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WordPress Plugins: Off-the-shelf or Custom Build?

Hi! I imagine if you’re reading this article, you’ve likely run into at least one scenario where it wasn’t entirely clear if you needed an out-of-the-box or custom developed WordPress plugin to fulfill your innermost WordPress desires. Besides design, it’s the usual reason why clients end up calling 1-800-WEB-NERD.

A Stakeholder’s POV

“I need my site to make my content sing and help visitors find exactly what they want the way I would like for them to.” This might be something a client would be thinking and saying during a website design and build project. While they will know that Content Management Systems such as WordPress exist, and that it helps manage their content — they may not know that some of the features they want aren’t built into WordPress (or aren’t exposed outright).

This is where WordPress plugins are supposed to swoop in and save the day. In a perfect world, plugins would adhere to the WP Coding Standards, always use best-practices, and provide developers with flexible options for configuring their looks and functionality — saving time and money. Unfortunately, we live in a world where design and development firms and their clients face insurmountable odds to complete seemingly simple tasks with plugins that are focused on completing one cookie-cutter goal.

A Web Design and Development Studio’s POV

The client says, “It says on the tin it can do X, Y and Z!” Your developers say, “The output of this plugin is unmanageable and buggy!” Your graphic and UX designers say, “Why doesn’t the plugin do what my designs tell it to do?”

The above is typical of what happens when a specialized feature is meant to be bundled into a new site. The plugin you thought might solve a problem isn’t up to the challenge of meeting everyone’s expectations, and there’s a reason for that. Very few WordPress plugins are meant to work for a specific, specialized feature. The ones that do typically cost you or your client a license fee, and the creator may frustratingly charge you for additional or “advanced” features.

Still, there are some shining examples of great commercial WordPress plugins. Gravity Forms and Advanced Custom Fieldsare two that come to mind. They work well, have support from other plugin vendors, and look to have a long life ahead of them. These are things you should really be looking for when you lay your reputation on the line for a plugin. Remember that what’s in the feature bullet list isn’t always what you were expecting to get, so do your homework.

You Get What You Pay For

Nothing is for free and this is painfully obvious with many off-the-shelf plugins. Some free plugin authors really do care about the WordPress community at large and have been developing their plugins for years. I can only think of a few that have stuck around on this model (one being Contact Form 7). In some cases, the long-lived free plugins actually change hands as developers donate their time after a previous author takes leave of the project.

This leaves a lot to be desired when you’re planning on your site being operational for at least five years or more before a new project comes around. That’s why I usually turn to commercial plugins as a more future-proofed solution for WordPress sites. The authors have a vested interested in seeing their plugin continue to fill the coffers and that translates (usually) into quality and longevity. That’s exactly what we’re looking for. But, unfortunately…

Sometimes Plugins Suck

And you won’t know it until you’re half way through a project trying to meet the needs of the client, UX documentation, design comps and developers’ sanity. This is something our teamrecently got a good dose of during a couple of projects. The plugin in question was supposed to do this one thing really well, and to be fair, it does that thing pretty darned well. What it doesn’t do is adhere to those WP Coding Standards, follow good practices, and most definitely doesn’t spit out quality markup for our designers and developers to work with. Total fail. #questioningmyabilitiesandlifechoices #ithadagoodrating #whywhywhy

In our line of work we hope that a piece of web software will output some nice HTML markup for us to style and animate. In this case, we weren’t getting any of what we wanted and by my estimates, we more than doubled the time we needed to complete our tasks; forcing us to spend more time crafting workarounds and clever concessions when it should have just worked. The WordPress plugin clearly wasn’t targeted at our studio or the missions we had for our sites.

To make matters worse, this particular plugin altered their HTML markup output after an update, dashing our work on multiple projects against the rocks and crushing our dreams that the plugin would serve us well.

Maybe We Should Have Developed Our Own Plugin?

You’re right we should have! And as always, hindsight is 20/20. Lessons were learned quickly and we made a move to create our own software to do what we wished the other plugin should have done for us.

And that’s the crux of this dilemma: Does the WordPress plugin developer know what you and your team do? Do they know your workflow? Do they share the same values of design and development? Do they offer you tools to change the experience of the software? Do they empower you and your website to do their jobs better? If they don’t, you must consider developing your own software.

And that’s just what we did… or, are doing. More on that later!

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