I just spent a week using the Elementor page builder – and I’m not in love — as a disclaimer, I was already biased against site builders before this experience, dating back to the glory days of Macromedia Dreamweaver – and, of course, I am a web developer, I don’t want to be superseded by a program ( just yet.. ), least of all one that does a worse job than I can do myself!
The gap was easy to spot – clients wanted to create complex and rich products, without the usual investment of time and money required to follow the traditional design and build process – which is perhaps getting more complex and expensive, rather than simpler.
WordPress itself was a step down this path – as were the many other CMS’s that preceded it – they all gave non-technical ( or low level technical ) users greater power to create content and publish it – Facebook is hugely popular for this very reason – empowerment.
But, as the saying goes – with great power, comes great responsibility – in the case of side-stepping the expertise of UI designers and the guidance of experienced developers, that responsibility is in understanding how best to present your narrative and the nuances of the range of devices that your content will be displayed on.
Of course, the page builders also help – and they should improve over time – they are bundled with responsive grid systems such as Bootstrap and offer granular controls over template layout – in fact, they offer so many controls, many of them are more complex to use that the code editors developer create their software on.
Typical off-the-shelf themes – bought from market places like Envato – dazzle prospective buyers with snazzy parallax images and endless glitzy transitions between high-res glossy images, the client begins to dream about how wonderful their products will look once they have been quickly slotted into this polished showcase.
And, fair play to the theme developers, they do a great job of presenting their products – but, behind the scenes, the client UX ( essentially the developer experience, as the client has now jumped roles ) is fragmented and convoluted – the steps required to replicate the site demo with actual content is rarely simple and often the results are disappointing.
So, how did we end up working with Elementor this past week – simple enough, a client had been spell-bound by a glitzy theme ( ..or two.. ) but sadly, the romance had fizzled out quickly with a bump, as they faced the reality of squeezing their content into the labyrinthian confines of the theme.
The list of pain-points is long, here are some highlights:
- Slider Revolution ( an omnipresent feature ) requires a degree in video editing to master all the available controls ( not to mention the obscured editing experience and the very easy trap of excessive options delivering random end results ).
- Saved templates and sections fragment the editing experience, forcing the user to jump between multiple editing views to manage all the content from one single front-end template
- Pay-walls – aka the freemium model – entice users with nearly-available controls – users have already forked out for the theme, which in turn bundles a cocktail of other plugins required to achieve the desired gloss, but the user is continually obstructed by upsells and unavailable options.
- I like his hair…
No, seriously, I get the use-case, page builders bridge a gap, they are democratic, they open up options which are otherwise hidden – but not behind a class or economic wall – but behind an experience barrier – like a carpenter who is the daughter of a carpenter, some jobs require craft, know-how and an understanding of the tools being applied to the materials at hand.
The Moral of the Story
Nuclear power, plastics, combustion engines and WYSIWYG – like many technological innovations, we cannot blame the inventors for the usage applied to their products – but due to the enthusiasm and creativity of humans, we inevitably find ways to misuse high concepts.
Even common WYSIWYG editors are a misnomer, because What You See Is Rarely What You Get – line breaks are often not respected, html tags are stripped or broken, copy and pasting often results in magical weirdness – and of course, you don’t really have an impression of how the content looks like in place, with the application furniture and other page elements – both Guttenberg inside WordPress and page builders are attempting to address this.
But, least us not forget Rainbow Text from the late 90’s – it provides a valuable learning experience about the ways in which tools will be used in the hands of enthusiastic – even well-intentioned – users, who do not have the required skill and training to apply the self-control needed to create crafted products.
Elementor is not to blame, it exists to fill a legitimate gap in an open market – it offers to allow users to by-pass the cost-prohibitive steps required to set-up and manage a complex web project – but I just wish they would limit the scope of options available, because we all know that most users will not limit how they use them.