4 min read

Improving the Author Experience in WordPress

Improving the Author Experience in WordPress
The term User Experience (UX) has been mainstream for some years now with the prevalence of multi-device websites and the Internet of Everything (IoE) and all that. Author Experience (AX) is similar to UX, except that the user is an administrator or content creator who is adding content to the site. The experience for them, the author, is what AX is concerned with.

During development, AX can be overlooked because content is being entered by the agency's staff, and they’re familiar with the back-end. So when a WordPress site is handed over to the client with shiny new user logins, some questions can remain unanswered such as: What dimensions should the images be? How long should the text be? What colors should I use? Here are some tips for improving the author experience in WordPress.

Supplemental Documentation

A key component of website deliverables is the documentation. When we, the agency, deliver a project, there are at least two pieces of supplementary documentation that we provide to the client.

  1. Brand Style Guide - The style guide contains such things as company philosophy, logo sizing and placement, typefaces and sizes, colors, image styles, text overlay effects, and anything else related to the overall brand of the company.
  2. Back-end Manual - This manual outlines the technical aspects of the website such as how to log in, add and/or update pages, adjust images, and change settings among other things.

While supplemental documentation is necessary, it can pose some problems as it pertains to the AX.

  1. Documentation is external - The author has to flip back and forth between documentation and content creation which inhibits creativity.
  2. Multiple sources of reference - The style guide is a creative document while the back-end manual is a technical document. If an author is trying to decide on a font color or style, they would need to look in the style guide instead of the manual thus exacerbating the first point above.
  3. Bloated documentation - The back-end manual has to contain everything the client needs to know for updates which can lead to bloat. Flipping through many pages to look for one specific bit of information can be frustrating, even with a table of contents.
  4. Can get outdated - At the very least, the back-end guide will contain screenshots of where things reside which can be helpful at first. But over time as WordPress gets more updates, the UI can change and cause the screenshots no longer match the screen. Additionally, the client may add features later and often, the manual will fall behind the updates unless specifically addressed and budgeted.

Contextual Documentation

Contextual documentation, also known as self-documentation, is another method to document that provides relevant help where it makes sense within the framework. Contextual documentation differs from supplemental documentation in that it's a part of the user interface. The author does not have to search through emails or PDFs to find style information such as colors, font sizes, or image dimensions, or technical information such as editing content or how categories are being used.

Below, I'm going to cover some methods to add contextual documentation for WordPress authors: Administration page help tab, image dimensions recommendation, post excerpt character counter, and a custom brand color palette to all WordPress color pickers.



Help Tabs

WordPress has built-in support for help tabs on administration pages and includes tabs on all default pages. The problem is that when custom post types are added, developers often forget to add help to explain what the post type does and how any changes affect the site.

Backend editor in WordPress
Collapsed and expanded help tabs for Posts.
WordPress Custom post type with help text.
Custom post type with help text.
Help tabs are not automatically included on any custom administration pages, which includes custom post types. Below is a code sample of how to add help tabs to a custom post type.
 * Add a help tab to the new/edit post screen.
 * Action: admin_head-post.php, admin_head-post-new.php
function cmfy_add_gumbo_help_tab() {
	// Get the WP_Screen object
	$screen = get_current_screen();

	// Adjust / remove this conditional depending on which hook you're firing on
	if ( 'comm_cpt_gumbo_ingr' == $screen->post_type ) {
		$screen->add_help_tab( array(
			'id'		=> 'gumbo-info',
			'title'		=> __( 'Usage', 'cmfy' ),
			'content'	=>
				'<p>' . esc_html__( 'This post type will create a gumbo ingredient entry which is a small thumbnail with some hover information.', 'cmfy' ) . '</p>' .
				'<ul>' .
					'<li>' . __( '<strong>Title</strong> will show up when an icon is hovered over.', 'cmfy' ) . '</li>' .
					'<li>' . __( '<strong>Excerpt</strong> is currently not used on the front-end but is kept in place for a future addition.', 'cmfy' ) . '</li>' .
			) );

		$screen->set_help_sidebar( __( '<p><strong>For more information:</strong></p><p><a href="/gumbo">View Gumbo</a></p>', 'cmfy' ) );
 * Change actions depending on which screen you want the help tabs.
 * In this case, I want this help tab to fire on new / update post type.
 * I am restricing which post type with a conditional post type lookup inside of
 * the callback. For example, if you wanted to add a help tab to the
 * general options page, hook into 'admin_head-options-general.php'.
add_action( 'admin_head-post.php', 'cmfy_add_gumbo_help_tab' );
add_action( 'admin_head-post-new.php', 'cmfy_add_gumbo_help_tab' );

Often times, post featured images have recommended dimensions or aspect ratios. WordPress can automatically crop images when necessary but it may be helpful to let the author know the ideal dimensions for the best result.


Featured image metabox before and after instructions.
Featured image metabox before and after instructions.


The above image is a result of the following code.

 * Add guidance text to the featured image metabox.
 * Filter: admin_post_thumbnail_html
 * @param  string   $content  Meta box HTML
 * @param  integer  $post_id  ID of post
 * @return string
function cmfy_featured_image_help_text( $content, $post_id ) {
	// Limit text to certain post types
	if ( 'page' == get_post_type( $post_id ) ) {
		$content .= sprintf( '<p>%s<p>', __( 'For best results, this image should be 900 pixels wide x 506 pixels tall or else it could be cropped unexpectedly. ', 'cmfy' ) );
	return $content;
add_filter( 'admin_post_thumbnail_html', 'cmfy_featured_image_help_text', 10, 2 );

Excerpt Character Count

Excerpts are another location where the developers can provide the author some guidance. Often, designs depend on excerpts of a certain length, and the theme will truncate any longer text so as not to break the layout. However, truncation is not a content strategy.


“A Responsive Design Workshop” Karen McGrane & Ethan Marcotte

A good way to inform the author of the recommended character count is to simply add a counter.


Screenshot of excerpt metabox with character counter.
Excerpt metabox with character counter.


 * Add a character counter to post excerpts in WordPress admin.
 * Action: admin_head-post.php, admin_head-post-new.php
 * Inspired by @link: https://premium.wpmudev.org/blog/character-counter-excerpt-box/
function cmfy_excerpt_character_counter() {
	// If post type does not support excerpt, do nothing
	if ( ! post_type_supports( get_post_type(), 'excerpt' ) ) {

	// Character limit
	$limit = 50;

	// If set to true, the textarea will prevent input beyond limit, else it'll give a notice if limit is exceeded
	$hard_limit = true;

	// Excerpt box character count markup
	$markup = sprintf(
		'<div class="hide-if-no-js" style="border: 1px solid #e5e5e5; border-top: none; background-color: #f7f7f7; padding: 2px 10px;">%s <span id="postexcerpt_char_count"></span> / %d</div>',
		_x( 'Character count', 'excerpt characters', 'cmfy' ),
		( function( $ ) {
			$( document ).ready( function() {
				var limit = <?php echo $limit; ?>,
					hard_limit = <?php echo $hard_limit ? 'true' : 'false'; ?>,
					markup = '<?php echo $markup; ?>',
					// Reference to the excerpt textarea
					$excerpt = $( '#excerpt' ),
					// Reference to the character count element after adding it to the DOM
					$excerpt_char_count = $( '#excerpt' ).after( markup ).next().find( '#postexcerpt_char_count' );

				// If using a hard limit, set the maxlength attribute on the excerpt textarea
				if ( hard_limit ) {
					$excerpt.attr( 'maxlength', limit );

				function update_count() {
					// Current count of excerpt
					var count = $excerpt.val().length;
					// Update DOM to reflect count
					$excerpt_char_count.text( count );

					// If not using a hard limit and count goes over limit, apply error-message class
					if ( ! hard_limit && count > limit && ! $excerpt_char_count.hasClass( 'error-message' ) ) {
						$excerpt_char_count.addClass( 'error-message' );
					} else if ( ! hard_limit && count <= limit && $excerpt_char_count.hasClass( 'error-message' ) ) {
						$excerpt_char_count.removeClass( 'error-message' );
				// Update count on keyup which should catch most methods in which data is entered
				$excerpt.on( 'keyup', update_count );
				// If pasting not using a keyboard, do it this way
				$excerpt.on( 'paste', function() {
					setTimeout( update_count, 0 );
				} );

				// Go!
			} );
		} )( jQuery );
<?php }
add_action( 'admin_head-post.php', 'cmfy_excerpt_character_counter' );
add_action( 'admin_head-post-new.php', 'cmfy_excerpt_character_counter' );

Custom Colors

Don’t let all of those carefully crafted brand colors go to waste! There are two different color pickers in WordPress. The first is the TinyMCE color picker which is used to select colors while editing a post. The second is the Iris color picker that is used for all other color selection options such as the theme customizer.


Screenshot of the two color pickers with custom colors
TinyMCE and Iris color pickers with custom colors.


// Custom theme colors
$cmfy_custom_colors = array(
	'14bed2' => __( 'Primary blue', 'cmfy' ),
	'cadd69' => __( 'Primary green', 'cmfy' ),
	'70736f' => __( 'Primary gray', 'cmfy' ),
	'f26722' => __( 'Secondary orange', 'cmfy' ),
	'fdbb4a' => __( 'Secondary yellow', 'cmfy' ),

 * Customize TinyMCE text color picker.
 * Filter: tiny_mce_before_init
 * @param  array $init Initialiation array for TinyMCE
 * @return array
function cmfy_set_colors_tinymce( $init ) {
	global $cmfy_custom_colors;

	 * Array to hold custom colors.
	 * Note that this not an associative array.
	 * Each color takes up two array elements.
	$colors_custom = array();
	foreach ( $cmfy_custom_colors as $color => $label ) {
		$colors_custom[] = $color;
		$colors_custom[] = $label;

	 * I like the custom colors to take up the entire
	 * first row. However, if there are only a few colors,
	 * the color picker becomes too narrow and tall,
	 * so this adds blank squares to help stretch it out.
	 * This block can be removed if you don't want placeholders
	$_num_of_cols = 8;
	while ( count( $colors_custom ) / 2 < $_num_of_cols ) {
		$colors_custom[] = '_hide';
		$colors_custom[] = '';
	 * Original colors.
	 * @see wp-includes/js/timemce/langs/wp-langs-en.js
	$colors_original = array(
		'000000', 'Black',
		'993300', 'Burnt orange',
		'333300', 'Dark olive',
		'003300', 'Dark green',
		'003366', 'Dark azure',
		'000080', 'Navy Blue',
		'333399', 'Indigo',
		'333333', 'Very dark gray',
		'800000', 'Maroon',
		'FF6600', 'Orange',
		'808000', 'Olive',
		'008000', 'Green',
		'008080', 'Teal',
		'0000FF', 'Blue',
		'666699', 'Grayish blue',
		'808080', 'Gray',
		'FF0000', 'Red',
		'FF9900', 'Amber',
		'99CC00', 'Yellow green',
		'339966', 'Sea green',
		'33CCCC', 'Turquoise',
		'3366FF', 'Royal blue',
		'800080', 'Purple',
		'999999', 'Medium gray',
		'FF00FF', 'Magenta',
		'FFCC00', 'Gold',
		'FFFF00', 'Yellow',
		'00FF00', 'Lime',
		'00FFFF', 'Aqua',
		'00CCFF', 'Sky blue',
		'993366', 'Brown',
		'C0C0C0', 'Silver',
		'FF99CC', 'Pink',
		'FFCC99', 'Peach',
		'FFFF99', 'Light yellow',
		'CCFFCC', 'Pale green',
		'CCFFFF', 'Pale cyan',
		'99CCFF', 'Light sky blue',
		'CC99FF', 'Plum',
		'FFFFFF', 'White',
	// Create complete colors array with custom and original colors
	$colors = array_merge( $colors_custom, $colors_original );

	 * Begin textcolor parameters for TinyMCE plugin.
	 * @link https://www.tinymce.com/docs/plugins/textcolor/
	$init['textcolor_map'] 	= json_encode( $colors );

	 * Colors are displayed in a grid of columns and rows.
	 * Set the number of columns to match the number of custom colors,
	 * this way our colors make up the first row so they're easier to identify quickly.
	 * Halve the count since each color has two array entries.
	$init['textcolor_cols'] = count( $colors_custom ) / 2;
	// Set number of rows
	$init['textcolor_rows'] = ceil( ( ( count( $colors ) / 2 ) + 1 ) / $init['textcolor_cols'] );
	return $init;
add_filter( 'tiny_mce_before_init', 'cmfy_set_colors_tinymce' );

 * Adjust TinyMCE custom color styling grid
 * Action: admin_head
function cmfy_style_custom_colors_timymce () { ?>
	<style type="text/css">
		/* Add padding after first row */
		.mce-colorbutton-grid tr:first-of-type td {
			padding-bottom: 10px;

		/* Hide the filler blocks */
		.mce-colorbutton-grid tr:first-of-type td div[data-mce-color="#_hide"] {
			visibility: hidden;

		/* Fix spacing issue with the "transparent" block */
		.mce-colorbtn-trans div {
		    line-height: 11px !important;
<?php }
add_action( 'admin_head', 'cmfy_style_custom_colors_timymce' );

 * Customize Iris color picker.
 * Inspired by @link https://wordpress.org/plugins/iris-color-picker-enhancer/
 * Action: admin_footer, customize_controls_print_footer_scripts
function cmfy_set_colors_iris() {
	global $cmfy_custom_colors;
	if ( wp_script_is( 'wp-color-picker', 'enqueued' ) ) : ?>
		<script type="text/javascript">
			jQuery.wp.wpColorPicker.prototype.options = {
				palettes: [
					<?php foreach ( array_keys( $cmfy_custom_colors ) as $color ) {
						echo "'#$color',";
					} ?>
	<?php endif;
add_action( 'admin_footer', 'cmfy_set_colors_iris' );
add_action( 'customize_controls_print_footer_scripts', 'cmfy_set_colors_iris' );

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