Featured Content as a Widget or Content Block

This is in response to the initial “Featured Content” proposal here: http://make.wordpress.org/core/2013/08/19/featured-content-getting-started/

It strikes me that there is a four step process for featured content:

1) Identify the post or page you want to highlight and mark it in a way that unambiguously tells the system WHERE you want it to to be highlighted (may be multiple places).

2) CHOSE THE CONTENT you want to use to highlight the post. This may be automatic – use the featured image and automatically generated excerpt – or a manual process where you tailor the presentation specifically to the place it will be displayed.

3) FORMAT that content. You’ve decided you want to use a certain photo and block of text, Now how big do you want the photo? Do you want the text overlaid on the photo or on the side, etc. etc.

4) SCHEDULE when you want the highlight to appear.

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Where you want it to go?

There are three ways you can go about this: push, pull, and matchmaker

In a push system, you go to the post and “push” it to a specific place to be highlighted. In a pull system you go to the place where it will be highlighted and there is a UI there to choose which posts you want to appear there. In a matchmaker system there is a UI that displays both areas and posts and allows the user to connect the two.

A fourth related system is an automatic system, which pulls posts to a highlight area based on existing (or newly added) meta-data. For example one can imagine a Featured Content area that simply took the newest post, the newest few posts in a particular category or the newest few posts with a given tag.

What content do you want to use for the highlight?

WordPress has an existing system for highlights – the featured image and excerpt. But you might want more granular control than that. You might want to write up a specific pithy excerpt for a feature blogroll in the sidebar of your homepage. Or, you might be highlighting a post as the main attraction on your blog for that week and you want to not just have one featured image, but an entire gallery. Since you may wish to highlight a given post in multiple locations, there may be multiple different excerpts/media for different purposes.

Similar to the choice of where, the UI for what you want to use as content for the highlight can exist in multiple places. You could have on the post page itself a UI for selecting or creating content specific to each area where it will be highlighted. You could also have a UI at the location of the highlight.

How do you want that content to look at the highlight location?

What you want to display and how you want to display it are separate concepts. You might want to highlight these 5 images from a post on the front page where the norm is to use a slider. Those same 5 images in the “pictures of the day gallery” page should be a thumbnails gallery. The display could either be automatic at the theme level, or available to the user. If available to the user, it is likely that the UI would be located at the highlight location rather than the post or some third location (like the matchmaker).

When do you want this to go live?

Not much to say here except that it can be automatic, chosen from the post, chosen from the highlight location, or chosen at a matchmaker location.

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I’m going to start from the assumption that adding a new high level concept and associated UI adds cognitive load and makes WordPress harder to navigate, so if possible we want to minimize the number of high level ideas in WP. With that as a starting point the question becomes, what of the above is possible using widgets content blocks?

  • UI for choosing where a post goes from the post page: Could piggy-back on the taxonomy system = check
  • UI at the highlight area for choosing which posts to pull to that area: Basic widget UI = check
  • UI for matchmaking from a third location: Unpossible
  • UI for automating which posts to pull into a given highlight area: Widgets do this but there is no standard UI = 1/2 check
  • UI for creating/choosing different excerpts and media for each highlight location: Can’t be done on the post page, could be done in the widget = 1/2 check
  • UI for choosing the display layout and formatting: Can be done from the widget = check
  • UI for scheduling = Can be done in the widget, but not at the post page = 1/2 check

Personally I don’t think that the matchmaking UI being unpossible is a really big loss. Having three separate areas to connect posts to highlight locations seems unnecessarily complicated. A combination of push and pull makes the most sense to me.

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Which brings me to my suggestion for addressing the 1/2 checks –  2 things that would improve WP and allow us to use content blocks for featured content rather than creating an entirely new high level concept:

Standard Filter UI

Creating a standard filter service for widgets and plugins would be a really big win for WP. A widget could say, “I’m a blog-roll that displays everything that is passed to me in supa-dupa cool looking format”. The core service would let the user say, “I want to pass to this widget every post authored by Joe in the last 6 months that is tagged ‘malaria’.” For galleries it would make creating automatic galleries trivial, “Create a gallery of all images in posts written by Joe in the last 2 weeks.”

For all authors of plugins and widgets that do filtering like this, have a canonical core UI would save UI design time, and make their plugins easier to understand from the point of view of their users.

For the purpose of Featured Content, having an easy way of automating what posts are pulled into a given highlight location opens the door to using the existing taxonomy system to mark posts as featured.

Robust Excerpting System with Standard presets

When you create a post, the system currently creates 1 excerpt and has a featured image. What’s really nice about this is that when you change themes, these don’t change. But with content potentially being featured in multiple places, one excerpt isn’t enough. You need to have multiple excerpts and there’s no current system for retaining information on the multiple presets with a change of theme.

What’s needed is a few semantic categories of preset that are universally understood by all themes. Here’s a suggested list:

  • Short Excerpt – the current excerpt
  • Long-Form Excerpt – auto-generated to twice the length of a current excerpt
  • Snippet Excerpt – One line

Similarly it would be nice to have some basic image presets in addition to just the featured image

  • Featured Banner – A wide aspect ration crop of the featured image (or another image from the post)
  • Featured Thumbnail – Sometimes the image used at large size is too detailed and wouldn’t be appropriate for, say highlighting the post in a sidebar.
  • Featured Gallery – 5 images from a post. Defaults to the featured image plus the next 4. Can be edited by the user.

Based on comments in the featured comment blog post, it seems like you might also want some presets for “Title as featured on the Home Page”, “Title as featured in a sidebar”, etc.

Key features here would be that all the various presets could be autogenerated. All the autogenerated choices could be overwritten by the user. And themes could hide the UI for overwriting the choices, or selectively show only some of them to make it simpler for the user.

Having semantically different excerpts ensures that if one theme puts long form featured content in the center of the home page, and another likes to lead with snippets and put long form articles beneath the fold, changing themes is still not a problem.

Now if a theme, for whatever reason, wanted to declare a custom excerpt they would be free to do that, but tread carefully because that means that the user will not be able easily switch themes.

Ability for Plugins and Widgets to place conditions on Taxonomies

If a featured content slider on the front page is pulling from say the “Hot Off the Press” category or tag or supa-dupa-elite-taxonomy. It’s really important that authors not assign a post to that taxonomy without declaring a featured image.  There aught to be a simple way to declare that a given taxonomy cannot be chosen without meeting certain conditions. It would be obviously useful for featured images, but one can imagine having a conditional trigger to a modal dialogue being useful for presenting UI for editing needed excerpts. For example if you categorize a post as “Featured” and hit Save, it could pop up a modal that says, “This post will be featured on the front page. Please edit the excerpt of your post that will appear there.”

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The key to this proposal is that the three ideas above together enable great featured content, but have applicability that is much wider than just “featured content”.  An easy to use core filter system would be a boon to many widget and plugin developers. Conditions on taxonomies (and triggers) allows for much richer use of that system. And automation of multiple types of standard excerpts takes “featured” out of the realm of highly manual task that is done with a small subset of all posts and into the realm of rich associated meta-data that can be sliced and diced by plugins and widgets in many ways.