Featured images (also referred to as “post thumbnails”) are nice features to include in WordPress themes, but there are times where I question their implementation.

I know, I know: talking about stuff like this can come off as frivolous, but I think that if you deeply care about what you’re working on, then evaluating the decisions – every one of them – that go into your product matters.

And since featured images are a decision that need to be made when working in theme development matter, then it’s worth evaluating their implementation.

The Challenges of WordPress Featured Images

Sure, the purpose (well, purposes) they serve is great. As explained in the Codex:

Post Thumbnail, now Featured Image, is an image that is chosen as the representative image for Posts, Pages or Custom Post Types. The display of this image is up to the theme. This is especially useful for “magazine-style” themes where each post has an image.

And from a developers standpoint, it’s really easy to include support for them in your theme, but from a user’s perspective, I think that it still leaves something to be desired.

I think that there are times that it makes sense to use featured images, but then I also think that there are times where using features images isn’t necessarily the best idea.

Something as simple as featured images can’t really present that many challenges, right? For some, maybe not. For others, maybe so.

I’m of the latter.

Through Our Developer Goggles

When I look at the purpose of featured images and I look at how various themes implement them, I can’t help but think that sometimes we – as developers – put our developer-goggles on and end up building support in for the featured image rather than thinking about the actual user experience of them.

Probably the coolest set of goggles I ever owned.

Probably the coolest set of goggles I ever owned.

For example, one of the things that I love most about WordPress is support for editor-style.css. That is, I love the fact that we can style the way elements look within the post editor such that we know how it’s going to look on the front end.

This reduces saving drafts, toggling back and forth to the public view of the site and the editor, and overall closes the gap between what the user is typing (or, rather, what they see) and what they will see when the post is published.

This isn’t the case with Featured Images.

Instead, the option appears as a post meta box on the side of the post editor Dashboard and though it uses nice features, such as the Media Uploader, it doesn’t give the user a sense for how the image is going to be presented within the context of the post.

There is a disconnect between what the user sees in their post editor and how the post will be displayed to site visitors.

Sure, you can argue that once the user has defined a post thumbnail and then generated a preview of the blog, then they have an idea, but does the fact that users have to toggle back and forth between views to get a feel for how it works undermine features like editor-style.css?

I mean, if you’re going to have to toggle back and forth between views at all, should we even bother with styling the content of the post editor?

Of course! Just because a single feature has you swapping between views of a site doesn’t mean that we still shouldn’t strive to close the gap of what the user sees and what they experience.

If nothing else, it “lightens to load” of what the user has to process when they hop over to the public-facing view of the site: All they have to look at is the post thumbnail – not the post thumbnail, headlines, images, paragraph text, un/ordered lists, anchor, quotes, and so on.

Anyway, this still doesn’t get us to solving the challenge that featured images present: When should themes implement them, and when should they not?

An Implementation Dilemma

My rule of thumb is this: If the feature image is something that can’t be done within the post editor, then add support for featured images.

For example, let’s say that your featured image is going to be displayed at 100% width under the post title and post meta data but before all of the content in the post. This is something that can be done using the post editor and the media uploader – just drop an image in before your content, right?

But if your post thumbnail is going to be a small image beside the post title or appear, say, above (or maybe even behind in some rare, creative cases) the post title and post meta data, then it makes sense to implement the feature.

This still leaves a problem, though: What do we do about various plugins and/or third-party sites and tools that look specifically for a post thumbnail when generating a link to the site?

In some cases, larger sites are pretty good at being able to grab the first image from the post (or even the first few images of the post) and letting us set them as a featured image in a link. Other times, an image simply won’t be retrieved.

If you’re a WordPress developer and you’re writing tools that look specifically for featured images, then I’d urge you to consider broadening the scope of your feature just a bit so that it looks for at least the first image in the post.

None Shall Pass; You Shall Not Pass The Impasse

None Shall Pass; You Shall Not Pass The Impasse

If you’re someone who doesn’t incorporate featured images into your theme, but want to be able to leverage the functionality of a third-party service that expects a featured image, then you’re somewhat at an impasse:

  • Add support for featured images and break the user experience
  • Don’t add support for featured images and lose third-party functionality

Is there a third option? Maybe. It’s weak, though.

  • Duplicate the featured image functionality so that whatever image is set as the post thumbnail also displays in the post editor above the post content (if – and only if – the image is going to appear between the title, post meta data, and the content).

Honestly, though I think this is a workable solution, I’m not a fan of it because it negatively impacts the user’s experience. How do you delete the featured image? Using ‘Featured Image’ meta box or using the post editor? Is the featured image controlled by the meta box, by the media uploader, or both, and so on.

Though I lay all of this out, I’ve already shared my stance on it and it can be simplified as this:

If it can’t be done with the post editor, then implement the post thumbnail feature.

As far as third-party tools and utilities are concerned, it just doesn’t make that big of a difference to me (nor have I heard a convincing argument as to why it should). I haven’t seen a case where a utility hasn’t pulled in an image, hasn’t allowed me to select from a set of images extracted from the post, upload my own image, or tastefully display post information without a featured image.

More WordPress Navel Gazing

I know that stuff like this can sometimes come off as pointless to think about, or as something that isn’t a big deal, but the thing is that I do think it matters if you deeply care about the things that you’re building for other people.

Navel Gazing. Literally.

Navel Gazing. Literally.

And questioning every little feature, detail, and nuance of what you’re going to release matters even if it’s something as trivial as a featured image because I think that the little decisions within a broader scope of a project end up making or breaking how a person feels about a product once they’ve used it.