WordPress Theme Feature Portability

WordPress themes should not go out of their way to tie us to their use.

Take Thesis, for example.* Over the course of a few months with Thesis, you may have hundreds of posts which make use of Thesis-specific features such as post thumbnails, post images (via the multimedia box), search engine optimization, or more.

But the moment you switch to another theme, your posts are going to appear bland: no images, no search engine optimization, etc.

Perhaps I’m cynical, but there may be a good number of people who have resisted switching to another theme just to avoid the hassle of rebuilding all of their image or search engine goodness.

So what can be done?

First, WordPress features need to be used & explored as much as possible. For instance, WordPress recently gained a post thumbnail feature. Themes should therefore begin supporting that feature as soon as possible, as well as providing a means of converting the theme’s propriety thumbnails over to WordPress’ system.

Second, theme authors should build features in such a way that switching to a different theme suddenly doesn’t leave a bunch of posts broken or incomplete. As an example, we’ll use post images. Thesis uses a custom interface on top of the custom fields interface to define post images — images which are used as post mastheads and which are also downsized to be used as post thumbnails.

As an alternative, we should keep in mind that users already have the ability to add images to post content. All that is needed is some styling of an image marked as being a feature (perhaps via a class), and users will be left with a great looking, feature-filled theme which they can safely move away from, knowing their images are still going to work.

Should a theme provide features that users are going to use often (such as post thumbnails, shortcodes, etc.), then that theme’s documentation should make it clear that if the user ever selects a different theme, the content added via those proprietary means will break. And a simple conversion — perhaps just from the proprietary theme to the WordPress default theme — for the various features should be provided.

That level of transparency & care will be a highlight of any theme’s support, but it pales in comparison to building into your theme portability/compatibility.

Your users will love you for it.

Of course, all of this goes along with what I said previously regarding theme/plugin standardization.

* Thesis is, for the most part, a great theme. It does, however, illustrate this point quite well.

11 thoughts on “WordPress Theme Feature Portability”

  1. You have lots of good points here, and I think it’s a message that lots of theme builders need to read. It will definitely give me something to think about when I build themes in the future.

  2. I think you are forgetting one fundamental issues with images… Size, orientation and placement are tied to the design which is dictated by the theme. Image and thumbnail sizes do not necessarily go with all theme designs. Different designs call for different image sizes.

    So even using the built in post thumbnail functionality doesn’t help this because even if you switch themes those image sizes don’t necessarily go with your new theme and it doesn’t automatically resize tho images after they ar created.

    This is especially true for more complex theme designs that focus more on using WordPress a business CMS rather than just a blog application. Business oriented themes are more complex and typically feature more images than a standard blog design. Changing your design typically means your image sizes change also, it’s just a fact of life when it comes to redesigning.

    1. I agree, Carl, that creating perfect seamlessness between themes likely isn’t going to happen. However, if your content is being designed & entered into WordPress with a mind for your users rather than for your theme, I think you’ll be fine.

      Think about thumbnail/post images, for a second. Ideally, these should also somehow show up in your RSS feed too. This makes them entirely separate from your current design. They are content, not style.

      A theme should only be responsible for styling content, and any theme can resize, relocate, hide, or otherwise modify these images (or any other post content) via styles.

      But if the images are uploaded for a theme feature rather than via WordPress’ content feature, then that means that the styling engine is being used to manage content while the content management system (WordPress itself) is not. It ties a user into using one theme just to keep them from losing their content; no user should ever have to experience switching from one theme to another only to notice a radical change in their content, and that’s the point I was trying to make.

  3. I completely agree with you. Switching themes should not radically effect you content. I prefer to use WordPress features whenever possible over custom solutions.

  4. Good points, Rick.

    There are features seen often in popular themes that would be better off in plugins: footer scripts (such as Google Analytics), code for ads, and SEO settings, to name a few. A pet peeve of mine is a theme option that duplicates a default WordPress setting, like how many posts to show on index and archive pages. If you set it, then change themes, you might get unexpected results. My rule of thumb is to leave out an option if it can be handled gracefully by default WordPress functionality.

    Image sizing can be a pain point, as Carl says. There are plugins out there that help with resizing (such as Regenerate Thumbnails from Viper007Bond), and I think as core WordPress evolves it will get better at handling that, too.

  5. Yes, I’ve recently experienced the frustration of moving an existing blog into a WP theme…lost all my images inside the posts. And I had an awful time trying to find a theme that didn’t over-complicate my simple content and yet still looked good, or at least allowed me some control over the looks. Darn blog looks wretched. And for some reason I have to sticky every new post or it goes off into Neverland of content. I’m not wizard with themes (obviously). It would have been wonderful to have a clearer description of each theme’s features before I tried switching.

  6. Yes, I did.

    But it’s not like I don’t enjoy Thesis as a theme. On the contrary, I’m very familiar with it & can more readily customize it than most any other theme. Various minor bits of code that I wrote (and some which I liberally adapted from WordPress itself) are part of Thesis’ code, and so I’m definitely sentimentally attached to it.

    However, the recent falling out between Automattic & DIYthemes left me feeling uncertain about using the theme. On the one hand are the reasons above, but on the other hand I sided with Automattic, something which I couldn’t very well do while leaving Thesis active on my site.

    So I switched to the most readily available theme… the default.

    Automattic & DIYthemes seem to have made amends, though, with the open sourcing of Thesis’ server-side code.

    Having stepped away from Thesis, though, I’ve begun to rethink a variety of its “selling points.” DIYthemes (including myself, at one point) loudly proclaim that Thesis is more efficient than most premium themes; at its most basic level, though, it’s less efficient. There are also a variety of usability issues, unnecessary/bloat features, and so on which lead me to believe that there has got to be a better theme out there.

    But because so many people are making so much money off of DIYthemes affiliate program, they’ll believe anything DIYthemes says about the theme. Such is the beauty of marketing, I suppose.

    Whether I ever use Thesis again is anybody’s guess. Heck, I probably will, just to try it out to see what else is new. (Actually, I’ll have to, just for the sake of everyone who still seeks support from me via email… and to keep OpenHook up to date as needed.)

    Thesis benefited a ton from the A-list bloggers which adopted & promoted it (some of whom have since moved on, e.g., Robert Scoble & Chris Brogan, both of whom are now using Genesis), and it’s hard to deny the popularity of a lucrative affiliate program.

    Take those things away, and Thesis is really just an average premium theme. There have been & always will be more feature-filled, user-friendlier, prettier themes out there (both free & commercial, I’d suspect).

  7. Hmm, so Rick,

    Do you think, just from the last few days, that Thesis will eventually be done for? I mean, as of the way the theme runs right now, I think it’s fine, maybe even if there was never another update. But, I fear the fact there may not be any more support and with the way things change as WP is updated, things might get bad.

    I run a few sites on thesis and the thought of combing through and grabbing ever single image and inserting them into the posts makes my blood boil.

    Such is effing life.

  8. I like Thematic, but I haven’t explored it deeply so I can’t really give a true judge of its character, so to speak.

    Also, I don’t think Thesis is going away. It’s making way too much money to disappear. With going partially open source, I could see Thesis garnering even more support as well.

    Two things which I think would go a long way in improving the Thesis culture, though: 1) More involvement from Chris Pearson in support; he’s been notably absent from the support board since Thesis’ early versions, which made it easy for someone like me to slide in, post thousands of times, and end up on the payroll for providing the support which he should have been from the beginning. I’m not trying to downplay the support which Chris does provide — nor can I blame him for relying on users to provide support for other users — but an involved developer goes a long, long way toward building user trust & community.

    2) More paths of customization. Options panels & a custom functions file are rather limited. And increasing the number of options isn’t the right answer. That’s just going to introduce ever more programming which for many users will simply be bloat. Thesis needs to be redesigned from the ground up to take advantage of a wide variety of customization options, including child themes, the WordPress template hierarchy, and more. These are what the WordPress community is used to, and if Chris wants to claim to be making the community a better place, he shouldn’t expect longtime members of the community to change how they customize their site to accommodate Thesis’ rather bizarre mantra of “never edit a core file.”

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