When Plugin Installation Doesn’t Follow the Normal Patterns

It’s not like I’m new at this. I’ve installed plugins, modules, extensions and libraries in WordPress, Drupal, Joomla and other systems. But, yesterday evening, I ran into the craziest rig-a-ma-roll of instructions for an install I’ve ever run into with WordPress WooCommerce Flexible Shipping add-on.

The Scenario

A Website HELP Wednesday participant has nature photography prints and cards for sale. If you buy 3 prints, the shipping should not cost more than for buying 1 print because they can fit in the same tube for the same shipping price. The basic WooCommerce install cannot accommodate that shipping requirement. It simply adds an additional shipping price for each item. This is a common weakness in basic software that calculates shipping prices. Generally, to have more shipping pricing options you have to pay for it, no matter what technology your site is built in. Some of the pricing is onerous.

Buying an Add-on

We spent some time in our session reviewing WooCommerce add-ons and found the Flexible Shipping Add-on. The information on the WordPress.org page says that Flexible Shipping allows for shipping rates based on weight or order total; that’s not what we need. But, the Pro version allows for “Shipping costs based on product item count and/or cart line item count”. So, the photographer paid for the Pro version.

From a structural perspective, this “add-on” is essentially a plugin that plugs into a plugin! This is a common situation with a plugin that is as popular as WooCommerce. But, it also means that there must be tight cooperation with three pieces of software: WordPress, WooCommerce and Flexible Shipping.

In this adventure, we found that the support structure for Flexible Shipping is not up to par with either WordPress or WooCommerce. The problems started from the point where the folks at Flexible Shipping send the usual emails on how to  install the software. But, it takes some background information to understand all the steps to doing the simple task of registering the software. In this case, there were mostly mis-steps!

Plugins That Run in your WordPress v Plugins that Run on their Server

Some plugins are software that you add to your WordPress on your host through Add New in the Plugins page of the Dashboard. Mostly, these are plugins that are available through the WordPress repository (WordPress.org). They run in your server. They use your WordPress database. Some of these are free and others have a charge. Often they have a yearly charge for support, but the software works whether you pay the fee or not.

Other plugins run on the software creator’s server, and only add enough software to your WordPress to connect the two. And, you hope that the connection is secure and that the plugin isn’t a way to get their hands on all your data. Many of these plugins have a yearly fee, and if you don’t pay the fee, some of them will stop working because the software uses their server. These are things you should know about your plugin ahead of time.

The Old Way to Install a Plugin v the New Way

“New” is relative here. The new way started with WordPress 2.7 in 2008. Basically, the old way is that you have to 1) download a zip file to your computer, 2) extract the zip file on your computer, 3) upload the files through FTP, and 4) then do whatever is needed in the Dashboard. This process requires knowledge of FTP and the WordPress file structure.

For over 10 years now, the plugin install method is to 1) go to Plugins in the Dashboard, 2) click Add New, 3) search for the plugin you want, 4) install the plugin, 5) activate the plugin. This is all in the Dashboard. But, Flexible Shipping PRO has to be installed the old way. And, their install process goes downhill from the point of purchase.

When the OFF-THE-SHELF (OTS) SOFTWARE INSTALL GOES WRONG

One of the topics we studied in CS grad school was that when you create software that is delivered as a package for general purchase, your package needs to be installed easily. That might seem like a given because so many software companies are so successful at making their products easy to install. Flexible Shipping didn’t quite get that message for their Pro version.

The process had started with the expected steps. The free version of Flexible Shipping is available through the WordPress Dashboard Plugins page and installed in the usual way. And the photographer took the correct steps and installed the free version. It was when he paid that the problems started. Generally, once the free version of a plugin is installed, adding a code unlocks the additional functionality of the paid version. The place to enter the code is generally easy to find. After all, they want you to pay for their software!

In this case, we could not find a place to enter the  code. That is, the photographer had already found a place to enter a code, which is required with the free install. The email that came in response to the purchase had a new code. It was a logical thought that this would be the place to enter the new code. But, it would not take the new code.

After hunting around the plugin for a place to add the license code, we returned to the emails that came after the purchase. So, they have this nice bullet point with a link to find out how to enter the license. The problem is that it went to their changelog page. Notice the address at the bottom of the screenshot. This is probably an anomaly for them, but a page on their site had the same problem. Looks like their developers should be checking links!

And the weirdest thing is that you just cannot enter the code into the WordPress dashboard without adding yet another plugin WP Desk, which was developed by the same company who created Flexible shipping. But, you can’t install either the Pro version or WP Shipping through the dashboard.  They have to be downloaded. Once you have downloaded them, you can use a dashboard function to install them. This is an install pattern that I have never seen before.

But Does It Work After Install?

A week later, we still don’t know. It doesn’t appear to allow shipping based on multiples of products. Their tech support asked us to set up a WordPress admin account for them to set it up for us. Several contacts later, we are still waiting for it to work. This is their last chance. Another client of mine figured out a workaround for another shopping cart product that is our fall back plan!

 

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