Noel Tock Interview
Meet WordPressario and happytables creator Noel Tock, and learn why giving users fewer options can actually result in a better online experience. For more, follow @noeltock, visit noeltock.com, or look out for him at a WordCamp near you.
We’ll start out easy: how did you first get involved with WordPress, and what drew you to it?
I got into WordPress the same way many others probably did; trial and error with different CMS solutions. I think the first one I ever installed was PHPNuke almost a decade ago. Since then I went through many tools and along the way landed on WordPress. Needless to say, it stuck.
The initial attraction was that most problems had already been solved one way or another (through tutorials or the massive plugin ecosystem). Further down the line, I started relying heavily on the theming layer and custom post types. Together, they allow anyone to rapidly prototype a website while keeping it structured from the start, thus easily allowing for potential changes in direction, enhancements and so forth.
What contribution of yours do you see as having added the most value to the WordPress community, and what’s the most valuable thing the WordPress community has given you?
I’d like to think my most valuable contribution to the community has been sharing our experience running happytables; be it through posts, WordCamp talks or most recently, WordSesh (the quality of the entire event was mindblowing). My dilemna is that I’m neither a hardcore developer or designer, so I can hardly present myself as a domain expert in either. However, I love shipping products and in the process experience many successes and failures. I hope sharing them has been of value to the community.
In turn, the most valuable thing I’ve received from the community are the WordCamps that are organized so regularly all around the world. It’s great to be able to put faces to names, chat about successes/failures as well as discuss potential opportunities. While we’re all competing in the same market, WordCamps always make colleagues of us all.
What do you think WordPress’s biggest challenges will be over the next 5-10 years, and how can the community start to mitigate them?
I’m really content with how WordPress is progressing and the choices being made by the core team. You can’t please everyone, but in the grand scheme of things, they’re damn close. That said, I don’t see any big or critical issues, but maybe a few smaller opportunities surrounding WordPress:
- The organization of the plugin repository on WordPress.org. It’s outgrown some of its more simplistic features. The 0-5 star ratings could be replaced with a weighted user score, and the download count could be replaced with an active user account (involves calling home, but even if executed via an opt-in, I’d find it more valuable than the current solution).
- Renaming WordPress.com . This continues to create a great deal of confusion for the WordPress brand, like it did here. A for-profit company shouldn’t be using the same name as a charity, that’s the bottom line in my opinion.
- Leaning out the WordPress admin. The basic interface (navigation, post tables, and other UI elements) carry quite a lot of HTML, and subsequently even more CSS. I’ve blogged about it here. While I haven’t had the time to tackle it, I simply know it needs to be reviewed at one point (sooner than later).
Tell us more about happytables — why did you decide to develop a product for the restaurant sector specifically?
A while back a friend who owns a pub asked me to do a website for them. One of the initial challenges that I wanted to solve early on was how I’d allow the business to update their food menus and events (this was before I got into WordPress). There was a mismatch between requirements and budget, which after some time prompted me to start selling WordPress themes.
Before long, I realized I was getting a lot of non-restaurant buyers (WP people, developers, web assemblers, etc.). That’s when I teamed up with Tom & Joe over at Human Made to evolve the concept from selling a downloadable theme to providing a fully hosted service. This way, we cut out the middleman and built relationships with the businesses directly. It’s more challenging, but once successful, will in turn be that much more rewarding. Not only financially (as the price point is significantly higher), but also in terms of providing us with a sizeable channel for further products.
Going through these different ecosystems and selling to different kinds of buyers has been an incredible experience.
Can you walk us through the basic steps of conceptualizing, developing, and readying happytables for launch? What will success look like for happytables?
We recently released happytables 2.0, a massive and overdue iteration. We had decided to do a week-long retreat away from our usual workplaces to focus solely on shipping this version.
In terms of process, it was really about taking all the lessons learned we had gathered over the year and trying to package that into a single and manageable sprint. We had previously accumulated a lot of ideas, but didn’t necessarily have the time to execute on them earlier as we had been working on another project, Clickbank Powered, during the winter.
With its development, we certainly didn’t follow any traditional project guidelines, but rather experimented with ideas on paper or in-browser medium-fidelity flows (ed.: realistic online prototypes that still allow for rapid iteration) till we found something worth holding onto. It may sound crazy, but ultimately you can make all the assumptions in the world and still fail miserably when you put it in front of real users (I’m not talking about other WP developers, but actual restaurants). Our goal was to do just that, which is why we launched the beta of happytables 2.0 as soon as we possibly could.
From then on, we talked to users, tracked their movement and tackled their problems. Now that we’ve come out of beta, we couldn’t be happier. The product is really solid and “newbie users” are spending far more time in their initial sessions before giving up or coming back the next day.
What are your biggest takeaways from happytables?
Despite web technology becoming more complex, the concept of a “website” is increasingly becoming one of a commodity. There are a number of providers that focus very strongly on providing the tools to create a website, in the form of plenty of options, customization abilities and so forth. In the process, they distract users away from questions such as why the website is being built and what it’s trying to achieve. Having access to hundreds of Typekit fonts isn’t going to make up for the fact that your opening times are not even on your front page.
With happytables 2.0, we’ve tried to approach the problem from the opposite end. Instead of having a business decide where every piece of content has to go or have the user scroll through pages of options, we’ve taken a very prescribed approach. This means we’ve taken much of the building process away from users, and in turn have tried to get them to focus on more important matters, be it having restaurants re-engage their clients over time or providing them with the tools to update their website on a weekly basis in a productive manner.
We’re not trying to get our business clients to build a website, but rather to extend their offline activities through online means too. This mentality has guided much of what we’ve created with happytables 2.0.
Having recently joined Human Made as an equal partner, what does the future hold?
This is exciting for all of us. Tom and Joe have done some incredible stuff building a stellar agency while at the same time working on building up WP Remote. With happytables coming into that fold and a pro version of BackupWordPress coming out soon, there’s plenty of product work that requires attention. That’ll be my realm. We’ve already experienced a number of success and failures with the various products, which all enable us to continually add value to the decisions we make and how we build.
Down the line, look out for a similar model to happytables in other niches as well as further products for the developer community. As our product reputation and channel relationships continue to grow, our opportunities will invariably multiply. Projects such as Clickbank Powered show what can happen when completely different companies join forces and play to their strengths, we’ll certainly be looking to do more of that.