What’s the problem?
Loomo is a marketing firm that’s lucky to have a diverse range of experience in its staff. In the early years, however, there weren’t web developers around to help out when a client needed a quick website. The problems of working with prebuilt themes were taken on by one of our founders, Jeremy Whittingstall. Here’s what he had to say when I sat down with him to discuss WordPress Themes.
Lars: As a developer, I can often circumvent a lot of the problems everyone else would when trying to set up a theme. What’s it like for someone without any development experience?
Jeremy: Someone who doesn’t have development experience may see a theme as their quick solution to building an amazing looking website “overnight”. It makes sense. You see a great theme, it matches everything you want, and you just have to add your own images and text. It seems great, but the old rule of thumb applies here as well: if it sounds too good to be true – it probably is.
Lars: What are the biggest challenges people can face with setting up a theme-based website?
Jeremy: One of the biggest challenges people face is that you don’t have access to the primary development team. So when something goes wrong or you just have a quick question on how to update something you’re often trying to engage a “support desk” halfway across the world. This means getting a problem fixed can take days to weeks versus hours with a local dev team. That is, if you get an answer to your question at all.
Another issue can be the setup documentation, which is vital for someone who isn’t a developer, but sometimes they just don’t exist. Many times a cheap theme will come without a full set of instructions on how to set up the site to match the fancy sample pages. Or, a key element in how the developer built the site requires purchasing and installing a whole other plugin that isn’t listed anywhere in the documentation. 9 times out of 10, the first 20-30 hours of any theme installation are spent trying to figure out how the developer built the original site, and even then I have had to bring in outside developers to help figure out how it had been built.
Lars: How does a non-developer make changes? Did you have to learn some HTML and CSS to get by?
Jeremy: The majority of themes are set up using a “builder” which allows the average person to drag and drop content onto the page. Again, this can seem like it is making your life easier but as soon as you try to adjust more specific items (nudge an image a certain way, fix a layout for mobile, build something not in the suite of 20 widgets they let you use) you hit a brick wall. You’re out of luck.
Lars: If someone does want to build using a theme, what should they watch out for?
One thing to keep a close eye on is the number of plugins the theme uses. Most themes try to provide the “everything for everyone” approach by adding as many plugins as possible, but this VERY quickly compromises site stability and speed. Sometimes themes are even set so that they have to use the packaged plugins or the whole site will break.
This can be a problem, as plugins are rarely made by the same developer as the theme builder. The majority of themes are also built, sold, and forgotten by their developers. Because of this, when plugins get updated (which happens ALL the time) they can regularly break the site they were built into.
Lars: And who wants a broken site, haha! So, why you buy a pre-built theme, then?
Jeremy: It all comes down to the perception of saving money. You may buy a cheap theme, but that doesn’t mean you won’t spend dozens if not hundreds of hours setting it up. People never think about the value of their own time, thinking it will be a cheap alternative. The reality is what could have taken a professional team 50-100 hours ends up taking you 200-300 hours or more. I have lots of partner businesses and colleagues who would attest to this fact many times over.
Lars: Yes, I remember helping out with some of those ‘legacy’ projects when I was first hired. They looked pretty good in the end, but I can only imagine how long it took you.
Jeremy: There’s a reason why we don’t do them anymore – ha.
Lars: Well, that’s all I have for now. Thanks for chatting with me Jeremy. That’s really helpful advice. Hopefully we’ll get a chance to flip the conversation and you can ask me what it’s like to develop a theme from scratch.
Jeremy: Anything for the dev team!
I hope this helps you decide on whether it’s worth buying a WordPress theme. If you have any questions, or need help weighing the cost and options for your next site, feel free to email me at [email protected].