i. Thesis Theme used to be good
A little more than a year ago, Zach Holman wrote an article criticizing the practice of introducing unnecessary features that derail your core product offerings and, in doing so, undermine user experience.
As Zach simply puts it, “Don’t give your users shit work“. In his comment to a response post, Zach further elaborates,
(As designers) we need to build simple, non-complicated systems, and giving people more s*it work to do is overall a bit detrimental to your project.
Now, if you would excuse his language, there’s some important takeaways. I stumbled upon Zach’s musing just about the same time the post was published. It didn’t resonate with me until two months ago when I was working on a web project with a personal friend and developer.
The experience was pleasant and I shouldn’t have any complaints — if only the project wasn’t powered by Thesis 2.0, the WordPress framework that can only be described as being overhyped, unjustifiably.
Anecdotally, endorsers of the Thesis are either affiliate marketers of the product, or loyal followers that has sticked with Thesis since it’s very first release. Then, I heard, Thesis was actually good.
ii. Code is Poetry — but there’s no money in poetry.
Now, the Thesis my friend and I were made to work on is just far from poetic. It breaks all the rules of basic User Experience design. In fact, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that, to quite an extent, Thesis seems like an intimidating piece of technology that actually gets in the way of even the most basic task. Granted, we were both working on the most initial release of Thesis 2, to be specific. But that two year it took for team to work on Thesis 2 just wasn’t the best of effort.
But I argue that the ugly design was not a lack of skills or expertise. It wasn’t negligence. Wasn’t shortage of time and resources, even. In many ways, Thesis 2 feels more like an exploitation.
“Hey, it’s an expectation problem. Don’t blame Thesis developers. Blame the hype, or the blinded herd.”
No it isn’t. Art cannot be objectively bad. But categorically bad UX design exist and you need only look around. Since when have we been as forgiving or as conforming as it is with Thesis 2 when we’re put through obtrusive user experience?
I shared my experience with Thesis 2.0 to a closed circle of friends on Google Plus but wasn’t really expecting any response in particular. Until a comment pointed me to this article by Rick Beckman. Then I couldn’t resist.
Rick’s post provided some of the following images while the author critically reviewed the UX (user experience) aspect of the Thesis 2 product.
iii. Thesis 2 Admin Panel
Sweet merciful barbecue, what happened? All pretense is gone of blending in with the WordPress aesthetic, creating a jarring experience — how long have we been conditioned to associate red boxes with errors, after all?
- Rick Beckman
iv. Thesis 2 review: Undeserving of the hype
Rick Beckman commented that such visual disparity disrespects the end user’s need for consistency, a quality many value and rely upon particularly in a field as savvy as this. As Rick further explore Thesis 2, he remarked even more areas that qualify for the most blatant violations of modern UX design.
But does there need to be a huge freaking button with shaded padding on every page of the site? … when WordPress has provided an elegant location for it, as well as the means to put it there: the admin bar.
- Rick Beckman
What about regressive designs like pop-up windows, poor plugin compatibility and other usability glitches? Yeah, you got them all with the new Thesis 2.
With much frustration, the author suggested more than once that “Thesis 2.0 is not designed with the common user in mind” but as a “separate, self-contained product as much as possible”. Had Thesis 2 been more integrated to the native WordPress usability schemes or concepts that users are already familiar with, it would have see better support from the majority of the community.
For all we know about usability and UX design, systems are designed to learn from the data they already have in respect to user behavior and make informed predictions of what the general user would want or expect.
Unfortunately, Thesis 2 is anything but that.
For now, it’s undeserving of the hype.
“As it is, I just can’t look at 2.0 with the same affection as I did 1.8.5 and older. Thesis 2.0 can’t even decide on a consistent visual style for its own admin panels, with the “admin” panels and the “design” panels appearing entirely different (for no real reason), and neither of them blending in with the WordPress aesthetic”, he further commented.
What about degrading into Thesis 1.8.5 and use the more sparingly and gracefully designed Thesis? Nope. For the sake of everything that is good, OOOH and exciting, reverting back to Thesis 1.8 would end up with a locked-up interface that restricted access to anything but an Upgrade Thesis button.
v. Neither ignorance, nor impotence. It’s Arrogance.
The problem with Thesis 2 is that many benefit (deservedly or not is a separate argument) on the expense of the uninformed, misinformed, unsuspecting end users. They were over-promised on the premise of commercial greed.
That’s a big statement. Let’s break it down into smaller chunks.
The hopelessly slanted opinions of the product
Thesis’ aggressive affiliate program has “created a huge ecosystem of hungry mercenary affiliate gasbag bloggers who spew super-heated, ecstatic reviews into the Web to lure trusting buyers into pushing the BUY NOW! button,” says Douglas Putnam in his DIYThemes Thesis 2.0 User Review post here. Just for the record, a $28 commission is made from every affiliate sales. Not that we have a problem with affiliate sales, we don’t.
We have a problem with either delusional or dishonest opinions, skewed to favor the cause of those chasing the money — at the expense of others.
The calculated and commercially-driven launch of Thesis 2
See Thesis 2′s pre-launch promotional video below:
Sounds great, especially since Chris himself said how he disliked doing these price-cutting offers because of what these tactic do to people psychologically. But consider the alternative version, which some might agree is a closer resemblance to reality:
“Hey guys! We really hate giving discounts because, look, after the handsome affiliate payouts to our loyal Thesis followers it’s cutting seriously into our
budget profit margin. We’re gonna do it this time anyway because, err, the launch version of Thesis 2.0 is messy and bringing it to market at normal price would probably backfire so badly and hurt our business. Consumers would switch platforms or use those sub-par frameworks we see everybody else using apart from the awesome Thesis user community. You would, you know, read one of those WordPress premium theme comparison and decided for the smarter choice. We don’t want that. We want you to pay, and we figure the best way to do it is to collect your money before you even get a taste of the end product and experience the pure ugliness behind its overhyped facade. Since you assume the launch version is pretty and all that with a complete guide or user manual, you’d gladly pay for it now. Maybe not after you actually see what Thesis 2 is really like and understand that there’s no bonus whatsoever. Not even a user manual. Nada.”
The pairing of DIY Themes and AppSumo to offer Thesis 2.0 was probably one of the biggest fleecing I have seen in a long time. Pearson was selling the Thesis Developers option through AppSumo at a discounted price of $164, which I’m sure was flying off the shelves. I’m starting to believe this was a well orchestrated plan by both Pearson and AppSumo to make an extreme amount of money for a product that shouldn’t have been released – WordPress Aficionado
Finally, back to the visual disparity.
The code structure and visual elements that make up Thesis 2 is a deliberate effort to remain as independent from the WordPress aesthetic as possible. Not just the visual appeal. Thesis 2 is programmed to use as little of WordPress’ Open Source code as the DIYThemes team thought possible, thus maintaining as much proprietary code as Chris’ business sense would dictate. Where and when using WordPress’ protocol, its built-in behaviors and the tools would make much sense, it was conveniently abandoned for a proprietary alternative that ensures its much-adored self-containedness.
A more systemic, organic and visually appealing alternative is given up because openly embracing the WordPress inherent structure (or too much of it) would concede heavily on Chris’s theory of maintaining Thesis as a wholly proprietary product. Chris obviously wasn’t a big fan of that idea. The idea that anything built on top of the GPL must be GPL itself.
Cohesiveness has no place in the prevalence of commercial exploitation and uncompromising arrogance.
vi. Final Note
For me, Thesis 2.0 feels like a huge leap backwards. Chris spent way too much time on trying to reinvent the wheel only to release an unfocused and unfinished product out into the wild. The end result feels like a purposefully obfuscated framework that is meant to alienate developers with ridiculous code and entrap users with new shinies that aren’t compliant with WordPress theme standards.
- A frustrated user
Thesis 2 is now split-GPL, whatever that means to you. The article is not to debate the practicality of different business principles or the adoption of licenses at such. The article is arguing against a culture where profitability takes precedence over good work. And I’ve defined good work at the very beginning of the post.
Monetary incentive and the notion of paid work are great part of this ecosystem that continue to fuel innovation and advancement. I’m not against the mechanism that supports and rewards hard work. Moreover, what the DIYThemes have accomplished is nothing short of remarkable work that empowers many and benefits even more.
It’s only major suckage when user experience is greatly undermined and when shit work is delivered in the pursuit of wealth.
I am against it when rewarding mechanism becomes a tool for abuse. We trust things more when they look like they were done for the love of it rather than the sheer commercial value of it. - Robert Scoble
Update (19 February 2013): In response to a criticism, I wrote the follow-up post RE: a Defense of the Thesis 2 WordPress Theme | Blog (by Samuel Chan). You will find the link to the original response in the follow-up post, why I maintained my opinion on Thesis 2, and my general views on good criticism.