WYSIWYG is a broken concept

I recently put together a small presentation at Design UK as part of our weekly skill-share/what’s hot meeting to teach my colleagues some Markdown. Other than being an excuse to try out in-browser slides and live editing with Reveal.js I thought it was a genuinely useful, time saving skill to have.

Markdown’s ease-of-use, portability and rapid writability (that’s a word, right?) got murmurs of appreciation from the non-developers present, but I needed a killer-feature to clearly position it as the optimum choice for writing web content. To me Markdown’s killer-feature is that you cannot produce dodgy output; the forgiving and flexible syntax should always be translated into valid HTML, PDF or document of choice. This was quickly translated into “WYSIWYG editors are shit”.

As a provider of a commercial CMS we’re more than familiar with broken output. The WYSIWYG content field is ripe for abuse, either from lack of understanding or the devil of not pasting in plain-text. Poor WYSIWYG implementations and features are easy to blame, but the entire paradigm of WYSIWYG for producing website content is inherently broken. Online content relies on markup to give meaning to the text, a property you can’t always see. Writing content in a WYSIWYG editor still requires knowledge of good document structure that the intended user doesn’t have. It’s a causality dilemma.

More acutely the acronym contradicts the technologies that have built the web; there is no separation of content and style. Anyone who has worked with clients who manage their own content will know the pain of patching up slap-dash HTML that may have taken the client some effort to create. Removal of the most offensive buttons from the editor toolbar may avoid issues from the more careful (or well drilled) user but there is no solution to fix every end-user monstrosity. At worst the website can be left unreadable and at best a hierarchical mess.

There have been quiet efforts to relieve the problem, WYSIWYM editors have been around since the mid-90s and even before the end of the century there were calls to end the use of WYSIWYG editors online. Despite the years there is currently just WYMeditor flying the flag but at least 5 very popular WYSIWYGs with hundreds of contributors and millions of users.

It’s clear that website developers gain no advantage implementing self-destructive tools and I can’t see any user gains either. The content becomes non-portable, time-consuming to write, easy to break and a huge, empty text field is hardly prime usability. Giving a client a familiar user interface from a document processor doesn’t help, it’s a misnomer.

We need to help users to create better content. The answer isn’t providing a blank canvas for content-creators to fill unhindered but firm hand-holding by the CMS. The platform should not strictly enforce a structural model then abandon users for the part it’s designed to solve. A CMS needs to provide appropriate and definable fields, syntax for flexible templates and not let anyone be the architect of their own downfall; use Markdown.

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A photo of Matt Hinchliffe

About Me

I'm a 29 year old web developer building new stuff at the Financial Times based in London. I specialise in crafting scalable, performance-driven code, tackle accessibility issues and keep an opinionated interest in the latest hotness. I like my tea robustly brewed, white and with no sugar, thanks!