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Why the WordPress theme customizer matters

by Andy Adams on July 23, 2012 / 24 comments

I was listening to the latest Please Advise podcast, with guest Jason Schuller of Press75. The show’s hosts Mike McAlister, Jake Caputo and Chris Molitor cover various topics related to WordPress and WordPress theme development.

About midway through the show, the subject of theme options and the new WordPress theme customizer (built primarily by Daryl Koopersmith and Dominik Schilling) came up. I was really surprised to hear the guys on the show say the following about the customizer:

I popped it open once, and kinda played with it for a few minutes, but I haven’t put any real time into it.

I opened it to look at it for the podcast, and that was the last time.

It might be one of those things that kinda fades away.

These are all professional theme authors, whom I have a lot of respect for. But I think they’ve totally missed the point of the new customizer. I’ll even go so far as to say the customizer is absolutely critical to WordPress’s continuing success, and here’s why: Now, more than ever, it is becoming increasingly easy for the average person to build a completely customized website.

Competition is coming

Interestingly, the day after the Please Advise show was recorded, Jason Schuller tweeted a BetaBeat story about Squarespace’s new easy-to-use interface taking a swing at WordPress.

I’d like to suggest that competitors like Squarespace are going to start eating WordPress’s lunch on the “ease of use” front if WordPress does not adapt. I can’t speak for other companies, but a big percentage of our customers are self-taught website builders who use WordPress because it’s easy to use.

However, there’s more to “easy” than just installation and setup. A major piece of building a website is making that website look just like you want it. To support my case, the Please Advise crew mentioned that a large portion of their support questions are customers who want help customizing their themes. We have the same experience here at The Theme Foundry: few customers are happy with a theme “as-is”, and they want to tweak to their liking. That’s what the whole theme options debate is about, isn’t it?

Customizer to the rescue

So where does the customizer fit in? Well, to recap:

  1. WordPress is competing with easier-to-use products.
  2. Most WordPress theme support questions are “How do I change X?”.

It’s pretty clear that the theme customizer is not just a “nice to have” thrown in along the way. The customizer is a strategic move to neutralize the threat posed by competitors offering powerful website customization tools. Drag-and-drop interfaces have been lacking in the past, but they’re only getting better. If WordPress doesn’t answer, it will start bleeding customers to these simpler competitors.

Granted, the theme customizer has a long way to go to match some of the competitors in ease of use and power. I think we can all agree it’s not quite where it needs to be. Even so, the customizer is the cornerstone to WordPress’s continued relevance in the “build your own website” market.

That’s why we’ve built theme customizer support into our most recent themes, and why we’re planning on updating our older WordPress templates to use the customizer. In fact, our Struts options framework has built-in customizer support for all options – we think it’s that important.

I’d love to get your thoughts on why you think the customizer is or isn’t important, because we view it as a critical piece of WordPress’s (and our own) strategy.

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24 Comments

  1. Jason Pelker

    This is all I’ve been thinking about re: theme development for the last two years.

    The customizer is a good first step, but I don’t think users are going to be content until all site manipulation moves to the front-end. That includes content creation, layout control and all the other features packed into bloated theme options pages. Modularity (moving seamlessly from one theme to another) is also high up on this list of immediate needs.

    Honestly, it shouldn’t require two hours (or a $1,000 client fee) for a professional developer to set up a premium theme. Something has got to give, or else users are going to move to other software in droves. Remember, all this effort, time and energy saps the only purpose of a commercial website: to sell.

    We’re living in an unsustainable industry when we’re more worried about how amusing our products are, as opposed to how much profit they can bring to our projects.

  2. Andy Adams

    Thanks for the comment, Jason. You’re right on the money regarding front-end modification – it’s been a tough nut to crack, but there are going to be breakthroughs that make it easier to do everything from the front end. WordPress dominates on the backend publishing side of things, but not on the customization frontend.

    Regarding an unsustainable industry: could you clarify what you’re referring to, specifically?

  3. Trent Lapinski

    Unfortunately I feel you’re all still missing the point, the reason most theme developers don’t understand the Theme Customizer is because they’re probably look at it on a desktop.

    The Theme Customizer is about ease of use in the post-PC era. It looks like an iPad application, it has a half-pane left side menu like an iPad app, and the interface feels like an iPad app for a reason. The Theme Customizer is designed to work great on mobile devices, and allows you to set basic settings without having to dive through WP-Admin. From a desktop computer users perspective it is redundant, and almost confusing.

    The irony is for something that is supposed to make WordPress easier to use they couldn’t have made it any more difficult to actually add theme options to the customizer.

    If it wasn’t for Otto’s blog post (http://ottopress.com/2012/how-to-leverage-the-theme-customizer-in-your-own-themes/), there probably wouldn’t be any developers taking advantage of the theme customizer because it is barely developer friendly.

    At CyberChimps we’re having to rewrite our part of our theme options to be able to take advantage of the theme customizer properly, and whether or not users will actually use it has yet to be seen.

  4. Andy Adams

    Thanks for the perspective, Trent. I very much so disagree about the customizer on the desktop. Being able to make changes to your site real-time without saving is a major improvement over the save-and-oh-crap-it’s-ugly feeling you get when making changes blindly through the admin dashboard. To say the customizer is post-PC only is cutting it way short. Sure, it works well on touch devices, but my point is that there is a bigger vision at stake: touch devices and real-time customization tools are the future. The customizer isn’t the complete answer, it’s the beginning to the answer.

    As for documentation, I think Otto’s blog post was intended to be the documentation for the customizer. Without it, admittedly it would be hard to use – but his post is there for the express purpose of making it easy. If anything, Otto’s post is easier to follow than some older WordPress functionality documented in the Codex.

  5. Foxinni

    The customizer has some incredible features built into it. Leveraged in the the right way, it can improve WordPress across the board, and not only in themes.

    Ultimately someone has to do the work and if it always comes down to the user creating their own perfect site, they will inevitably struggle no matter what tool you give them.

  6. Andy Adams

    Agreed, Foxinni – I think there is a lot that can be built on top of the initial customizer. And I think you’re right that people will always want to squeeze out a little more power than any tool can offer – but if WordPress fails to make strides in improving the customization experience, I think it will be left behind in some big markets.

  7. Otto

    I wrote the theme customizer post because I like it and think it’s pretty cool. No other reason.

    I have a new post I’ve been working on which explains how to eliminate options screens entirely in favor of the customizer and theme_mod based options. Expect it soon.

  8. Andy Adams

    Thanks for clarifying, Otto. Whether you intended it or not, I think your article is the de facto developer documentation for the customizer – it made hooking into the customizer much easier for us. We’re on the way to completely ditching our options screen – the only reason we’re keeping it around at the moment is for backwards compatibility. Looking forward to your post, and as always, thanks for the great information you provide.

  9. johanlm

    I would love to use the inbuilt function for WordPress, but … It lacks “toys”. It may come later on, but as of today it’s not “enough”.

    As a company owner in the age of not only computers, but also PAD’s (regardless brand) and Smart Phones, a theme/template without built in functions like lets say;
    Accordion:ish functions
    Tabs
    is simply not an option. Theme developers think about “user friendly:ness” regarding the “users/readers/customers”, this is what WordPress is lacking since they think more of the “site owners”. Mind you … This is good. I think it’s a GREAT step forward with the whole new live editor built in. But it lacking some very “basic” functions for people who are going to read the page. The things I mentioned + a mentality of more “responsive” function.
    This is the reason I became a customer/fan of ThemeFoundry. You could supply what “out of the box” WordPress could not. And Im not talking about “looks” here, I’m talking about basic frontend user friendly functions.

    Do you want to know if you are on the right track?
    Make a site with content, put it on a PAD or Smartphone and then hand it over to your +50 year ol mom/dad/granparents and watch her reactions. ; )
    If they can’t “handle it” … Then you doing something wrong.

    If “you” want to keep WordPress alive and directed to the masses? Less coding/typing, more drag n drop + click and choose.

    ps …
    Im currently doing a major upate for my main company that has +300 stores around Sweden, that equals +more than 5 digit numbers in private consumers.
    Im sitting constantly testing the setup with a iPhone, iPad, Android based Smartphone + Pad. MORE than on the computer since I know this is what the future user is going to use. Just a few hours ago I realized I could not get the wordpress menu to function on a simple “onclick” command instead of the mouseover/hoover function. Try doing that properly on a PAD (aka without a mouse).
    Keep doing what you are doing, but start at the right end aka the people who are actually going to READ on the page. You can do the best buildersystem on the market, but as long this wont work on a PAD/Smartphone Ill never use the inbuilt function and keep on buying the built themes.

    ds …
    As I did with yours … ;)

  10. Andy Adams

    Thanks for the comment, johanlm! I’m not sure WordPress will ever get to the point of having “build your own theme” as part of the core package – there is simply too much work to do for that to be feasible. Instead, I think the tools WordPress is creating will provide the foundation for plugin and theme authors to build easily customizable templates and functionality, even on tablets and phones. I don’t think the prebuilt theme market is going away anytime soon, but I think the themes will need to become easier to customize or they’ll lose out to non-WordPress competitors.

  11. Terry Griffin

    This is actually an interesting discussion, because as I’ve not done much with WP’s theme customizer–like many, I kinda scratch my head when I see it–I’m starting to have real-world encounters with laypersons who are trying to build sites on WP and coming up against the “ease of use” wall.

    As a web designer, WP is no problem for me to use—even if I wish some of its processes took fewer steps. But for my clients—many of whom are over 40 and non-technical—maneuvering around the Dashboard just makes them wanna go watch TV or lie down! I’m excited about the theme customizer, because I hope really it’s gonna add ease-of-use and greater flexibility—but I’m also kinda wary of getting TOO excited about this.

    In the meantime, the new version of Squarespace looks exciting too. I may just have to reopen my account there…

  12. Andy Adams

    Thanks for the comments Rich and Terry.

    @Terry: I’ve hit the same wall with friends I’ve tried setting up on WordPress. People who’ve set up sites on their own using Weebly go totally blank-faced when looking at the admin panel. WordPress absolutely needs to improve in this space. While you’re right that it’s not worth jumping for joy about yet, I’m really quite happy that the WordPress team sees the need for something like the customizer. I hope it continues to improve, and WordPress doesn’t get left in the dust in this arena!

  13. Mike McAlister

    Hi guys,
    Thanks for the feedback on the PleaseAdvise show. Good to know someone is actually listening!

    I’ve actually done quite a bit of thinking about the customizer since it debuted. I can’t really decide how I feel about it just yet. And I don’t think I’m alone in this thinking.

    Naturally, you would think we could all get behind this feature and try to push it mainstream, but I just don’t feel like it’s ready just yet. I do think the customizer is a great step toward putting customizations back in the hands of theme buyers. As you stated, we all do deal with a lot of theme customization questions, but I can tell you 99% of these inquiries are beyond what the customizer can do.

    It’s functional enough to do minimal live customizations, but not yet cohesive enough for all of us developers to comfortably adopt into our themes. To get the most out of this feature, most of us have a good amount of code reworking to do. We’re all coming at it from different directions, with different code, different frameworks, etc. Hat tip to Otto for his post, but there still needs to be more documentation behind the customizer and I hope it happens quick, otherwise I fear it will fall by the wayside.

    One thing to consider when comparing the front-end editors of something like Squarespace to that of the customizer in WordPress, is that Squarespace doesn’t have to worry about developers and how or if they will use it. It’s integrated into their platform and it’s super awesome because it’s built specifically for their themes. This gets particularly tricky with WordPress because you have the same feature being used potentially radically differently by different developers. And as with many of the standards with WordPress, unfortunately there is very little cohesion from developer to developer. Arguably the best and worst thing about open source. In that sense, I don’t think the WordPress customizer will ever truly compete with something like Squarespace.

    I am actually integrating the customizer into my next theme and a few of my recent themes. I’m not going to let my own hesitations decide whether or not it’s a good feature, obviously that’s for our users to decide! Honestly, I hope they get behind it.

  14. Andy Adams

    Thanks for the response, Mike! You do have listeners :).

    You may be right in saying the customizer will never compete with Squarespace. Squarespace’s tool is the essence of their product, so they’re going to be able to pour a lot of resources and focus into it. However, I think the customizer is still a great strategic move for 2 reasons:

    1. As you mentioned, developers can take it in a million directions. It is still in its infancy, but on top of this real-time previewer we can start to see lots of interesting potential. Think frontend post editing, CSS editing, etc.
    2. Whatever direction things go for #1, I still hold that this is a neutralization on the part of WordPress. It’s not meant to beat Squarespace’s tools outright. Instead, WordPress is providing an answer to the user saying “Hey, I can change my site really easily with Squarespace!“. Being able to say “You can do that with WordPress, too” is crucial, even when Squarespace does it better. Unless Squarespace does it dramatically better (making WordPress seem obsolete), WordPress has neutralized that feature.

    As far as incorporating it into your existing themes, I hadn’t really thought of how much work it would take. I can see it being a big pain. It just so happens that our options framework fit nicely into the customizer. We were working on our own frontend customizer before we heard about core’s changes, so naturally we were excited and ready to integrate with the 3.4 changes.

    Thanks again for stopping by. I look forward to your next shows!

  15. Eric TF Bat

    I figure the Customizer will come into its own when it allows more than just very basic changes. I’d like to be able to set up a theme completely, right down to font choices, widgets, some way of applying different templates and so on, and have it all work just for me without breaking a live site. The Customizer looks like version 0.1 of that.

    Actually, one thing it needs is to work better with multiple domains. Sadly, the one plugin I can’t disable, WordPress MU Domain Mapping, doesn’t work with the Customizer unless the default domain for a site is the same as the domain for the whole WP installation. Someone’s making a foolish assumption somewhere, I guess. No doubt it’ll get fixed eventually and then the clock will begin ticking on the future Customizer version 1.0…

    Oh, and speaking of MU – I was very impressed with your Vigilance theme, but it won’t work with multiple sites. Why? Because headers have to be placed in a specific plugin directory. If you can change that, ideally by allowing headers to be handled by the Media Library, then all will be well. Just a heads-up, since as a non-payer I can’t submit bug reports any other way that I can see…

  16. Andy Adams

    You’re right, Eric – there’s a long way to go for the customizer. But I think you agree that it’s the first step in making WP themes easier to customize, and I think it’s a step in the right direction.

    As for Vigilance – that feature is absolutely being fixed up in a soon-to-come version of Vigilance. It was already on our todo list, but thank you for mentioning it!

  17. Chris Garner

    Great topic, Andy. One great point you make is about how the Themeforest theme developers are quick to brush aside any form of theme customization, even a move by WordPress to implement it natively. What these theme developers and most others are missing, is the fact that most end-users want to customize their themes without ever looking at or even knowing any coding.

    If you’re developing a one-off site for a client, the last thing the client wants to do is have to come back to the developer in order to add an image to a sidebar or modify the copyright statement in the footer. If the developer can bake that stuff right into the backend, that makes a big selling point for the client. Saving costs is always the clients #1 priority.

    In the same regard, I would put money on that same fact with Themeforest customers. I’m sure on Themeforest, customers see all the customization that is available to them in the theme and go with one that makes updating their sites easier. The guys from Please Advise are simply sitting around, slapping themes together to put up on Themeforest with no regard to how the end-user is planning on using the theme.

    The consensus by most developers is to make the theme great out of the box. No customization needed. In theory, that is a great idea. In a consumer world, that is the biggest mistake possible. Do you think every single person wants to wear white t-shirts and jeans? No, you offer them options. I want to wear a polo shirt and shorts. People want what they want. So basically, these developers are saying the theme is great out of the box … to them. Not everyone consumer is going to think so. I mean hey, I can think that my crap doesn’t stink too. The guy next to me may not.

    But what I find, sort of, hypocritical and quite funny about the whole theme options debate is; developers have been bashing theme options for a long time, yet when WordPress implements a “Customizer” natively, it’s a great thing. The hypocrisy in that is .. they serve the same exact purpose. Allowing the end-user to modify their theme.

  18. Andy Adams

    Hey Chris,

    I think you’re right about users wanting customization options. ThemeForest is a great example: look at the top selling all-time themes. They’re basically just toolkits for building your own theme.

    However, I’m not so keen on throwing everyone on ThemeForest under the bus. There are lots of high-quality developers on there, and I don’t think the Please Advise crew is slapping things together without regard for their customers, at all. I just think we have a differing opinion on where the customizer is headed and how valuable it is. For all I know, they may end up being right.

  19. Chris Garner

    I agree. I may have jumped the shark on the Please Advise crew. But have listened to this debate for so long now and it’s always just been very narrowly viewed. The reality of the whole debate is, it degrades the value of WordPress to a non-developer or someone not aware of it’s capability. If it’s ever going to be know to have the capability of being a fully-fledged CMS like EE or a custom Zend application, these discussions and very public speeches about this need to be more focused.

    I love developing with WordPress. At my job, if the client budget allows, we develop with EE. But when we have to sell WordPress as solution to the clients, the initial response from 9 out of 10 clients is “I don’t need a blog”. I just dream of a day when we don’t have to make a hard-sell in order to get the client on board with it. Shouldn’t be like that, because it’s a great, extensible application, much like Matt displayed on Saturday in the State of the Word with the mapping like setup.

  20. johanlm

    After reading the input/replies I kinda feel it is 2 different topics, but in a way still the same.
    To short it down I think we have 3 different categories here;
    1) The casual user
    2) The company
    3) The coder

    I think/feel the WP customizer should be directed to 1 aka the casual user, the blogger, the hobbeist. The other 2 will either pay for it or are fully capable of redoing/coding it ithout a customizer (and probably will even though it may be eaiser to use the customizer, coders are like that … ;) )

    When myPage is a good example of this, tons and tons of users and user friendly. People want to click and go but still have a easy way of making it “their own”.
    I done a WP for my mom and taught her the basics, she wants “her style on it”, but WP is to advanced to alter for her.
    My girlfriend (since +8 years, so basicly my wife, but we do not get into the whole marriage thingy …) I bought a html/CSS template on ThemeForest and redid the code so she could with easy redo aka copy/paste new pages for her needs.
    If WP would direct their focus on THEM and people like them, then I think WP is on the right track. Number 2 and 3 will manage regardless and most likely never even use it.
    I know I don’t.
    Im a company (2) man and buy the themes I like, and for personal use I rebuild (3) free sets or remake those I bought.

    Focus on the masses, not on the minorities that has either the knowledge or the money.

  21. Andy Adams

    Thanks for the reply johanlm.

    You’re right. The customizer is not for coders. It can be for companies, if they’re small enough and are on a tight budget. But essentially you’re correct – the customizer is targeted at casual end users. People who don’t know anything about code, but know they want a website.

    I’m the “computer guy” in my family, and everyone asks me if they have any website questions. Some of the people I know have tried various tools (such as Weebly) to build their own sites, and then ultimately gave up and turned it over to me. There is definitely a market for easy to use tools for people interested in building their own sites, and I think WordPress would be foolish to ignore this trend. The trend can be seen in many places:

    • Build-it-yourself tools such as Weebly or Squarespace
    • Prepackaged SAAS solutions such as Shopify
    • Highly customizable themes in WordPress

    The general direction is easy for the average user. I think WordPress is wise to keep pace here.

  22. Branson Werner

    Lol, I was the one who Tweeted the question about this for Please Advise.

    Its one of those elephants in the room and Im still suprised that it wasnt addressed much (until that point). Especially since theres going to be a crossroads when it comes to using Theme Customizer vs a custom options area (or a mix of both).

  23. Andy Adams

    Thanks for stopping by, Branson. And thanks for posing the question :). I think it’s a good one – and you’re absolutely right. There is a conflict arising between themes that build out their own customization tools vs. those who use what WordPress provides. It should be interesting!

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