WYSIWYG is a broken concept

I recently put together a small presentation at work as part of our weekly skill-share/what’s hot meeting to teach my colleagues some Markdown. 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 a good 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 the correct HTML, PDF or other document markup. This was soon translated into “WYSIWYG editors are a bit 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 see. Writing content in a WYSIWYG editor still requires knowledge of good document structure that many of the intended users don’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 there have been calls for years to end the use of WYSIWYG editors online. But, despite the passage of time there is still currently just WYMeditor flying the flag.

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.