It’s not about your theme

Lately I’ve stayed away from the theme review only because it can be such a negative feeling and a negative space. It’s not the people I interact with but rather those who feel like they have a solution for all the things.

I’m not saying I do and I don’t try to but what I do have is a feeling that things can only get worse.

Theme reviews have been great for my learning about WordPress as well as PHP. The last couple of weeks have been great in that we did manage to reduce the queue down by a lot and I mean a lot. We went from about 600 themes to 400. There were rules set in place and of course there will always be some sort of backlash whether it be from reviewers or authors. This time authors.

Okay, a lot of the time it’s authors.

I get it. I do. You want to share your creation with the world and the community. The thing many really forget is that you don’t have to have your listed in the repo for it to be shared.

Incentives

I’m for them but when it comes to certain things. I volunteer my time to conduct reviews and I don’t actually expect anything in return. Okay, that’s a bit of a lie because there is one thing I expect.

Gratitude.

The thing to remember is that I take time out of my day to look at code and pass on some knowledge when I can.

And it’s not a great feeling when you get back a slew of negativity and comments like it’s taking too long.

I’ll give an example.

Retail on Holidays

When I worked at Starbucks it would get crazy. We were one of the few places open. My last store we were open 24/7. You read that right. Rain, shine, local shoot-out, fire-next-door, gas line on fire down the street, we would be open. Okay a bit of an exaggeration but fairly true.

I recall one day we had not only a line in our lobby that was almost five feet out the door but we also had our drive-thru creating a circle around the building so as one new car would enter one would be leaving. This was Thanksgiving. This was Christmas week.

Every so often we would get one car that would chime-in with a solution:

You should limit to only one drink order per car.

Yes! Brilliant! This makes it so we only focus on one drink at a time. The thing is Starbucks standard is one drink at a time when you are on bar. Granted not always followed to the T but there is a great reason for that. Just ask any 5 year old partner and they will share knowledge with you.

Those holiday orders were always insane because a lot of the time it was 6 drinks for one car, 8 drinks for the next and the occasional food order with 4 sandwiches, a cake pop, and all the croissants in the store.  This of course creates a new set of obstacles if you weren’t used to that but seeing how as a barista you only should be focusing on making one drink at a time it can take a lot of time for one.

Setting a standard workflow does make it easier because you can then crank things out in an expected amount of time per drink or even per order.

The one drink at a time standard is so that every single cup of coffee, frappuccino, tea, or latte is not only to your needs but a quality drink as well.

Comparison

Okay. That’s great but what relevance does it have, right? See in the example above the barista is the theme author. You are the creator.

What happens when you start skipping steps, start making drinks out of order, or even forget to make them? The customer gets upset, you start holding up the queue of drinks and possible others along the way. Your customers suffer from this. So really your users suffer from this.

Much like baby steps: One at a time.

This needs to be your focus.

If you are a theme author, a theme shop, or just wanting to create for the sake of creating themes, you should have a workflow in place if you don’t already – specially if you are going to submit a theme to the WordPress.org repo.

One I suggest:

  • Design the theme
  • Design review of the theme
  • Begin coding the theme
  • Code review
    • Stress Cases
    • Who are you really coding for?
    • Testing Environment
  • Testing of the theme
    • Asking friends
    • Asking family
    • Reach out to community

Honestly, even having something in place is truly better than not. Asking for help is not a big deal in particular the testing of the theme. Reach out to your peers, reach out to companies, individuals. You would be amazed how much information you can actually get.

Don’t let your user suffer because you want to speed things up. I mean after all you don’t want to be giving out half empty cups of Gingerbread Lattes to an angry mother who is shopping for the last gaming console on one of the busiest weeks of the year, right?

One theme reviewers point of view

How to begin? Well, back in 2012 I took the plunge and began my first theme review. It was a great experience because I got a chance to not only learn something but give back as well. I was already looking at themes because I love design. I wanted a different theme for my site and wanted to learn how to create themes. Of course, at the time there was only one in-depth tutorial on creating WordPress themes.

I’ll skip ahead a little bit and get to the part that may be juicy for some. After some time I was able to assign my own themes to review. This was a different time. The capabilities have changed a little over time. The process has – to a degree – changed. Some parts for the better.

Now, what I’m going to share may startle a few and rattle a few cages, but I’m okay with that. Reason is because I know I’m not alone when I feel this way. The process has slowed down too much. What used to take a week is now months. It’s not that reviewers don’t have time, it’s not that we don’t have the people, or the know-how. A lot of it is because there is so much to look over.

Today, I began to think about what needs to be looked over by one person. Yes, one person does a review of one theme. Then an admin looks over and sets the theme live. This process is being worked on.

Now, as I said, I actually counted all the requirements that need be addressed before any theme can be made live. Let’s count them by the sections they are listed:

  • Code: 6
  • Core functionality/features: 11
  • Presentation/Functionality: 1
  • Docs: 1
  • Language: 4
  • Licensing: 4
  • Naming: 2
  • Options/Settings: 4
  • Plugins: 2
  • Screenshot: 2
  • Security/Privacy: 4
  • Selling/Credits/Links: 2
  • Styles/Scripts: 6
  • Templates: 4

Wow! That is a lot to look over, right? Looking at the core functionality and features is a daunting one. Eleven items! Eleven! Add them all together and you have fifty-seven requirements that a theme must meet in order to meet the standard and pass. Now, that does not include the accessibility audit if a theme has the accessibility-ready tag listed. Yes, that too has a few requirements that need to be addressed.

So you can kind of see why it can take some time to conduct a theme review.

The other part is the time frame. Theme reviewers give up to a week for the theme’s author to submit a revised version of the theme with all the fixes. Does it always happen? No. A lot of the non-approved themes are because they didn’t reply in time or didn’t submit it in time. It does happen.

The downside is that some will submit a revised version on the last day before the “deadline,” and the process can then be resumed. The reviewer will look over the changes and make note of any missing requirements. As you can see the time can add up. As that happens, new themes are being submitted and sort of left there without a review.

You can see how they can quickly add up. Currently the wait time to have a reviewer assigned is about seven weeks. You read it right. Seven.

One thing that may make it faster is closing a ticket if the theme does not meet half of the requirements. Okay, great but not all themes have that many issues, correct? It is possible but how many are there that do?

Or perhaps not approve the theme if it doesn’t meet all the security and core requirements? Makes more sense to do something like that, right? At least then we can focus a little more on teaching about better practices and posting on the make blog about theme development.

Don’t get me wrong, this hasn’t stopped me from reviewing themes at all and it won’t. I just wanted to share a different point of view on an ever-evolving process.

The case for no upsell

Today I ran into a bit of an internal debate. This is something that has driven me crazy for the longest time and this time I’m speaking about it.

Having an “upsell” theme in the WordPress theme repository. Quite frankly, I’m tired of it. Not only is it more code to look over but an inconvenience to the user. A commonality is the phrase:

This option available in PRO Version.

It does get linked to the site where they can purchase the theme. I don’t like it. Often times it is because that’s all the setting/control has. If I wanted to look at dummy controls I’d go to the toy store and just play with the toys and never purchase a thing. It is like window shopping for themes only with a banner over the window.
pro-versionAs you can see from the image, it is pointless to even have a pro version with nothing to control. I will never understand that. It is like having a car radio button that does nothing.

Yes, I made that comparison. It really is pointless.

I know there are some out there that may already be wanting to ask how to upsell the theme instead then. Simple. The theme’s about page.

Yes, themes can have them and should have them. What I don’t like is that there are several that link to just a demo site. What’s the point? Yes, I understand you want to demonstrate what the theme can do but what I’m more interested in is what the differences are between the free version and the premium/pro/ultra/supreme/deluxe version you are offering.

When I look to purchase a new camera I look for the information about the camera; I’ve already seen what it can do, I want to know more. What size sensor, what type of sensor, pixel density, lowest ISO, highest ISO, what accessories I can purchase for it, just to name a few.

So, if you are a theme shop in the WordPress theme repository, I urge you to drop all your upsell things that do nothing. You are hurting your users by subjecting them to unusable options.

My lack of creativity

This is a sore subject in the dot org world currently and it makes me laugh as I read all the comments. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, it was a decision to use the customizer as the basis of all theme options that are hosted in WordPress.org‘s free repo.

The reason I laugh is because the common arguments being made are that it kills creativity and innovation. Okay. How so? It restricts you from using certain things. I could see that. To a degree. The few elements I can think of are textarea boxes and the ever-so-loved image sliders ( I type this out as my eye twitches ). Those are great but do they really belong in the theme? A WordPress theme is used to present your information, your content, your cats, your images. It’s not meant to create this. That’s what plugins do so when you switch a theme you don’t lose that image of your cat dressed as the tenth doctor.

Let’s think about this for a second. What is creativity?

the ability to transcend traditional ideas, rules, patterns, relationships, or the like, and to create meaningful new ideas, forms, methods, interpretations, etc.; originality, progressiveness, or imagination:

http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/creativity

That’s the second definition from Dictionary.com and it almost hits the nail on the head. So what people are arguing, whining about is that the customizer makes it harder to be original, progressive or imaginative? I’m going to get some flak about this and I don’t care, but a fairly good example is US prisons. You tell me that a prison inmate can’t get a knife. I guarantee you they will find a way to get the job done. I mean most of us have seen Breaking Bad, right? We all know how Walt was very creative about his doings with limited resources.

Creativity is a phenomenon whereby something new and somehow valuable is formed.

A great example, right? At least I like to think so. Another one is a song by Fort Minor brilliantly titled, “Tools of the Trade.” Give it a quick listen and you’ll get a better understanding of how out of restriction can come something good.

I know, I know. Not many of you like the song but it does give you a better perspective of how creativity can be greatly influenced by restriction. Another great example is Ok Go’s The Writing’s on the Wall video:

The thing to remember is that this video is filmed in one entire shot. There are no special effects added. Just straight camera and optical illusions. You can’t tell me that isn’t creative. People have been doing these things for years. Even in photography. Double exposures, dodging, burning, cross-processing films. They may sound like simple examples but they are creative ways to enhance a photo.

The customizer can do just that for a user’s experience. You just have to be creative about it.

Forget your incentive

For some time the Theme Review team was doing fairly good when it came to keeping the ticket count down. Part of that was because those that got more reviews done for the month would get rewarded.

A reward?

Why yes. A reward for reviewing themes. A lot. I figured why not? Sounds like a great idea. Gamify theme reviews. Might work. Let the winner(s) choose a theme so it can be featured.

Here is where I think most people went wrong. They could feature their own. Don’t get me wrong I would almost fall into that category.

My initial thought was that the chosen theme would be one that was reviewed that month. Clearly it wasn’t the case. Many chose their own. Repeatedly. Over. And over again. Month, after month, after month and, you get the idea.

The issue

The biggest issue I noticed was that most were rushing the reviews. I am by no means the greatest reviewer on the team but do feel like I know my way around most frameworks now. At least I should by now. I say this only because I don’t always assign myself for a review. What I often do is actually look over what most people write, respond and change in some themes.

There are some things that are always missed. I admit I miss a few things as well. I feel bad when that happens but I am human. I don’t expect to catch every single error that one theme has let alone five.

Yeah, you read that right: five. There are some that will review multiple themes at once. I can’t do it. Part of that reason is the code from one theme will be on my mind as I look over another. Or I will forget what tab I’m in and put the wrong required issue on the wrong theme. It can get messy.

More trouble brewing

Those who chose their own themes I feel hurt the community.

Let me elaborate on that. In order to do that I have to really break things down a bit. I have to ask a few questions:

  • What is feature worthy?
  • What sets it apart?
  • Who designed it?

So, what makes a theme feature worthy? I feel that the design as well as the code have a huge impact on that. I’ve seen a few themes that use frameworks and often feel bloated.

A good example would be option frameworks that are included in a few themes. Often times they include so many files for such a simple thing like the ability to change text color. I feel that we should make decisions not give options. If they want to change it then they should be able to but it shouldn’t be expected. Just like I don’t expect to walk in to a restaurant and have the server ask me what kind of cup I would like to use for my water.

What would set themes apart then, right? If they all just followed the earlier rule then it would all be conformity and bland. Very uninspiring. But here is the kicker: creativity. What really sets a featured theme apart is in the creative way it leverages WordPress.

Twenty Fourteen is a fairly good example of what I mean. From the navigation used to the templates that are included the theme stands out more than the others. Looking through the code you can see both the complexity and simplicity of it all. Basic core template tags pushed and manipulated to create a symphony of design and code.

Do keep in mind that several people had input in the release of the theme.

So, a group of people working on a single theme should be featured? No, that’s not what I mean. To a certain extent there really is more than one person working on a theme. The developer/designer and the theme reviewer. Both are working together to get that theme approved and out to the world.

So what’s the beef?

The last month has brought on a few changes. The program has been put on hold until a decision has been made. Some people are upset, some are happy and I’m just thinking of a better way to review themes so that not only reviewers benefit but everybody does as well. I mean what good is contributing if it only benefits oneself? It would be like tickling a bear. Sure you can get him to laugh and you’ll laugh but in the end he will bite your head off. Okay, maybe not the greatest example but you get the idea.

I think what I find most troubling is that now that the program has been suspended many have stopped reviewing themes. Did we really need an incentive? Yes and no. Honestly is a little hard to justify either one I guess. I never really needed one; partially true.

My incentive: being a part of something bigger than myself.

Mistakes will happen

This is a bit of a touchy subject since I know I’ve done this before. After all I am only human.

What happened

Here is a bit of background information. The last two weeks I’ve only done a handful of theme reviews. I’m a little upset by it. Part of that reason is because I see some themes that have a lot of potential but are a little restricted by the guidelines. Granted those were already put in place long before I even started reviewing themes.

I know you’re probably going to say that I’m overreacting a little. Maybe I am. But with good reason. I hate being the bad guy.

Seriously

No, I really do. I hate to have to do my job and give people bad news. Apparently I’m really good at it since nearly all my co-workers ask me to break the news to everybody that our store is closed and they have to get out. Unfortunately when it has to be done, it has to be done.

Fast forward a little

The last two days I’ve been lucky enough to look over about four themes. Sad to say that only one of those actually met standards. The others weren’t so lucky. They had a few mistakes that were not seen the first time around.

Like I said, “I hate being the bad guy.”

I had to break the news to the developer that the theme didn’t meet the guidelines and as it stood the theme couldn’t be approved. Of course, the developer asked why now. I simply apologized and told him that mistake happen, sometimes code is overlooked.

Right then and there all I kept wondering was how were these things missed?

Seriously. How??

Flashback

I can recall my first review. I felt like I was going to screw it up so badly. Fear of failure got to me. I skimmed over the code, ran through the paces of how I felt the test should go and made a decision on whether or not to approve the theme. I was younger back then and not as wise. I admit it.

Honestly, it did feel a little daunting. Knowing that a theme I reviewed and approved would be used by thousands of people all over. How can you not fear that.

Now, what brings me to the point I want to make is the last 48 hours. In those hours I saw two themes that had custom post types being registered. I mean really?

Yes. Custom Post Type.

A huge reason to not approve a theme. It is generating content. Once the person changes themes they lose all those things. Why would a developer want to do this? Why, I ask you. Why?

So here is a quick break-down of what I often tend to find are missed:

  • Translation
  • Meta boxes
  • Post types
  • Favicons
  • Social links
  • License for bundled resources

Interesting list, right? Some of those things are simple to fix like the license issue. The others require a little more work if you already have a theme approved. In particular the post types. Yes, those include sliders, portfolio, gallery, items, shopping cart like things that are being registered by the theme. Things that are better suited for plugins. As for the meta boxes, that would depend on how they are being used but I do see one slip through from time to time.

So, if you are a theme developer think about these things when you submit your next theme or want to share it.