GutenTalks: Core Developer William Earnhardt

As we are counting down the days until the new Gutenberg editor will merge into WordPress core, users are eager to learn about how the editor will change the WordPress experience.

Core Developer William Earnhardt pens a letter sharing his thoughts on accessibility, favorite features about Gutenberg, and what he learned working behind the scenes on the new editor.


Gutenberg is coming our way and it’s bringing some great changes to the WordPress platform. I know there have been concerns about Gutenberg, but this project is pushing WordPress into the future. As a developer who has been fortunate enough to work behind the scenes on this project, I’m here to share my thoughts on the improvements that have been a labor of love for everyone involved. Let’s start with accessibility.

Across the web, accessibility has become a bigger concern than in years past. In tech and software fields and everything in between, it’s just overall a more discussed topic. Accessibility is more high profile and visible right now in the WordPress community due to the mixed feelings about the Gutenberg project. When accessibility topics came up with regard to Gutenberg, people who may not have normally been involved, have been more vocal.

The biggest talking point around Gutenberg is not about micro-level issues, but more so about the cognitive overload and the complexity of the new editor. It’s not one little thing that’s been deemed an issue by the community—it’s rather the entire interface potentially being overwhelming to comprehend for someone with a visual impairment.

As far as WordPress itself, Gutenberg provides lots of enhancements with regards to accessible content and considerations for those who have visual impairments or people using screen readers. These conversations have led to a renewed focus on accessibility. Automattic has assigned a full time developer to the project and WPCampus is seeking a professional accessibility audit on Gutenberg.

I previously worked for the University of North Carolina, and as a public university we were required to follow federal accessibility laws. We had to think about this when training users on how to do things such as add images to content in an accessible way, and which colors to use for contrast purposes. To have tools to help with this as part of Gutenberg is amazing and it’s a huge step forward that will help users on the front end. I’ve learned that there isn’t just a checkbox you can mark off with accessibility—there are so many different levels to it. Gutenberg will undoubtedly be better than the Classic Editor when all is said and done and there are big improvements in Gutenberg currently that didn’t exist before.


One of the great things about receiving so much feedback from the community is that it has helped us to continually improve Gutenberg.

Gutenberg will be the largest and most controversial update ever introduced into core. One thing that’s helped this merge be more successful is the increase of people being able to test it before it’s been live. No other updates have ever had this amount of installs—I believe Gutenberg has over 600,000 installs today. That additional user feedback has been immensely helpful in improving the user interface. The “Try Gutenberg,” messaging plus Bluehost auto installing Gutenberg for all new customers has dramatically increased the number of people testing the plugin. That feedback has helped us to identify where to focus our efforts before the 5.0 update.

As a core contributor hearing all the feedback over the past few months has impacted not only how I see my job, but my reaction to others. It’s important to make sure that people know their feedback is being heard. One complaint I have seen about Gutenberg, is people feeling like their concerns are not being listened to. But as someone working on it, it’s important to let people know we aren’t just making our own decisions, we are listening and we are working on things. Despite some of the  backlash, we always make sure user feedback was incorporated into Gutenberg, which has been evident by the frequent updates and changes.

I think if we remember that we all want to make WordPress better, it’ll make these growing pains a little easier.

We have done our best to make this a smooth transition for users, but we could have probably done a better job of integrating the accessibility team and the public into the feedback loop. We repeatedly analyzed feedback, made changes, and released updates in a continuous loop that has been in progress for two years now, but there could have been a tighter connection between the accessibility team and the developer team throughout. While this has been challenging at times, it’s strengthened my understanding and knowledge of Gutenberg and the community.

For users looking to help with the project, documentation is a great way to start without having any technical knowledge. We don’t have the best user documentation and there is a huge push for that — there are several people leading that charge to make sure there is good documentation before 5.0 is live.

As I’ve gotten to work with Gutenberg more over the past few months there have been a few features that excite me both as a user and a developer. The Slash inserter is awesome to me because I prefer to use the keyboard alone. Also, I’m not fond of shortcodes because they aren’t really HTML and also not content— it’s not a great user experience. And then when you start nesting shortcodes, they just turn into a soup of characters that is difficult to read. Now, in Gutenberg, to be able to visually SEE the changes you are putting in is really nice and it makes for an inspiring experience. We will see more of that as more plugins build more advanced blocks.

PRO TIP

/ + typing the block name that you want is a great trick for those who only like using the keyboard. 

If I could give any piece of advice to a new or advanced user about Gutenberg, here’s what I suggest:

Try to learn the basics of the interface first because once you understand the concept of the block and the simple interface elements like the block inserter and the / shortcuts, the rest of it will come really naturally. For advanced users who are likely coming from the classic editor, the basics can still be beneficial to help set a good foundation for efficiency going forward.

My observation has been that people who are experiencing WordPress for the first time are having an easier time with Gutenberg than those who have previously worked with the classic editor.  A lot is changing, but I think once people learn their new workflows, it will be much smoother for them.

I have enjoyed working on Gutenberg because I am excited about it being part of core. I know it’s going to be a great thing and I look forward to working on Phase 2 next year. Most of my work on Gutenberg so far has been around Rest API interactions, but I am excited to get more deeply involved with JavaScript development. I can’t wait to see what users and developers create with Gutenberg once it’s ready.

It is truly a joy and an honor to contribute to a project that is so meaningful to so many people. The WordPress community is amazing and I’m thankful to be a part of it.

William Earnhardt

 

William works for Bluehost as a WordPress core contributor. He’s been working with WordPress for over a decade in many forms—as a freelancer, for an international non-profit, in the enterprise, and in higher education. 

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