Building WordPress themes has become quite a profitable line of work. With more and more people venturing into theme development, we are often witnesses to excellent products that don’t sell as well as they should and simply disappear. In this article, we’re going to cover some basic dos and don’ts of building a WordPress theme. These factors can easily make or break a theme, so pay close attention.
Building a WordPress Theme
- Research your target market
Before you even start building your WordPress theme, you need to determine its niche. Unless, of course, you’re building a multipurpose theme, but even then you have to be aware of exactly what your target market will be.
Niche themes seem to be doing particularly well, so pick one that you feel confident about and comfortable with and then do some extensive research. The most popular niches for WordPress themes are portfolio and photography themes, themes for musicians and bands, agencies, designers, restaurants, hotels and so on. However, bear in mind that the most obscure niches are probably the best choice – there’s less of a crowd developing themes in these niches compared to the popular ones. This means you’ll be more likely to succeed.
Explore similar themes
After you’ve established what niche you want your theme to be, you need to set some time aside and see what the competition is up to these days. Let’s call this the “inspiration phase,” during which you’re going to explore similar themes to find out what works and what doesn’t, what are the trends in terms of design and features, which plugins they come with, and so on.
Be careful, though, because it’s easy to slip from getting some inspiration to downright plagiarizing someone else’s work. If you appreciate someone else’s idea, draw from it but make it different and completely your own.
Invest in design
Unless you’re an experienced web/UX designer yourself, you should definitely consider hiring someone to help you make your theme look beautiful, sophisticated and modern. Graphic designers and illustrators can also be of great assistance here. If you’re only just starting out, it would be perfect if you could ask a designer friend to help, but even if you don’t know anyone, don’t worry. There are tons of amazing freelance designers you can hire per project, and their rates are generally quite affordable.
As for the process itself, it’s always a good idea to start with wireframes and mockups, to minimize the risk of ending up with an awkward interface.
Also, make sure to test your interface on someone outside of the industry. You’re building the WordPress theme for the non-savvy users, and that’s something you should always keep in mind.
Use high-quality images, icons, and fonts
Your WordPress theme has to look as good as possible. You can’t achieve that with low-quality images and other visual content. Assuming you’re not a photographer and you’re not going to use your own photos, you’re probably going to go with stock images – free ones, if you’re on a budget.
It’s important to make sure you only use the best possible quality images, in high resolution. The same goes for icons and fonts. There are resources for that online, and some of them are completely free, such as the Font Awesome icon font pack.
Add some good plugins
Without plugins, there probably wouldn’t be the WordPress that we know and love. Plugins extend your theme’s functionality and guarantee a superior user experience for your clients and their future site visitors.
You’ve probably noticed that a lot of themes come bundled with a couple of essential plugins, such as Yoast SEO, Akismet, Jetpack and so on. Oftentimes, theme developers throw in some premium plugins for free, such as Revolution Slider, to increase the value of the theme itself. If you can afford this, by all means – do it.
Make it responsive
Responsive websites have become a sine qua non. Sites that are not optimized for viewing on smaller screens have no chance of making it to the top of SERPs. Plus, people don’t like having to pinch and move the screen to view a page in its entirety.
To really make your theme stand out, it’s not enough to just make it responsive and make sure it’s clear to your prospective clients. Instead, try to do more than just collapse your columns one beneath the other. Don’t rush, take your time and find an original way to make your pages look beautiful on mobile.
Make it easily customizable
Some users will probably take your theme as it is, but there will be a lot of others who will want to tweak things a bit here and there and make it more their own. Because of this, it’s vital that you allow them to do so by offering plenty of customization options.
Your theme should be relatively easy to customize both for developers and for beginners. One way to achieve this is to include a nice range of useful shortcodes and templates.
The trick here is to achieve the delicate balance between too many and not enough customization options. To test this out, try enrolling a couple of friends of different skill levels to play around with your theme and then listen to their feedback regarding theme customization.
Have a good theme options page
This is important for the previous point as well – theme customization options largely depend on a good theme options page. This page allows users to change the design and the functionality of a theme without having to bother with HTML or CSS. Obviously, this is something that less skilled users will greatly appreciate.
The best premium themes often come with a wide range of theme options, sometimes extending to several pages. As for what to include, try to think of what your users would really need or want and make sure to label all settings clearly and intuitively.
Plan your support
You can have a monster of a theme with superior design, premium plugins, and extensive customization options, but if you don’t have a good support system in place, your theme is going to sink.
In case your theme becomes popular, and hopefully, it will, you will be facing a lot (and we mean a lot) of queries, and let’s not forget presale questions. It is essential to always stay on top of this. If your customers are left waiting, alone with their problem, you will be facing negative reviews and poor ratings, which will affect your sales tremendously.
There are tools these days that you can use to provide quality support (Ticksy, Zendesk, Freshdesk, etc.). Initially, you will probably be able to handle support by yourself. As long as you have a couple of hours each day to answer all questions, point users to the documentation, and so on. As your sales grow, however, you’ll probably need to set up an actual support team.
Provide a good demo
WordPress theme developers are sometimes too lazy to offer their prospective customers a good demo of their theme. This may be okay for big companies that already have a lot of clouts, but if you’re just starting in this field and you want to get your theme out there, a comprehensive, great-looking demo is an absolute must.
Your demo should include everything your theme packs. This means all homepages (if you have more than one), all the inner pages, especially blog and shop pages. Also, your demo pages should display all the elements you included in the theme. If you have beautifully designed client testimonials – show them off. These things can tip the scale in your favor, so you definitely want to do them right.
Accessibility and ease of use are crucial here, too. The quicker a person can get to the desired part of your theme, the more impressed he or she will be.
Listen to feedback
This one should be a given, but a surprising number of theme developers simply forgets it or ignores it. The most valuable user feedback comes from negative comments. Sure, those can be tough to read, especially when they come in the form of long, impassioned rants. But negative reviews actually point out to your product’s weak spots, oversights, things that could use improvement, as well as things that simply don’t work at all. Use feedback to learn which features your users need, which parts of your interface are a bit confusing and how to make your theme even better.
Always keep testing
This is another thing that shouldn’t be a tip but something that everyone knows and does: testing is an integral part of WordPress theme development. You need to check, double-check and triple-check whether every single aspect of your theme is exactly as you want it to be. Test each and every one of your pages, your customizer options, interactive elements, everything.
Ideally, testing should be done on a fresh WordPress installation, completely independent from your development repository. If you can find some volunteers for beta testing, all the better.
Don’t touch the WordPress core
As open source software, WordPress relies on community consensus for many things. And one of the golden rules of the community is: “Don’t touch the WordPress core.” WordPress files can roughly be divided into core files and content files. Content files include your theme files, plugins, images, while core files constitute the appearance and the functionality of the platform itself.
Core files can be modified for the purposes of troubleshooting or extending WordPress for your personal needs, but you should steer clear of them when you’re building your theme, otherwise, you may seriously mess things up.
Don’t overdo it with features
Many theme developers believe that “the more the better” is the golden rule and that they should pack their theme with as many features as they can possibly fit. Remember that your features should depend on the market you’re targeting.
This is especially true for niche themes. For example, if you’re building a loan company theme, you don’t really need to slap social sharing icons at the top of the page, in the sidebar and below every single piece of content on your page. Perhaps you should reconsider that Instagram feeds too.
When deciding which features to add to your theme, ask yourself what that particular niche or industry would need. What do other loan companies have on their websites? What are people searching for a loan looking for on a website? Focus on what your client needs and fine-tune your features accordingly.
Don’t skimp on documentation
Users hate it when they have to spend too much time trying to find an answer to their question or a solution to their problem. That’s why your theme should not only come with comprehensive documentation but [P1] that documentation should also be easily accessible. For instance, you can attach it as a PDF file, put it in your site’s knowledge base, or even start a tag over at Stack Exchange.
Your documentation should be able to explain to your users, regardless of their level of knowledge, every single aspect of your theme. The purpose of each option, button, and checkbox should be clear and all procedures should be described in great detail. In this case, “the more the better” does apply.
Don’t forget to style comments and pingbacks
So you’ve spent hundreds of hours meticulously styling your theme, but then you saw it in action on a client’s website and you realized the comments look horrible. Theme developers sometimes neglect the fact that comments need to be properly styled too.
Comments on your pages need to be well-organized and clearly legible. Author comments should stand out, avatars shouldn’t be too big and distracting and they absolutely need to be responsive. This last thing is important since at this moment more than half of all web traffic comes from mobile.
Also, remember that pingbacks are still a thing. You may not use them, but they exist, so you need to style them too.
Don’t duplicate post titles
This one may sound a bit too meticulous, but it’s the little things like this that separate the good WordPress Themes from the great ones. As you are probably aware, post titles can be displayed in many places, not just the actual title area. The best blogs, online magazines and publications avoid displaying the title more than once or twice, but a surprisingly high number of websites and blogs slaps the title all over a single page – the title itself, the URL, breadcrumbs, and so on.
In addition to showing the lack of good designer taste and a certain degree of amateurism, multiple post titles are also bad for SEO.
Don’t neglect the 404 error page
Ending up on a 404 error page is annoying enough for any user, but ending up on a dull and uninteresting one, that just says “Page not found,” is even worse. A witty, nicely designed 404 page can give your theme some much-needed spice and cheer visitors up when they happen to look for a page that doesn’t exist.
Your 404 error page can include a category list, your recent posts or an ad. Ideally, it should include a custom message that will give the visitors a light chuckle.
Don’t force structural layouts
Let’s say your theme has a sidebar with widget areas in it. Now, let’s assume there are users who don’t want or need widgets in their sidebar and therefore don’t need the sidebar at all. A good theme should give them the ability to display the sidebar contextually – it’s only there if there are widgets in it. An empty sidebar is an eyesore.
One way to solve this is to add a class to the body element when a particular widget area is active. That class is then referenced in the stylesheet to display the content area with designated sidebar space.
This will allow your users to decide when and if they want to use the sidebar or not, instead of forcing it on them.
Don’t rely too much on plugins
As we pointed out earlier, plugins are an essential part of the WordPress experience both for developers and for end users. But many theme developers make the mistake of not including enough functionalities and features in their theme, counting on the fact that the users will make up for them by downloading a plugin. Or they stuff the theme with too many built-in plugins, with the idea of increasing the value of the theme, but they end up with a bloated, slow-to-load theme that many users won’t have the patience to deal with. So, keep building a WordPress theme that can be fast!
Don’t forget your theme’s end goal
Again, unless you’re building a multipurpose WordPress theme, you should always keep your theme’s end goal in mind. Is your theme designed for selling products or perhaps for building brand awareness? Maybe it’s supposed to be employed for the purposes of lead generation? Or is it crafted specifically for portfolio websites? Whatever the purpose of the theme, make sure to remember it at all times during theme development and design. That way your end product will be a practical, focused tool that your users will appreciate for its efficiency.
Don’t be shy – promote!
The WordPress theme market is a complex and competitive one. If you’re only just starting in this field, you’re going to need some promotional help from friends and family, engaging their social channels and spreading the word about your cool new theme.
In the initial stages, your best bet is to pick one of the large marketplaces, such as ThemeForest or Mojo marketplace.
You will also have to work on your SEO. Research your keywords and then use them on your website or social pages according to the findings. The same goes for YouTube videos, which have become an invaluable motor for SEO. Use keywords in titles and descriptions and make your videos useful and relevant.
Consider reaching out to WordPress-related resources and blogs. Many of them accept guest posts, either for free or for a certain fee.
Also, try offering special discounts and giveaways. These never fail to attract customers.
Don’t just follow suit
We said earlier that you should always look at what the competition is doing and learn which themes sell and which don’t. However, this does not mean you should draw too much inspiration from others. The themes that sell the best are the ones that are original and unique in terms of design, functionality, and features. Offer something no one else offers. After all, we all want to stand out, don’t we? So, keep building a WordPress theme that has your mark!
Don’t stop developing your theme
Every seasoned WordPress developer will confirm that the work on a theme never really stops. You can’t just finish a theme, put it up for grabs and call it a day. Your theme needs constant work. Just look at some of the all-time best-selling themes out there. They’re all being constantly developed and updated according to the latest WordPress version. New features are added and known bugs are resolved. Again, listen to your users and give them what they’re asking for.
Building a WordPress theme can be a rewarding, fulfilling job if you play your cards right. The market is favorable for this sort of product right now and the consumer base keeps growing. Sure, the competition is a bit harsh but if you have a good product, you can definitely find a place for yourself in the ever-expanding WordPress ecosystem. Just follow these dos and don’ts, listen to what the users are saying, keep up with the trends, do your research and stay focused.