Gutenberg doesn't disrupt WordPress
Gutenberg isn’t a breakthrough innovation that made WordPress better. It’s a disruptive innovation making WordPress more affordable and accessible. — Mark Uraine, “Disrupting WordPress”
A couple weeks ago I read Mark Uraine’s writeup about the disruptive role Gutenberg — the new block-based editor (and system of editor-extensibility) — performs for WordPress, the open-source juggernaut powering a third of the web. It nails why the WordPress community has been so hyped (and it’s in a language I speak):
Why would anyone want to change this? The short answer is expressed best in the quote, “If you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance even less.” Software must evolve or it becomes archaic and dies. This bring us to the concept of disruptive innovation, originally conceived by Clayton Christensen. Disruptive innovation describes the process when a more simplified product or service begins to take root in an industry and advances up the market because of its ease of use and/or less expensive entry point. … The great companies plan for this. In fact they make efforts to self-disrupt, or innovate in ways that cause their own service or product to be disrupted. … WordPress has reached this intersection.
— and for many folks, Gutenberg represents that self-disruption. It is a shot of espresso. A spurt of vitality intended to make the sluggish, successful ol’ man spry. It’s a little bit of good magic that wards off the heebie jeebies.
I think Mark’s is the best argument for Gutenberg there is.
I’m also not convinced. I want to use “Disrupting WordPress” as an opportunity to demonstrate how to think about innovation, so I am going to start by putting the kibosh on the idea that Gutenberg is the saving grace the community around it thinks.
Is Gutenberg disruptive? No - at least not like that.
Product is a window
Clay Christensen’s disruptive innovation is key to the point I want to make, and that is that we should be skeptical about the consensus assumption that what has to change about WordPress is the way content is created.
I phrase it like this because Gutenberg really is more than a UI: it represents a fairly different content model beyond just how pieces of content are chunked together by end-users, but how that content is treated in the database, and how developers interface with all that new tissue. Moreover, the ad hoc governance that has organized around Gutenberg to help ensure its inclusivity and accessibility is functionally of greater importance than the Gutenberg codebase altogether.
It makes sense that because there are plenty of usability studies betraying WordPress’s ease-of-use as a myth, that we-the-community target these usability problems with our innova-sers. Ease-of-use is a killer differentiator when you choose one product over another - but usability is flavor, not sustenance.
Disruption requires identifying a misalignment between a person’s core job-to-be-done and the service they’re provided.
The secret to winning the innovation game lies in understanding what causes customers to make choices that help them achieve progress on something they are struggling with in their lives. To get to the right answers, Christensen says, executives should be asking: What job would consumers want to hire a product to do? — Interview by Dina Gerdeman with Clay Christensen
The product — and the features of the product — don’t fundamentally matter unless the user needs something that you can provide them.
Is the WordPress user’s core job to be done to have a usable content-creation experience? No. It’s not even to create content in the first place. Rather, the core job of the WordPress user is to — for example — provide candle-junkies like me with candles, and make a living from it. “WordPress” isn’t really part of that function. It just happens to be the means to an end. The interface, the content, even WordPress itself are ephemeral. While easing the work involved in creating content improves a holistic user experience, it’s not enough.
The reason Squarespace (et al.) has room to succeed in an internet dominated by WordPress is not because it has a better page-builder, it’s because for some users it is easier to envision their end goal met on the far-side of the Squarespace gauntlet. By looking at Squarespace, they can “see” their next candle-funded beach vacation.
Product is a window.
Broad applicability is a marketing challenge
Listen closely to the ubiquitous Squarespace ads on any podast. Right (!), they mention ease of page-building - but they underscore the reason why such ease is valuable: so you can be done with that page-building shit and continue on with your remarkable life.
The job-to-be-done is “to have a successful business.” Squarespace provides the service of getting you there faster with an easy page-builder. The page-builder is the how, and the ease is the differentiator - the cherry on top. People don’t choose the cherry, though. The Squarespace business model depends on how well they can match the job people have to the service they provide.
WordPress has been successful precisely because its service aligns well with gajillions of jobs. This I think compounds the difficulty the WordPress community has in communicating meaningfully granular services that are afforded to alternatives. Specificity helps evangelism.
Rather than 1 job to address (“you need to become a dope ass participant in the blogosphere?”) there are 30 million — the difficulty of communicating that job/service alignment at scale is a real obstacle.
It is easy to imagine and vouch for WordPress’s wide servicability, but it’s hard to communicate to the individual who is choosing between it and Squarespace.
Product is a window, and users’ vision through the WordPress window is a little obscured.
This is, in part, why the ecosystem of professional WordPress development companies thrives: these companies, like Ninja Forms, identify a niche of jobs-to-be-done and serve them specifically.
Tangent: seeing Ninja Forms in terms of job/service alignment
To go on a brief tangent, the job Ninja Forms serves isn’t really the demonstrable need to manage web forms. They are facilitating people’s need to control how their users connect with them. Forms, and — specifically — forms through WordPress are choices about how and to what niche to provide that service.
Consider then how WordPress isn’t spiritually part of the job/service alignment between the job-to-be-done of the Ninja Form user and the service provided by that team. They’re not really married to that platform, they just have a good working relationship. WordPress is an important technical constraint, but it’s a means to an end. It’s ephemeral.
The WordPress community’s research problem
By increasing WordPress’s extensibility through new APIs, even by adding new hot-right-now features into Gutenberg, the WP core team are addressing the jobs-to-be-done of those professional WordPress developers more directly than any WordPress end user - who I’m arguing doesn’t really care about the ease of use of the editor (they care insofar that the editor doesn’t get in their way).
And why is that? Well, I think it’s because developers are WordPress’s strongest feedback loop.
Mark Uraine even made a comment about how usability studies revealed pain points in WordPress’s editor, but I haven’t been convinced otherwise that the WordPress core decision makers have anything other than usability studies about existing features.
Usability studies reveal touchpoints in a user journey that need to be addressed. A tree needs to be moved off the sidewalk, or a pothole needs to be filled. But usability studies don’t question whether the user should be on this path in the first place.
Disruption, after all, is born from Insight. Insight is the byproduct of strong research, particularly around users’ jobs-to-be-done, and I just don’t think the WordPress community has any of that.
If they did, I frankly think folks would be less hyped about Gutenberg.
Gutenberg is fine. The work there is about addressing the need to reduce in WordPress the number of steps between the user and their published content. That’s the right move to support a status quo.
It’s not disruptive. It disrupts nothing. It improves existing.
This past year has seen remarkable and laudable collaboration around governance and accessibility in WordPress, which are the right foci that address real problems around the community, its users, and inclusivity. The next WordPress community movement should be around establishing a strong research program that can provide the research-derived Insight necessary for WordPress’s future.
Without sufficient qualitative research, don’t expect WordPress to self-disrupt any time soon.
Liking (❤) this issue of Metric helps signal to the great algorithms in the sky that this writeup is worth your time. Please take the time. If you haven’t already, please subscribe.
Metric is a podcast, too, which includes audio versions of these writeups and other chats. Subscribe to Metric on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify, Stitcher, and all the usual places.
Remember that the user experience is a metric.
— Michael (@schoeyfield)