React Isn’t The Problem

As React (via Gutenberg) becomes more present in the WordPress world, I’m seeing some common themes pop up in conversations about it. I spoke a bit about this kind of thing at WordCamp US last year, but if you don’t feel like sitting through a half hour video, let me summarise my thoughts. 🙂

I agree that React is hard. I strongly disagree with the commonly contrasted view that HTML, CSS, PHP, or vanilla JavaScript are easy. They’re all just as hard to work with as React, sometimes more-so, particularly when having to deal with the exciting world of cross-browser compatibility.

The advantage that PHP has over modern JavaScript development isn’t that it’s easy, or that the tooling is better, or more reliable, or anything like that. The advantage is that it’s familiar. If you’re new to web development, React is just as easy anything else to start with.

I’m honestly shocked when someone manages to wade through the mess of tooling (even pre-Gutenberg) to contribute to WordPress. It’s such an incomprehensible, thankless, unreliable process, the tenacity of anyone who makes it out the other side should be applauded. That said, this high barrier is unacceptable.

I’ve been working in this industry for long enough to have forgotten the number of iterations of my personal development environment I’ve gone through, to get to where I can set up something for myself which isn’t awful. React wasn’t around for all of that time, so that can’t be the reason web development has been hard for as long as I remember. What is, then?

Doing Better

Over the past year or so, I’ve been tinkering with a tool to help deal with the difficulties of contributing to WordPress. That tool is called TestPress, it’s getting pretty close to being usable, at least on MacOS. Windows support is a little less reliable, but getting better. 🙂 If you enjoy tinkering with tools, too, you’re welcome to try out the development version, but it does still has some bugs in it. Feedback and PRs are always welcome! There are some screenshots in this issue that give an idea of what the experience is like, if you’d like to check it out that way.

TestPress is not a panacea: at best, it’s an attempt at levelling the playing field a little bit. You shouldn’t need years of experience to build a reliable development environment, that should be the bare minimum we provide.

React is part of the solution

There’s still a lot of work to do to make web development something that anyone can easily get into. I think React is part of the solution to this, however.

React isn’t without its problems, of course. Modern JavaScript can encourage iteration for the sake of iteration. Certainly, there’s a drive to React-ify All The Things (a trap I’m guilty of falling into, as well). React’s development model is fundamentally different to that of vanilla JavaScript or jQuery, which is why it can seem incomprehensible if you’re already well versed in the old way of doing things: it requires a shift in your mental model of how JavaScript works. This is a hard problem to solve, but it’s not insurmountable.

Perhaps a little controversially, I don’t think that React is guilty of causing the web to become less accessible. At worst, it’s continuing the long standing practice of web standards making accessibility an optional extra. Building anything beyond a basic, non-interactive web page with just HTML and CSS will inevitably cause accessibility issues, unless you happen to be familiar with the mystical combinations of accessible tags, or applying aria attributes, or styling your content in just the right way (and none of the wrong ways).

React (or any component-based development system, really) can improve accessibility for everyone, and we’re seeing this with Gutenberg already. By providing a set of base components for plugin and theme authors to use, we can ensure the correct HTML is produced for screen readers to work with. Much like desktop and mobile app developers don’t need to do anything to make their apps accessible (because it’s baked into the APIs they use to build their apps), web developers should have the same experience, regardless of the complexity of the app they’re building.

Arguing that accessibility needs to be part of the design process is the wrong argument. Accessibility shouldn’t be a consideration, it should be unavoidable.

Do Better

Now, can we do better? Absolutely. There’s always room for improvement. People shouldn’t need to learn React if they don’t want to. They shouldn’t have to deal with the complexities of the WCAG. They should have the freedom to tinker, and the reassurance that they can tinker without breaking everything.

The pre-React web didn’t arrive in its final form, all clean, shiny, and perfect. It took decades of evolution to get there. The post-React web needs some time to evolve, too, but it has the benefit of hindsight: we can compress the decades of evolving into a much shorter time period, provide a fresh start for those who want it, while also providing backwards compatibility with the existing ways of doing things.


  1. Inspiring piece and couldn’t agree more on your thought about the whole iteration processes. Wouldnt look WordPress the same way again. Thanks man!

    1. React is a JavaScript framework that does a lot of the base-level stuff to make Gutenberg work. It’s a pretty useful tool, but we keep it abstracted away under an API called “The WordPress Element“. You can read a bit more about how it works in that document link. 🙂

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