Barley is similar to Medium. It’s a paid service you activate and control through your WordPresss dashboard via a plugin. Once it’s installed you can edit your content on the front end—that means you see a post the way your readers do as you’re writing it.
Not long after Barley launched, Mark Jaquith (a lead WordPress developer) announced a new front-end drag-and-drop page layout editor named VelocityPage. This plugin lets you build custom page layouts with a drag-and-drop interface. (Full disclosure: I haven’t tried VelocityPage yet. If you want to see what VelcityPage can do, they have a great demo video.)
Not long after that, Chris Knowles wrote “Why Front-End Editing Is A Drag And Should Be Dropped“. Since I disagreed with a few points in the post, I thought it would be interesting to look at front-end editors from another perspective: a designer’s.
First things first
I would have separated the plugins into two types of front-end editors and evaluated them individually. Front-end content editors are what I think of when someone talks about front-end editors. I would include tools that emulate the Medium and Barley interface in this group.
There are also front-end page editors. These front-end editors actually let you drag and drop layout components. You can arrange them any way you in addition to styling content. That’s what VelocityPage and several themes do. Because they solve different problems for different users, it’s important to evaluate the unique pros and cons of each in the context of who’s using them.
A difference of opinion
I’ve got to give the author credit—usually only news site comments can get me to actually talk to my computer as I’m reading :D Since I disagreed with several points, the best way to cover them all is to explain how I would answer the same questions posed in the article:
What problem is inline editing trying to solve?
It’s a logical solution to a common problem
Most content creators don’t write code. They’re also not all that comfortable in the WordPress dashboard. When I show some clients the “kitchen sink” button in the editor, they’re amazed at the other styling options that are available.
When you let an author see their content the way their audience will, you’re doing something amazing: removing the abstraction of a code editor. You’re not asking someone to visualize how a bunch of text in a box will look in their layout—you’re showing them as they create it.
Even experienced WordPress users can benefit from a front-end content editor. Like, I’m the writing equivalent of a cowboy coder (a wrangler writer?)—I write posts entirely in the WordPress dashboard.
Every time I try a different headline style or add a new image it takes a few steps. I need to edit the content, save it, reload the preview and see if everything is showing up like I hoped it would. It’s not a big deal, until I’ve done it 50 times in one post. (Thank god for the limit post revisions plug-in, right?)
A front-end editor content can make my life easier. If I’m able to try different styles without all the steps I normally take, I can save a lot of time and typing. I know immediately if an h4 works better than an h5 with single click, making design decisions faster and easier.
What Happened To The Separation of Content and Design?
I’m pretty sure that was a Web Standards thing
Separation of presentation and content was part of the Web Standards Project’s mission statement and is what helped advance the idea that CSS was an awesome idea.
I remember nested tables and hoping the font tag find-and-replace you just did wouldn’t screw up your HTML. So yeah, it makes perfect sense to separate content from presentation…when you’re coding a website.
Content creators aren’t coding websites, though. They’re writers and business owners. The visual editor doesn’t give you a good idea at all of what your final product will be. It’s more of a “Let’s try this and see what happens” experience.
Inline editors change all that. You don’t have to visualize your content in your design—you just have to write your story.
We Are Not All Designers
I agree with the author—for truly professional results you need a designer’s help. That’s especially true if you want to use a page layout editor.
I’m actually a little uncomfortable with a message VelocityPage is sending. A headline on the homepage starts “No more hiring expensive designers”. It makes designers a tool that drags boxes around on a page and is easily replaced by a plugin. That just isn’t true.
Where a tool like VelocityPage will be really powerful is when designers offer their clients the added value of an easy-to-use editing interface. It’s up to the designer to set up a system that gives the client flexibility to arrange content however they’d like without compromising the design. That means even non-designers can make design decisions without breaking the site.
A Threat To Continuity
You do what you can do, and that’s all you can do
Once you hand a site over to a client, they’re going to start making changes. I’d rather have them dragging and dropping boxes of pre-styled content around on a page than trying to edit PHP and CSS files, or adding new fonts, colors and sizes in the WordPress admin.
Someone once told me “If you make a website the client can break, you didn’t do your job well.” All you can do on any project is set up consistent styles, create solid content templates, try to think of every contingency, hand over a style guide, and hope the client values your advice enough to follow it.
When you’re talking about content editing, though, a front-end editor is a fabulous tool for enforcing consistency. The thing that impressed me most about the Medium front-end editor is how they were able to publish articles from hundreds of authors and maintain their visual voice across them all. A front-end editor is an easy way to make sure content creators style their articles consistently.
Trying To Solve A problem That Doesn’t Exist
Different people have different problems and need different tools
There’s a reason Medium blew the hell up. Their users love the front-end editing system. It’s a simple, content-focused experience that resonates with writers. It’s also a driving force behind their consistent brand—every article looks like a Medium article.
I don’t think we’d be seeing the sudden explosion of similar tools if there wasn’t an audience for them. I know when I talked about Barley at a recent Meetup everyone’s eyes lit up. Are they for everyone? Not yet. But is there an audience? Hell yeah.
I can see why a developer would feel more comfortable with Gust. It uses Markdown, so you can use lots of carets and hash tags and stuff when you’re writing. It looks like code.
If I was just trying to write a blog post, though, Markdown would scare the crap out of me. I wouldn’t feel comfortable recommending this for any of my clients that weren’t also developers.
Different tools can solve the same problem for different audiences. What’s great is how many choices we have now.
A Front-end Editor Is Just A Tool
You just need to use the right tool for the right job
I agree with the author. Hiring a team of professionals is the best way to get professional results. But even if a project has a team of copywriters, designers, and developers, eventually the client takes control. That’s the point of WordPress, right?
A front-end editor allows designers to set up a system that lets clients add and edit content easily and consistently. If a designer makes it as painless as possible to let a client customize their content without any effort—that’s something that really adds value.
Should you use a front-end editor?
The best answer is always “It depends”
You’ll have to try different options and see which ones fit your needs. In the end you’re the only one who can decide on the best tool for you.
You might decide that none of front-end editing tools are a good fit. That’s cool too. The important thing is to take who will be using the tool and how they’ll be using it into account when you’re evaluating all the available options.