Insights While Designing My Very First WordPress Theme

Designers and developers have their own sets skill sets and are often presented as head butting with each other over essential feature and functionalities – this stems from the inherent difference in how a designer and an engineer tackles the problem. Currently, the scenario of UX design and new product development in India is such that there is limited to no collaboration between the two groups involved in these tasks!

It can be a frustrating experience knowing that both groups’ concerns are valid yet there is such disparity in how the challenges of implementing a new product are handled. Having worked on several projects of varying size and scope throughout my professional career – I have had some experience on such issues arising and it made the projects’ execution phase a time to skilfully navigate through the process to manage time, and gauge working patterns of all stakeholders involved to create workflows that bypass such communication gaps – saving the client’s, designer’s and developer’s time.

Often the demands of a project have been such that this method had to be revised and tailored to support the development process via several iterations and over many projects. Gradually I was able to develop a standard framework which served me well in my previous role as a design manager. The framework ensures a meaningful transition of deliverables and specifications from the designer to the developers. But where it lacked was in the inherent understanding of what developers look for when the deliverables are handed over and how developers align their work process to bring a designer’s vision to fruition. So, it is fitting that this insight was only gained when I broke out of my own comfort zone and went back to basics.

One of the first tasks assigned to me in my new role was to design a WordPress theme as a viable product – something I had never thought or worked on even though I used a WordPress site myself!

Now, the challenge of such a task is to understand how a WordPress theme works in a product environment and how does it cater to audiences looking for such a product. A WordPress theme essentially has to create magic for users who can envision such behaviours and interactions but have limitations when it comes to actually adapting those visions for the digital devices.

I started to piece together what users perceived as problem when using a WordPress theme or how the same themes were faring when compared to other competitive platforms like Wix, Cargo Collective, Shopify, Medium and so on.

What I did get was a schooling on how immensely a BtoC product’s life cycle differs from a BtoB product’s! I had mostly worked on BtoB products so far in my professional career and always relied on the client’s business objectives as the criteria for measuring how effectively the product I was designing worked. But, taking up the task of designing a WordPress theme left me lost – It is easy to get lost in the vast array of user requirements! But the flexibility of bringing in my vision and ideas on what a WordPress theme should be doing for its customer lead me to zero in on a context I knew well – a WordPress theme for designers and creative professionals.

The last couple of months have been a learning experience when it comes to the understanding of a web product. Apart from the obvious adjustments I had to make to adapt my designs to fit into the set framework of developing a web product – there were many little learnings throughout the development process that have enriched my experience in my new role. These insights have given me a new point of view to look at the standard rules of User Experience and Interaction design by looking at them through the glasses of a web product’s development process.

1. You can not ‘build’ in isolation

– from learning about bootstrapping, the web as a volatile but ubiquitous product environment, and focussing more on possible worst case scenarios – regular interactions with developers has helped me broaden my view of what it takes to design for consumers. Designers tend to design in their own silos of skill set and observational learnings. Agreed, that the unique point of view a designer has is what make a product engaging and compelling but the steadfastness of a developer is what makes the product ‘work’! Often we get lost in the trap of creating a product that is simple and usable while losing track of how can it can be actually built to bear fruits of the designer’s vision. That is when an engineer’s point of view helps. There is benefit of having designers and development teams sit next to each other. There is constant flow of feedback and both designers and developers accordingly iterate and modify their roadmap as and when challenge arise. All incoming feedback is shared ensuring both parties have sufficient data points when debating new features and upgrades.

2. Mobile mobile mobile

Most of the time I work on desktops and so do the developers. I enjoy working on a bigger screen as it allows me to play and explore the possibilities of composing a screen that balances playful engagement and effective task completion. So for me, to think that mobile is the medium that majority of users will operate from isn’t a natural thought – till about a couple of years back. But now, having designed for a web product that not only should but essentially has to exist and accomplish while running on various devices – it is key that I admit that my point of view shifted from looking as designing for mobiles as an ‘optimisation’ task to the ‘primary’ task. It has taken a lot of unlearning and relearning for me to adapt to the thought of mobile first. Any new project I take up, whether its a BtoC web product or a BtoB digital device – has to be thought for mobile and tablet just as much as for desktop, in the face of the changing usage pattern amongst users. In short, technology helps and it is key to design with an approach thats inclusive – not just towards device and technology but towards the ever changing and evolving behaviour of our users.

3. There are adjustments till the end and beyond

We often assume that communicating something once is enough to make the point. However a learning with designing a WordPress theme has been that I had to recreate the importance of an approach repeatedly. Clubbed with the previous point, the constant back and forth of possible use case scenarios and user requirements with the developers lead to a better understanding of how the product can go beyond its requirements and bring in groups I was not even considering! As a designer – User Centred Approach to tackling a design challenge has been my credo – it did however make me loose sight of possible users who feel outside the user groups in my affinity diagrams. Designing a BtoC product and that too a web product to top it shook the very core of that approach. And to chart these uncharted territory, developers have been my biggest help. Looking at it from the objective point of view of how we will use technology to make a vision possible lead to an implementation phase that kind of walked the fine line between a user centered approach and an activity entered approach – making the intended size of audience for my design larger and in turn affecting more consumers. So, I’d say in the end it’s a challenging way to take on a problem but ensures a win-win-win product.

4. Fill the gap 

A look into the world of fronted development has more than ever affirmed my position on how designers need to take up their understanding of technology up a notch to keep up with the changing media our clients and consumers are used to. Often there is such a stark gap between having a vision and the idea of how that vision is going to become reality. In ripe fields like industrial design, designers themselves are trained and have the know how of their design’s functioning and thus can create clear specifications for engineers. Interaction design education however is still quite nascent in India, and designers are going to have a touch time of they keep fighting against the grain. I personally think that people who are skilled at frontend development and design can prove to be a huge asset to their companies and are in a great position to help bridge the divide between the design and implementation. Such a skill set is the clay that magically wraps and establishes the existence of an interaction designer’s intangible ideas.

Designing a theme can take a lot of time, and it is based on a lot of learning – both ongoing and more that is about to come. Hopefully, some of these insights will help you refine your workflow and your approach towards taking up this task, saving you time and making you more efficient. Any design insights you have gained working on web products and closely with developers that has expanded your knowledge and skills? We’d love to hear about them in the comments!