On Theme Onboarding in WordPress

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One of the actions that raise a lot of questions over for clients over at WP ServicePoint is the moment when a client decides to switch to a new design, a new theme. It’s one of those actions that is surprisingly poor handled by the vast majority of the themes out there. A few of the questions I saw in our mail queue made it very obvious that there are themes out there that really shouldn’t be handled by new to average WordPress users.

That’s a bold statement, right? Well, yes it is, but it’s also true. And yes, some of those themes were the kind that tries to solve every damn website layout solution out there in just one theme, but truth be told, there were some themes that were in itself simple enough, but required just too many steps to make them look anything like the demo. And that’s just not okay.

A while ago my son wrote about his general onboarding experience as a WordPress newbie. In the second step, he describes the experience of activating a theme for the first time. What was very clear to me from that exercise is that that particular onboarding experience is just really poor.  We should be doing better. And since we’ve started building premium themes as well, I started looking around to see what was out there.

Some plugins are already doing it right

Turns out, there are some plugins that are doing it right. A great example would be Yoast SEO‘s plugin that provides a wizard that runs you through setting up the plugin configuration. Their inspiration comes from WooCommerce’s wizard that helps you set up your shop.

Some smaller plugins do a simplified version of that. Upon activating the plugin a few short and simple options are presented, some pages (required by the plugin) are automatically assigned and or created, that sort of thing. WP Car Manager is a good example of such a setup.  So what about themes then?

Theme onboarding

I’ve looked extensively at the vast list of premium (and free) themes available to me, but none provided a flow that would solve the issues and questions Roan ran into. The “best” solution I found was upon activating the theme, redirecting to a setup page inside the WordPress Dashboard. On that setup page, a whole range of instructions was provided on how to set up the various parts that made up the whole of the design. Think menu, frontpage settings, import demo content, import widget settings, install required plugins, etc. Array Themes is one of those theme shops that handle this very nicely in their themes.

But, I was looking for a complete solution where Mike McAlister from Array Themes’ implementation would be the end-point of a wizard like setup – like Yoast SEO is providing– not the first step.  So, I turned to twitter to ask for help:

Hopeful Results

Turns out, there are really not that many solutions out there. There are two platform dedicated solutions out there that are interesting, but since they rely too heavily on the specific platform they’re designed for, they’re not really that useful. One solution is for onboarding themes from ThemeForest/Envato (demo video | code on Github) and the other was the general WordPress + BeaverBuilder theme onboarding experience on the GoDaddy hosting platform (blog post, demo video, some code on Github).

But there’s hope. I was introduced by Ana Segota to the most promising solution out there. It turns out to be a project that is currently in the works and it’s called Merlin WP by Rich Tabor. The demonstration video shows what happens when you activate the theme and how it takes care of installing required plugins, installing demo content, importing widgets and more.

Clearly, there’s movement on the Theme Onboarding Front, and I for one am very keen to learn how Rich plans to add all the necessary flexibility in there. There’s a lot of cool stuff you can do with a smooth running wizard, provided you allow for options and opt-outs – like for instance, not all themes will be installed on new sites – and extra steps and integrations like licensing for example.

So, I’d love to know what you guys think about this. Would love to have your input on what scenarios should or should not be included in such a wizard or if the premise of such a wizard is even a good one? Do let me know in the comments!

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7 responses to “On Theme Onboarding in WordPress”

  1. Rich Tabor Avatar

    Great stuff Remkus, you’re totally on point. In today’s market, WordPress themes essentially don’t have decent onboarding processes in place. Without the “know-how”, folks are left wondering what do to next. It’s just a major facet of theme development that has been severely neglected over time.

    By onboarding users properly, developers will have less setup support queries and more importantly, users will have a much better WordPress experience — right from the start.

    I’m excited where Merlin WP is headed and the potential the project has for improving WordPress theme onboarding on a larger scale.

    1. Remkus Avatar

      Thanks for taking the time to comment, Rich, much appreciated. I am very curious to see where you’ll be taking Merlin WP. Looking forward to being invited for the beta program

  2. cdils Avatar

    Hey Remkus,
    I was just reading about Merlin WP and your article caught my eye. What are your thoughts on using an onboarding UX such as Merlin WP vs doing more of a “guided tour” through the WP admin? Obviously the UI of the former is preferable, but the benefit of the latter is that a user is simultaneously setting up the theme and getting an orientation to the WP admin.

    Just a thought. Regardless, I’m happy for the discussion and movement in this area!


    1. Remkus Avatar

      I actually see this as a three-step process. The first step on activating is going through the wizard, as Muurling WP is promising, the second step would be to do something like a guided tour, indeed, and the third and final step would be to redirect the user to the settings in the Customizer. That’s how I look at it in the most ideal scenario.

  3. Collins Agbonghama Avatar

    It will be great if we see some of such movements in the plugin space. I too is considering building one for my plugins.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this Remkus.

    1. Remkus Avatar

      Agreed. There should be many more examples than Yoast SEO and WooCommerce to pick from.

  4. Marsha Leyva Avatar
    Marsha Leyva

    Hey Remkus,

    I think theme onboarding in WordPress is a big concern and it really surprises me way till now anyone hasn’t considered this concern seriously.

    Your post about theme onboarding is thought-provoking. I appreciate it. Although Merlin WP is taking a good step for onboarding for the WordPress theme. But till now WordPress doesn’t have an essential part which is theme onboarding.

    Thanks for this great stuff.

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