WordPress Tip: WordPress as a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde Application

I’m amazed at how easily people can make sites look both professional and functional in a short period of time using WordPress. Clyde Parson, the STC-Suncoast chapter in Tampa, just redid the Suncoast STC with a new WordPress theme. It looks pretty cool.

Back when I lived in Tampa, the Suncoast STC site was already created in WordPress, but there was an initiative to migrate the site to Drupal for its password-protection capabilities (which turned out not to be so important). Drupal was too much work for the web volunteers, and now Clyde returned the site to its authentic wholeness as a WordPress incarnation (in a way much better than before).

WordPress does simplify web publishing. Find the right theme (in Clyde’s case, the Branford theme), tweak and customize it a bit, and voila, it’s a professional looking site with dynamic content in less than a day or two.

However, I encounter a growing number of people who also struggle with WordPress, who are seduced by the idea that it’s a no-brainer to publish a site. Not true. It does take skill, knowledge, and time. Just last night  I received two questions from people about WordPress — one person asking how to add images to the sidebar and change the font, another asking about feeds, and today I gave a tutorial to another person on customizing his site, particularly the colors. After some people manage to set up a WordPress blog, they discover they aren’t able to modify it, and they tear their hair out in frustration.

WordPress is like a Dr. Jekyll-and-Mr. Hyde type application. For people already a little familiar with web publishing, WordPress is the nice Dr. Jekyll that shows a friendly face. People are amazed by the functionality and flexibility of the platform. The extensibility of the plugins, themes, and open code makes WordPress a powerful partner in web design and publishing. It’s the tool you always needed — it makes everything easy.

Jekyll and Hyde

Jekyll and Hyde

For others, the less tech savvy ones who somehow managed to set up a self-hosted WordPress site either through an auto-installer or through other means, WordPress shows the Mr. Hyde face. The code is open, and as soon as they make a few naive tweaks to the loop, or remove a key div tag — bam, the site breaks and the user becomes paralyzed with frustration. The php tags that call information from the database look foreign, and passing parameters to those tags seems like advanced programming.

Perhaps comparing WordPress to a loaded gun is more apt — in the hands of one, it’s a tool for finding food; in the hands of another, it’s a quick way to accidentally shoot yourself. But I always see computers in a more biological form, either a monster that’s pounding me or one that I’m pinning with one hand.

But where WordPress differs from other advanced tools or objects (such as a car engine) is that WordPress allows novice users to get not just their foot in the door, but their whole body. And as soon as they’re in, the door snaps shuts and they can’t find the exit.

It’s not as if WordPress is immediately familiar to even experienced web publishers. But there’s a key character trait that allows some to learn it while others flounder: temerity to click buttons and experiment with the unknown. Some users see an unfamiliar button and avoid clicking it because they think it may screw everything up, or execute a process they don’t want.

Other users aren’t afraid to click and experiment. They’re used to breaking things, and then rebuilding them. They know that through experimentation, they learn. If it breaks, they can restore it. If it they open the guts, they can see how the whole digestive system works.

Another analogy — it’s like the kitchen. When I try to cook, I carefully follow a recipe and feel uncomfortable adding in extraneous ingredients or varying from the specified measurements outlined in the recipe. I’m afraid that I’ll do something that will ruin everything.

Jane, on the other hand, approaches cooking with a more free form methodology — adding in a variety of ingredients as she sees fit, changing amounts on the fly, and going with the general flow of … her inner cooking rhythm.

Jane’s attitude in the kitchen would serve her well in WordPress, and my attitude in WordPress would serve me well in the kitchen. Why is it so hard to switch approaches?

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By Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer working for the 41st Parameter in San Jose, California. I'm interested in topics related to technical writing, such as visual communication, API documentation, information architecture, web publishing, JavaScript, front-end design, content strategy, Jekyll, and more. Feel free to contact me with any questions.

  • http://www.wp-fun.co.uk Andrew

    I’ve heard it said a few times (sometimes by me) that WordPress tries to lower the bar too far.

    As a plugin author I have found that people come to WordPress.org with less knowledge about the basics of the web than I would consider to be the bare minimum ( without having technical backup ) and then get themselves in a mess.

    The key is their willingness to learn and sadly experience has shown me that there are a lot of people who don’t want to know; they just want someone else to fix the problem.

    • http://idratherbewriting.com Tom

      Andrew, I totally agree with you. WordPress allows novice people to easily get themselves in a mess. This is part of the whole revolution of weblob publishing, I guess.

  • http://foodperson.com/ Janet

    What drives me crazy about WordPress is the frequent updates that don’t quite work. Still, I appreciate people like Tom who are willing to offer advice when needed.

    Janets last blog post..Bread-and-butter pickles worth their salt

  • http://www.saglikyurdu.net saðlýk

    Thank you for article.

  • http://www.physiciandesigns.com PDesigns

    WordPress has ended up being very beneficial for some of our clients. Many physicians have not really used a computer but are now running their own blogs. The hardest part is setting it up but once that’s done, it seems like no problem for these doctors.

    medical website design

  • James


    I’ve been wrangling WP for about eight years. It really does what it promises–“democratize publishing”. It does that by having very low barriers to entry.

    But the barriers are in place a little ways in, especially when a user wants to move beyond the “blog” paradigm that every aspect of WordPress embodies. In many ways, WordPress overpromises and underdelivers for the smaller group of people that want it to do more than just quickly publish content in blog-like bites.

    And, WP really isn’t a CMS, except in the most general sense (there is “managing” of content). WordPress doesn’t even allow the saving of drafts of published content. There are various attempts (plugins, custom code) to address this, but–they all suck. That’s a prime example of the wall that sits a short way inside WordPress.

    In the WP community, there’s a long-growing sense of unease about what WP is (and should) be. For now, it’s that low-entry-barrier thing that (a) lets people publish fast, and (b) provides lots of opportunities for people to make money customizing it.

    For me, in the long run, WP requires far too much customization effort to be a serious, flexible, powerful CMS, and that’ s what I need and want most of all–database-backed blog engines are a dime a dozen, and there are even plenty of choices for static site generators (as you’ve discovered with Jekyll).