A Theory of Technology Adoption in the WordPress Project

WordPress 5.0 was launched on Dec 6, 2018, and the release was the project’s first step toward creating a streamlined site editing experience with blocks (GutenbergGutenberg The Gutenberg project is the new Editor Interface for WordPress. The editor improves the process and experience of creating new content, making writing rich content much simpler. It uses ‘blocks’ to add richness rather than shortcodes, custom HTML etc. https://wordpress.org/gutenberg/). The year that followed was considered an iterative year for the folks actively building the software. During 2019, WordPress contributors from all teams and companies appeared at every event or podcast we could find and contributed to any newsletter or industry group that would give us a publication date. Partially because we were battling some strong resistance to blocks as a concept and partially because we were in the middle of a key part of technological adoption. Now, after WordPress 5.9, we are finding ourselves in a similar time of post-merge adoption.

There’s an entire field of study about adopting new technologies, which I did not study, but I did study WordPress’ big technological changes. I talked about this constantly at WordCamps in 2018-19, but I’ve never documented it for the public, so I figure it’s time to get it in writing for everyone.

A Few Basic Assumptions

If you’re new to WordPress, everything below will make more sense if you’re aware of the four phases of Gutenberg and the definitions of groups in our community from the Care and Influence post. With those coreCore Core is the set of software required to run WordPress. The Core Development Team builds WordPress. audiences in mind, the following assumptions guide my theory:

  1. Users/clients are the ones that will ultimately drive the adoption of Gutenberg, because consumers always drive technological adoption. Those of us who build our businesses on WordPress (Extenders, theme/pluginPlugin A plugin is a piece of software containing a group of functions that can be added to a WordPress website. They can extend functionality or add new features to your WordPress websites. WordPress plugins are written in the PHP programming language and integrate seamlessly with WordPress. These can be free in the WordPress.org Plugin Directory https://wordpress.org/plugins/ or can be cost-based plugin from a third-party developers, agencies) will be more inclined to learn how to build with Gutenberg if our clients make it clear that they want to use it. 
  2. Phase 1 of Gutenberg can be considered a proof of concept that offered Extenders a plausible promise. Outreach during Phase 1’s iterative cycle focused on extenders because we needed to bring them with us—to learn, iterate, and improve—which is something we learned from other open sourceOpen Source Open Source denotes software for which the original source code is made freely available and may be redistributed and modified. Open Source **must be** delivered via a licensing model, see GPL. projects like ours.
  3. Phase 2 of Gutenberg delivers on the plausible promise of Phase 1. Outreach during Phase 2’s iterative cycle will focus on users/clients because unless they are willing and able to use it, they will not ask for it from the Extenders.

Calestous Juma notably said, “Many of the dominant technologies that we take for granted have weathered moments of social tension and threats of succession.” That has certainly been true for WordPress. 

WordPress and its community are both deeply and broadly connected. This makes us incredibly resilient (a real blessing during this pandemic), and sometimes can make us unnecessarily rigid (a common thing in open source). However, as counterintuitive as it is, resistance to change can also motivate; within that tension lies an opportunity to build trust and take more people with us on the journey.

The Three Parts of Technology Adoption in WP

As we head into the iterative part of Gutenberg’s phase 2, there are a few things that we should be aware of that will motivate or inspire our community of users to take a fresh look at the WordPress editor. In my observation, that breaks down into three parts.

  • Apparent usefulness (to the extender) – aka, what does this do for me? And if “nothing,” then what does it do for my clients?
    1. Does it allow me to do things I couldn’t do before?
    2. Does it solve an unsolvable problem?

By making WordPress’ learning curve less steep, we make WordPress less intimidating to noncoders. In turn, Gutenberg offers additional opportunities for Extenders to create products that address their needs as well as their clients’ needs. Extenders are already part of the WordPress ecosystem and highlighting the early explorations of enthusiasts/early adopters could inspire others to follow suit. For instance, the release of the first default blockBlock Block is the abstract term used to describe units of markup that, composed together, form the content or layout of a webpage using the WordPress editor. The idea combines concepts of what in the past may have achieved with shortcodes, custom HTML, and embed discovery into a single consistent API and user experience. theme, Twenty Twenty-Two, in WordPress 5.9 made it easier to see blocks in action, making riffing on them more appealing.

  • Apparent ease of use (to the extender and user) – aka, is the difficulty ≤ the current technology? And if >, then do the benefits to the user balance it out?
    1. Does it make my work easier?
    2. Does it make my work more fun?

WordPress is not easier for quick publishing than Instagram or TikTok, but it is the easiest of all the hard options, especially when looking at the long term benefits to those who use it. As we flatten the administrative experience of a WordPress site, we have to find where the balance of blocks now lies. Does a little extra code by an agency result in more autonomy for the client? Does having a true WYSIWYGWhat You See Is What You Get What You See Is What You Get. Most commonly used in relation to editors, where changes made in edit mode reflect exactly as they will translate to the published page. experience for the client result in decreased techno fear and increased techno joy (<– This is Eddie Izzard, watch at your own discretion)? Every experience of ease or delight for a user is worth noting and celebrating!

  • Apparent trustworthiness (social proof/social sentiment) – aka, do my trusted friends trust this thing? And if “no”, then does that mean I can’t either?
    1. Do the WordPress wonks like it?
    2. Do my business colleagues use it and like it?

With more data and information available to us than ever before, most of us rely on the judgment of those whose opinions we value to help guide our decisions. This is true for technology as well as things like meal delivery services, electric toothbrushes, or the next book you’ll read. We experienced the effects of social proof not being on our side early on in the Gutenberg project, and turned that around through substantial after-the-fact efforts from contributors all over the WordPress project. There is enormous potential to proactively reach audiences who are either unaware of WordPress or have been holding off trying the new editor for whatever reason.

So now what?

For many of us, this post will finally be putting words and concepts to processes that you’ve been participating in already. If that’s you, there’s nothing to change about what you’re doing, but I hope this gives you some insight into why you’re doing it. 

For some, this post reminds us of everything you have already gone through and learned during the Phase 1 merge and iteration cycles. If that’s you, I want to thank you for making this work easier for everyone coming after you. As with anything in WordPress and open source, we are all standing on the shoulders of giants and today you are those giants.

For everyone, it’s wonderful to witness the work that you all have done, and continue to do, to make sure that we are meeting people where they are while also urging them forward. It is unusual, in my experience, to see people who strive to make things better while also being able to acknowledge how far forward their work has brought us. If that’s you, let me clearly acknowledge the powerful impact your work with WordPress has:

The work you’ve done here is empowering people across the world. It enables positive changes for people whom you will never meet, but whose lives will be changed forever. You are providing knowledge and access to people who have felt shut out of this arcane mystery of “the web” for as long as they can remember. And on behalf of all of those good people in the world, I will say thank you. 🙂