Don’t Fear the Gutenberg

Zac Gordon speaks at the April WordPress DC Meetup

What is Gutenberg?

A new publishing experience for WordPress: get ready to make your words, pictures, and layout look as good on screen as they do in your imagination, without any code.

Named after the inventor of the printing press, Johann Gutenberg, this new WordPress editor is a response to drag-and-drop page builders like Wix and SquareSpace, giving users more flexibility in how they design their pages.

Around the Block

Gutenberg takes the wonderfully blank canvas of the current WP editor and turns content into blocks. Text and images become blocks that can be dragged around on the page and reused on other pages as well.

I was skeptical. My experience as a Web Editor has been that content management systems (CMS) only get worse over time. I’ve seen sites go from neat collections of Dreamweaver pages to inscrutable Drupal beasts that require weeks of training to understand – and still don’t work.

When I heard that the graceful WordPress that I love, with its mantra of the user is always was right, was changing, I was alarmed – especially when I heard talk of blocks. One shouldn’t have to learn a new vocabulary, like Drupal’s use of nodes, just to write a blog post.

WordPress DC Meetup

My fears were allayed at the recent WordPress DC Meetup on Gutenberg. Zac Gordon, who teaches WordPress, previewed the new CMS.

Once I saw that the freeform editor that I love would be largely unchanged, I was relieved. I could write the way I want in the editor and turn my paragraphs into blocks, later, if I wanted to, and drag them around on the page.

“Convert to a shared block” is a useful feature, too, for page elements that you want to use elsewhere. I could see myself creating a shared block of text to promote my novel, The Swamp, across my site.

You can also get into the HTML of the blocks in case something isn’t displaying correctly. A little bit of HTML knowledge is still necessary in this CMS age.

Finally, Better Photos

Moreover, the page builder in Gutenberg has features that I like – the way it handles images is far superior than the current editor. On my site, I embed photos from Flickr in posts because that’s easier than WP’s image management and display capabilities.

In contrast, Gutenberg allows you to easily move images around the page, create photo galleries and make photos full-width across the page. A “hero image” according to Zac.

Try it out for yourself with a live demo of Gutenberg. Type content, move images around, reorder blocks and get a taste of new WordPress.

Coming Soon

In contrast to other CMS, the WordPress upgrade is designed to work with the rest of your plugins. Users, like me, who haven’t done a lot of customization probably won’t even notice the change on their sites. Backward compatibility is a key WordPress principle.

If your site is hosted by someone else, you probably won’t have to do anything to upgrade, according to Zac. If you’re a developer who has done a lot of CSS customization, you’ll want to edit and experiment in a staging environment before upgrading.

Also, a “classic editor” plugin will be available for users who don’t want to change.

WordPress for the Future aka Gutenberg has no release date yet. But it’s coming soon, developers say.

No Revolutions, Please

While the WordPress will not be as revolutionary as Johann Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press, that’s a good thing. Broad, sweeping changes are to be feared, in societies and content management systems.

With Gutenberg, expect a gentle upgrade that helps users get their ideas on the web without having to learn a line of code.

Seven Principles for a Web Team

I’ve worked on a lot of web teams. I’ve written and edited web content, collaborated with designers and developers on new sites and been responsible for the management of existing sites in government and nonprofit organizations.

Every web team has its own principles, even if they’re unwritten. A combination of culture and procedure, these are the guides that team members follow when it comes to web development.

For example, when I was at AARP, we had a rule that we wouldn’t launch a new site on a Friday. Why? Because the team wanted to get out of the office on a Friday. They wanted happy hour, not to proof the site. Mistakes would be made and they would stay up all weekend long, until someone noticed the error on Monday. Therefore, no site launches on a Friday.

If you’re lucky, everyone agrees to the same principles. The web site manager supports the web designer when she says “no” to the client who wants a giant flashing red banner on the home page. And to launch it on a Friday without testing.

At the recent WordPressDC meetup.  Mark Wahl, Technical Director at Jake Group, shared his Seven Principles for a Web Team.

It’s about choices, according to Mark. WordPress is infinitely flexible and, as a small firm, there’s a wide variety of projects and clients to consider. What workflow should you follow? How are projects managed? And, most importantly, how do you keep the web development team sane? No one likes chaos, especially web developers. They want achievable deadlines and established processes rather than churn and instability.

The answer is to follow a set of principles. Discover the principles that guide your team. Write them down. This clarity reduces stress for everyone by eliminating unwelcome surprises, like the cry of a manager, “We need to launch the site on a Friday! Rules be damned!”

Some (bad) managers may object. Rules are limiting, after all. But, as Mark wrote:

Principles make our approach clear to the entire team, allowing all to participate and contribute.

A set of clear and concise principles let team members to make decisions, confident that they’re following the “rules of the road.” Not only is this the most efficient way to manage a team, it’s also the most sustainable. Chaos is a tiresome and burns out developers and content creators.

While a rule like “don’t launch a site on Friday” may seem silly, a set of principles keeps everyone on the web team happy, engaged and sane.

From the Cold Room to the Cloud: Amazon Web Services (AWS)

Back in the day (the 90s), the servers were kept in the Cold Room. This was a floor devoted to rows of black boxes on racks that served up our web pages. They would sit there, seemingly inert, until something went wrong. Then the cry would go out “the servers are down!” and the techies would disappear into the Cold Room to fix the problem.

The downside to having physical servers in your office is obvious. You need to keep them secure and safe. Your technical staff is tasked with maintaining a physical asset. They spend their time unboxing and installing new equipment. And you’re limited by the amount of space you have. You can only serve up so much web. Too much traffic and your web site goes down.

Russell Heimlich, web developer at Billy Penn, illustrated this problem – and a solution – in his recent presentation on Amazon Web Services at the January WordPress DC Meetup.

He used to work at US News & World Report. The biggest thing they do all year is their issue on college rankings. Millions of parents and students check it out to find the best universities in America. Back when Yahoo was relevant, the web portal ran the college issue as a featured link on their home page. The US News site crashed within four minutes, their servers unable to handle the massive spike of traffic.

The solution is to have a more flexible hosting environment than boxes sitting in a cold room. For many organizations, that is Amazon Web Services (AWS). Instead of unboxing equipment, web developers set up servers virtually in the AWS environment, pointing and clicking on a grid until they have the idea solution for their hosting and traffic needs. Rather than serving web pages off your servers, you’re serving them from Amazon’s. While Russell made it look easy, it’s an expert-level tool that is customizable and complex.

However, AWS is so robust and efficient that it powers much of the social media and network services that we think of being in the Cloud. But the Cloud is not magic. It has been configured, set up and hosted by humans. Rather than working in the cramped confines of the Cold Room, developers now play in the infinite spaces of the Cloud.

Color is Subjective: All the Colors of the Internet Presentation at WordPress DC

None of these colors actually exist.
None of these colors actually exist.

You think you see color. You don’t. Color is subjective.

When you’re designing a web site there’s a moment when, inevitably, everyone argues about color. The blue is “too blue” or the pink is too “candy-colored” or the color palette of the page is “too corporate.”

While not a designer myself, I knew enough about design to recognize the absurdity of the situation. A bright color on a designer’s screen looked dull on my work PC. Which version was the right one?

At one place I worked at it, the test was just to make sure it looked good on the boss’s computer which ran Internet Explorer – didn’t matter anywhere else.

As a photographer, I see it with my photos. I use Safari as my web browser, in part, because my Flickr photos look best there. The colors seem dull in Firefox.

Beth Soderburg confirmed my suspicions about color with All the Colors of the Internet, her presentation to the August WordPress DC meetup. Go view all the slides. They’re fascinating, if you’re interested in design and human psychology.

Color is Subjective

None of us see color the same way. Beyond the fact that some people are color-blind, or can’t see certain colors, there’s also the fact that color doesn’t exist. It’s not a physical property, but just our perception based upon available light. Is your red vase still red in the dark?

Since color is subjective, designers should not depend on colors to convey information. A button that turns yellow when you click on it is not enough of a signal – not everyone can see that yellow. Use a checkmark or some other visual cue.

And if you’re a web designer, practice color acceptance. Your design may look perfect on your Mac with your calibrated display. But the colors are going to look different on a Droid. You’re just going to have to live with it.

Matt Mullenweg Is a Very Dangerous Man

Matt Mullenweg is a very dangerous man.

At the inaugural WordPress for Government and Enterprise meetup on May 6, the co-founder of WordPress & founder & CEO of Automattic, discussed the amazing journey of WordPress from a home-spun blogging tool to the world’s most successful enterprise content management platform.

Mullenweg believes in democracy. He believes in competition. He believes in open-source. All dangerous notions in Washington, DC, a city devoted to closed-systems, insider deals and imperial government.

WordPress is free. Government spends hundreds of millions of dollars on complicated content management systems that don’t work. “Why is the free thing better than what your agency spent $5 million on?” Mullenweg asked.

WorePress LogoFor him, users drive software. They are always right. Users will decide whether WordPress survives or fails – and he accepts that. “You win because you’re the best,” he said.

I asked him how government could avoid debacles like healthcare.gov. He called for more transparency, imagining a world in which hackers could fix the doomed health care site and develop their own, better vision.

No one got fired for healthcare.gov. Why should they? The project managers at HHS followed all the policies and procedures for government procurement and contract management. You can’t blame the contractors either – they were just doing what the feds told them to do, as crazy as it must’ve seemed at the time. Healthcare.gov was built according to all the regulations and was a $1 billion failure.

The world is moving in Mullenweg’s direction. We, as consumers, pick winners and losers – not the government. Yet, we have a federal bureaucracy designed for the 1930s.

Walter Russell Mead calls this “the blue model“. He writes:

The core institutions, ideas and expectations that shaped American life for the sixty years after the New Deal don’t work anymore. The gaps between the social system we inhabit and the one we now need are becoming so wide that we can no longer paper over them. But even as the failures of the old system become more inescapable and more damaging, our national discourse remains stuck in a bygone age. The end is here, but we can’t quite take it in.

Big Government doesn’t work in a world that’s become small, dynamic and user-driven. For example, Mullenweg works with a distributed team that gets together once a year. He doesn’t even know what some of his employees look like. In contrast, government spends millions on buildings it doesn’t use and struggles with implementing even the most basic of telecommuting policies.

Working in government, I have an old Dell wired to an ethernet jack. We don’t even have a working copier. Office supplies are locked away. Wi-fi is forbidden.

At home, I have a MacBook Pro, wi-fi, WordPress, a digital camera, Dropbox, an iPad and a host of other tools – as well as better coffee. The consumer market provides me better tools than a billion-dollar bureaucracy.

If government is to survive, it must be reformed. We can no longer afford a massive, unresponsive federal state that’s tied down by endless rules and regulations.

Government must become responsive to citizens. It must adopt the WordPress model that users are always right. Citizens pay for government and they deserve better.

If government does not reform, debacles like healthcare.gov are not only likely – they are inevitable.

Governments like China fear WordPress for the openness and free expression it provides. The American government should fear it too. WordPress demonstrates a new, more democratic and more user-driven way of working together. It’s impossible to go back to the blue model. Matt Mullenweg is a very dangerous man.

Migrating WordPress: Yea, There's a Plugin for That

migrating WordPress

How difficult is it to migrate a WordPress site? It’s not.

Russell Heimlich managed to explain import/export from a WordPress site plus how WP content is organized, potential problems you might run into during migration, solutions to those problems and how to import from other CMS. All this was covered (plus questions) in less than an hour at the WordPress DC Meetup.

It’s all covered in Heimlich’s Migrating WordPress presentation.

Migrating an existing WP site is easy – you go to Tools and export your existing site. And then import it into your new site. Even myself, with just a basic knowledge of HTML and fear of all things database, was able to figure it out.

And this being WordPress, there are plugins for everything else you could want to do, from exporting your widgets to doing a massive find and replace on your new site. There are even plugins and other tools for importing from other CMS like Drupal.

WP is #1 in usability and the backend is easy to navigate as well. Why the whole world doesn’t use WordPress is a mystery to me…