5 Things That WordPress Can Learn From Medium

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Since its late-2012 launch, the online publishing platform Medium has attracted rave reviews, a string of high-caliber writers and some serious financial backing.

It’s also caught the attention of the WordPress community due to its clean design, radical simplicity and ease of use.

In this article, we’ll run the rule over this new entrant to the online publishing space and consider what lessons WordPress can learn from its implementation and trajectory.

We’ll cover the background of the platform, investigate the user experience from the point of view of both content creators and consumers, and discuss where Medium fits in alongside existing solutions (such as WordPress) in the wider world of online publishing.

Finally, we’ll close with a list of five concrete things that WordPress can learn from Medium.

Let’s kick things off with some general background.

The Story of Medium to Date

Coming up with one game-changing publishing platform could be written off as beginner’s luck. Create two in a row however and you can be guaranteed that – in addition to being handsomely rewarded – your next move will be very closely watched indeed.

That was the situation Blogger and Twitter founders Ev Williams and Biz Stone found themselves in back in August of 2012 when they announced their latest publishing venture, Medium.

The name naturally lends itself to a couple of interpretations. On the one hand, you could look at it as a statement of intent in terms of addressable content type and length.

With Twitter dominating the short-form social space and traditional blogging platforms such as WordPress aimed more at standalone longform content, Medium could be seen as a play for the theoretical sweet spot in the middle.

Another possible interpretation is that Medium is set up to be the sea that written content swims in – the publishing channel of choice for the next generation of online authors.

Founder Ev Williams described the site’s raison d’être rather more succinctly. Medium, he said, is designed to be “a beautiful place for reading and writing.”

Its primary value proposition is eloquently summed up in Williams’ introductory post on the platform itself:

“Medium is a new place on the Internet where people share ideas and stories that are longer than 140 characters and not just for friends. It’s designed for little stories that make your day better and manifestos that change the world. It’s used by everyone from professional journalists to amateur cooks. It’s simple, beautiful, collaborative, and it helps you find the right audience for whatever you have to say.”

Simplicity is at the core of the service with the content – rather than its creators – very much to the forefront through both individual stories and publications.

After the initial buzz surrounding its launch, Medium quietly went about the serious business of establishing itself online.

To date it has pursued a mixed content strategy in terms of driving growth – experimenting with commissioned collections from freelancer authors (with somewhat varying results), hiring individual top-name journalists such as Steven Levy, and even the occasional strategic acquisition.

Growth – though never matching the staggeringly viral levels that drove Twitter’s early adoption – has been steady. Medium has swiftly installed itself as a top 1,000 Alexa web property, continued to take funding from heavy hitters in Silicon Valley, and upped its headcount to a full-time autonomously organized staff of around forty.

Medium may not quite yet have truly cracked the mainstream, but it’s clearly in business for the long haul and looking to build on its initial success.

Let’s dive into the nuts and bolts a little further by examining the particulars of Medium as a platform for both content production and consumption.

Using Medium as a Content Creator

Medium social signup screen
Medium social signup screen

As you might expect of a product from the people who created Twitter, Medium is built with social media baked in. This is immediately obvious from the registration page, where just two sign-up methods are supported: Twitter and Facebook.

Custom reading list selection
Custom reading list selection

After connecting via the social media account of your choice, the focus is instantly placed on content.

You’re prompted to seed a custom reading list and follow some initial publications and people to give Medium’s suggestion algorithms something to chew on.

It’s an impressively frictionless on-boarding experience that shouldn’t take more than a couple of minutes to get through.

Once logged in to your Medium account, the radical simplicity of the interface is instantly apparent. You’re presented with an elegantly laid out view of suggested content to read, along with a set of tag-based options – both personal and curated – for further browsing.

Default Medium interface
The default Medium interface

 

As an initial landing point, it’s an excellent taster of what lies ahead: A meticulously designed layout with intuitive, low-friction interface options subtly presented.

Creating Content

The content creation process begins with two prominently placed calls to action: a content entry field conveniently located at the top of your story feed, and a prominent Write a story button in the header navigation.

Hitting the Write a story button brings you into the Medium editing interface, which has rightly won praise from design experts and technology thought leaders for the restrained, intelligent nature of its design.

On first glance, you’re faced with little more than an empty page and a couple of usage tips but, as you begin to explore, it quickly becomes apparent that this is a truly distraction-free writing environment that has been very carefully and deliberately pared down to the barest of essentials.

Medium editor interface

The first standout feature is the text formatting control box which springs to life only when text is actually selected – a “why didn’t anybody think of this sooner?” feature to rank up there with the noisy tabs indicator in Google Chrome. The actual options on offer have also been stripped down to the bone.

A discrete plus sign to the left of the story title reveals an equally minimal set of additional options for adding images, video, and external content.

Further editor options

Image embed options

Inline image embed possibilities are straightforward. Six options are on offer, depending on the overall dimensions you have to play with.

Incorporating other content types is similarly hassle-free, with a simple URL being all that’s required to embed YouTube videos, Tweets, Gist code snippets and more.

In terms of basic content creation, that’s more or less it.

Getting to grips with the possibilities in front of you should take little more than a couple of minutes thanks to the effectiveness of the overall design.

Tools

In addition to the story creation options, Medium arrives with a small set of further content tools to explore, including its truly innovative notes functionality.

This is an interesting take on what has long been one of the digital design’s thorniest topics: user feedback.

Notes example

Medium’s interpretation of this shifts the focus from “below the line” to the content itself and opens up interesting possibilities in terms of both commenting and editorial collaboration on the paragraph level.

Other notable tools in place are the simple revision history options available for every story, and the analytics stats accessible from the main navigation menu.

Posting/Publishing

Publish options screen

The options for publishing a piece on Medium are straightforward. You have two areas to consider:

  1. Visibility: This can be set to public or unlisted. The latter means that nobody will be notified of the story’s publication, but anyone with the direct link can still view it.
  2. Licensing: Choosing from the three basic options of All rights reserved, Some rights reserved and No rights reserved opens up the full range of nine licensing options that Medium supports for content.

Overall Impressions and Takeaways for WordPress

Medium makes a very strong initial impression with the overall slickness of its execution. There’s a feeling of being instantly empowered to concentrate on the job at hand while you compose, rather than wasting time battling the interface.

It’s a truly radical departure from the clutter and business of both offline text editors such as Word and online content management systems such as WordPress.

Rather than trying to accommodate everybody, Medium’s designers have taken a number of fundamental decisions and stuck to them. It’s deeply opinionated design at its best.

The main takeaway for WordPress is the incredible overall simplicity  and ease of use of the experience.

It really feels as if someone has taken away every possible excuse you could have for not simply sitting down and producing great content. To be fair, this is a direction that WordPress has been making significant progress in for years, but Medium’s take on the content creation process significantly raises the bar.

So, we’ve established that Medium hits it out of the park in terms of content creation. Let’s have look now at how that content is consumed.

Using Medium as a Content Consumer

The elegant minimalism and attention to detail apparent across all aspects of Medium’s editing interface are more than matched when it comes to actual display.

A huge amount of effort has gone into creating a standardized look and feel that displays perfectly across all devices.

The reading experience is an absolute pleasure, with the designers not afraid to insist on showing proper respect for centuries of typographic history.

You’ll see that expressed everywhere, from font selection and margin allowances through to the truly impressive set of overarching typographical guidelines that the site follows.

Typographic detail

The cumulative effect of those hundreds of tiny decisions is an extremely pleasant reading environment that gives well-written content plenty of room to breathe.

The subject of imagery has been similarly well thought through. Creators are offered a sensible set of options for creating title images, inline images and image grids to enhance their content’s impact.

Content navigation is very much discovery led with full support for tagging, and social following and recommendation being utilized throughout, in tandem with the output of Medium’s built-in proprietary recommendation engine.

The truly impressive thing about all of the points above is that they are equally well executed across all display environments. No matter what device you happen to be reading on, you can be pretty much guaranteed that the content will look superb.

The thoroughness of this implementation is a considerable credit to the original design team at Teehan+Lax, and it’s little surprise that they were subsequently snapped up en masse by Facebook.

Takeaways for WordPress

Again, the immediate impression left on the reader by Medium is an extremely favorable one.

Being able to follow topics of interest or individual writers in one centralized location is a massive plus, and the rigidly enforced design template gives a pleasing consistency to both the browsing and reading experience.

Overall, the effect is very much of flipping through a well-curated magazine rather than browsing a set of disparate websites.

The main takeaway here for WordPress is the incredible impact that typography and interface design can have on the user experience. The most powerful content management system in the world is useless unless its content can be consistently and compellingly presented.

Medium as a Content Platform

Medium arrives into the world at an interesting time for writing both on and offline.

The entire newspaper and magazine industry is in a state of continuing meltdown, and the future direction of blogging is far from certain.

The popularity of sites such as Automattic’s own Longreads.com however show that there is a continued desire for quality content.

The question is, what is Medium actually setting out to do?

It’s an issue that’s been raised since the earliest days of the site – is Medium a platform or a publisher?

Several writers have argued that it is both, even going so far as to introduce the truly horrible neologism platisher in an attempt to describe what’s going on.

A potentially more useful way of looking at Medium is in terms of its approach to capturing a particular segment of users’ reading habits and attention.

Consumption of online content is increasingly concentrated around mobile devices. The real battle to be won for sites is in establishing themselves as one-stop destinations for particular needs on those devices.

Facebook has an obvious existing lock on the social networking component of this, and Google dominates information based searches. There is an as yet unmet gap in this landscape for a website that targets the diverse set of jobs that traditional news and publishing have performed up until now.

Medium has its sights firmly set on being the eventual winner in that space.

The standout quote from that original What is Medium? Atlantic article is the following:

“Medium wasn’t building a magazine, I realized, but a magazine killer.”

Though it’s attracted its fair share of criticism to date, the future of Medium as a platform is looking rosy, and there are a number of points WordPress can learn from its journey so far.

Let’s look at some of the key takeaways in that regard before we finish up.

5 Lessons from Medium for WordPress to Learn

1. Design Matters

As the astonishing comeback of Apple over the last fifteen years has shown, design is increasingly the key differentiator for successful companies.

Medium’s commitment to the highest standards in the areas of design, typography, UI and UX have raised the bar for everybody else in the online publishing world. WordPress will need to build substantially on its already excellent work in these departments simply to keep up.

2. Content is King

Make no mistake about it, Medium is a serious attempt to corner a very large section of the online content world in terms of both production and consumption.

Automattic and WordPress have done an incredible job of enabling content creators over the years, but the question is whether they have the stomach for moving beyond being an infrastructure provider into becoming a major player in terms of production.

Initial moves such as Automattic’s purchase of Longreads and WordPress.com’s Freshly Pressed feature suggest that they are leaning in this direction.

3. Disruption Comes from Below

Medium announced itself as a mere blogging platform, but disruption in every industry tends to come from below. The recent trialling of custom domains suggests that it might not be that much of a stretch to see them as a much more direct competitor to WordPress at some stage in the immediate future.

4. Nobody Enjoys Setting Up Hosting

Medium is just the latest in a series of serious WordPress competitors, such as Squarespace and Weebly, that have positioned themselves as fully managed services from the outset.

WordPress’ commitment to providing open-source options for developers to self-host will obviously never go away, but there is a huge gap between Automattic’s entry level WordPress.com offerings and their VIP service that they will have to address at some stage in the near future or risk being left behind.

5. Competition Spurs Innovation and Iterative Improvement

With the benefit of starting with a blank slate, Medium has served up a number of genuinely useful additions to the whole notion of online content creation – their notes functionality being the most obvious example.

WordPress has already responded positively to the challenge, with its vast community getting to work porting the best design and functional features over to the platform.

Web users across the board stand to benefit from competitive interaction between the two platforms for years to come.

Conclusion

After more than a decade of development, WordPress is obviously no longer the new kid on the block. One of the features of its success over the years has been its flexibility and willingness to continually adapt.

With its enormous existing user base, the emergence of new platforms such as Medium present substantially more of an opportunity for WordPress than a threat.

Careful consideration of the new features and approaches they introduce have the potential to drive future improvements to WordPress itself.

We hope the article has highlighted some of the particular areas that Medium brings sharply into focus and outlined the areas WordPress stands to learn from.

Let us know in the comments if you’ve had any experience with Medium as a platform and which aspects of its implementation you’d like to see make their way into WordPress in the future.

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