WordPress 5.6 Release Team Pulls the Plug on Block-Based Widgets

Widgets admin screen from the Gutenberg 9.1.1 WordPress plugin.
Current block-based widgets admin screen design.

I was wrong. I assured our readers that “the block-based widget system will be ready for prime time when WordPress 5.6 lands” in my previous post on the new feature’s readiness. I also said that was on the condition of not trying to make it work with the customizer — that experience was still broken. However, the 5.6 team pulled the plug on block-based widgets for the second time this year.

One week ago, WordPress 5.6 release lead Josepha Haden seemed to agree that it would be ready. However, things can change quickly in a development cycle, and tough decisions have to be made with beta release deadlines.

This is not the first feature the team has punted to a future release. Two weeks ago, they dropped block-based nav menus from the 5.6 feature list. Both features were originally planned for WordPress 5.5.

A new Widgets admin screen has been under development since January 2019, which was not long after the initial launch of the block editor in WordPress 5.0. For now, the block-based widgets feature has been punted to WordPress 5.7. It has also been given the “early” tag, which means it should go into core WordPress soon after the 5.7 release cycle begins. This will give it more time to mature and more people an opportunity to test it.

Helen Hou-Sandì, the core tech lead for 5.6, provided a historical account of the decision and why it was not ready for inclusion in the new ticket:

My question for features that affect the front-end is “can I try out this new thing without the penalty of messing up my site?” — that is, user trust. At this current moment, given that widget areas are not displayed anything like what you see on your site without themes really putting effort into it and that you have to save your changes live without revisions to get an actual contextual view, widget area blocks do not allow you to try this new feature without penalizing you for experimenting.

She went on to say that the current experience is subpar at the moment. Problems related to the customizer experience, which I covered in detail over a month ago, were also mentioned.

“So, when we come back to this again, let’s keep sight of what it means to keep users feeling secure that they can get their site looking the way they want with WordPress, and not like they are having to work around what we’ve given them,” said Hou-Sandì.

This is a hopeful outlook despite the tough decision. Sometimes, these types of calls need to be made for the good of the project in the long term. Pushing back a feature to a future version for a better user experience can be better than launching early with a subpar experience.

“The good part of this is that now widgets can continue to be ‘re-imagined’ for 5.7, and get even more enhancements,” said lead WordPress developer Andrew Ozz in the ticket. “Not sure how many people have tested this for a bit longer but having blocks in the widgets areas (a.k.a. sidebars) opens up many new possibilities and makes a lot of the old, limited widgets obsolete. The ‘widget areas’ become something like ‘specialized posts with more dynamic content,’ letting users (and designers) do a lot of stuff that was either hard or impossible with the old widgets.”

After the letdown of seeing one of my most anticipated features of 5.6 being dropped, it is encouraging to see the positive outlook from community leaders on the project.

“You know, I was really hopeful for it too, and that last-minute call was one I labored over,” said Haden. “When I last looked, it did seem close to ready, but then more focused testing was done and there were some interactions that are a little rough for users. I’m grateful for that because the time to discover painful user experiences is before launch rather than after!”

Despite dropping its second major feature, WordPress 5.6 still has some big highlights that will be shipping in less than two months. The new Twenty Twenty-One theme looks to be a breath of fresh air and will explore block-related features not seen in previous default themes. Haden also pointed out auto-updates for major releases, application passwords support for the REST API, and accessibility improvements as features to look forward to.

WordPress 5.1 Beta 1 is expected to ship today.

Adding New Features To an Old Project

At times, it feels like the Gutenberg project has bitten off more than it can chew. Many of the big feature plans continually miss projections. Between full-site editing, global styles, widgets, nav menus, and much more, it is tough to get hyper-focused on one feature and have it ready to ship. On the other hand, too much focus one way can be to the detriment to other features in the long run. All of these pieces must eventually come together to create a more cohesive whole.

WordPress is also 17 years old. Any new feature could affect legacy features or code. The goal is for block-based widgets is to transition an existing feature to work within a new system without breaking millions of websites in the process. Twenty-one months of work on a single feature shows that it is not an easy problem to solve.

“You are so right about complex engineering problems!” said Haden. “We are now at a point in the history of the project where connecting all of the pieces can have us facing unforeseen complications.”

The project also needs to think about how it can address some of the issues it has faced with not quite getting major features to completion. Is the team stretched too thin to focus on all the parts? Are there areas we can improve to push features forward?

“There will be a retrospective where we can identify what parts of our process can be improved in the future, but I also feel like setting stretch goals is good for any software project,” said Haden. “Many contributors have a sense of urgency around bringing the power of blocks to more spaces in WordPress, which I share, but when it’s time to ship, we have to balance that with our deep commitment to usability.”

One problem that has become increasingly obvious is that front-end editing has become tougher over the years. Currently, widgets and nav menus can be edited in two places in WordPress with wildly different interfaces. Full-site editing stands to add an entirely new interface to the mix.

“I think one of the problems that we’re trying to solve with Gutenberg has always been a more consistent experience for editing elements across the WordPress interface,” said Haden. “No user should have to learn five different workflows to make sure their page looks the way they imagined it when it’s published.”

In the meantime, which may be numbered in years, end-users will likely have these multiple interfaces to deal with — overlap while new features are being developed. This may simply be a necessary growing pain of an aging project, one that is trying to lead the pack of hungry competitors in the CMS space.

“There’s a lot of interest in reducing the number of workflows, and I’m hopeful that we can consolidate down to just one beautiful, intuitive interface,” said Haden.

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