In the past couple of weeks, as I was moving more posts for my 100 Peaks archive over from my photography site to this personal blog, I tried the new “Gutenberg” block editor for WordPress, multiple times. Maybe it just means that I’m getting old but for the life of me, I just can’t get used to it. That’s not very helpful critique of course, so I’m going to try and explain a little bit what is wrong with it, from my “user” point of view.
I’ve been using WordPress, with the PHP-based WP-Admin and its “Classic” editor since the end of 2011, on multiple photography-related websites on various hosting companies, as well as two personal blogs, hosted on wordpress.com.
That being said, my posts are usually fairly simple, both with regards to the elements in them, as well as the layout. Keeping mobile usage in mind leaves little room for fancy design elements that would work well both on desktop computers with a big screen, and mobile devices with a small screen.
In my articles there’s text, sometimes more, sometimes less, and a few photos or screenshots as illustrations. For my purposes, I actually never thought that anything was missing from Classic Editor. I could get everything done with it.
Everything that I’m explaining below is based on a WordPress.com hosted site (this one), using the “classic” WP-Admin interface (ie. not the “React” based new interface). Newer Gutenberg features like group-blocks (or block groups?!?) that go into the development version (the plugin for self-hosted WordPress installations, NOT the one integrated in the WordPress core!), aren’t available here as of writing this.
Text in Gutenberg
Let’s talk about the text first. This is actually my biggest grievance: in the Block editor, each paragraph, each list, each image and even each heading (!) is turned into a separate block. While I’m drafting/composing I move these paragraphs (or sentences within them) around, and then the UI overlays for formatting etc. pop in and out, are visually in the way, and overall just make me nervous.
How am I supposed to concentrate on what I want to write, pick my own brain for the right words, when these things flicker on and off in the editor all the time and get in the way as I move around with the cursor or mouse? This is THE most important part of every blog, the feature that everyone will use daily, and it is horrible to use it.
In an attempt to not go crazy while drafting, I inserted a “Classic Editor” block to write all my text in it as one piece, and then maybe, at the end when I think I’m done writing, convert it into paragraph-blocks, for the sake of using them. (but if I’m doing that only for the sake of using them though, it begs the question why I would do that, at all.)
For my regular text, the Gutenberg blocks are of absolutely no use to me. I much prefer it that all text “sticks together” as one unit, in the Classic Editor. What I’m writing is one visual piece, and not fragmented into tiny blocks with flickering UI elements.
This would be so easy to fix: just don’t split each paragraph, heading and list into a separate block automatically. If I want a certain paragraph or just a sentence to be different, it would make much more sense to mark it and then, and only then, have an option “split here”, or whatever you want to call it. I call this “the MailChimp editor way” (for those of you who know and use MailChimp).
As it is now, if the Block editor was my only option for drafting text, then I’d do that in a word processor or even just a text editor, and then copy & paste it into WordPress to add links, formatting, pictures, etc.
Let’s look at the images. I want to insert a gallery with five photos. So I add a “gallery” block and upload images to the Media Library from there. So far, so good! Then I want to switch the gallery to a single-column layout, like I do most of the time now (I explained why here: WordPress, Galleries, Mobile, Responsiveness, AMP?!). I click on the “edit pencil”…
…and there are NO options at all to change how the gallery is rendered?! No, wait. The options must be hidden somewhere else, right? And indeed, they are: in the right-hand panel where all blocks have their options. It makes sense and it doesn’t, at the same time: the arrangement and order of images are in the “gallery edit” pop-up (pencil icon) – but the options for the columns and size are OUTSIDE the gallery edit pop-up.
Options that control one and the same thing (the appearance of the gallery) are separated into two different places. They conform to the Gutenberg conventions, I guess, but they’re confusing. When I click “Edit gallery” then I expect to be able to control ALL aspects of the gallery, and not just the order of the images in it.
So I thought I’d add another Classic Editor block, then write the [gallery] shortcode in HTML mode, switch to Visual, and edit my gallery the conventional way. Nope. It doesn’t work, at all. There’s an empty gallery in the Classic Editor block and I can’t get it filled with photos. The gallery shortcode feature of the Classic Editor is broken.
So I insert a Gutenberg gallery, switch to a single column, hit “Preview” – and there are no captions. When I hover my mouse over an image in the gallery in the editor, a field “Enter Caption” pops up – but the images already have captions, every single one! I can see them in the Media Library and when I click “Edit Gallery”. Why does the Gutenberg gallery block not use them? How can something so trivial slip into the production environment? This was the point where I switched back to the Classic Editor for good. Where things just work.
The fix for the Block Editor would be a) to simply replicate the gallery layout options into the gallery edit feature and b) just use the darn captions that I already entered in the gallery editor… 😛
One last test, though. I have ONE single page with a table on this site. The Classic Editor doesn’t even have an option to build tables, so I thought Gutenberg must surely be better at this. To begin with, converting the existing table into a block fails. Great. So I add a new block for a table and define it: 100 rows, 5 columns. The editor is getting a bit slow at this point and then guess what? It doesn’t even show a GRID to maneuver in this table!
That makes it really, really hard to visually identify individual cells. The old Classic Editor does that when you just copy & paste an HTML table from somewhere else – but the best the Gutenberg table block can do is color every other line in grey and THAT’S IT. Those are ALL the formatting options for a table after Gutenberg has been publicly available with WordPress 5 for six months. Grey lines yes/no. No grid lines, nothing. Wow.
Assume that I’m done with editing and ready to hit Publish. In the sidebar, I switch to the “Document” settings and then realize that I don’t have an excerpt yet. I click on a block and copy some text from the article. I want to paste it into the “Excerpt” box now but the box is gone – because as soon as I clicked on the block, the sidebar switched back to the block controls, automatically. I have to switch to the “Document” controls AGAIN. This is something I need to do with EVERY article that I write. Who tested this for everyday usability? Sigh.
Has Gutenberg been beta tested with “normal” users in a monitored environment, at all? I find it hard to believe that no one realized what a struggle it is to perform the most simple things with it.
Gutenberg adds a LOT of interesting features and options – and in doing so, it makes the everyday tasks with everything that used to be really simple and logical confusing and complicated, or even breaks it (gallery image captions).
In the new (REACT) interface of WP-Admin, Gutenberg is promoted like this: “Try the new block editor and level up your layout.” – and that’s the problem, precisely! It is great for designing pages with multiple elements and a more complex layout – but how often do you need to do that? For the mundane everyday task of just writing, it is a flickering, confusing, dysfunctional click-orgy.
Simple text and basic layout are the two features I use the most in my articles though. This is the bread & butter stuff that should work fluently, unobtrusively, and intuitively. In reality, working with Gutenberg blocks in either of them is simply an annoyance. This technology constantly gets in the way. It breaks my concentration, flow and creativity.
I can’t help thinking that Gutenberg was made by people who do not actually write or create daily, but only shove UI elements with “dorem ipsum” filler texts and free creative commons stock photos around. Many of the available gimmicks look like a playground for geeks – you’ll hardly need them for day-to-day writing and blogging. I find it hard to believe that any serious or prolific blogger who writes long-form text would say “this is great, guys!”
Isn’t it telling that, even with the Gutenberg editor active, there’s a link “Classic Editor” for every post in the list of posts on wordpress-com hosted sites? Maybe that’s actually the solution – keep both editors, and make them work together better…