WordPress Options Panels are Dead, Long Live the Customizer

Fantastic news from the WordPress.org Theme Review Team:

We have made a new requirement regarding theme options. We are going to be requiring use of the customizer for all options from now. This applies to all new themes (submitted after this post is published). All existing themes have 6 months from today before we enforce this.

At the time of writing, the Customizer is a WP.org requirement, not a recommendation.

This means that, if theme authors wish to offer users the ability to add customizations in the WordPress back-end, they must implement this functionality via the Customizer – nothing else will do.

I’m absolutely ecstatic about this decision. Here’s why.

What are Theme Options Panels

Some WP themes, in my view too many, offer customization options like sidebar placement, text color, etc., straight from the administration back-end in the form of a theme options panel. Developers have their own preferences on how to implement it. Some build their own framework, others adopt pre-built frameworks.

To use options panels, you need to adjust the customization settings in the admin panel, then access the front-end of your website, refresh the page if necessary, and only then can you view the effect of your customization options.

Although they’ve been used for quite some time now, and were also useful, at least until the Customizer made its appearance on the scene (WordPress v.3.4), theme options panels have some drawbacks:

  • Users have to switch between back-end and front-end to preview changes.
  • There isn’t a standard way of implementing option panels: widely adopted frameworks help in this respect, but it’s a bit of a jungle.
  • Even when frameworks are adopted, there could be some bloat issues: sometimes the framework is bigger than the theme itself!

What Is the Customizer?

Here’s a definition of the WordPress Customization API for developers and of the Customizer for theme users taken from the Codex:

The Theme Customization API, added in WordPress 3.4, allows developers to customize and add controls to the “Appearance” → “Customize” admin screen. The Theme Customization screen (i.e. “Theme Customizer”) allows site admins to tweak a theme’s settings, color scheme or widgets, and see a preview of those changes in real time.

The advantage for users is obvious: no more toing and froing between the WP back-end and the front-end to preview customizations. You can instantly preview your changes and check that you’re satisfied with them before deciding to click the Save and Publish button.

But there are advantages for developers and WordPress.org theme reviewers too.

Developers have a standard way of implementing options in their themes via a clear and easy to use API.

By the same token, standard code means accurate reviews in much less time.

How Will the New Requirement about the Customizer be Implemented?

The details of how this new requirement for theme authors is going to be applied are not on the table yet. It’s up to the Review Team members to work these out.

As things stand now, the important points WP.org theme authors need to keep in mind are the following:

  • All new WP.org themes, if they include user customization options, are required to implement this functionality via the Customizer only.
  • All existing WP.org themes that already implement user options via some kind of theme option panel, are required to update their themes by replacing the latter with the Customizer within six months starting from 21st April 2015.
  • Admin members of the Theme Review Team will do their best to publish educational articles to help theme authors make the transition from options panels to Customizer.

To Sum Up

The WordPress.org Theme Review Team has just taken a wise and bold stance about making the Customizer the required way of implementing user custom options in themes.

It’s one more step towards standardising the way themes are coded, enforcing best practices, and enhancing the quality of the WordPress.org themes repository.

If you’re using a WP.org theme with an options panel, make sure you’re ready to update your theme when the author makes the switch to the Customizer.

If you’re looking for a new WP.org theme, pick a future-proof one by double checking that’s using the Customizer, not the options panel.

Dorian, my WP.org blogging theme, already takes advantage of the Customizer to offer users some sane customization options.

You might have guessed by now – I’m 100% behind this decision!

As a theme user, do you prefer theme options panels or the Customizer? As a theme developer, what do you think about this new requirement of using the Customizer? Let me know in the comments below.
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