evolved” into massively complex structures requiring expensive experts to install and administer. CMS like SharePoint, Vignette and Percussion are punishing experiences for the user, turning the joyous task of writing into a machine-led death march. You enter your content and then engage in a series of database programming tasks, with the hope that at the end of it, if everything goes well, your article will appear in the correct format on the web site at the next publishing cycle.

It’s no wonder that there’s so much bad writing online when the publishing tools are so lousy.

WordPress is different. Being open-source, and closely tied to the community (would Steve Ballmer listen to your feedback?), it has a different philosophy – “The software is wrong, not the people.”

Of course, it’s not perfect – the media library definitely needs some work – but it’s easy to use and adaptable. WordPress now powers more than 50 million web sites.

And, most importantly of all, it’s software that people want to use. No one feels passionate about SharePoint. But they do about WordPress. This enthusiasm will lead to its greater adoption. Over time, the users will prevail.

About Joe

Joe Flood is a writer and photographer from Washington, DC. He is the author of the mystery novel Murder in Ocean Hall, as well as articles, short stories and screenplays. In his spare time, he likes wandering about the city with a camera.

46 thoughts on “The Software is Wrong, Not the People

  1. Great article, Joe. Thanks for sharing that insight. I couldn’t agree more with you. It’s extremely refreshing to hear someone embrace the idea that if software doesn’t do something the way a user expects; the software needs to change, rather than the users’ expectations.

    I’m not sure I agree with your statement that:

    No one feels passionate about SharePoint.

    I know plenty of people who feel passionately (angry/disappointed) about SharePoint. :)

  2. I agree Joe. It’s the user first mentality that sets WordPress apart and it’s this effort that encourages users to be passionate evangelists for the software which encourages the developers to create an even better user experience. It’s a circle that all starts from putting the user first.

    Great write up and thanks for being a part of our local WordPress Community.

  3. I’ve only just started using WordPress and I’ve absolutely fallen in love with it. It’s software written with a quality that’s rare these days. Now I understand the philosophy behind it, and this explains why it is so good.

  4. Followed this from Matt’s site actually, and couldn’t agree more with your summary. I think a people-centric approach to design is absolutely critical. A CMS that is created with a developer in mind will be short-lived at best as the web becomes more and more accessible to end users with less and less technical expertise. WordPress has the amazing advantage of being both easy to use and incredibly flexible! Add to that, an active (open source) development community that is passionate about the user-base as well as the software and you have an amazing platform that will be hard to beat for years to come! Well done and thank you.

  5. Let me add a bit of nuance here. Software is often clumsy and unintuitive, but people are often dumb as well. You can tell who they are by the fact that they find *all* software complicated and hard to use, and never notice the commonalities between applications. Moreover, different (smart) people can have a different notion of intuitiveness. E.g. many people hated the ribbon in recent versions of MS Office, but many others loved it. Same for Gnome 3, or Unity… or the UI revamp in Firefox 4. Try to satisfy everyone, you’ll end up with something that works for no-one. So any changes must be made with care.

  6. Actually, i’m pretty passionate about SharePoint, probably moreso than WordPress, though certainly appreciate your concerns there. Its not the go-to CMS for article-type content that WordPress is.

  7. “And we cope with this increasing complexity without complaint. Because no one wants to look stupid” – the most significant point of the article for me ….. along with Matt’s response …..

    but that is one of the amazing things about WordPress – the huge collection of plug-ins – these in a way are users ways of saying “NO” that complexity and providing a useful/alternate/additional/simpler/ way of achieving something … and WordPress provides that freedom of choice and promotes that individual creativity

    Maybe one day software will be like pizzas and breakfast cereal in that I will be able to take any one of 20 WordPress or Word core downloads to fit just the way I LIKE IT!!
    ..then that WILL be putting the user first :-) ha ha

  8. Thanks for the excellent article. It is consistent with what I heard from him a couple of months ago, at an event in Campbell. He apologized for the issues with the editor. He promised that 3.2 would be better with it’s fullscreen mode. Having been with WP for 4+ years, it has improved a bunch and will continue to get better thanks to the great community.

  9. This is a very Apple-like approach that puts the user experience at the forefront. I think its clear that their success has been that it has been intuitive and modular. The non-professional appreciates that. I think people get scared with complexity even though they want flexibility.

  10. I work with SharePoint in my day job and work freelance with WordPress at night. Great post. Couldn’t agree more. Software is made for the people; people are not made the software.

  11. WP is here to stay (one hopes). It’s refreshing to see the philosophy of one of the creators does not follow the beaten (to death) path of “thou shalt code the way God intended”.

  12. An interesting point, that software needs to adapt to people. And quite valid. The problem being, who gets to decide in what ways it should adapt?

    @Felix Pleșoianu – Perhaps the problem is not so much that ‘people are dumb’, but there are different types of intelligence (according to Howard Gardner). Having spent 6 years doing IT support I can say that some people get computers, some people you need to explain why they work the way they do with reference to something they already know (generally non IT), and other people just don’t really want to learn how things work. (Maybe that is what you were saying)

  13. I was “forced” into WordPress by popular client demand in 2009. Until that happened, I also had successfully avoided PHP. While these might make me sound snobbish, or narrow, I mention it precisely because I had to adapt when 1/3 of my clients were using it, and requesting it. As a skilled programmer and developer it required very little time for me to become fluent with the site and this translates to value for my clients, and for the clients whom they serve. I am constantly improving sites and designs I create for usability- so it’s great to hear the founders of WP make philosophical statements like this, and hopefully it will influence many others. I realize the point of this and other communities is to develop, and yet the problem with every piece of software written beyond v2.0 remains the “tack-on” capabilities that happen without integrated software-or thinking about actual use instead of theoretical use. I’ll be curious to see what this community comes up with, I have a lot of confidence in you! (but I’ll still use my own methods)

  14. That’s why Matt’s Matt!

    We’ve been providing WordPress Development Solutions for over 2 years now and we’ve seen the system evolve from being the default choice for a blog to now, being the default choice for a corporate website. All this while, user friendliness has been the key differentiator and even with it’s ever growing functionality, the system manages to maintain a clean and easy interface.

    With millions of installations, come millions of use cases and hence issues ought to be reported, but this very evolutionary thought that the “software should adapt to its users” is the reason behind WordPress’s success. Not to mention, the superb developer community which just keeps of adding thousands of plugins month over month, making WordPress a functionality powerhouse as compared to its competitors.

    Thanks Joe for sharing the thought!

  15. Matt has plans for simplifying the user experience in WordPress.
    “It is too overwhelming for new users. The WordPress dashboard is a level 10 boss monster” -MM

    – San Diego WordCamp July 2011 – Interesting snippets

  16. Good article the touches upon many tender spots that I, as a blogger have experienced.
    While I’ve ranted and cussed out the WordPress updated versions, I do realize that those many changes from “WordPress 2.3.3″ to “WordPress 3.2.1″ does serve many beautifully.

    So what’s the ‘beef’!

    Well can only say that all I need is a simple platform like “WordPress 2.3.3″ was, to do my simple blogging.
    I do not need, or want those neat additions as one now finds with verions since the time. Yes, the “WordPress 3.2.1″ is neat. But it has become like a ‘Swiss knife’ for me. I find that my efforts toward simple blogging has drastically cooled down due to the revamped platform of later WP versions.The ‘feel’ of “WordPress 2.3.3″ was right up to snuff for my useage doing posts.

    Were I to run an online business, then yes, “WordPress 3.2.1″ features is what would be clamoring for.

    While driving a Lincoln Continental is an enjoyable experince, its hard to beat the sheer joy of driving the old Model A Ford.

    So it is, with WordPress.

    Ya, I know, fuddy duddy, afraid of change, wrong.

    If it feels clumsy, and continues to feel clumsy, it must be a clumsy program.

    Yes, it is the software, not the people using it.

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  18. Matt is just to nice a guy to not admit it’s both. You know it takes two to tango.
    I’m the kind of person who just starts clicking on everything without reason just to see what happens. The more to click on the more I like it.
    Then one day I woke up knowing how to build a website that does the job and have fun doing it.
    Now I build them and people pay me for them. Just wanted to say thanks Matt,
    you da man.
    I’m waiting for someone to come up with a Holographic Projection plugin… wished they’d hurry up.

  19. I think Matt showed a good “customer is always right even if he is wrong” attitude that will win him more fans for WP. I’ve been playing golf for 40 odd years. If you’d never played before I don’t think you’d thank me for telling you it’s easy. Sadly many IT experts forget that once upon a time they learned website building skills from scratch and treat newbies with disdain. Learning any new skill takes time and is usually fraught with challenges and frustrations.

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