On not choosing WordPress for the W3C redesign project

The W3C redesign project is an incredibly exciting one for us at Studio 24, it’s an honour to be working with an organisation we have looked up to for our whole career. But it’s also challenging, with many aspects coming under more scrutiny than we’re normally used to. It’s also made harder in this time of pandemic, with increased anxiety and challenges working effectively during this “new normal” we’re all living in.

We’re happy to rise to this challenge. Yesterday a well written article was published by WordPress Tavern on W3C dropping WordPress from consideration which I’d like to respond to.

In context of the project

We’ve tackled a huge variety of work so far from initial Discovery, User Research, Information Architecture, Content Design and UX Design that has helped move the project forward.

The CMS platform decision is just part of this and for the end website is one of the less visible aspects. As you can read from Marie’s report on the work we did to choose Craft CMS you can see the steps we went through to help shortlist and choose a CMS.

For us, and the requirements from W3C, the delivery of accessible HTML/CSS pages that meet user needs is the most important part of this project - and where we are focussing our time. All in, we spent around 15 days on the CMS platform choice. Enough to help evaluate a limited number of options, but not enough to do a thorough review of the state of accessibility in a wide range of CMSs.

We were surprised by the accessibility issues that cropped up in CMS platforms after our initial CMS review. This prompted us to prioritise accessibility above other requirements due to the principles and values of W3C.

Challenges of Gutenberg (for now)

Studio 24 is a firm supporter of open source software and we use WordPress extensively for our client work. For this project we had committed to not selecting a CMS until we’d had the chance to better understand client requirements.

An important consideration for WordPress was accessibility concerns with the new Gutenberg editor. Many have written about the accessibility issues the project has had as well as the positive steps to improve accessibility in Gutenberg.

Gutenberg is an exciting and really interesting development. Many CMS vendors are looking at ways to allow editors to create more flexible content from compontents or blocks. However, this comes with huge challenges on how to make innovative user interfaces accessible. WordPress decided to use the JavaScript framework React to meet these needs.

We tested Gutenberg six months before it was released in WordPress 5. Recently we worked on a project for the University of Cambridge creating a site for their Alumni magazine. This launched in April 2020 and uses Gutenberg to manage content. This gave us a good idea of how Gutenberg works. In June, we reviewed the current accessibility issue backlog (issues, a11y project) and had some feedback from users with accessibility needs who had difficulties using the current user interface. This was a contributing factor in our decision that WordPress was not a good fit for this project.

Given the importance the WordPress project has put on Gutenberg as the future of WordPress we did not feel it was reasonable to recommend using the Classic Editor if there is a good chance this will not be supported in the future. At present Classic Editor is slated for end of life in Dec 2021.

We look forward to the continued development of Gutenberg and applaud efforts to make it more accessible. We appreciate improvements have been made since our review and we’re very glad to see the WordPress Accessibility Day on 2nd October.

Front-end complexity

From a business perspective I also believe Gutenberg creates a complexity issue that makes it challenging for use by many agencies who create custom websites for clients; where we have a need to create lots of bespoke blocks and page elements for individual client projects.

The use of React complicates front-end build. We have very talented front-end developers, however, they are not React experts - nor should they need to be. I believe front-end should be built as standards-compliant HTML/CSS with JavaScript used to enrich functionality where necessary and appropriate.

As of yet, we have not found a satisfactory (and profitable) way to build custom Gutenberg blocks for commercial projects. We won’t stop trying though and plan to do more R&D with Gutenberg in the future. The W3C project, however, did not feel like the right place to do this. On a project as wide-ranging as this one, development time does become a factor.

Drupal also has this complexity issue which makes developing sites harder than it needs to be, and is why we didn’t consider that platform either. I’ve talked to other agencies who have decided to drop Drupal due to its complexity.

The question of open source

The W3C embraces and supports the open web. However, as an agency we also have to be practical when it comes to the tools we use to build sites. From our review, which was focussed on PHP-based CMSs, Craft and Statamic came out as meeting all the key requirements and are both very developer-friendly platforms. An important consideration for a tool that we need to hand over to W3C to maintain in the future.

While their source code is open, they do have commercial licenses and cost money (though a modest sum). Charging money enables small teams to develop good software, so we’re not ideologically against this business model. Both platforms are well respected in the community and well-used by professionals, running sites such as Netflix and Big Commerce in Craft, Spiegel Plus and FreshBooks in Statamic.

We are using open source technology in the majority of this project (HTML/CSS, JavaScript, PHP, Symfony). While Craft is a proprietary CMS, this has given us the advantage of direct access to the team developing the CMS which has helped improve accessibility in these CMSs. We hope this helps move accessibility forward in the CMS industry.

Open tools will continue to be used to publish the standards of the web. The Technical Reports page is powered by Symfony and specifications will continue to be published to GitHub to facilitate open discussion. Nothing’s changing with how the W3C work in the open.

A note on front-end delivery

One final note. We are currently considering a Headless CMS option for front-end page delivery. This means using the CMS in a decoupled way to manage content but use a separate system to deliver front-end pages. Please note this solution would not be reliant on JavaScript (e.g. a single page app which is common with headless). Under this option we’d use Symfony to deliver front-end pages which is an established technology W3C already use across a lot of the site.

This may give W3C better flexibility for the future, though comes at a cost of added complexity. The W3C site is already made up of a lot of different systems, the CMS is just one part of the what makes up the varied content on

I hope this helps explain the thought process behind our decision a little more and addresses some of the valid concerns highlighted in the WordPress Tavern post.