Can This Tool Help Me Build My Site Faster?
That’s the question I ask when I look at new tools. And it’s one of the ultimate benchmark tests that I consider when assess any new tool or process.
My core toolset is entirely programmatic. I either build custom themes from scratch, build child themes on top of existing themes, and plug the gap with plugins that I either get from the wordpress repository or build myself.
A handful of tools dominate the market for “visual builders” allowing people who are creating sites to build without having to code. Or at least minimising the amount of code that has to be written.
Over the last few days I’ve taken a look at a few of these tools. I’ve partly been motivated glowing reviews in the community, including from the likes of Chris Lema. Such posts often have a trail of positive comments talking of the wonders of these tools. That’s another motivation.
However my overall impression is that none of these tools offer a clear advantage over either customizing a child theme or coding from scratch. I’m likely to continue climbing the learning curve just in case something clicks. But the claims of added convenience and speed just don’t amount to much.
Here’s a summary of each of the builders that I’ve looked into, and my impressions.
Steep learning curve. Big and complicated. Unconventional coding makes child themes difficult to work with. iThemes provided themes are built very unconventionally and I learnt the hard way that you can’t just child them and expect to be able to use them without having learnt Builder deeply. I wouldn’t recommend picking up iThemes Builder as an experiment for an client project.
Support staff are responsive.
I’m uncertain that I’d ever use this for a real project. I can see that they’ve put a lot of work into it, but currently I can’t see the benefit of using Builder over creating a custom theme.
Also big and complicated with a steep learning curve. Advertises a “drag and drop builder”. The term “drag and drop” gives an impression of simplicity. However, Ultimatum’s builder requires that you learn a complicated interface and new terminology. All of this has to be learnt before any dragging and dropping is done. An interface for customizing CSS the ultimatum way is too constraining for some simple things (You might have to add your own plugin to inject CSS into the footer). It isn’t helpful that they’ve overloaded the term ‘template’, already used by wordpress.
Subscription gives access to a bunch of plugins that you’d otherwise have to buy separately on codecanyon. I don’t know how they offer support for these.
Documentation is very detailed. However some parts of it are unclear, particularly when it comes to adding custom CSS.
I could end up using Ultimatum for a real project. But I wouldn’t expect to see any advantage in the speed of site creation over building from a child or custom theme.
A much more slick product then the previous ones but not without it’s own frustrations. It’s polish doesn’t prevent you from having to learn it’s nuances and many configurations. You get to the “drag and drop” action faster then you would if using Ultimatum. But it’s still big, complicated and constraining: as far as I can tell, if you are building a layout then you can’t create a custom loop within that layout. You can add a “code area” with your own php. But thats frustrating, because you can’t code with the convenience of a proper text editor. So testing becomes a pain.
The actual “drag and drop” editing screen is also confusing for while. Power and simplicity do not go hand-in-hand.
An alternative is to drop in a widget area and then find a widget that lets you create a loop. But that’s much more of a pain then just, say, coding your own Page Templates from. Also, using a widget would require that you do custom styling without access to markup (annoying) and make it very difficult, if not impossible, to work with data created with tools like pods. This is entirely unnappealing.
I could possible use Headway for a real project. But I’d have to sink more time into learning it and I still wouldn’t expect to see a speed advantage.
**update: jan 5th 2015 **
Headway can be great for quickly laying out or prototyping sites. The difficulty comes when you need to use custom code. Headways templates allow you to drop in custom php. However, the workflow for this isn’t smooth. So the convenience of fast layout and intuitive layout production is offset significantly by clunky workflow. The headflow developers have clearly done much hard work on this polished product. But it isn’t developer-friendly.
For all of the above tools it could be relatively straightforward to build a simple site. But if you wanted to build a simple site you wouldn’t want to spend money and time on a new tool when you can just use an existing theme and possibly child it. Or code from scratch.
What I’m probably seeing is the emergence of niche: wordpress tools for “developers” who don’t actually do programming.
I don’t mean to sound like grumpycat. I can see that the developers of these tools have put in a lot of work building their tools, marketing them and providing support. All the vendors have been industry players for at least a year and get a lot of great reviews – reviews that encouraged me to test their wares. Clearly a lot of people in the industry are getting value from them.
And I’m likely to continue to experiment with these tools. Maybe I’ll have an “aha moment” with one of them. But for the moment the appeal of each of them is limited.