Between clouds and mud

If there’s one thing I’ve learned during the last year or so working on WordPress core it’s this: it is very difficult for fast-moving open source community projects that live almost entirely on code-centric platforms to be led by design.

I kind of knew this from when I was more focussed on WooCommerce. But the difference with WordPress is that we do not own the project, so it’s not possible to make decisions unilaterally – the community must be involved every step along the way.

Workflows mostly revolve around reported issues on github, so solutions are reactive, and tend to be narrowly focussed and technically motivated. This feels like an inevitable progression because reviewing and benchmarking code is generally easier than judging design. It is clear whether a code submission is an enhancement or not, so the community is able to find consensus relatively quickly. Design is less binary, and more subjective. (This is a little hyperbolic, but hopefully you get the point).

My colleague David Levin has a funny metaphor for describing how it feels to work in this environment as a designer:

“Sometimes it feels like you’re trying to design the plane while it’s already in flight”. 

As someone who often finds himself drawn to macro UX design, I like to find solutions that can be applied canonically to several related issues… basically the DRY principle applied to design. Consequently, I will end up sharing the same principle across multiple siloed conversations, which can be exhausting.

But without that exhausting repetition we risk implementing different UI patterns that all accomplish roughly the same thing, to the detriment of the overall end user experience. Not to mention the bloat added to the design system.

Continuing the plane metaphor – an aircraft with jets on one wing and propellors on the other may still fly, but it won’t as easy to pilot as an all-jet or all-prop configuration.

To the annoyance of Shaun Andrews who coined the term, our team affectionately refers to this challenge of high-level thinking and low-level acting as “clouds and mud”. It sounds cliché, but it summarises the mental exercises designers working in this space have to do.

Innovate in the clouds

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

The alleged Henry Ford quote is extreme, but there is a grain of wisdom there, I think. It can be difficult to truly innovate when the status quo is reactive, microscopic problem solving. It’s all too easy to get distracted by the worms and the weeds.

Perhaps we can entertain something between these two extremes? A “first principles thinking” process whereby related issues are grouped and examined together in order to explore holistic design solutions for the root problem, thereby solving the group through extrapolation.

Stepping even further back perhaps new features should not be built at all, until there is consensus around a documented design vision? These visions should be explored in the clouds, where we have a bigger field of view and more freedom of movement and expression.

Reflecting on the last year, this has been the biggest challenge for me. This week I begin a three month Sabbatical and I hope that time out of the trenches will enable me to find some actionable ideas around topic.

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