Recently, Tom McFarlin brought the idea of innovating WordPress themes to center stage.
I always find his posts thought-provoking and I felt this one in particular warranted a blog post of my own. Sorry for not leaving you the comment love, Tom.
The following isn’t intended to debunk his idea of innovation or why we should or shouldn’t be thinking about it. What I’m about to discuss here is something that, as a product developer, I bake into the philosophy behind our product line at Slocum Themes.
For better or for worse, a lot of this stems from my time growing up in the auto industry and living within that culture for the first 26 years of my life. It’s the values that I learned from being in that business which have brought me to where I am today.
When innovation hurts
Put aside for a moment that design is subjective.
It’s easy to look across the WordPress theme landscape and shout, “All of this shit looks the same!” Sure, rummaging through 1 content column combined with a sidebar and traditional header after the other and the record player feels like it’s on repeat.
I get it, and I won’t argue, there’s a lot of the same crap out there. I won’t even get into wether or not these are intentional rip-offs or just dumb luck, though I have an eerie feeling it’s more of the former.
So what are we left to do? Innovate of course.
Cavemen, weights, and themes
Let’s hop in our time machine and go back to the cavemen and cavewomen that wanted to get stronger, but didn’t have P90X in their lives. What did they do to strengthen their biceps? Lifted rocks!
Man would collect round rocks that he could curl multiple times in a repetitious exercise. Feeling the pump and getting stronger to hunt for the day. The stronger he wanted to get, the larger the rock he could seek out. Soon, rocks were getting too big to hold in one hand to continue pushing the limits of their weight training.
Another fault of rocks was, they weren’t perfectly round and they came in all shapes and sizes. Anything more than 25-30lb and Man couldn’t curl the stone properly because of his natural movement and awkwardness of the stone. Nevermind trying to hold two in both hands. What are they to do?
Some years later, the Ancient Greeks came along and solved the problem by placing holes in the stones. They called them Halteres. This allowed man to hold the stone and properly flex to perform the exercise. Brilliant, but there’s just one more problem. The stones are getting even bigger in size to make up for the weight difference. Back to the innovation drawing board.
Lets hop into our time machine and fast forward to 1865 where a man named George Barker Windship was creating the modern day barbell/dumbbell as we know it. Finally, a device that you can easily hold in your hand and adjust the usability of. No longer do we have to quarry for rock or chisel out rough edges so our hands don’t bleed. We simply apply the needed weights, tighten the ends, and voila we have our own home gym. Now to the crux of the situation, rapid innovation.
This is the part of the story that I want to equate to WordPress themes (and other products) because Windship’s product eventually become a commodity due to market demand and amount of available inventory.
Sinking the dumbbell
The adjustable dumbbell is probably the most popular of innovative dumbbells. For anyone wanting their own home gym without the clutter of a rack of weights, it makes perfect sense. One set of ‘bells to rule them all. The problem with this innovation is, there are now a lot of weak links within the product. The dial could break or you could lose the indiviudal weights. There’s also a distrupt in the user experience. You can’t just drop the weight down and pick up another set to ramp up — you must pause and adjust — before kicking back into beastmode.
Then we’ve got dumbbels that aren’t even dumbbells anymore. They are weighted sticks that are severely limited in their purpose to grow your biceps.
Where the wheels really start falling off is when we see products like AquaBells, dumbbells you fill with water. I don’t even have words for this.
And lastly, the most famous of innovative weights is the ShakeWeight. Simply hold the weight up (or not) and it will get the pump on for you. Man’s innovation to solve the dumbbell problem and lazy fat ass problem too. Amazing.
Sinking the WordPress theme
Naturally, we see the same problem of innovation in WordPress themes too.
Themes that are coming equipped with every feature under the sun and every option for the end-user to help them (allegedly) build their website. But you and I know that is not the case. When it comes to WordPress software a majority of the users simply want to publish content and don’t have time to learn how to use a content management system let alone “do WordPress the right way.”
What is the right way? Shouldn’t it do it for us?
Here’s a screenshot of a theme that recently had it’s marketing e-mail land in my inbox:
I know that 80% of my customers brain’s would melt trying to navigate that screen and from a product developer stand point, I would never want to support this or force my user into thinking what to do with the product. (Perhaps they don’t either and that’s a story for another thread.)
The point here: innovation can take us down a slippery slope. Looking back to see what Man did to weights over time, there’s evidence that often we over engineer things. I’m scared to see a lot of that trickling into digital products as well.
There’s nothing wrong with a well-built theme without the frills.
I just want it to fucking work
When I worked at my family’s Chevrolet dealership, I sold a lot of trucks. Incase you didn’t know, trucks are the highest selling vehicle unit in America. Ford, dominates with the F-150 and then Chevrolet with their trophy, The Silverado.
With every new model year, we would see new innovation. Trucks that could tow more or the increased horse power and cabin space. Materials that wouldn’t scratch your pickup’s bed or HD exterior lighting so you could work at night. My favroite line was talking about how GM hydro-formed truck frames. “These frames weren’t welded to leave weak links, the engineers used a new method for bending steel through high-pressured water jets. It’s the strongest frame on the market.” I loved that line.
When a customer was buying a truck, a majority of them anyway, wanted it for work. They relied on their truck to not only get them to the job site, but as something that worked for them as well. Customers were very loyal to their truck’s brands because of this. Even if their new Chevy didn’t have the power of the Ford or the fresh new looks of the Toyota, they bought it anyway. They had a proven track record of reliability and they trusted our service department when there was an issue.
At the end of the day, they just needed it to fucking work. No bells, no whistles, no flashy chrome spinning wheels. They needed a product that got it done with a team to back them up.
Innovating the approach and not the product
Our themes at Slocum Themes are not groundbreaking in terms of their feature set or design. The layouts are very traditional and tend to steer clear of modern trendy design. We try, as best we can, to leave out the kitchen sink even though sometimes we get struck by shiny object syndrome. If I could relate it to our dumbbell story, we’re of the traditional dumbbell type. You’re not getting a basic rock to workout with, but your also not getting a product that requires D batteries to operate.
I’m of the mindset that our clients don’t want a theme with 1,000 options either, but a theme that solves their current problem and a team that can back it up when they need support.
So while themes become more of a commodity, I choose to innovate around them versus in them. Sure we’ll be launching themes with new features compared to old, but each embodies an intent or purpose for the client or situation it’s intended to solve.
At the end of he day, a rock can still get the job done for you, but you’re just fooling yourself if you think that the automated dumbbell is getting you anywhere. I encourage us all to build product that can stand the test of time.