WordPress: Users, Stakeholders, and Known Unknowns

Who is the WordPress user? It’s the question everyone involved in WordPress in some way asks themselves at one point or another. And it’s a question without any clear answers beyond the Open Source Dogma: The User is anyone using the software. Which, to be frank, is not very useful.

Yesterday (February 26th, 2019), the WordPress Governance Project published a research document titled “Identifying the Stakeholders of WordPress” which serves as a starting point for a rigorous exploration of the question: “Who is the WordPress user?” This is a question we, as a community, need to answer, and to find the answer we need to work together. Consider this your invitation to take part: Read the document, contribute your comments, and if you find something missing or inaccurate, help correct it.

Personas: a Primer

One of the tools in the design process toolkit is the Persona, a “fictional character created to represent a user type that might use a site, brand, or product in a similar way.” Personas serve as prototypical users with properties and attributes representing user groups. Over the years, the idea of the Persona has evolved from a strictly fictional character to a more nuanced representative entity. Personas are often paired with Empathy Maps (XPlane, NN Group), Journey Maps (NN Group), Affinity Diagrams, and Microsoft recently introduced the idea of Persona Spectrums (Microsoft Inclusive Design).

Personas and associated tools are there to help designers and developers get a better understanding of their users. They allow us to ask questions about the user’s Goals and Needs, Hopes and Fears, Challenges and Opportunities. They help us define success and failure criteria for projects. And they give us direct references to point to when asking questions about decisions within the design process.

That said, a Persona is only as good as the data it’s based on, and a good persona is typically built using data from both qualitative and quantitative research.

For a project like WordPress, much of that research is lacking. Which begs a question whether creating personas for WordPress is possible, or even feasible. I think it is, and here’s why:

Personas for WordPress?

I teach design principles both as an instructor with LinkedIn Learning and at Emily Carr University of Art + Design. A central part of the process I teach is clearly defining and investigating both the Stakeholders and target Users of the design project. In simple terms, the distinction between “Stakeholder” and “User” in this context is the level of ownership and vested interest. For an ecommerce site, the Stakeholder is anyone with ownership of and/or a vested interest in the success of the store, while a User is someone literally using the ecommerce site to find, research, and possibly buy a product. For WordPress, the distinction between Stakeholder and User is more obscure, if it exists at all: Every person who uses WordPress in some way, even if it’s just as a visitor to a site powered by WordPress, is a Stakeholder in some small way because of the ideology WordPress is rooted in: Democratizing publishing through open source software. By using WordPress in any way, a person takes an active part in the furthering of this ideology, which makes them a Stakeholder.

Early on in the WordPress Governance Project meetings, the question of a clear definition of WordPress Users and Stakeholders came up. With no official definitions beyond “WordPress is for the people who use it” and “WordPress is for everybody”, the project started work on a research project to group the different stakeholders of WordPress into Personas. The document presented yesterday is the beginning of this research project.

I should preface this by saying I was not part of the team working on this project. My role was solely as a reviewer of the final text. That said, I stand behind the result 100%.

To start, there are two statements:

  1. The WordPress User is anyone using WordPress (past, present, or future)
  2. Every WordPress User is by definition also a Stakeholder in the project.

If these two statements can be agreed upon as a hypothesis, it is possible to work from them to create personas identifying the different types of Stakeholders within the project. This is important because it turns the poorly defined amorphous blob of the “WordPress User” into structured and segmented groups of Stakeholders, each with their own distinct Goals and Needs, Hopes and Fears, Challenges and Opportunities. This grouping also allows for a weighting of influence for each group: When the goals or needs of one group conflict with those of another, what group takes precedence? How is this weighting decided? And what mechanisms are in place to challenge this weighting? Defining Stakeholder Personas is an essential part of understanding WordPress: Its impact, its cultures, its diversity, and its governance.

This is the beginning

Identifying the Stakeholders of WordPress” is not a complete and final decree of how the WordPress Stakeholders should be sorted into Personas. It is the beginning of a longer process of identifying Personas within the WordPress user base so we can better serve those we build the application and its community for.

In the wake of the publication of the document, some relevant queries have been raised including questions about its purpose (which I believe I’ve answered above), and what research it was based on. This last question brings us back to something I mentioned earlier: if we don’t have qualitative or quantitative research to build on, how can we define reliable and accurate Personas? Here’s my answer:

The liberal definition of the WordPress user as “everyone” using WordPress is, from my perspective, dangerous because it stands in the way of having serious conversations about the real impacts WordPress has on the people who use the application because with such a diverse user group, it appears as if no clear Personas can be defined. However, that definition is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future so as they say, it is what it is.

If we take this definition literally, it can be further interpreted as “anyone in the world with the capability to use WordPress” meaning anyone with access to a computer and a reliable internet connection. If we agree to this broad definition, we have made the user base so broad and diverse any research about the internet-using public becomes relevant data for the creation of Personas for WordPress. This means until we do extensive and rigorous qualitative and quantitative research on the WordPress user base, we can rely on other research to inform our Personas.

The Stakeholder Personas proposed in the Identifying the Stakeholders of WordPress are a starting point for this process. The document proposes rational Personas based on levels of involvement and types of uses of the application. Moving forward, we need contributions from people like you to improve these Personas through research (new or related) and exploration.

Contributions welcome!

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