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What the channel could learn from WordPress founder Mike Little

Nick Booth gets some advice from the WordPress founder that the best thing is to keep it simple and don’t bamboozle people with too many options

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The problem with software developers like Mike Little is that they know too much. He is a master of many programming languages and disciplines and he set up Number 10 Downing Street site for the Cabinet Office.

You might think that people with encyclopaedic expertise on everything are wonderful, but to be honest, they have the capacity to really get on everyone’s wick. It’s nothing personal. In fact, it’s admirable that anyone can accumulate complete mastery of any subject. The danger is that people who know too much can never give you a straight answer. Ask them what the time is, and they’ll respond with: “Well, it all depends what you want. It depends what region you’re in and what system of measurement is being used…..”

And so on. And on. I give up as soon as they use the phrase, “it’s horses for courses, really.”

Little, who was co-founder of web site building software WordPress, has managed to get 26 per cent of the world’s web site owners to use his software. That’s an incredible achievement, given the complexity of options the system offers and the cluelessness of the potential customers. So how did he solve the conundrum of simplifying his system without underselling it?

What lessons can the channel learn from the WordPress philosophy?

Don’t give clients options, give them decisions, says Little. Every time you give a user an option, you are asking them to make a decision. When a user doesn’t care or understand the option this ultimately leads to frustration,” he adds. Service providers might assume that options for everything are a good thing, but these choices end up being technical ones, choices that the average end user has no interest in. “It’s our duty as developers to make smart design decisions and avoid putting the weight of technical choices on our end users,” says Little.

Still, when Little and his partner Matt Mullenweg started WordPress in 2003, it wasn’t like that at all.

“In the early days we weren’t very good at this,” says Little, who says WordPress was too much of a technical tool. The improvements he and Mullenweg made came after they gave real, non-technical users a look. Any reseller or service provider must get the simpletons using the software as early and often as possible. But don’t listen to what they say, look what they do when attempting key tasks. “If you ask them, they will tell you it was easier than they actually found it. You must observe them. Then produce software that is easy for the majority,” says Little.

Don’t get too clever, in other words. Ignore that voice in your head that says “but surely someone else might want to do this in an more advanced way”. Instead of adding options or complexity to the software, offer a simple option to modify that behaviour with a plugin, add-on or app.

Keep the core software simple so it meets the needs of the majority, advises Little. He must know something, as he’s got the biggest web publishing platform.

Mike Little was one of the speakers at this year’s Wuthering Bytes – a festival of technology in the Pennines.

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