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How to Determine What to Build With WordPress

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Difficulty:BeginnerLanguages:

As an application, WordPress is in a unique position. 

For one thing, it powers roughly 25% of the web in that it serves as both as a blogging platform and content management system. But it's also an application that has a vibrant economy of designers and developers around it who can extend the application and push it to do far more than the core application can.

The WordPress Project Homepage

When it comes to software development, it's not at all uncommon to see this type of economy built around other libraries, frameworks, and languages, but to see this built around an actual application is unique.

In short, we not only have users who are using WordPress to power their site or their blog, but we have people who are making a living by providing services to these individuals and businesses and customers at large by building unique products. 

Ultimately, it's about solving problems that these customers need to fully round out what WordPress provides.

But if you're someone who is moving from another field into WordPress, or you're looking to get started in WordPress development, how can you identify where your talents would be best utilized?

WordPress is a large application, and it provides a lot of functionality and a lot of opportunities, but knowing what potential exists coupled with what talent and passion you have can help you decide where you want to get involved with the project.

Building a Business on WordPress

Before we get too deep into discussing how you can get involved with designing or developing with WordPress, it's important to note that I'm not setting out to provide a three-step guide on how to start a business.

Furthermore, the purpose of this article has nothing to do with what's entailed in setting up a business. Instead, it's about finding the aspects of WordPress that align with a skillset that you have (however mature it may or may not be) and finding the best fit for them within the overall WordPress economy.

If you're a web designer, front-end developer, back-end developer, database engineer, some of the above, or all of the above, then there is a place for you when working with WordPress.

And now that we've clarified that, let's move forward.

A Word About Design and Code

Depending on the articles you read throughout the web, the definition of "web design," "code," "coding," and "writing software" may all carry different connotations than how they will be used in this article. 

To help make sense of what I'm saying throughout this article, I want to define the terms above so that we're all on the same page:

  • Web Design refers to those who are capable of producing design work in a tool such as Adobe Photoshop and other similar software packages. They have proficiency with colors, typography, and layouts, and are familiar with best practices as it comes to presenting information to the user, but they don't necessarily have the ability to turn their work into a functional design through code.
  • Code may refer to front-end or back-end code. Typically, front-end coding will utilize HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. This may or may not include more advanced tools like pre-processors or other asset managers to help streamline the page for faster load times. In the same vein, back-end coding will usually consist of PHP (at least in WordPress) and either procedural or object-oriented programming.
  • Software refers to the combination of the back-end and the optional front-end (or the user interface) of a project or product in question. It implies there is an architecture and organization to the work, and it refers to the package in its entirety. This includes both the package and the assets, reading material, and documentation that are included with it.

Though I'm sure we could discuss the nuances of these in depth, this article is not the place for that particular discussion. This is how these terms will be used throughout the remainder of this article.

If you have questions, comments, or anything to add to this, don't hesitate to contribute to the conversation in the comments as I'm always open to hearing how others look at these topics and apply them in their work.

Themes

When working with WordPress, you can think about projects as falling into one of two camps:

  1. Presentation
  2. Functionality

The presentation usually refers to a theme, or how a website, a web application, or a blog appears to the user. Functionality refers to a feature of a given project. This may enhance the existing functionality of WordPress or add to the core application.

The WordPress Theme Directory

This is not to say that the two are mutually exclusive, though. Themes may sometimes include a functional feature, and plugins may include a component that interacts with a theme.

Furthermore, depending on where you purchase your theme, you may find that a theme has a lot of features baked into it. Depending on your school of thought, this may or may not be a bad thing.

Designers

Applying your skills in web design to WordPress requires that you have a knowledge of templates and how a given theme should work. That is, will it be used for a blog or a website?

And regardless of which it is, you'll need to be familiar with the various templates WordPress provides so that you can design for those. At an even finer level of detail, it's important to understand the parts of templates that are included (such as the header, the sidebar, and the footer) so that you can properly design for those as well.

This isn't so much about providing constraints just because. It's about knowing how the platform for which you're designing structures its content. Additionally, creating a design and shipping the assets to a development team can ease the burden on both of you if the design is sliced up properly for a given template.

Above all else, you're most likely going to find your strength in design most applicable in the area of WordPress themes. After all, this is the area of the platform that provides what users see whenever they interact with the application.

This doesn't mean that plugins don't need design work, as we'll see momentarily, but the amount of design that goes into a theme usually far exceeds that which is required of plugins.

Developers

The type of developer you are will dictate which area of WordPress you're going to be most likely able to contribute the most. 

Case in point: If you're a front-end developer, and you're used to working with the three main languages and their associated tools and libraries for building out user interfaces, pages, templates, and so on, then you're going to be most likely comfortable working on themes.

This will require minimal knowledge of PHP in that you'll need to have an understanding of WordPress template tags, but how you end up presenting the data always falls back to the front-end technologies that are available today.

So if you're a front-end developer looking to get involved in WordPress in one way or another, then consider creating a theme. Or perhaps consider partnering with a designer to create a theme.

Though this is outside the scope of the article, you can submit this into the WordPress theme repository where others may download it for free, you can launch a site to sell the product to other people, or you can make it available in the Envato Marketplace.

Plugins

If themes are for presentation, then plugins are for functionality. Again, this doesn't mean that plugins have no user interface components (because they often do), and it doesn't mean that designers have no place contributing to them (because there is an opportunity for this). 

WordPress Plugins

But the requirements and demands of working on a plugin differ drastically from working on a theme.

Designers

When it comes to creating WordPress plugins, the first things that come to mind on releasing plugins are the branding assets that come with the plugin.

That is the plugin's logo, and the collateral for the marketing material (like manual, branding, and/or the work that provides the look and feel in the WordPress Plugin Repository). 

If the plugin includes some functionality that works on the front-end (like a widget or a form), then a designer's eye can help a developer provide a solid experience, especially as it relates to integrating with a given theme or collection of themes.

Developers

If themes are for front-end developers, then plugins are often for back-end developers. This doesn't necessarily mean a plugin developer shouldn't know any front-end languages, but it's more often than not the case that a knowledge of PHP and familiarity with WordPress hooks will be required.

After all, many plugins will need to pass data to and from WordPress throughout various points in the WordPress lifecycle. Furthermore, the knowledge of how the underlying database is structured and how to use the available APIs is important so that you're properly serializing, validating, and retrieving information to work with the user.

Does this mean you need to be an expert database engineer to work with the underlying database? No. But if you are a database engineer, then you'll likely find yourself in a good position to optimize the work that application-layer developers are doing.

Furthermore, if you're a developer who is working on a plugin that will interface with the underlying database and you're going to need to add custom tables, talk with a database specialist first as they'll be able to help you make smarter decisions when it comes to structuring your data.

And why wouldn't we do that? As developers, we often work with designers to help make sure our things follow proper standards concerning design and user experience. Why limit ourselves to just the front-end?

In addition to a solid understanding of PHP, hooks, and general server-side programming practices, I'd argue that it also helps to have an understanding of how to create well-structured, organized, maintainable, and testable code. This is something that we don't often see in WordPress, but it's never too late to introduce something like this.

What About Content Marketing?

Let's shift gears for a moment, though. What if you aren't a designer or a developer but you still want to work with WordPress?

Given that WordPress is all about the aspect of publishing and given that so many businesses build their web presence on the platform, that doesn't mean that work is limited solely to designers and developers.

Once a site is launched and ready to face the public, this doesn't mean that it's done. Far from it. Now, it's more common to see sites continually updated with information, media, and so on than just sitting on the Internet waiting for visitors to peruse what was published months or perhaps years ago.

This is where marketers, writers, and publishers come into play. Imagine if you were able to take your skills to a company that had their online presence built on WordPress and use your skills with the written word to help them grow their business through a combination of your skills and the WordPress economy?

This would make a strong case and a strong cause for what you do, all the while making a living (or perhaps a hobby) within the WordPress economy.

Products or Custom Solutions?

Whenever I talk with those who are interested in getting involved in WordPress, one question that often comes up is:

Should I get involved in building products or building custom solutions for others?

And that's not a question to which I can provide a direct answer. Instead, I'd say that it's important to recognize the pros and cons of each and how they'd play out in your career.

Products

Products are often more about getting into the support business than getting into the software development business. Once a product has been developed and released, you're going to have customers (and hopefully many of them!) that you're going to need to support.

This means that you're going to need to have the necessary processes, infrastructure, and people in place to properly serve them. Each person's needs are going to be different as there are a lot of variables that come into play when working with WordPress.

These variables include the version of PHP their host runs, which host they're on, which theme they are using, the combination of plugins they are using, and so on.

Though you're not technically offering support for other people's work, you need to make sure that the product you've released works well with the ecosystem as a whole. And though things will ultimately come back to writing, modifying, and releasing code, it will start with customer support.

Custom Solutions

Custom solutions, on the other hand, are more in line with the type of work an agency does. This means that a customer needs some work done. Perhaps they need a theme, a plugin, some project management, hosting, something end-to-end, or something in-between. 

Whatever the case, the problems you'll be solving will be about the customer at hand. The challenge with this is being able to work with a variety of things that fit a client's budget and any existing infrastructure they may have.

On top of that, you'll need to do a bit of marketing to generate a pipeline of clients so that you have a continual stream of work to keep your business or freelancing career rolling. Though that's outside the scope of this article, it's something worth considering and researching should you choose to go this route.

Conclusion

WordPress is a large application and serves a massive amount of the Internet. Getting involved in its economy is exciting, but knowing where to start can be challenging. Ideally, this tutorial will help you identify the places in the WordPress ecosystem in which you can get involved.

Ultimately, it's about identifying where opportunity exists and trying to find the intersection of what you're good at doing and what you enjoy doing. It's completely possible to build a successful business doing this, but it takes familiarity, diligence, discipline, and education.

At any rate, I hope the above tips have helped to explain where points of opportunity exist and how you can start putting your skills to work. 

If you're looking to build products rather than custom solutions, you may be interested in getting involved in the Envato Market. Note that if you're also brand new to WordPress and looking for opportunities for how to get started, then review my series on how to get started with WordPress.

If you're more of an advanced developer or designer, or you've been involved in WordPress for some time, then catch me on Twitter at @tommcfarlin where I often chat and share resources related to WordPress development. If you're interested in topics specifically around development, be sure to check out my blog and/or the rest of my work here on Envato Tuts+.

As usual, please don't hesitate to leave any questions or comments in the feed below, and I'll aim to respond to each of them.

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