Living with Plugins

PlugLast week I wrote about some of the issues with plugins (especially those in WordPress) – they’re often times poorly maintained, buggy, and insecure.  We got some great feedback, both on and offline, and today I want to give a few ideas for making the most of plugin-based platforms.

1.) Popular Plugins Hint at Missing Features

A plugin is fundamentally a way of making a piece of software do more than it was meant to do.  For product managers, a popular plugin can indicate that there is a lot of demand for a missing feature.  Integrating that feature into the core product can give it greater developer exposure, improve security, and reduce bugs.

Taking a look at WordPress’s list of most popular plugins, we can see that there is a lot of demand for features like better search engine optimization, improved forms, and intelligent caching.  Any of these plugins would make good candidates for inclusion in later versions of WordPress.

2.) Good History Matters

Check out the history of a plugin to get an idea about the involvement of its developers.  A plugin with a long history and regular updates indicates maturity and active development.  Many of its worst problems may have already been solved, and any new ones are likely to be corrected quickly.

Also, keep in mind that many plugins are part of bigger commercial ventures.  For example, the Akismet spam protection plugin is developed by the same people who created WordPress, but they actually charge money to use Akismet for commercial blogs.  That means that they have a lot of interest in making sure that Akismet is as well written as possible.

3.) Check for a Solid Reputation

Look for plugins with active discussion forums, high ratings, and many recent downloads.  This is especially critical for plugins that are no longer being developed but still happen to be useful.  The more popular a plugin, the more likely that someone out there is looking around for bugs and problems.  WordPress makes some of this information available on a plugin’s “Stats” page.

4.) Test, test, test

Test your plugins before deploying them.  Install them first on a non-production system where you can evaluate how well they work and whether or not you’re satisfied.  While you may not find many deeper problems this way, you can definitely look for more noticeable issues and make sure there are no big problems.

I’ve seen and used many plugins (some quite popular) with broken layouts, poorly written language, and plenty of bugs.  Testing before deploying has helped me avoid some of the worst pitfalls of poor plugins.

5.) Backup Early and Often

Sometimes things go wrong and your plugin fails you.  Backup early and often to make sure you can get your feet back on the ground quickly.  A good backup can be a lifesaver!

6.) Just Read It…

This one is only for open source projects and not for the faint of heart, but maybe you want to know more about how a plugin works or why it behaves a certain way.  Maybe you’re just not sure you trust it, or maybe you even want to fix a real problem.  Whatever the case sometimes you or someone you trust just has to read the plugin.  And while that can be a lot of trouble, you’ll at least have the benefit of knowing that you’ve helped the developer make sure their code is solid.

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  1. Fehmida Malik says

    Hi Stanton, sorry it took me a couple of days to get back to you…but I wanted to get a good example of a PlugIn scenario that involved a product manager who decideds to get more out of the product than what he got originally.

    Then I can use that scenario as a leverage against the six critical ideas you present here to get the most out of a PlugIn-based platform.

    Hope it helps.

  2. Fehmida Malik says

    What’s a good example of plug in where the product manager is trying to get more out of a software than originally planned?


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