How Technology has Shaped the Power Dynamics Between Designers, Developers, and Marketers

WordPress turns 20 this year, which means developers, designers, and marketers have been working behind the scenes to build, design, and create content for websites for two decades. Continuous change in content consumption and tension between the important teams that work in WordPress means creating websites hasn’t always been easy, and certainly comes with its own challenges.

In this session, WP Engine Founder and Chief Innovation Officer Jason Cohen starts at the beginning, back in 2003, looking at website creation then and the ways WordPress has and will continue to shape the workflows between designers, developers, and marketers.

Video: How technology has shaped the power dynamics between designers, developers, and marketers

Session Slides:


JASON COHEN: Hello, and welcome to DE{CODE} 2023, the virtual developer conference produced by WP Engine. My name is Jason Cohen. I’m the Founder of WP Engine. I’ll be kicking things off today. But we have an amazing event with dozens of sessions of interesting, modern topics all over the WordPress development world. So stay tuned for the whole day. I think you’ll learn a lot and be excited about a lot of the technological developments that have been happening recently.

So I’m going to kick it off with an interesting topic that over the last 13 years of running WP Engine I’ve seen change, and develop, and unfold and I think it’s very interesting and relevant to all of us, which is the power dynamics between the people who make websites, the designers, the developers, and the marketers. And to start off, I want to take you back to a time where some of you are probably not alive, but those of you who are alive will remember this kind of crap. These were the websites of the ’90s.

Remember when Amazon was a I think a swimming pool? It looks like a swimming pool to me. It doesn’t look like the Amazon River to me. But every website looked like this, that kind of background color, and there was always Times Roman font. Look, they have a million sites. That’s pretty good, I guess.

And we would search the web with these crappy tools. [LAUGHING] Nine search results, that’s a lot back then. Google was pretty sweet back in the day. 25 million pages, wow, that’s a lot. You could select 10 results or even more. I also like that it’s from Stanford. It’s not yet Google proper yet. It’s just a Stanford thing. I wonder if they made any money on that. I think probably so.

What about the technology behind the scenes of these amazing websites? Well, if you were like me, you probably had a server in a closet. I literally had a server in a closet much like this, including the fan, because it got hot in there, of course, and you got to blow the hot air out so things don’t melt, the world before cloud and I remember also if you had to change the website, you’d take a chair in here and plug your keyboard and a little monitor in and change the website.

I can’t believe we did stuff like that, but we did. It was great, I guess and our entertainment has changed quite a bit. Sometimes, things come back around I guess. But my favorite part of this is Michael Jordan’s triceps. I mean, you know in this picture he was like sitting there flexing, knowing that this tricep is going to be on a poster or something, because even if you’re Michael Jordan, you got to get to show that you have muscles or something like that. I don’t know.

Is this better now? Did this movie get better? Was it ever good? I don’t know. But a lot of things have changed like the phones. Playing Snake used to be pretty fun, I guess. At least we would talk to each other more. So maybe that’s better.

Now we have computers in our pocket that are probably better than our laptops, which is I guess a good thing. It’s certainly an interesting development.

So in this past, in this weird world, what was the relationship between these obviously important players of making websites? The designers who design how it looks. Although, back then, you didn’t have much choice. The developers, the geeks who make it, and the site owners, the people who need that site to be effective in some fashion. And the answer is that developers just had all the power, because if the marketer wanted to change some text on the About Us page to fix a typo, they would have to open a ticket with a developer, and the developer would go in the closet and make the change.

So effectively, the developer has all the power, all the control, and that’s not good. Even for the developer that’s not good, because if you’re a software developer, you want to write code and make interesting things. You don’t want to be editing text for someone with a ticket. Like, this is not a fun thing to do. So not only do developers have all the power, but nobody’s happy with that situation. But that’s what it was at the beginning because it was new, and technology that’s new is often inaccessible.

So then what happened over time is that the marketers finally gained more and more control because of things like WordPress. Now, Matt Mullenweg probably remembers this version of WordPress. It’s 1.0.1. And as simplistic as this obviously is, and anything that’s version 1.0.1 is going to be simple, it’s already an incredible amount of power compared to what marketers just had.

I mean, there’s a text box and, they can change the text. They can even make it bold and as silly and simplistic as that sounds, and I guess it is simplistic especially by our modern standards, it’s incredibly powerful, because now you can change the typo in the About Us page without talking to the developer. That’s an amazing amount of power compared to what you had. And that’s just version 1.0.1 that barely did anything, and did the least that WordPress would ever do.

So even just in the very beginning of WordPress, it starts to change the power dynamic of who is able to do what, who is in control of what and I think that’s an interesting dynamic to thread through the current day and in the future and see how that’s changing, which is sometimes for good, but actually, sometimes for ill and that means there’s something we need to do about it.

So zooming ahead, because it’s fun to look at the past, but we get it, of course, WordPress has brought the marketer into a whole new light and designers too with the theme and plugin system and WordPress celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, which is just phenomenal and unthinkable and I think any of us, no matter how long we’ve been with the WordPress community, probably are still stunned every time we think about how long it’s been here for a tech, for technology certainly, but even just in general. As human beings, 20 years is a lot of anybody’s life. So that’s pretty amazing.

WordPress continues of course to eat the internet where most CMSs, or most websites that are large that use a CMS use WordPress, which is just phenomenal and hard to imagine how such a thing can be in something the size of the internet, but it is and what WordPress has done– and we all know this– is it has created this balance of power between the marketers, and designers, and developers and it started of course, with the simple text box with a little bit of formatting, and then it went on to lots of things. We don’t have to list them all.

But if I can control menus as a marketer, I can make pages and organize my navigation and really build out entire sites, or multi-site, where I can launch multiple sites, entire sites without having to talk to a developer, or amazing SEO tools that are by far the leader in how to do SEO on the web today just built in that marketers can use to be as smart as possible, again, without talking to a developer, or creating forms people can fill out. And obviously, this is just four out of dozens and dozens of topics that are in WordPress that give power to the market in a way that doesn’t disempower the developer. Developers still make all kinds of things, such as making the tools that do this and designers of course, can make it look like anything they want and so everyone’s starting to have the powers that they should have and so everyone can do their job better. And WordPress, again, facilitating this through these features.

And that’s now culminated in the block editor and Full Site Editing in the last few years where we’ve taken yet another leap forward in general, and in particular in this dynamic of the developers, and the designers, and the site owners, and what this means. I think the Block Editor– and again, culminating in Full Site Editing– takes it to the next level of goodness. The developers aren’t losing any power. They still control how sites can be assembled, but now, they have a new tool.

So we had plugins and things like shortcodes. We had things like themes, obviously and now, we have another tool, and of course the tool is blocks and this is yet another way for a developer to create functionality that is visual, that can be mixed in with other things, that can be involved in a layout, that can have various configuration, that gives the marketer power to make specific kinds of changes to it.

And yet, the block is reusable. It’s testable. Whether you reuse it within your company or within your agency, or maybe you give it away on the internet, maybe you sell it on the internet, just all kinds of different ways of taking this capability and doing stuff with it just like we’ve been doing with plugins and themes for so long. It’s just another way for developers to create interactive and visual components, so fantastic for developers to do.

Now, it is true that you have to learn new technology. There’s things like React. There’s things like JavaScript. That is true. But of course, that’s our lot in life as developers, is to learn new technology sometimes. You don’t have to. You could be a COBOL developer, and they have a lot of job security as a COBOL developer. So you can do that. That is one of the career paths.

But mostly as a developer, we do have to learn technology sometimes in order to progress just as technology progresses. So to me, blocks is just one of those things where, yes, there’s something new to learn, and there’s great benefits for doing it and it helps WordPress in general as a platform for designing things on the web.

So developers are still empowered. What about designers? Ah, designers, I think on the one hand, it’s just getting started, and there’s all kinds of interesting future things that will help designers, which we’ll talk about at the end. But already, things are good, because designers can again, help design what are these blocks, what are these components.

And furthermore, there’s some new controls and tools that we didn’t have before that are now facilitated by the block editor. So for example, this is an actual screenshot from our intranet site, which obviously, is WordPress, and uses Full Site Editing and the block editor and what you’re seeing here is in this case, it’s not a marketer, but it is a site owner, because it’s our company intranet. So really, it’s our employee experience folks who work on this.

Anyway, it’s possible that you could say, oh, you could pick any color at all for the text color, or the background color, or border color, or something like that. But if you can pick any color at all, on the one hand, I guess that’s empowering to be able to pick anything at all and on the other hand, that means you’re not on brand, because what you’re seeing there is our WP Engine brand colors.

So on the one hand, you want to give the marketer the power to pick a color. On the other hand, maybe you want to stay within a brand palette, or you want to stay within that palette almost all the time, or certainly make it easy to pick colors out of the palette and so that’s what you’re seeing here and so this is us having configured the block editor with our brand palette.

And so it’s very easy for folks that, again, are not even not designers and not developers to make great content that looks good and is on brand. So this is a designer’s dream, to empower other people to do that and yet, stay on brand. If you really want to irk a designer, then get off brand. I’ve learned that too. And they’re right, by the way, they’re correct. [LAUGHING]

So what about the marketers? Well, again, I think if WordPress hadn’t already ushered in the golden age of empowering marketers, I think the block editor and Full Site Editing clearly, it’s even better, because now they can construct entire layouts of content or entire pages that are laid out differently. Whereas, before, you might need a developer to make a new template inside the theme or something like that.

So whether it’s custom headers and footers, sidebars, content areas, whole new pages with different layouts, I mean, it’s kind of all the things, and that’s the point. That’s why it’s so empowering because they can do all the things. You could create 20 landing pages in an afternoon yourself by dragging, and dropping, and different stuff, and then load it into the A/B tester, you can do it all by yourself. You don’t have to wait for a developer to code it. You don’t even have to wait for a designer to mock it up.

At WP Engine, we do this of course. Most companies at some scale do landing pages for stuff and test them and it used to take us weeks to design them, and then develop them, and then get them loaded into WordPress, and so on, and now it literally takes us an afternoon to make 20. And that’s incredibly empowering.

So here we are now at this age, and it’s great. WordPress has really empowered the three personas to do their best work together and that’s great. But there’s another trend that’s happening in web development generally and in WordPress development specifically, and that’s headless development, which we’ve talked about a lot as WP Engine and in our DevRel, and in DE{CODE] last year and we will talk about more this year, because it’s a continuing trend.

Right now, 3% of the largest websites on the internet are headless and just to put that in perspective, that’s bigger than Drupal and about the same size as Shopify and it’s growing very fast. So this square is going to get bigger and bigger, but it’s already significant and so it’s an important development trend.

And we believe that headless WordPress sites are the future of headless sites and of course, that’s something we’re very much dedicated to at WP Engine with our product Atlas. Again, you’ll hear much more about that later in other sessions. But right now, I want to talk about a problem that headless has, because headless breaks all this yummy stuff that we were just talking about. Because headless removes all the front end stuff, that means what the website looks like, how the URLs are parsed, what actually happens, what we in WordPress might call themes, all that’s happening outside of WordPress. And that ends up breaking this dynamic and this great stuff that WordPress has constructed.

So in particular, developers are still empowered. In fact, they’re overpowered. In fact, it’s just like back in 1997 where the developer is needed for everything. So the good news there is, OK, developers have access to all these modern development tools, JavaScript, and that whole universe of development pipeline, development tools, testing stuff, the world of React and other component networks, the world of Gatsby, and Next.js and other frameworks for building websites and there’s amazing, incredible stuff in there.

There’s libraries you can use that do all sorts of amazing stuff. It’s easy to get API access to literally any kind of hosted service elsewhere to integrate other services in. It’s modern language that people learn in codiing academies and universities and just in general, it’s the most popular programming language. So a lot for a developer to love about that, and that’s good.

But the problem is at this time, it comes at the expense of the site owners and even the designers, because these things the marketer said, wait, I was used to editing the content, doing anything I want, developers say, yeah, that’s now happening in JavaScript so you can’t do that. But wait, I set up the menus and I make pages and the JavaScript developers say, no, we do the menus, we make the pages. And all of a sudden, we’re back to 1997. You want to move a picture five pixels to the left, open a ticket. And of course, this is bad. It’s bad for the same reason it was bad in 1997.

So our vision for this is, OK, headless is a trend. It’s going to continue. There are benefits, but we’ve got to do something about this dynamic. And so WP Engine is doing our part in building software, infrastructure, things like Atlas, and Faust, and other things again, that you’ll hear about later today. But I just want to talk about it at a high level what those things are and then look in the future as well of what kinds of things will come.

So we know developers are happy, OK, great. What about designers? Well, there’s really good news for designers, because it turns out that there is a lot of great design systems specifically for these JavaScript frameworks like React. So for example, this is a design library that we use ourself at WP Engine. So we built this. We call it Unicorn. It’s kind of an internal product name. But there’s tools that are both free or from any open source and closed source that you can use for this sort of thing.

But basically, the idea is that you have a component library, again, just like blocks, but for React, and each of these components are designed and look a certain way, act a certain way. They may have different states like if they’re active or inactive, or checked or disabled, or in different languages or different contexts, and so forth and so whether it’s visual elements for a marketing site, or whether it’s controls, which even on a marketing site, you need for things like forms, or pricing page, or something like that, or some kind of status, or some sort of better integration between something like a control panel or user portal and the marketing site. The more those become one, the better the customer experience.

Anyway, there’s these systems like this, which are great for designers, because they can make all this and use this almost like a unit testing system to look at it. But then developers can just pick these up. These are all React components. They can just pick them up, drop them in. So just like we talked about the marketers with blocks, developers can just take these, use it, and bam, they’re on brand, and everything’s consistent looking, and the components have been tested with all the browsers and things, and so forth and so it’s really a great marriage of designers owning their stuff and then developers being able to just reuse it. So there’s actually really good news when it comes to what designers can do.

So what about the website owners? What about the marketers? Possibly the most important person, because they’re the ones that need the website to perform well, and whatever that may mean. It could mean generating ad revenue. It could mean eCommerce transactions. It could mean great branding. It could mean getting your getting the word out about your company, or just communicating something important in the world. Anyway, they need the site to perform.

So what about them? Well, the first good thing about headless for the marketers is performance. So here’s a graph of one of our customers who just went through the Super Bowl having Super Bowl ads and it’s fun to see what kind of traffic you get during the Super Bowl, right?

So they ran two ads and these are the two little blips, or two thin blips you can see on the right. That first blip was the first ad where they got only five million hits in one minute. And then and then the second blip was the second ad where over a span of three minutes, they got 25 million hits. So absolutely phenomenal scale. The site had no trouble. We were sitting there refreshing the site ourselves during that. It was fast as heck. The average time to first bite was 150 milliseconds during that spike.

So headless websites can be really fast and scalable, so that’s really nice to see. Also, showing here these weird three blips like a heart monitor there at the beginning, this is really funny. What those were is load tests, because of course, the customer is like, I don’t know if you guys can handle our traffic, so we did load testing. As you can see, even a load test cannot possibly reproduce the traffic that you get during the Super Bowl. So fortunately, everything was fine, everything scaled, it’s all good. But it’s almost not even worth trying to test it because you can’t simulate it.

Anyway, OK, so this is good. If you’re a site owner, you say yes, this is the kind of technology I want, so far, so good. But what about me being disempowered? So that’s what we’re changing with Atlas and Faust. So you’ll see this later today as well. You can play with it yourself.

By the way, this is all open source, GPL, all the good things. The WordPress components and the JavaScript components are all open source and free. So this is a community project. We’d love to have you try it. We’d have you contribute to it and so forth. So please check this out.

But just to give you this quick demo, what you see on the left is the regular WordPress block editor, and you can see someone’s editing a text with some strange background color in the image and then on the right, that’s a headless Faust-based headless WordPress site and as you can see, all of the settings and configuration in the block editor has been transferred there.

But here’s the magical part, the things on the right are native, regular, React components, not something weird and special, just regular stuff.

And so what that means is we’ve taken the world of the block editor, which has all the benefits we said, and will continue to get better and better. But we’ve also kept all of the benefits of the React ecosystem and native JavaScript things in the front end so that a regular React JavaScript developer just says, OK, these are React components. I know how to mess with that. We’re done.

So it’s sort of the perfect situation for both parties and again, that’s that kind of attitude, the perfect situation for both parties is how we’re going to get back to this even in headless, where everyone controls their own area, everyone’s happy with how the technology unfolds, and so on. So that’s our vision for headless. But also, I think it’s just continuing the vision of WordPress and what it’s done for everyone in the world when it comes to making websites and we’re just taking that to headless also.

So how can this get better in the future again? A few things, and some of these we’re working on, and some of them we’re not, or some of them we might in the future, but I encourage the community to work on them, because I think WordPress has strength as a community. We’re doing our part. But really, it takes all of us to do this.

So here’s some ideas. So first of all, that was design systems. It’s really neat to have those integrated design systems with React, but what about with the block editor? and shouldn’t it be both? Shouldn’t it be that designers make things then they become blocks and they become React components, and so everything is always connected and always makes sense? I think that’d be incredible, and an obvious place to go to knit everyone together even more.

Testing is another thing where it’s a little ad hoc. There’s no one standard way to do it, especially when you consider blocks and front end React components both, what does it mean to have an integrated test suite of that, maybe even integrated with the design system because if those are tested and you can drop them in, that’s starting to sound really solid. And it sound like if you have solid components, you could really build things very quickly and with high quality. I think that’s a very interesting area to explore.

Another one which is already on the block editor roadmap, so I’m not I’m not saying anything new here really, is to make sure blocks are multi-language, mult-locale ready. Most of WordPress today is not in English. And I think that more and more percentage of WordPress over time will be not English because there are more people in the world who don’t speak English and as more people come online, most of those folks don’t speak English.

And so to me, it’s just a natural place for WordPress in general to grow. I think it’s just compatible with the ethos of WordPress in general to be as accessible to as many people as possible. That has to come into blocks. Again, that’s it’s in the roadmap already, but that’s exciting. And again, that needs to flow in through headless systems also.

Then there’s a lot more we can do with the marketer and giving more power. I mean, they have so much power, but so what? They’re like, there’s always more to do, especially in headless where again, a lot of that power has been removed, there’s a lot to put back. So just one small example, suppose you move a site from one place to another, well old traffic is still going to go to the old page and need to get redirected to the next page. No problem. There are plugins in WordPress to do that.

But in a headless context, that doesn’t work, because again, the headless components don’t know about that. So bringing that from WordPress back to the headless component would mean that the marketer is back in control of those redirects as they’re called. So there’s a bunch of examples like that where we’ve got to give more power to the marketer, especially in the headless environment where some of that power has been removed.

And then finally AI, and so in the remaining 30 seconds, I will give you a complete update of everything that AI is and will be, except for one thing. I’m definitely not going to do that in 30 seconds. Of course, it’s an incredible topic, and it’s all very exciting, and we need more space than the very end of this keynote to talk about it. So stay tuned, and clearly, this is going to be an incredible area of exploration. And things are going to be tried, and things are going to fail, and things are going to be incredibly wonderful, and it’ll be astounding to see all that unfold for sure.

So we might show a little bias, but we think WordPress is not only the best CMS, but also the best headless CMS. And no matter what happens with technology in the cloud and on the internet, we’re here for it. Again, I think the strength of WordPress is in the community, while we’re doing our part to try to make this dynamic between the three personas be as strong as possible, and so are a lot of you and I think it’s an interesting way to state the vision statement is to make it so that developers, designers, and the site owners, the marketers are empowered to do their best work and work together.

I think WordPress has done a great job with that mission statement. And all of us together, we can just make that more and more true. We’ve done it for 20 years, which is still incredible to think. And we’re here for the next 20 to continue doing that.

So stick around. There’s over 12 breakout sessions coming up on all kinds of topics. Some of them are about products that WP Engine has, like Atlas, that’s our headless product, Local, WP Migrate, ACF. There’s topics on WooCommerce, but there’s also topics on things just in general around the WordPress world. And even outside of that, there’s talks from Google, and there’s even a talk from Matt Mullenweg. So stay tuned for all sorts of interesting information. Remember, all the sessions are recorded and so if you have to miss one, or if there’s two going at the same time and you want to see them both, then just watch the sessions afterwards, and I’ll see you there. Thanks.

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