Lessons Learned While Developing WordPress Plugins

Lessons Learned While Developing WordPress Plugins

Lessons Learned While Developing WordPress Plugins

Jakub Mikita

2018-05-24T13:30:28+02:00
2018-06-05T08:35:40+00:00

Every WordPress plugin developer struggles with tough problems and code that’s difficult to maintain. We spend late nights supporting our users and tear out our hair when an upgrade breaks our plugin. Let me show you how to make it easier.

In this article, I’ll share my five years of experience developing WordPress plugins. The first plugin I wrote was a simple marketing plugin. It displayed a call to action (CTA) button with Google’s search phrase. Since then, I’ve written another 11 free plugins, and I maintain almost all of them. I’ve written around 40 plugins for my clients, from really small ones to one that have been maintained for over a year now.

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Good development and support lead to more downloads. More downloads mean more money and a better reputation. This article will show you the lessons I’ve learned and the mistakes I’ve made, so that you can improve your plugin development.

1. Solve A Problem

If your plugin doesn’t solve a problem, it won’t get downloaded. It’s as simple as that.

Take the Advanced Cron Manager plugin (8,000+ active installations). It helps WordPress users who are having a hard time debugging their cron. The plugin was written out of a need — I needed something to help myself. I didn’t need to market this one, because people already needed it. It scratched their itch.

On the other hand, there’s the Bug — fly on the screen plugin (70+ active installations). It randomly simulates a fly on the screen. It doesn’t really solve a problem, so it’s not going to have a huge audience. It was a fun plugin to develop, though.

Focus on a problem. When people don’t see their SEO performing well, they install an SEO plugin. When people want to speed up their website, they install a caching plugin. When people can’t find a solution to their problem, then they find a developer who writes a solution for them.

As David Hehenberger attests in his article about writing a successful plugin, need is a key factor in the WordPress user’s decision of whether to install a particular plugin.

If you have an opportunity to solve someone’s problem, take a chance.

2. Support Your Product

“3 out of 5 Americans would try a new brand or company for a better service experience. 7 out of 10 said they were willing to spend more with companies they believe provide excellent service.”

— Nykki Yeager

Don’t neglect your support. Don’t treat it like a must, but more like an opportunity.

Good-quality support is critical in order for your plugin to grow. Even a plugin with the best code will get some support tickets. The more people who use your plugin, the more tickets you’ll get. A better user experience will get you fewer tickets, but you will never reach inbox 0.

Every time someone posts a message in a support forum, I get an email notification immediately, and I respond as soon as I can. It pays off. The vast majority of my good reviews were earned because of the support. This is a side effect: Good support often translates to 5-star reviews.

When you provide excellent support, people start to trust you and your product. And a plugin is a product, even if it’s completely free and open-source.

Good support is more complex than about writing a short answer once a day. When your plugin gains traction, you’ll get several tickets per day. It’s a lot easier to manage if you’re proactive and answer customers’ questions before they even ask.

Here’s a list of some actions you can take:

  • Create an FAQ section in your repository.
  • Pin the “Before you ask” thread at the top of your support forum, highlighting the troubleshooting tips and FAQ.
  • Make sure your plugin is simple to use and that users know what they should do after they install it. UX is important.
  • Analyze the support questions and fix the pain points. Set up a board where people can vote for the features they want.
  • Create a video showing how the plugin works, and add it to your plugin’s main page in the WordPress.org repository.

It doesn’t really matter what software you use to support your product. The WordPress.org’s official support forum works just as well as email or your own support system. I use WordPress.org’s forum for the free plugins and my own system for the premium plugins.

3. Don’t Use Composer

Composer is package-manager software. A repository of packages is hosted on packagist.org, and you can easily download them to your project. It’s like NPM or Bower for PHP. Managing your third-party packages the way Composer does is a good practice, but don’t use it in your WordPress project.

I know, I dropped a bomb. Let me explain.

Composer is great software. I use it myself, but not in public WordPress projects. The problem lies in conflicts. WordPress doesn’t have any global package manager, so each and every plugin has to load dependencies of their own. When two plugins load the same dependency, it causes a fatal error.

There isn’t really an ideal solution to this problem, but Composer makes it worse. You can bundle the dependency in your source manually and always check whether you are safe to load it.

Composer’s issue with WordPress plugins is still not solved, and there won’t be any viable solution to this problem in the near future. The problem was raised many years ago, and, as you can read in WP Tavern’s article, many developers are trying to solve it, without any luck.

The best you can do is to make sure that the conditions and environment are good to run your code.

4. Reasonably Support Old PHP Versions

Don’t support very old versions of PHP, like 5.2. The security issues and maintenance aren’t worth it, and you’re not going to earn more installations from those older versions.

The Notification plugin’s usage on PHP versions from May 2018. (Large preview)

Go with PHP 5.6 as a minimal requirement, even though official support will be dropped by the end of 2018. WordPress itself requires PHP 7.2.

There’s a movement that discourages support of legacy PHP versions. The Yoast team released the Whip library, which you can include in your plugin and which displays to your users important information about their PHP version and why they should upgrade.

Tell your users which versions you do support, and make sure their website doesn’t break after your plugin is installed on too low a version.

5. Focus On Quality Code

Writing good code is tough in the beginning. It takes time to learn the “SOLID” principles and design patterns and to change old coding habits.

It once took me three days to display a simple string in WordPress, when I decided to rewrite one of my plugins using better coding practices. It was frustrating knowing that it should have taken 30 minutes. Switching my mindset was painful but worth it.


Source: Smashingmagazine

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