WordPress.org theme demos leave a lot to be desired

WordPress.org has made incredible strides the last few years on improving the quality of the themes in the repository. Every theme goes through a stringent approval process, thanks to the WordPress Theme Review Team (sidenote: get involved here). But discovery can still be challenging on WordPress.org.

There is a decent, but not perfect, filtering capability on the main theme page of WordPress.org, but the theme discovery process really falls apart with demos. You all know what I mean. When you hit “preview” on a theme page, that terrible thickbox pops up with the theme previewed in a “default” blog format that can really look terrible on many themes. It's a far cry from the carefully crafted demos of just about any commercial theme.

Below is an example of a theme I recently discovered, Pinboard. The one on the top is what it's supposed to look like, and the one on the bottom is what the WordPress preview shows (weird modal alignment and all):

pinboard-screenshot

pinboard-bad-preview

Yep. The .org demo preview doesn't even come close to showcasing what the theme really offers. Now, I know theme authors can create their own demos on their own sites, but why can't WordPress help them? There's this great tool I know of, afterall, called Multisite. I imagine it would be worth the effort to give authors the option of setting up real demos in an official WordPress capacity, on a subsite of a main Multisite install.

I'm sure there are challenges with such an endeavor, and I don't like to complain without doing anything, so if there is anything I can do to help something like this move forward, I'd love to offer up some of my time to do so. Hell, even if I can just promote a better way to showcase WordPress.org themes, I'll do so. These are great themes, and they deserve great showcases.

Some of us spend a good deal of time bragging about how much better coded the free .org themes are. But most people simply don't use a theme because we tell them the code is good. Even though the themes are free, they still need to be better sold to the public by offering better demo options to authors.

Ask any commercial theme provider. The demo is everything to a buyer. Even a free theme is an investment of a user's time and energy, and ain't nobody got time to install something without seeing it in action first.

Similar Posts

33 Comments

  1. The demos are pretty useless, but I don’t even think they need to host better demos, just give authors the option to specify a different demo link of their own instead. Ditching the lightbox and linking directly instead would be nice too!

    1. Plusses for this one. Direct demo link would be more than nice! That could be data from style.css header. Naturally people can abuse this but it’s reviewed anyway.

    2. Interesting. I didn’t even realize you couldn’t link to a custom demo. I certainly see abuse potential w/ that, but I don’t see why it couldn’t be monitored somehow. Or at least have a “report abuse” button or something.

    3. Yeah, it could be setup the same as the theme homepage link, they already have to vet that link in the theme review to make sure it’s legit.

      1. The theme reviewers could tell you if vetting another link is feasible, but actually updating the theme directory to support the links would be above their paygrade, Otto would probably have to do that.

  2. Allowing the theme developer to define a demo link isn’t as simple as it sounds. That then means you need to monitor and make sure that the demo site doesn’t go down. It’s not uncommon for a developer to move on and lose interest in something or forget about it entirely. Let a hosting account expire, etc. Which means demo links that return 404 errors, broken sites, etc. I agree that the WP.org demos are not ideal but linking offsite isn’t the solution. Improving the tools provided to theme authors to make sure the demo appears correct is the solution.

    1. Good points. But it’s up to theme authors to maintain those links anyway and update theme when necessary.

      Custom demo link could also be only on the right under theme home page link.

    2. Did I lost my answer… Short version again.

      Those are really good points. As a compromise custom demo link could be only in the right under Theme Homepage link.

      Many themes support plugins also so we need to have those installed in demo version also.

    3. Maybe having working links could be a requirement. WP could ping the link and disqualify it if it failed a lot of times. Just as they seem to be hiding some old plugins now (that have not been updated in a long time).

  3. i couldn’t agree more on this brian. i’ve been puzzled over how useless these previews are. as it stands now, the 240×180 thumbnail is 10 times more informative than the preview.

  4. I think you’re highlighting the primary problematic area: static front pages with custom/featured content. Other than that use case, provided that Themes properly define sane defaults for Theme options (i.e. such that the Theme renders properly even without any user configuration), then the WPORG Theme demo will (should) work just fine. And note that there is an existing Trac ticket in development that, once finished, will enable Themes to designate static front pages, which may (hopefully) allow Themes to designate default content for those static front pages.

    As for allowing Themes to designate demo sites outside of WPORG: there be dragons.

    The issue is the imprimatur inherent in the WPORG preview modal, versus the clear distinction of going to an external site view the demo. Yes, Themes are reviewed – at a single point in time. After that initial review when closing the Theme-Trac ticket upon Theme submission, the Theme Review Team has no control or oversight over Theme-designated external URLs. As Carl points out: that lack of oversight can lead to obsolete/404 pages at best, and outright abuse at worst.

    I think, also, that the Theme Customizer makes (or can/will make) much of this discussion irrelevant, since it enables preview-without-saving-changes, using the user’s own content.

  5. Totall agree! There’s a lot of effort that goes into the Theme Review process, both from a developers perspective in getting the theme up to scratch, and also from the actual reviewer themselves. It’s a shame that themes can’t be shown looking their best.

  6. I don’t browse the themes on .org that often but you’ve raised a pretty good point here. I wonder how many themes have been shrugged off as looking like crap because of the default demo content that is within them. You’re Pinboard example is a great one. It’s a great looking theme but looks terrible in the WordPress.org previewer.

    Upon doing some digging around, those themes on WordPress.org or at least the ones since the WPTRT was created go through a Unit Test process. That test involves unit test sample data located here http://codex.wordpress.org/Theme_Unit_Test

    Now I wonder how much difficult the review teams job would be if the demo content had to be changed to allow themes to look the way they are supposed to look when previewed. I also question how feasible or practical it would be to allow all sorts of different demo content. It sort of doesn’t make sense if the theme uses the default demo content and passes with flying colors and then is able to upload their actual demo content XML file which may break the theme, even though it shouldn’t.

    1. I’ve argued for the demo data to by synchronized with the Theme Unit Test data, but thus far that’s been a losing battle. Apparently, the Theme Unit Test data are more “edge case” focused, rather than “nice-looking content” focused. That’s true, of course; but I personally think that the Theme Unit Test data are perfectly presentational for Theme demo purposes.

      1. It’s called “Theme Test Data” for a reason: It’s to test edge cases as you say. However, for theme demo purposes there should be a better data set more suited to showcase theme functionality.

  7. I agree the theme demo content is not great and should be changed. However, handing the reins completely over to the theme developer is not a good idea either because the developer is then allowed to create custom content that looks great but is hard for the end user to replicate. I see a lot of premium and custom themes that have fantastic demos that are next to impossible to replicate because the content is so specialized to make the theme look good.

    The idea of a standardized demo content set is that all themes are presented as equal and can be compared side by side. The reason the problems that are described in this post occur is that we don’t develop themes for blogs any more; we develop themes for websites. The demo content is content from a standard blog.

    I would suggest having a mandatory set of demo content (updated to be more current) and then allow the developer to submit extra demo content in the publishing process. That way any custom presentational elements (images, post types, settings etc) can be added to the theme so it is presented properly, and that content will be handled in the Theme Directory system, not on the theme developer’s website.

  8. A better set of demo content is something that was discussed at the Community Summit last October, and I’m all for having a better set of data there that more clearly showcases the look of themes. The unit test data is for testing, not really great for demo’ing.

    Additionally, there are some improvements we need to make to the backend of the theme previewer instance, which are outside the scope of this discussion as such. Just wanted to say that we know about these issues. ๐Ÿ™‚

    However, I agree with Carl Hancock above, allowing an external site or link to be displayed just raises the issue of monitoring those links, which is somewhere I don’t think we have to go just yet. It’s perfectly possible to come up with a good set of demo data that will work universally. If somebody wants to get some people together and give it a go, we’re more than happy to take a look at the result and make suggestions and improvements.

    1. I’m glad this was talked about at the summit and I look forward to what may come from that.

      Isn’t it worthwhile to give authors more granular control over the demo? For instance, assign available widgets to sidebars, choose a page template for the home page instead of latest posts, etc.

      Some of the biggest failures I see on .org demos is a sidebar gets put into some sort of header or feature sidebar location, and imagery is unassigned or poorly assigned. These things could be controlled by an author, I think without being abused, in a custom rolled Multisite with special roles / permission; made available to theme authors just for demos. Is that my worst idea ever?

      Also, getting demos out of that modal would be great. That thing is awful.

          1. I just approved a whole bunch on non-spam. I guess all these keywords are tricking Akistmet.

      1. I’m not particularly thrilled about the idea of giving authors control over the content displayed with their theme.

        If we adhere to the platonic ideal, then universals exist independently of particulars. Meaning that ideally, the theme should look good no matter what content you have in it. After all, the user controls the content, not the author. This may mean that a theme should choose good default settings for displaying things. When a user installs a theme and it doesn’t look like the demo, then the user will get an instant bad experience.

        The demo content should be a base universal, with some posts, some pages, a basic menu, and basic sidebar content. These are universal things that pretty much every theme should support. We may need to roll some plugins for the previewer to ensure that any given theme uses this set of content correctly, but that’s reasonably possible to do, I think.

        If a theme includes, say, a slider at the top, then it should have some decent default settings for it, which instantly disappear when the user changes them. Both the options/settings API and the theme-mod system support default settings, so this isn’t particularly onerous for a theme author to do right.

        1. That might do a good job of representing what a theme looks like by default, but what about a bigger screenshot and/or multiple screenshots to give users a better idea of what it looks like with some setup or plugins added?

          1. Multiple screenshots is something core has to support first. We almost got it in a version ago. Maybe eventually.

            Bigger screenshot support is there already, albeit the intention behind that is for retina displays. I believe the recommended size is 640×480 for a screenshot at the moment, but I may be slightly off there.

    2. Itโ€™s perfectly possible to come up with a good set of demo data that will work universally

      It’s definitely possible but really hard. There are couple of things that comes to my mind.

      – Themes are different and they are made for different purposes.

      Different layout “options” (1 column, 2 columns, 3 columns) with different widget areas

      – Different Custom Page Templates

      – Support for plugins like EDD, bbPress, Custom Content Portfolio. Those plugins needs to be installed so that we can show off the design.

      But I guess those kind of things should be left to authors own demo site. And I can definitely understand why you won’t allow that demo link, it could get ugly.

      It’s great to hear that you are have discussed how theme previewer could be better.

    3. New try…

      ——

      Itโ€™s perfectly possible to come up with a good set of demo data that will work universally

      It’s definitely possible but really hard. There are couple of things that comes to my mind.

      – Themes are different and they are made for different purposes.

      Different layout “options” (1 column, 2 columns, 3 columns) with different widget areas

      – Different Custom Page Templates

      – Support for plugins like EDD, bbPress, Custom Content Portfolio. Those plugins needs to be installed so that we can show off the design.

      But I guess those kind of things should be left to authors own demo site. And I can definitely understand why you won’t allow that demo link, it could get ugly. It’s great to hear that you are have discussed how theme previewer could be better.

  9. (weird modal alignment and all)

    This should be fixed now. You may need to reload or clear cache to get the fixed JS code.

    BTW, emailing us about these sort of issues tends to get things fixed faster, especially when they’re specific code problems that can be seen easily.

  10. Just to re-iterate this point, which may have gotten missed in the conversation above: I’d be *thrilled* to have a better set of demo data to use.

    So, theme authors: Get together, make a site somewhere, start to put some demo data on it. Work together to create it. Argue about it. Pick fights. Whatever. ๐Ÿ˜‰

    Come up with a good community-made set of demo data, and I assure you that I, for one, will certainly pay attention. This is something that can be easily community-driven and created. Once we have a site with the data, then it’s a simple matter of an export/import to get it onto the previewer. Well, not quite that simple, but still pretty simple.

Comments are closed.