An interview with Scott Rollo of The Theme Foundry

Scott Rollo has been Team Lead for The Theme Foundry nearly since its beginning in 2010. Long known for the simplicity, versatility, long-term support, and attractiveness of their themes, The Theme Foundry is probably best known for the Make theme and its friendly drag-and-drop page builder plugin, a freemium product pair available at wordpress.org. The Make builder plugin was released for use with any theme last year as a standalone product, and now it is joined by HappyForms. I got in touch with Scott to see how TTF is preparing for Gutenberg (they’re taking a wait-and-see approach now), and while I was in their Slack forum Scott shared HappyForms with customers. In the interview that follows, Scott talks more about HappyForms, TTF’s philosophy, and how they’re focusing on niche plugin markets now.

DK: What do you see as the biggest changes that you’ve dealt with or are facing now, as a company?

SR: Back in the early days, we very much identified as a theme shop.  We used to collaborate with hugely talented designers to make innovative premium themes. And while we still love themes, nowadays things are very different for us. We’re knee-deep into developing plugins — and we love it!

Plugins are just a bigger pool for us to swim in. There are more users per product, more competition, and more long-term growth. It’s an existing space!

The real challenge for us now is knowing which plugin niches to pursue. And really, what we’re looking for is existing plugins with (1) wildly successful user demand and (2) something that’s tired. Spotting these opportunities excites us! Because we feel we can then step in, apply our utilitarian approach to design and engineering, and bring to market a truly better product. And the best part is, our competitors, in a sense, have already done a huge amount of research and development over the years into what that market niche needs. So it’s a very natural evolution — spotting the weakness and capitalising on that opportunity. That’s very much how I see the nature of the changing WordPress market in general, actually.

DK: That’s a very pragmatic strategy — what weaknesses is HappyForms taking on in the custom form plugin niche? The interface surprised me — I haven’t seen something like that before, where you’re using the customizer UI but within the WordPress admin, and not on the front end.

SR: Deliverability, usability, functionality and customizability are the four required ingredients for a winning form builder. And that’s not a blind guess on our part, either. We’ve helped nearly 1,000,000 small businesses create their WordPress websites over the past 10 years, and this is what they’ve told us.

So when we set out to design HappyForms, these were our guiding lights. We knew that email notifications had to be easily and reliably delivered. We knew that people were after a native, preview-oriented form builder. We knew that the free product had to offer a robust toolset — enough to make competitors’ paid products look comparatively inadequate. And we knew we had to provide comprehensive style controls so people can match their form to their brand. So that’s what we did with HappyForms! It was very methodical and calculated in that sense.

DK: What inspired or guided this particular approach to HappyForms’ interface? I’ve had to deal with some enormous forms recently, while also revisiting the ideas behind the “time well spent” movement, which seems to be having its moment, in defence of “humane technology.” Working with forms, or any complex plugins, often feels like torture, or at least time wasted. How do you think about user experience, as a team? Are there particular good and bad patterns you’re especially attentive to?

SR: ‘Torture’ is the perfect description, Dan. You see, I think most WordPress products, by natural result, suffer from two warped frames of thought. These being (1) products are created by developers with wrongly assumed user knowledge, and (2) the product attempts to achieve too much, rending it overwhelming.

We’re very much aware of this general lack of empathy towards user’s needs. We always elevate these tendencies by continuously challenging our own thinking. We ask, does this make immediate sense? What is the underlying problem this solves? Can this problem be solved without user interaction?

You can see this methodical approach in every aspect of HappyForms — or at the very least we hope you can!

Take HappyForms’ interface, for example. Almost every competing form builder ‘hijacks’ WordPress’ existing styles. Why? Well, you would assume it was easier for the production team to accomplish their goals by doing so. But how on earth does this help the user? So instead we carefully designed HappyForms to feel like an extension of WordPress. You’ll see we only repeat core UI styles and UX patterns. This way users know how to interact with the product from the get-go. Learning a product is one of the greatest cognitive strains on a new user, so why not design to avoid this burden? It seems so simple when you approach development through the right lens.

This same thinking extends to HappyForms’ interactions. You’ll see that the form building experience is sorted into “steps.” This systematically guides users through their internal dialogue: Where do I start? What do I do here? What’s this function? We design HappyForms’ interface and surrounding langue to answer these questions, because we want to empower users subliminally. We think of this as our “helping hand” approach to product design. A good rule of thumb is to realise the design isn’t yet right until the design itself makes the documentation redundant.

DK: Theme Foundry themes and the Make Builder certainly resemble that description where the documentation is almost redundant. Has simplicity always been an intentional, thematic focus in the company culture? How do you support that kind of thinking when the default tendency is as you describe — to gratify developer assumptions about what users want, and the market pressure for an “everything-burger,” which probably comes from users not knowing what they want. What have you done to get past assumptions to real knowledge of what the end user wants?

SR: We’ve always had a utilitarian approach. And over the years we’ve spent a great deal of time furthering this discipline. To us, simplicity is the yardstick used to measure quality. We encourage this ethos not only in the product design itself, but also in our democratic company culture. We’ve always believed that the best idea wins. We don’t have any form of strict company hierarchy, either — it’s an ‘all hands on deck’ approach. We do this to eliminate personal biases and optimise clear thinking. Once you see things as they are, it’s much easier to simplify.

Furthering the point about biases, I suppose we’re also very fortunate to have a team with a diverse background of knowledge — whether that is philosophy, development, design, business or psychology. So each of our personal interests typically pull each other’s tendencies towards a balanced solution.

DK: Thanks Scott, for taking the time to fill us in on what you and your team have been up to. 

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