Six weeks ago, WordPress 5.6 release lead Helen Hou-Sandí breathed new life into two almost-forgotten features around the WordPress website and platform. The idea was to take the starter content feature, which themes can optionally add for new installs, and apply it to the WordPress.org theme preview system. It was not a new idea. However, it finally had some teeth because a core lead was making it a priority.
“I’m revisiting this in the context of 5.6 and Twenty Twenty-One — could we possibly consider a combination of starter content (the core feature) and the existing theme unit test data (with room for more later)?” wrote Hou-Sandí in a ticket that seemed to be going nowhere after seven years. “I don’t think we’d want to have just starter content, as that should ideally be a much more limited amount of content pieces, but unifying somewhat would help with the overall goal of aligning the demo with what users can actually accomplish on their sites.”
Block-based starter content in the Twenty Twenty-One theme preview.
The initial goal was to turn the feature on selectively, testing it with a few default themes. This would give the meta team time to iron out any bugs. It would also give the Themes Team time to decide on any additional guidelines considerations before opening it to everyone.
The Themes Team reps do not seem to think there will be any need for new guidelines, so there should not be much to do on their end.
“I’m up for having a discussion about it but I do think that, in general, guidelines already cover it (we might need to reword the guideline about excluding advertising for clarity), but theme devs aren’t gonna want to give a bad impression in their public-facing previews,” said Themes Team representative William Patton. “We probably want to just check the guidelines to make sure they cover things here, but from my perspective, I think guidelines already cover things quite well.”
This is the sort of thing that could get theme authors excited again. Themers can sometimes feel like they are second-class citizens. More often than not, plugin authors get the shiny, new toys long before — if they ever — roll out to the theme directory. It is always an exciting time when themes are shown a little love.
Hou-Sandí pointed out that the theme previewer changes would not be forever limited to a handful of core themes. This is merely the first step.
The big question: why now?
There is no doubt that the theme previewer has been a problem area for years. Users have complained about it. Theme authors and reviewers have relentlessly discussed it and called for a change. Some authors have even attempted various, hacky workarounds, sometimes finding themselves on the shortlist for banishment. At the end of the day, most people just want to see themes in all their glory. They are the face of WordPress. As Hou-Sandí wrote in the announcement, “The theme previewer site in today’s context does a serious disservice to themes.”
To answer the why now question, the block system has a lot to do with it. Internally, the system opens up a world of possibilities that are much easier to implement. Whether it is starter content or custom front page templates, blocks will be a huge part of the equation going forward.
“I also believe that between blocks, block patterns, and eventually full site editing, it is more important than ever to the broad success of the WordPress project for themes to showcase their ideal states and make it easier for users to achieve the same thing on their sites,” wrote Hou-Sandí. “Starter content, introduced in 4.7, was a step in this direction, but has languished for quite some time.”
It is also part of an ongoing rethinking of what should happen with starter content. On October 6, she opened a discussion for feedback on the feature’s future. The post received a few useful responses. However, it could still use feedback from a wider range of people involved with the WordPress project, particularly theme authors.
I also explored some possibilities in response to that post in The Future of Starter Content: WordPress Themes Need a Modern Onboarding and Importing Tool.
The biggest concern at this point should be whether theme authors consider this too little too late. There is a little excitement brewing from a few short conversations I have seen in theming circles. However, this is a time for theme authors to jump on board, provide feedback, and pitch in. This is the first step in gaining the sort of control over theme previews that many have long sought.