Ollie Theme Faces Pushback from WordPress Theme Review Team

Mike McAlister, creator of the free Ollie theme, has been working towards getting his theme approved for hosting on WordPress.org. Ollie went into public beta in April 2023 and gained momentum over the next few months when McAlister previewed the theme’s new onboarding wizard.

WordPress users have been slow to adopt the block editor and block themes by extension. In 2022, only 54% of respondents to WordPress’ annual survey have used the block editor, four years after it was introduced. Block themes have trickled into the official directory, far behind the lofty goals set for their expansion. The sluggish movement towards block-based sites has led some to speculate on whether there will ever be a market for commercial block themes.

Ollie was designed to make onboarding to a block theme easier and the Site Editor more approachable, so that users don’t have to start from a blank canvas. The theme’s demo boasts “a 40-hr head start” on setting up a new WordPress website, thanks in part to dozens of patterns for fast page building. Ollie’s built-in onboarding experience aims to drastically reduce the amount of time users spend getting started.

After receiving significant pushback from the Theme Review team during Ollie’s three weeks in the queue, McAlister has put up a poll requesting feedback on how he should proceed.

Although provisionally approved by veteran theme reviewer Justin Tadlock, who said the onboarding functionality should be allowed until WordPress core offers a standard solution, Ollie was met with heavy criticism from other members of the team.

“The setup wizard is plugin territory,” UXL Themes founder and theme reviewer Andrew Starr said. “Why not make this as a plugin that would work with any block theme? A plugin could be inspiration or a nudge to improve the core experience.”

McAlister responded to this question in the Trac ticket for the review and in posts on X. He maintains that a plugin is a “far worse experience for the end user” and for his team as the maintainers of the product. Also, since the plugin review queue has 1,249 plugins awaiting review with developers waiting an average of 98 days for an initial review, a plugin for Ollie’s onboarding experience would likely not be live until next year.

“As a compromise and show of good faith, I’ve chopped down the onboarding wizard to a fraction of what it was,” he said. “No dice. Still, it continues to be a highly contentious issue that is causing folks to publicly question my intentions and integrity. Disheartening to say the least.”

Automattic-sponsored contributor Justin Tadlock, who helped author the guidelines in question many years ago and who has historically been widely esteemed for his impeccable judgment in regards to the grey areas of content creation in themes and the necessity of preserving data portability, weighed in on the ticket after performing the initial review:

As someone who co-wrote the original guideline for settings to use the customizer, I can say with 100% certainty that we never meant that to be a hard line drawn in the sand. The team reps can and have always had the capability to mark a theme as a “special case” (there’s even a tag for this in the backend, or there was when I was a rep). And there are themes where we felt like the functionality was unique enough to give it a bit of wiggle room. That was a position that we took when we wrote the “settings must be in the customizer” guideline. While I’m no longer one of the team reps, I feel like this settings page feature is unique enough to mark as a “special case.”

With block themes, some things must be reevaluated because the customizer is not available by default and is not an expected part of the block theme experience. In fact, this guideline is very specific to classic themes. Nothing has been written yet for block themes. Whether that’s a good thing, I don’t know. This could be a good moment for experimentation.

I disagree that the settings page should be packaged as a companion plugin. That defeats the purpose of its inclusion in the theme, and it would create an additional hurdle for the users who would benefit the most from this feature.

Yoast-sponsored contributor Carolina Nymark contends that allowing this onboarding experience will set a precedent that erodes the standard the team is trying to uphold for the ecosystem of themes hosted on WordPress.org and gives Ollie an unfair commercial advantage:

“That settings pages are not allowed is in many ways unrelated to the customizer. And if we really want to angle it that way, it would be way easier to re-enable the customizer link in the theme.

It is about having a standard that is easy for all theme authors to use and easy to review.
It is about not opening up the reviews to another situation with incredibly difficult and time consuming reviews of code that the theme developers themselves don’t understand because they copy-pasted it and managed to cause all sorts of errors and security issues.
Where that feature “lives”, in the customizer or on another page, is not the issue.

I would like everyone to also consider that the Site Editor is not at all far away from solving the problem with the initial template selection. It does not solve all onboarding steps, like getting to the Site Editor, but it is improving.

Compare it with the use of TGMPA. There is a problem that needs solving and a solution has been agreed upon where the theme author and reviewers only need to adjust a few variables and text strings.

If something similar could be reached here I would support it.

This is not about a special case, because it is an unfair commercial advantage over other theme developers.

Ollie is a beautifully-designed multipurpose theme of the highest caliber, the likes of which WordPress.org doesn’t see very often. If expanding block theme adoption is an important goal, these are the kinds of experiences you want people building for WordPress users. It may be time to redefine theme guidelines based on the possibilities that the block editor enables, instead of saddling block themes with antiquated constraints for the sake of maintaining a more expedient review process.

“Just because there are problems with onboarding it doesn’t mean that a theme, any theme, is the right tool just because one can put code in it,” Nymark said. “Plugins extend features, themes display content.”

Given the amount of pushback from the Theme Review team, McAlister is now torn about removing everything “extra” to get Ollie in the directory for better distribution, or to keep the innovations in place and forego the directory in favor of independent distribution. So far, the results of his poll are overwhelmingly in favor of McAlister distributing the theme himself.

“I’m passionate about innovation and getting the most out of all the possibilities that modern WordPress affords us,” McAlister told the Tavern. “We were tasked to ‘Learn JavaScript Deeply’ not to remain where we’ve been for so long, but to push the boundaries and scope out the future of WordPress and what’s possible.

“So we designed and developed Ollie’s educational dashboard and onboarding wizard to help users get over some of the hurdles they’ve been plagued with for so long when setting up a new site or switching to a new theme. We even designed it in a very core-inspired way to match the site editor to create a very cohesive experience. The feedback has been inspiring!”

After posting about his experience with the Theme Review team, which McAlister characterized as “rocky (and downright combative),” the community following his work on Ollie over the past year has rallied around him with advice and support.

“I am torn about this,” Joost de Valk commented on McAlister’s poll on X. “I feel WordPress needs these onboarding experiences. Very very much. Should it be in themes? Not sure. Should the theme repository block this stuff? I don’t think so… we should be open to experimenting with this a bit more.”

McAlister said that even as the theme’s creator, he is torn about the decision as well.

“I built this as a good faith attempt to help people onboard into block themes and hopefully even help drive adoption,” he said. “My intentions are pure and steeped in 15 years of doing it ‘the WP way.’ It’s an attempt to move the needle, worth a shot anyway.”

“I always felt that onboarding like this should be part of Core,” Yoast-sponsored contributor Ari Stathopoulos commented. “The current experience for a newcomer to WP is not a good one. We have to start somewhere… if it’s in themes, then so be it.”

WordPress’ Theme Review team has a critical choice here, whether to stifle innovation and throw the book at one of the most highly anticipated block themes, or identify this as a special case where the author has the users’ best interests at heart.

Many participants in the discussion on X encouraged McAlister to distribute his work independently, citing examples of other WordPress products that have found success in doing so. This would be an unfortunate loss for WordPress.org where the project is essentially shooting itself in the foot by clinging to outmoded guidelines in order to deny high quality block themes that are innovating to create a better user experience. In pursuit of a more robust offering of block themes, the last thing WordPress needs to do is chase away its trailblazers.

“Since this morning, there has been an overwhelming amount of feedback telling me to avoid the WordPress.org directory,” McAlister said. “I’m kind of bummed by this because I think it says something about the directory that a lot of folks think but few want to say out loud.

“Personally, I want the directory to succeed and be an inspiring and resourceful jump-off point for new WordPress users! It’s the front page of our open source project, of our community. It should be a showcase of the finest our community has to offer. But today, I’m disheartened and not sure if it’s the place where I want to put some of my best work to date.”


29 responses to “Ollie Theme Faces Pushback from WordPress Theme Review Team”

  1. From above:
    “The setup wizard is plugin territory,” UXL Themes founder and theme reviewer Andrew Starr said. “Why not make this as a plugin that would work with any block theme? A plugin could be inspiration or a nudge to improve the core experience.”

    Sorry to disturb the party but Gutenberg IS plugin territory and should have been considered as such from the beginning. To start with. Now back to the party.

  2. It’s a shame really. The on boarding experience with Ollie is the kind of transformative magic that WordPress needs. At the moment the default install is Sample page and post with the home showing the blog, not necessarily the type of site that most users intend to use. I think WordPress is missing a trick here and should be looking at Ollie and thinking, that’s just what we need to include on install.

  3. Kindly, when referencing the Themes team please use the team’s correct name.

    My opinion of whether the or not the feature should be in a theme or plugin is not an attack on Mike’s person nor in any way a statement that I Ollie is not a great theme. I am excited about the theme and interested in the exploration.
    But I can not ignore the potential effects on the review system, the cost to both the review time, and frankly the mental health of the reviewers.

    This article brings up one conflict. But what I don’t think that people understand -even after what happened to members of the plugin team – is that reviewers are trying to minimize and handle these type of conflicts all the time, and it is incredibly draining and leads to burn out.
    Theme reviewers are offered no conflict management training from WordPress. They are constantly facing situations where the have to weigh the interest of the individual theme developers against other interests and sometimes it isn’t going to be in the developer’s favor.

    This is what I can not ignore. I don’t want the reviewers to work in an environment where these conflicts happen as often as they do, and as often as they will do if only one theme author is granted exceptions from the requirement. It will escalate, as we have seen in the past (even as documented here on the Tavern).

    This article has left out several relevant parts of the discussion:
    – A proposal for a community driven, official feature plugin to solve the onboarding issues.
    – The difficulties for reviewers who do not (yet) know React, who are not familiar with the WordPress JavaScript packages and components, to help ensure that the code for the onboarding feature is secure, free from errors, and follows the requirements.

    It is not the responsibility of a single theme -or plugin -developer to solve the WordPress onboarding issue.

    It is not the right solution to allow an exception for one theme developer.

    And if the themes team instead wants to change the requirements so that all theme authors can create settings pages again, theres has to be a proper plan that is well thought through so that all the pitfalls and potential risks can be avoided. And that is not a discussion that should take place in an individual theme trac ticket but on the Make blog so that everyone can participate.

    The article

    • So, the themes review team are exceptional and don’t need to keep up with the rest of us?

      “Learn JavaScript Deeply”

      This highlights that the themes review process is broken and the personalities involved are more focussed on themselves than the ecosystem. ( if mental health challenges are not being met then I applaud the self focus, but this is another symptom of the issue.)

      Is it for the theme review team to allocate resources to problems in the ecosystem ( as above where they declare that they will decide who solves onboarding) I wouldn’t have thought so.

      Why do you say this cannot be a special case?

      This is all incredibly petty sounding, but I don’t blame the theme review team – they need a break.

      And we need a new theme review process.

  4. After reading that Trac ticket, I would walk away. If the price of submission is stripping out a unique feature of your theme then what is the point? You’ll just sink to the bottom of the pile with all of the other multipurpose themes they’ve approved.

    WordPress.org is certainly an important piece of the distribution puzzle for plugins. But I’m not so sure it’s as useful for themes.

  5. An L take from the theme teame. As the twete from Mr. Anthony says, there is no shortage of low quality themes in the repository. Or plugins, for that matter (I know plugins are reviewed by a different team). Since core doesn’t have the onboarding setup in place, they should allow Ollie as a special case immediately. Perhaps even sponsor Mr. McOlliester and work with him to get a proper onboarding workflow baked into core.

    I recently decided to give a block theme (Twenty Twenty-Three) a go on of my archived sites. It was a headache getting it to do what I wanted, way more difficult than my current and preferred theme GeneratePress. I am not even a block editor hater, I have been using and loving the block editor for years.

  6. Justin Tadlock’s mention of the importance of code portability really highlighted for me how WordPress has gone off the rails. The way the Block Editor stores block properties in content is about as brittle and unportable as it gets! WordPress was never a true MVC framework, but along the way the core team has completely abandoned one of the web’s one-time guiding principles: separation of presentation and content. I’m still along for the ride with WordPress because of inertia, but I on principle it just feels like everything is wrong now, and this situation shows what a farce it has become. WordPress is huge but the project has abandoned everything that made it so.

  7. Thanks for this great article, Sarah!

    My 2-cents: Regardless of what the Theme Review Team does in this case, the wp.org theme repo is just one of many marketing channels – nothing more, nothing less. Like organic seo, you’ll need to game the wp.org system to get ranked – And if you have to do the work to rank in the wp.org theme repo when they clearly don’t want your theme in there there in this case, why not just invest that time in a different marketing channel?

    On the Theme Review Team’s decision to not allow an onboarding experience (a decision that flies in the face of what almost everyone I know needs when they use a new theme – an onboarding experience to create new pages/layouts quickly!), that’s the Theme Review Team’s decision, for better or worse. I think you have more of a chance of influencing decisions in other profit-driven marketing channels than you do of influencing the Theme Review Team, which is slow-moving in their decision-making and less-prone to outside influence compared to other channels (a function of its egalitarian philosophy in promoting people to leadership positions).

  8. My recommendation is that WP.org stand back and look at the big picture!

    Note: I love WP Block themes & all the great work that everyone & the teams have put into them.

    WP.org should except and bless, Mike’s Ollie Theme and “Onboarding wizard”.

    Mike is a member of the WP team (official or not), I am confident his work will not break WordPress.

    Mike’s work should be used as the Model, for WP Core Onboarding.

    When WP catches up with Mike’s onboarding … maybe Mike can use Cores Onboarding Framework.

  9. Automattic should aquire Olliewp and make Mike the theme product lead. The wizard should be part of core.

    WordPress users have been slow to adopt the block editor and block themes by extension.

    It’s also because block themes have a discoverability disadvantage on the themes page.

    They don’t show up under the default “ordered by popularity filter” until you scroll like crazy because they’re mixed with classic themes with hundreds of thousands of installs, and there is no dedicated filter to order block themes by popularity manually.

    As a potential block theme user you want to see which ones got traction, but you can’t. Somebody who doesn’t search for it wouldn’t discover great themes like Frost which already have some traction thousands of installs, they get buried within the soup of theme thumbnails ordered by newest.

  10. The onboarding wizard for the Ollie theme is fantastic. It provides one of the clearest self-guiding experiences that I’ve seen in a long time.

    Clarity is what WordPress needs right now. I’ve been working with a block theme on an offline testing server, and I honestly feel that the interface is a bit disjointed. In 6.3, it’s much better but needs work to clarify the steps that have to be taken to create a solid design.

    I understand that emphasis has been placed on using theme.json, which kind of turns WordPress into an object-oriented programming tool. But I’m finding it a bit difficuult to transition from setting my styles in the CSS stylesheet to setting the styles in theme.json. That transition is what has prevented me from fulling adopting block themes for production sites.

    • I have to agree with you; for example many features on macos and iphone started as separate apps and extensions, purchased by apple and integrated into system because they were better than the other options they had themselves, well, microsoft woudn’t have windows without all those companies they bought and integrate into their suite of programs,

      • I like your ideas, Victor.

        Perhaps the WordPress core team could work with Mike McAlister to test his onboarding system in the Gutenburg plugin. That would be a path forward to making WordPress block themes much more user-friendly.

        That kind of functionality could be made accessible anywhere within WordPress admin to provide guidance about how to use certain features.

  11. I’m over all things wordpress. It’s a dumpster fire for anyone other than designers with no technical skills. They should move themes and plugins like this into a platform like wix and sell subscriptions. As a developer I spend all day every day lately fixing compatibility issues between junk themes and junk plugins because of too many options and settings. I would rather build a system myself in anything other then wordpress.

  12. Mike McAlister may have acted hastily by announcing his theme’s inclusion in the WordPress directory before actually submitting it and considering the possibility of its rejection.

    I have developed a block theme called Séance, which delves into the history of the Fox sisters. Given its distinctive content, I am unsure if the Themes team would easily accept it into the directory.

    My subsequent theme, Aegis, is specifically designed for academic publishing and WooCommerce, and it includes an onboarding feature. However, observing the challenges Mike McAlister is currently facing, I am hesitant to submit Aegis to the directory at this time.

    It is intriguing to note that block themes with onboarding features are already present on WordPress VIP. And contrary to what some might think, these features are not added through an additional plugin. The approach taken is similar to the method Mike McAlister adopted with his theme on WordPress VIP.

    As far as I am concerned, I find it ironic that a block theme which includes onboarding is facing such obstacles, especially when there are hundreds of classic themes on the Themes Directory which are laden with upsells. These upsells, in my view, seem more intrusive and aggressive towards users and are less community-friendly than a feature that aids users in rapidly setting up their site.

    The manner in which this situation is being handled does not inspire much enthusiasm or motivation for theme developers to submit their creations to the directory. If this trend persists, many developers might choose to self-host and distribute their own themes independently, making the theme directory increasingly scarce when it comes to Block Themes.

    • The Automattic WIP team does not interact with the WordPress.org themes team members in any way.
      There is no sharing of experiences or cross-team discussions so I don’t find this surprising at all.
      If the WIP team believes such discussions would be beneficial they are of course welcome to make an introduction and attend the themes team meetings.

      • I recognize that both teams operate independently. Were the VIP Block Themes team to adhere to the guidelines set by the Themes team, the quality of the VIP Block Themes might be elevated.

        Yet, I must express my observation that many Block Themes available on the WordPress Themes Directory do not always adhere to the set guidelines. I have taken the time to download and examine the code of every Block Theme available over several months. This thorough review was primarily to serve as a point of comparison in light of the scant documentation available. My findings reveal numerous inconsistencies.

        I do not intend to imply that the team is not performing commendably. We are, after all, volunteers, doing our utmost to contribute. My intention is purely to offer constructive feedback. It is evident that the realm of Block Themes is still maturing, necessitating ongoing refinement, concerted effort, and collaboration given its ever-evolving nature.

        From my research, there does not seem to be any strict rules or guidelines specific to Block Themes that would exclude an onboarding feature. This leads me to believe that Ollie should be accepted in its current form, particularly considering its onboarding process is complimentary and not a premium feature.

        Please enlighten me if my understanding is incorrect.

  13. I agree a smoother theming process is needed. The combination of Elementor ( or similar), Customizer, various Block sets, and then theme features baked in all present too many disparate, unrelated design options. It isn’t as smooth and solidly reliable or intuitive as it should be. Its a hodge podge. I have used WP since 2011 and I’d expect by now a more refined, tightly integrated design process. Look forward to future improvements!

  14. With the customizer out of the picture, theme settings should naturally find a home in the Editor, right?

    Also, theme devs are pretty in tune with their users. Shouldn’t they have a say in the onboarding process? They often know the best starting points for their audience.

    I don’t think an exception needs to be made, I think the review standards need to be rewritten for Block Themes. That should help minimize the headaches and strain that Carolina brought up as well.

    It sounds like some training may be needed to help evaluators understand the new standards being set by Block Themes and the FSE. That’s understandable, and in my opinion should be a top priority.

    I would imagine that people like Mike and Justin are great candidates to create some of that training. Not only would it be helpful for training evaluators, it would also help developers better understand the standards they need to follow to get accepted into the repo.

  15. I believe that Carolina mentioned TGMPA framework – how about creating an Onboarding Block Themes framework, and distribute it on the GitHub? Did someone proposed that to McAlister? Would WP.org Themes Team consider allowing such a solution?
    (btw, is the TGMPA allowed for WP.org themes … ?)
    ( … I know, I know, too many questions … 🙂 )

  16. The fact that everyone who isn’t a programmer or intense “fanboi” WP nerds needs onboarding help for block themes suggests block themes should still be in beta.

    As should anything where tutorials contain sentences like “Simply open the JSON file in your favorite text editor and…”

    From a professional app developer’s perspective it’s enough that FSE is easier than setting up for app development with SwiftUI or the Android SDK. But from the average actual WordPress site owner’s perspective maybe that’s not good enough.

  17. This is a shame. I saw Mike McAlister talking about how much extra work it was to make a block theme, but how he believed in the project.

    It’s the only block theme I’ve seen getting some widespread (and much needed) love and positivity.

    Since Gutenberg there’s been so much division and negativity in WordPress that I have started calling it an Open Sores community.

  18. If we’ll move onboarding for the theme into a plugin, we’ll probably need an onboarding process to install onboarding plugin. From Review team point of view – what the sense of such “onboarding” process for end user?

    • If the onboarding was in a plugin, it could be designed in such a way that the user experience would be exactly the same.
      As it is now with the onboarding included in the theme, the user activates the Ollie theme and they are presented with a notification inviting them to click a button that takes them to the onboarding page.
      This could be exactly the same process for the user if the onboarding code was in a plugin. The same theme notification could be presented, with the only difference being that when clicking the button the plugin would be installed and activated (this is allowed because themes can recommend plugins), with the plugin then providing the code to take the user on to the onboarding page.
      There would be no noticable difference in the process as far as the user is concerned.

      • But in this case, if I switch theme, but miss the point that onboarding process for this theme was implemented by some plugin, I’ll get useless plugin activated. If it became common practice, after testing 3-4 themes, before choosing the one I need, I’ll get 2-3 plugins, which do nothing in my current setup, but could conflict each other in theory. I just mean that maybe in this case following exact guidelines, about moving such functionality into a plugin, a bit lost sense from end user point of view (but in theory exactly end user should be in priority, when we making any decisions how to do or not to do something)

        But also I agree that complete onboarding process for WordPress should be much wider than just setting up the theme. And ideally it should be presented as some API/framework in the core. But until we do not have it, maybe it make sense to approve such experiments on theme level, after more detailed review?

  19. This article and the subsequent comments are not showing the full picture, giving the readers the impression that the pushback is all about the onboarding functionality and nothing else.

    The issue of the included dozen or so videos that are pulled directly from YouTube gets zero coverage. In the theme review ticket this was mentioned four times, yet the theme author has maintained complete silence regarding this issue and the implications of including non-GPL compatible assets/content. The cornerstone of open source WordPress, and the theme author would seemingly rather pretend this issue does not exist.

    Does the above sound combative? I don’t know, I’ll let others decide this for themselves, but I would ask that readers please try to consider that it can be difficult to get the tone perfect when attempting to say something that someone else does not want to hear.

  20. I really like what this theme was trying to accomplish. In essence, it is solving an issue that WP Core has always had, by introducing an onboarding process.
    However, I agree 100% with the decision of the themes team.
    There are clear guidelines about what themes should do and what they should avoid. There is a clear distinction between plugin and theme territory.
    These rules are not arbitrary… They have been painfully curated and created after a lot of thought. All rules and guidelines in place were created after someone abused a “hole” in the system.
    The theme guidelines and rules are upheld exactly because we need a healthy ecosystem. If something is allowed for one theme, it must be allowed for all.
    As Carolina mentioned in a comment above, approving the theme would open the gate for all kinds of abuse and security issues.

    Some people here mention that the theme review process is broken… It’s not. What is really broken is people’s perception of what a theme is.
    What needs to change is not the themes review process… If a feature is missing from Core, then we can’t just start adding random features to themes – no matter how valid or useful these features are.
    That’s why we have plugins.

    Ideally, an onboarding framework would be part of Core, and I wish we could have that – but I don’t know if there are any plans for something like that anytime soon.

    Until then, everyone should respect the guidelines & rules; they are there for our protection.

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