The Typical WordPress User

Over the last few years, I’ve provided a lot of support for WordPress users, so the low opinion many in our community have about the “typical WordPress user” is not shocking.  Having the privilege of attending WordCamp US and the WordPress community summit was a highlight of my year, and I had a great time but a few things about the experience were very disappointing.

The biggest disappointment was hearing so many people put down the intelligence of WordPress users.

There is a lot of disagreement on what a typical WordPress user is and what they can do. I witnessed and participated in some really serious disagreements about what a typical WordPress user can and can’t do. Whether they can use FTP, click 3 inputs in cPanel to update PHP, are a total moron, etc.

Too often this discussion becomes condescending towards the regular folks who make up the huge adoption numbers we see, and buy the products and services that make it possible for all of us to make a living.

This dismissive view of users is worse than the coffee was at WordCamp US. It’s fine to be a coffee snob, it’s not OK to look down at other for knowing less about WordPress and the related technologies than we do.

I’m OK with not budgeting for enough high-end coffee to keep 1800 of us awake. Remembering to bring my travel french press, which I did not, was my responsibility.

Coffee is a personal responsibility, but learning how to better know and empower our users — that is community responsibility. It’s worth the time, money and effort to do it right.

It’s an important discussion to have, but at the same time the argument has a logical flaw — the “typical WordPress user” is an undefinably large number of people. Even if we could define the total number of users, and calculate the mean technical ability set, the number of users within a reasonable range of that impossible to calculate value would be huge. The number who fall outside of it, but can’t be ignored, is also huge.

As much as I believe in the importance of good coffee, I believe that trying to define or design towards the typical user is the wrong approach.

Beyond Assumptions

I assume, based on the taste, that WordCamp Tampa Bay spent way more on coffee than most WordCamps do.

The life giving Kahwa Coffee at WordCamp Tampa was
The life giving Kahwa Coffee at WordCamp Tampa was excellent. 5 stars, strongly recommended.

It’s probably fair, though I haven’t done the research to prove it, that most “typical” WordPress users are unaware of the web browser console or how to use it to diagnose issues. As we move to more and more AJAX-driven processes, learning to use the console and network inspector to diagnose problems or at least give useful information in support requests is essential.

I am probably right that most users don’t know this skill. I’m only going based on my years of experience supporting WordPress users, not any data, when I make this assertion. My experience also shows that it is not a skill users can’t learn.

To argue that the typical WordPress user can’t learn this, or to upgrade PHP, or install a plugin is insulting.

WordPress is the single most empowering, and educational community, software, and experience of my life. I want that experience for everyone.

Not everyone will learn all of these skills. But trying to define the typical user, not the many user profiles, leads to an all or nothing approach. We end up with nothing useful.

It’s as wrong as drip coffee machines.

Moving Forward

Starting with better questions

Thinking that we can define a single user is insane. A better first question is how many user profiles should we be designing this software for? That question leads to a lot of other questions:

  1. How many profiles should be defined?
  2. What are those profiles?
  3. What relevant skills do typical users in those profiles know and not know?
  4. What relevant skills do users in each profile not know, but could be easily trained in?

Many people reading this hopefully have some thought on these questions. I’d love to hear them in the comments or on Twitter. But, I’d also like to hear how you would gather data to test these assumptions. Is it surveys, user testing, or something else?

I don’t know. It’s something I’m thinking a lot about. I’ll share more of my thoughts in the future, but right now, I think the first step is to rethink the problem. I lack the data to have an intelligent opinion. But helping to gather that data and put it to use is a very valuable thing that I want to work on and would encourage others to do.

Empathy and Empowerment Before Dismissiveness

We can’t help those we think are morons

Support Team Wapuu by Michelle Schulp
Support Team Wapuu by Michelle Schulp

The reality is a lot of people asking for help with WordPress do not know what they hell they are talking about. We could dismiss them as morons, or realize that the failing is our failing, not their failing.

We told them WordPress was easy. We told them our plugins, themes, services, etc. were intuitive to use. But clearly that wasn’t true for them. If that was true they wouldn’t be asking for help. They wouldn’t be frustrated. They wouldn’t be scared that they might not be able to complete the project they are working on. A project they might be getting paid for, or that their job may be riding on.

It’s easy to dismiss less experience users as noobs who are out of their element. It’s harder to empathize with when we ourselves didn’t know what the fuck we were doing with WordPress, or how bad we are at other things.

Some of us may feel good about tangible evidence of our superior technical knowledge.

In order to move WordPress forward, we must push past our assumptions, rely on data not anecdotal evidence, and stop ourselves from being dismissive. Once we do that, we can empower the many different types typical users.

Doing so will open us up to discovering the multitude of other solutions to the problems that scaling to 25% have brought us. Challenges that must be face before scaling past that.

It’s a wicked challenge and it sounds like a lot of fun to solve.

7 Replies to “The Typical WordPress User”

  1. Hey Josh,

    Great article. You raised some very good points. Two things from me:

    1) You see the problem of people dismissing others as “morons” if they don’t know as much as them in all facets of life. It seems to be driven by ego, immaturity and in a strange sort of way (in our industry), by imposter syndrome too. If they belittle someone else who knows less than them, it makes them feel smarter.

    The funny thing is, in business and life, if you show someone that you care and are willing to go the extra mile to make them feel good about themselves, they will forever be your fan and in the long run, support you. It’s usually the opposite when you tear someone down.

    2) Then the second point I wanted to raise was a lot of the above comes down to knowing your users and who you’re building your stuff for. For instance, if you’re a theme developer you need to make sure you cater to a vast amount of skill sets from beginner all the way to very advanced.

    In my case, most of the stuff I write/build is catered towards professional WordPress developers so I can be a lot more technical and assume my audience knows what I am talking about.

    We need to know who are users are. This is very much similar to what you mentioned about user profiles and figuring them out. It’s a tough thing to do on a broad set of users, but for me, if you know who you’re building your stuff for, you can profile them easily and the process will be rather painless.

    Matt

  2. That was a good read Josh. I find that there really isn’t a typical user because each one has their quirks that makes them unique on many levels. As a theme developer, I can easily say I depend on the end-user to give me the in’s and out’s of what they need and what I provide. In reality, they are the ones that help make their experiences better with input I get from comments, support requests, and reviews. If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t be in business. I like getting their feedback of what works for them and what doesn’t. My job is to find that balance that works for most if not all end-users based on their needs, wishes, and problems they encounter.

    1. Andre –

      Yep, it’s all about balance. You talk down to someone and you’re insulting. You use language they don’t understand and you’re making them feel dumb. It’s a really difficult balancing act that I struggle with a lot.

      Take care,
      Josh

  3. All I can say is “spot on”. So much of this reflects my experience with so-called “users”. There is such a vast gray area there that we flounder trying to fit them nicely into a single hole. Having taught hundreds of beginners in-person, I can so related to all you have said.

    And I’m a big fan of empathy… been preaching it for years. You are so right about that. Empathy, and added patience and understanding can go a long way in helping encourage people who are still learning WordPress or severely frustrated with it.

    Cheers and thanks for the great read!

    1. Bob –

      You’re welcome. Thanks for reading.

      There is such a vast gray area there that we flounder trying to fit them nicely into a single hole

      Exactly. So maybe we should stop trying to slot so many people (tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions?) of people into that single slot?

      You have way more experience teaching WordPress than I do and as I keep working through this thought, and move towards some solid proposals, I hope you will keep reading and offering your feedback.

      BTW It was great to meet you at #wcus. It was one of the highlights of the trip.

      Take care,
      Josh

  4. Completely agree. We shouldn’t be shrugging off any feedback from users. We should be using that information to better the end product. Whether that is by making certain actions clearer, or simplifying the UI. The UX should be a first class citizen in the WordPress world.

    1. Jake –

      I fully agree. It’s hard for a small plugin developer like myself. For WordPress, the scale is so huge, it’s hard to fathom. As I said, it’s a fun challenge, that I enjoy doing my small part with.

      Take care,
      Josh

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