Toolbar Extras is a plugin built with the user in mind by giving easy to reach access to site building resources. This plugin gives you an extended toolbar in the WordPress admin to let you have quick route to features of a wide variety of third-party plugins, like page builder Elementor, and even a handful of themes.
Developer David Decker was kind enough to answer my questions about his history with WordPress, how he began building Toolbar Extras, what it’s like to build a plugin that supports so many third-party products and his thoughts on Elementor and page builders in general.
Tell me a bit about yourself and your background with WordPress.
My name is David Decker and I am a WordPress, Genesis, Elementor and plugin guy from Germany. I do websites as a side/fulltime business since the year 2000.
At the end of 2004, I stumbled upon a blog about the tsunami in Asia and beyond the actual content I learned that the site was running on WordPress. I was into reading blogs since early 2003 and really interested in starting one on my own but not on all of the platforms at that time like Blogger or others. So I wanted to install WordPress but I failed. Later I found out the fault was with my hosting back then. In the summer of 2006, I had success and in the fall of that year I managed to setup my first full WordPress site for a client. After that I decided to work exclusively with WordPress and dived fully into its ecosystem and community.
My first simple little plugin I wrote was in 2011. A friend asked me to help him with a page pagination request. And I thought this should be done as a plugin. So I did and shortly afterwards released it on WordPress.org. This started it all for me. In the next two years I released over 30 plugins, especially for the Genesis Framework, only to find out it was starting to exhaust me since I was getting so many requests from all over the world for doing plugin work or just plugin support.
However, the whole plugin thing was like a door opener for me. One of the plugins was a German language pack plugin for WooCommerce. It was very popular and I never thought that this could happen. I got so many requests that I had to take the plugin down in 2014. Another reason for it was also that WooCommerce did constantly change things in regards of languages and translations that were absolutely unnecessary. After this whole experience I had some kind of crisis which also led to the fact that I did not release any other plugins for the next four years on WordPress.org.
What was the original inspiration behind Toolbar Extras? My guess is frustration with the WordPress admin menu.
To be honest my inspiration was and is that I really love to work with the Admin Bar which later became known as the Toolbar. And I always wanted to enhance it and add to it. I only did find out around 2010/2011 that this was possible at all. My frustration was more that I thought the Toolbar was too limited and you could do way more useful stuff with it. It is the central place at the top of the workspace in the admin and the frontend. So having the most stuff there as quick jump links avoids traveling with the mouse a lot. And the biggest thing I re-discovered when coding Toolbar Extras this year: if everything is at the exact same place in the frontend and the admin there is a real benefit in day to day work. I can work a lot faster and more “blindly” this way.
The original idea for the plugin began back in 2011 when I started doing my series of Admin Bar/Toolbar plugins. It began with WooCommerce, bbPress, BuddyPress, Genesis, Gravity Forms, EDD and some more. Over the years I developed my own approach to these things. So with Toolbar Extras I had quite an experience with this admin bar stuff. But I wanted to also avoid some mistakes I had made in the past with the overall concept. So Toolbar Extras is a way more of a “global” plugin and more inclusive than its predecessors. This is only natural because the Toolbar itself is global and doesn’t limit itself to only one plugin or theme at a time. Toolbar Extras “fixes” this and goes all in to support site builders in their daily work.
After some changes in my day job, Toolbar Extras is something like my comeback plugin. A lot of it reflects what I am working with. It really is scratching my own itch first. For example, I re-discovered Elementor page builder in 2017 and it is one of my favorite tools so I wanted it in the Toolbar as well. It totally speeds things up. And after nearly three months in with this brand new plugin I am blown away by the feedback I get from users and how the plugin clicked with them. Obviously it also scratches their itch.
Toolbar Extras works with so many plugins (and themes). How do you manage to keep it all straight and what development challenges arise supporting so many products and their features?
Currently the only challenge for me is to limit my spending on more tools that I would want to integrate with beyond my personal favorites. My experience over the years was that things in the integrated/supported plugins and themes did not change as much as I expected first. So it all was manageable and is currently with Toolbar Extras. I have an internal policy and this is: only the latest version of a plugin/theme is supported. And that makes a lot of sense. Therefore I don’t have to maintain a lot of backwards compatibility and can also remove stuff from time to time. Toolbar Extras has a modular approach so I can very easily add or remove integrations.
As far as development goes, I now work completely locally with one setup for each big theme platform I support and this approach currently works out really well. So far the support work for users is very minimal and mostly done in the plugin’s user community group on Facebook. This is a first for me and working so well. I wished I had done that in the past with my other plugins.
Elementor appears to be the main focus of Toolbar Extras. What are your thoughts on Elementor’s future, and page builders in general, with Gutenberg around the corner?
Elementor is special in my opinion because they did a few things right: speed, focus on design and ease of use. Their concept with a full featured free version and the extended pro version currently works extremely well for them. And personally, I just love to work with this tool.
Since I started with WordPress the widgets were one of the things that fascinated me most, especially when used beyond the sidebar. The whole concept of Elements or Blocks is just awesome. I always wanted to use widgets in pages. But it was frustrating that every plugin I tried which said I can do it failed at some point. So I had high hopes in Beaver Builder but in my experience it did not click with me and I find it too slow, just as slow as the Customizer. This was maybe three years back in the meantime the product matured a lot and Beaver 2.x is really awesome. Later on, for two projects I worked on some pages with SiteOrigin Page Builder but it was no joy to work with. Only with Elementor was I really impressed and added it to my own set of tools ever since.
No one knows what will happen exactly the day Gutenberg lands in Core. They market it as the new Editor but in all honesty it is a page builder by nature. And for WordPress itself it is like changing its engine – mid-flight – as Chris Lema once wrote on his blog. And this will become a problem to some extent for companies with page builders. But not now. I see issues in phase two and three when Gutenberg will take over the Customizer first and then all of WordPress. It’s hard to say how this will effect page builders, themes and almost every plugin.
I really have my doubts with Gutenberg as the user experience is not great yet and it has so many issues. Backwards compatibility is one of these issues. We were raised as a generation of WordPress developers and users that backwards compatibility is one essential core value of WordPress over other CMS systems. And now this is no longer true. It also hurts how a lot of user and developer feedback was and is ignored by the Gutenberg development team. Last but not least, as a German, I find the usage of Gutenberg an abuse of the original Johannes Gutenberg who started a real revolution a few hundred years ago. But I guess this is up for another topic. My only hope is that the toolbar will live on for some more years and not be killed too early.
Are there any plans to build a premium version of Toolbar Extras? Why or why not?
There will be no premium version of Toolbar Extras but rather a few smaller add-ons instead. Of these add-ons at least some will be paid add-ons. As the current main plugin is already built very modularly, a full premium version makes no sense at all.
My current plan is to leverage the Freemius platform/service to sell the add-ons directly from within the WP-Admin of the users. In the past I tried to setup an EDD store on my own. However, this makes no sense anymore in the times of EU VAT, GDPR and all this nonsense from our EU bureaucrats. As a single-man business my time would be eaten up managing all of this stuff. So Freemius is the only real option as of now, as services like that take some of these burdens from us plugin developers.
What future additions can we expect to Toolbar Extras?
Plans are to further extend the support of third-party plugins and themes. The frequency of adding new stuff will slow down, however. When I have finished my internal roadmap I will start working on the add-ons.
Some more page builders beyond Elementor will be supported, I already decided on Beaver Builder and Thrive Architect. Both add-ons will be paid ones and feature the full ecosystem (Beaver) or the full product range of its company (Thrive Themes). I will only add “good” page builders which don’t work with shortcodes. So the new kid on the block, Brizy, may become a future option as well (but it is too early, they just started). There will also be an add-on for Multisite in the future, but it is undecided yet if this will be free or paid.
Are there any other plugins (you seem to be quite prolific releasing plugins) you would like to mention here in closing?
Ha, good question. A few of my “older” plugins I will start to maintain again after this way long hiatus. It is just amazing that so many users are still using those old plugins. Most of them still work like a charm, especially those for Genesis. However, a few of those old ones may get closed and removed from WordPress.org since their maintenance is no longer worthwhile.
One plugin, I like to mention still, is Multisite Toolbar Additions which was and is the direct predecessor of Toolbar Extras and is like a “sister plugin“. I am still proud of it and I used it for years on all my sites. The feature of accessing the plugin installer via the “+ New” toolbar menu has become such a habit of mine that I cannot live without it anymore. Of course Toolbar Extras has this feature too, but better.