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WordPress, the Unknown User, and the Need for Research

We are constantly asked “when will X feature be built” or “why isn’t X plugin integrated into the core”. The rule of thumb is that the core should provide features that 80% or more of end users will actually appreciate and use.

This definition of the 80/20 principle is the guiding philosophy behind WordPress core development. Build solutions that benefit 80% of the users, and allow the remaining 20% find good extensions (through plugins and themes) that solve their use cases. It’s a great philosophy, and the 80/20 rule is used in pretty much every discussion about WordPress features. There’s only one problem:

We know nothing about the 80%. In fact, we know nothing about the 99%. And that’s a problem.

The 1% of the 1%

WordPress is developed by a large group of dedicated volunteers that spend a large part of their daily lives working to maintain and improve the most popular publishing application on the web. And their tireless work has lead not only to the growth and dominance of WordPress on the web, but to web publishing, and web design and development, being democratized and made accessible to the masses.

In its success, WordPress now reaches far beyond the borders of the WordPress “community”, defined as those who contribute to or at least follow WordPress development and discussions on a regular basis. And it is in this “outside” group we find the average WordPress user – the 80%. These are the people who build millions of WordPress sites that never touch the community: They don’t go to WordCamps, they don’t read WP Tavern or PostStatus, they don’t know about the local Meetup, and they probably don’t know that WordPress and WordPress.com are two very different things.

It is these people – the majority user of WordPress – the application should be built for. And in discussions about future development, it is these people we refer to when we use the 80/20 rule. But like I said, we have almost no data about them. We know little to nothing about how they use WordPress, how they interact with the UI, what makes sense to them, what confuses them, what they miss, what they want, etc.

While some work has been done with user testing, and we have anecdotal data about the user from automated systems, we have no authoritative body of data to turn to for the hard questions. So we guesstimate based on our own experiences and end up making decisions based on ourselves – the 1% of the 1%.

Of course, we could say that it’s up to the user to reach out through forums or support to voice their opinions. I think that’s too dismissive. If our goal is to build a platform that works for everyone, we need to at least define who this “everyone” is and what they want. And to do that, we need to get to know them.

Gathering Data on the Average WordPress User

At WordCamp US 2015 I had several conversations with people from various strata within the WordPress community about this: How do we gather data about the average WordPress user?

In-app surveys and outreach is one option, but it is likely to meet heavy resistance and will undoubtedly get turned off or ignored by the majority of users.

I think a better option is an active approach: Invest in data collection on a grand scale, and start a WordPress research project.

I can see you shaking your head and rolling your eyes right now, but hear me out.

WordPress is in a unique position in the world: We have the largest user base of any CMS on the web, we have the broadest spectrum of adoption, and we are distributed across the entire globe. In short, the WordPress community is an unprecedented untapped data opportunity. What if we leverage this position to kickstart a large academic project?

Here’s what I’m imagining: The WordPress community, through sponsorship, crowdfunding, or other means, creates an academic trust that puts out a call for research proposals. The stipulation is that any proposal must include large scale user testing and data collection across social strata, national, and ethnic lines, and that all raw data must be released back to the WordPress project under an open source/creative commons license. The WordPress community would then provide financial support for a selection of academic projects through the trust to give researchers the means to dig into our community and gather data.

This would hopefully result in two things: Actual data about the WordPress user and a better understanding of the WordPress community, and serious research around WordPress to bring our open source project legitimacy in the wider context of academia including social, political, and data sciences.

This is just high level thinking at this point, but I think it could work. What are your thoughts?

This post was spurred on by Josh Polloc’s The Typical WordPress User. You should read it.