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Integrating With WordPress’ UI: Admin Pointers

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This post is part of a series called Integrating With WordPress’ UI.
Integrating With WordPress’ UI: Meta Boxes on Custom Pages

This is part 3 of a series of articles looking at how your plugin or theme can best integrate into the WordPress admin user interface. In this part we are going to look at how you can use WordPress' 'admin pointers' in your plugins.

Admin pointers first appeared in 3.3, and were intended to highlight just a few of the new features that come with every major release (The theme customiser in 3.4, for instance).

When used properly these can be very effective at drawing attention to the latest features you've added.

Disclaimer: The admin pointers are still in the early stages of their life - and there's the possibility that they could change. If WordPress core ever develop a public API - you should adopt that.

Use Sparingly...

A decent user interface is not gimmicky tooltips. In fact, an ideal user interface wouldn't need any. They are very useful at pointing out the occasional new feature, particularly ones that your end user may have missed. In this they can improve the 'user experience', but if you are using them for any other purpose, or simply using too many, then you're doing it wrong. Rather than improving the plugin for the end user, you'll just end up frustrating them.

So how many is too many? Remember that there will be other plugins installed, and each may be using (or abusing) these pointers as well. WordPress too (obviously) uses them. It would be interesting to gauge people's opinion on this but I myself wouldn't add any more than two in any major update (none on minor ones), and certainly no more than one on any given page.

Importantly, without a core API, there isn't a way of managing multiple pointers: if twenty pointers are added to one page then twenty will be displayed. Since you don't know what other plugins are doing - please use them sparingly.

Creating a Helper Function

When using admin pointers in a plugin or theme, it'll be useful to be able to easily and quickly add extra pointers as your plugin evolves. To this end, we're going to create a helper function that will deal with the internal handling of the pointers. It'll make use of WordPress' much loved hook API, and trigger a filter of the form:

Where {screen-id} is the ID of the page being viewed. To add a pointer to the post edit page, for example, we would hook onto the filter:

In this way, we can add extra pointers, with minimal code. The role of this helper function will be to create an array of pointers which will be printed to the admin page as an array of JavaScript objects - each object corresponding to one pointer. Each pointer object contains the following parameters:

  • pointer_id - a unique identifier for the pointer. A good idea is to include the version for which it is relevant. This must only contain lowercase alphanumerics, underscores and dashes.
  • target - a selector for the target of the pointer, i.e. what it's pointing to (e.g. #some_id, or .some-class)
  • options - This is an array of options. We can use this to alter completely how the pointer looks and behaves, but for our purposes we only need to consider the following: content (the text that appears in the pointer) and position. The position property is determined by:

    • edge - which edge (left, right, top, bottom) should be adjacent to the target.
    • align - how the pointer should be aligned on this edge, relative to the target (top, bottom, left, right, middle).

A typical pointer object might be of the form:

Once the pointer objects are printed to the admin page we can make use of the WordPress pointer widget defined here.

Defining the Helper Function

As discussed in the previous section, the overall aim of our function is to print some JavaScript objects to the page and load some custom script. So our helper function will be hooked onto the wp_enqueue_scripts action (though, we could call it later).

Remember, if you're using this code in a plugin or theme, you should rename the function, ensuring it's unique and preferably pre-fixing it with your plugin or theme name. The first part of this function filters an empty array, using the hook wptuts_admin_pointers-{screen_id}. This allows us to add pointers into that array. If nothing is added, we stop.

Now these pointers may include ones that the user has seen before, and 'dismissed'. We don't want these appearing again for this user, so next we obtain an array of pointers that they have already seen and closed, and remove these from our array. We also perform some sanity checks on our pointers:

Finally we enqueue the necessary scripts and styles, and print the valid pointers to the page, using wp_localize_script.

The Function in Full

The JavaScript

The script is very simple, since the pointer widget does most of the work. At this pointer all we really need to define is what happens when the pointer is dismissed. In particular, we send an ajax request with the action 'dismiss-wp-pointer' and the pointer to set to the unique identifier we specify when adding the pointer.

That is all the code we need to add since WordPress handles the ajax request.

Adding Pointers

As promised, adding pointers is very easy. To add a pointer to the 'post' screen, for example:

Note: When storing the dismissed pointer, WordPress passes the pointer ID through sanitize_key - so be sure to use only lowercase alpha numerics, dashes and underscores.

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