A Mild Defense of Meta Boxes

Fränk Klein, an engineer at HumanMade, provoked WordPress Twitter this past week with his critique of developers using ACF meta boxes and options pages to control content:

I think there’s a LOT to unpack around this tweet, but I stand by my original critique: I both completely agree and completely disagree with this. I should also note that the replies are actually much more interesting, because there’s a lot of interesting points made on both sides. So first – a quick agreement:

I also really do not like seeing ACF settings pages to control front-end content, even though I’ve probably written pages exactly like that plenty of times in my life. I also don’t like seeing ACF Flexible Content Rows being forced into acting like a page-builder. I’m helping my team transition from Flexible Content Rows to ACF Blocks, but the reality is that it takes time and money (something that a lot of tweeters helpfully pointed out). And there’s more to it than that.

Not all content is visual

First, WordPress MetaBoxes should be a first-class citizen. I’ve ranted on this topic before, so I’ll keep it brief: It is a major regression that there’s not a decent solution for using the block editor on a content type where visually editing blocks isn’t helpful.

The block editor acts like there’s only one type of content: landing page content. Not all content is visual. Sometimes tabing through a ton of input fields is the best way to update a massive amount of repeatable data. Front-end editing isn’t the only solution to every problem.

But yeah sure, I also cringe when I remember back to the days when you edited your front page in some weird spot, like eight different widget areas in some Genesis theme.

Not all features are ready

Beyond that, the content-locking functionality that we really need in order to make the block editor safe and reliable for clients? It’s barely production-ready as of the latest WordPress release. A month or so ago. And it still needs room to grow. I can see a future where the new “browse” mode in Gutenberg can combine with the content-locking stuff and give us more of that “Squarespace” user interface where the client can edit just what they need. We’re just not there yet.

Editing the header and footer of my personal website in Full Site Editing is unintuitive and and often a bug-ridden experience for me, and I actually know what the hell a “template part” is. I’ve repeatedly broken my own live site or had the block editor just fail to load until I disabled every plugin and found the culprit.

Not everyone’s experience is the same

I’m comfortable with WordPress and design tools like Figma (where a lot of the Gutenberg UX seems to be coming from). Many clients don’t and aren’t. There’s actually different types of clients with different types of needs. Seriously.

For the non-tech clients, the block editor experience simply isn’t ready to meet them where they’re at. And once it is ready, I still think it’s reasonable to expect that transition period to take time.

I don’t work at a massive enterprise-level WordPress agency with clients like Google and TechCrunch. Most of our clients are probably small business owners making a huge bet by investing in a new website that costs as much as a Tesla.

Personally, I think it would be fun to make a website for Google, (even if I knew they’d eventually shut the project down and my website would be one more meaningless discard in the search engine giant’s Island of Misfit SAAS Apps). Instead we’re working with clients who need to justify every expense instead of relying on venture capital or private equity groups to provide endless financial runway.

Like I said, I agree with Fränk that the ACF settings page he showed looks like the dark ages. I agree we need a renaissance. And I’ve moved from Gutenberg-skeptic to Gutenberg-curious and want to engage in that renaissance, too.

But the one lesson I’ve learned from talking more often in the WordPress community: my personal experience has about as much relevance as anyone else’s- meaning it’s a completely narrow, subjective view of something that powers 40% of the internet (Seriously. That’s a big-ass number). I’ve been repeatedly proven wrong or shown that I didn’t actually consider the needs of others. And I think that’s maybe what’s happening here.

So I agree with you. But you’re still wrong. Which is how I feel about most things in life, including myself most of the time.

2 responses to “A Mild Defense of Meta Boxes”

  1. John Locke Avatar

    Lots of good insights here. WordPress’ greatest strength has been it’s flexibility, and thankfully, that still exists as Gutenberg (Block Editor) is perfected. The product of WordPress has been making a pivot and it isn’t quite there yet. Not in the way that it needs to be to rely 100% on full site editing and the Block Editor. It has made big strides. I have faith it will eventually be robust enough to make a clean break from the old ways of using ACF in the legacy manner, and instead using ACF strictly for block creation and editing. I am equally baffled when people in the community bash how professional developers use WordPress to best fit their client’s needs.

    1. Brian Coords Avatar
      Brian Coords

      If there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that there’s a million different ways to do things in WordPress. Sometimes it’s annoying and causes issues and conflicts – but at the end of the day, it’s a super power. The idea that every website needs to be built exactly the same way? No thanks.

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