The Case for Telemetry in WordPress

Update August 10, 2017: After publishing this article I reopened the Trac ticket arguing the reason for closing it was no longer valid in lieu of Gutenberg’s collection of telemetry. A few hours later it was announced that usage tracking will be removed from Gutenberg and the ticket was closed as the original argument for closing it is once again accurate.

This is an expanded version of a Twitter thread from earlier today.

#WordPress needs a core method for collecting quantitative user data through telemetry (aka “metrics”). I wrote a post about this on my blog back in December 2016 and filed a ticket on the WordPress development system Trac at the same time. That ticket was promptly closed by project lead Matt Mullenweg arguing “it is off the table for 2017 as it is not within the three focus areas.”

Since then, Gutenberg – the proposed new editor feature for WordPress – has introduced an “opt-in usage tracking system” (telemetry) meaning the argument that telemetry is not within the three focus areas (of which Gutenberg is one) is no longer valid.

One of the biggest challenges WordPress faces is the lack of reliable data about global day-to-day use. Like most Open Source projects, WordPress has relied on community feedback as it’s primary data source. Which is fine for a small project. Problem is WordPress is a Very Big Project with global reach and the majority of it’s users never interface with the community.

I like to say we, the people who talk about, provide feedback for, and design/develop WordPress are the 1%. I wrote about this on my blog in December 2015.

I now think the number is more like 0.1%.

Making decisions based on the traditional community feedback model is making decisions without knowing anything about the majority of users. Some will argue this is fine, that WordPress is developed by those who show up. That’s not a workable or responsible model for a project. It also goes against one of the core principles of WordPress itself, that “the core should provide features that 80% or more of end users will actually appreciate and use,” although the validity of the 80/20 rule was put into question by project lead Matt Mullenweg earlier this year (I wrote about this on my blog as well).

We, the people who build WordPress, have a duty of care to the people we build it for. And those people are not us.

“We can just do user testing,” you say? Sure. Let’s do proper qualitative user testing. That requires staffing, funding, and infrastructure. User testing for a project like WordPress is non-trivial. It requires professional analysis.

Testing one UX feature (like a view) would take 3 dedicated testers, at least 10 subjects, 3 weeks, and result in a >10 page report. User testing like this would be great, but it’s not something we are doing right now, and it’s not on the horizon either. Which brings me to telemetry and quantitative user metrics in WordPress.

Done responsibly and with care, telemetry can be a treasure trove of information for the evolution of WordPress. The key is collecting the RIGHT metrics using the right methodology. Telemetry data often ends up being a numbers soup because too much irrelevant data is collected. What I’m proposing is a lean and targeted approach to telemetry in WordPress:

  1. Telemetry should be an opt-in option that when activated installs a plugin. Admins should be informed about this option by the WordPress dashboard when WordPress is installed and reminded at regular intervals that the plugin is available and whether it’s activated.
  2. Anonymize all collected data at client level before submission.
  3. Collect only basic data at the core level of the plugin (WP/PHP/MySQL version, locale, language, etc.)
  4. Provide up-front info to end-users about what data is currently collected and what it’s being used for, with opt-out options for the plugin as a whole and for granular data collection.
  5. Allow for targeted data collection based on research needs.
  6. Store data on servers owned by the community (not corporate interests). Share data openly to ensure transparency.

Telemetry implemented in this way would give WordPress the ability to inform decisions about current and future features. Some, notably project lead Matt Mullenweg, have said this is not necessary, that it won’t be useful. I disagree.

In my view, making decisions that impact millions of users without metrics to back them up is irresponsible and quite frankly foolish. We run the risk of doing a bear’s favor: something we think will help that actually hurts, all because we don’t have enough information.

There are plenty of arguments against telemetry: anonymity, security, oversight, Big Brother, competitive advantage, etc. If we do this right I am certain we can build a system that alleviates the concerns over anonymity, surveillance, etc. Couple that with up-front disclosure, transparency, and explanation of what data is collected and why and people will sign on.

As for the competitive advantage aspect; we don’t want to share data with our competition; that runs counter to the Open Source idea in my opinion. We can and should share this data with everyone, because it’ll make the web a better place for everyone. It has purpose beyond WordPress. Not collecting this data because we don’t want competitors to have it is like leaving a broken window unmended lest it be broken again.

In short, WordPress needs telemetry. There’s a ticket on Trac proposing this, and Gutenberg has a PR for telemetry.

Inexplicably the Trac ticket is closed because “it is not within the three focus areas” which thanks to Gutenberg is not the case.

What WordPress needs is an open debate on this topic. What are the arguments for and against? What can be gained and what is lost? Should we do this? And if so, how do we do it in an open, transparent, and responsible way that helps inform and elevate the conversation while looking after the interests of all WordPress users?

This discussion belongs in Trac in an open ticket. Closing it down before a proper discussion has been allowed is not the Open Source way.

As of this writing the WordPress telemetry ticket remains closed:

Cross-posted from the original at LinkedIn.

By Morten Rand-Hendriksen

Morten Rand-Hendriksen is a Senior Staff Instructor at LinkedIn Learning (formerly specializing in AI, bleeding edge web technologies, and the intersection between technology and humanity. He also occasionally teaches at Emily Carr University of Art and Design. He is a popular conference and workshop speaker on all things tech ethics, AI, web technologies, and open source.