The Dilemma Between “Pretty” And User Friendly: How To Pick The Perfect WordPress Theme

The days when having a pretty theme was enough to stand out in the web-jungle are numbered. The massive growth of WordPress, with lots of new, talented developers creating tons of good looking themes that enable even the most design illiterate of us to create a pretty website without a massive budget, and without having to spend countless hours learning design, made sure of that.

Today, to make an impression, the theme has to be not only easy on the eyes, but intuitive to use as well. The good news is that it doesn’t have to be a trade-off. In many cases, the user friendliness simply compliments an already beautiful theme, and makes visiting your website a complete joy on every level.

But when you think of user friendliness, it’s easy to think that it’s something complex, and expensive reserved for bigger websites, like Facebook and YouTube. But it doesn’t have to be that way. User friendliness can mean

What Makes A Theme User Friendly?

Unlike prettiness, whether or not a theme is user friendly is not something you decide on a whim based on your aesthetic preference(which might be different from your audience’s). It is something you decide by having your (future) audience in mind.

A theme is user friendly if:

  • It effectively showcases the content that is most important/relevant to your audience.
  • The design is clean and intuitive.
  • The theme style and imagery is relevant to your website. (Or conversely, it is neutral enough that it allows the content to speak for itself.)

It is is also a bonus if the theme has features that support what you want to do with the website in the future. (This makes it possible to enable new elements, without significant downtime. And of course, any downtime at all can be an annoyance for your dedicated audience.) Simply put, if it helps you communicate what you want to communicate more effectively, a theme is user friendly.

For example, using a standard business theme on your portfolio website if you’re a photographer, could be sending the wrong message. (Unless of course, your main customers are corporate types that feel most at home when a website that has smiling people in suits as the background image, then I’d say you have the right idea.) An even more obvious example, is how you probably shouldn’t use a non-profit theme on your website about deals on designer merchandise.

But of course it can be more subtle than this. In most cases, it is a lot more subtle. For example, there are many portfolio themes out there that look great. Out of those I’d go so far as to say Daisho, Yin & Yang and our own Elegant free theme are all fine examples of minimal portfolio themes (see for yourself below).

Daisho (Homepage mode)

Daishoportfoliotheme

Yin & Yang

yinandyangportfoliotheme

Elegant

elegantportfoliotheme

At first inspection, they are similar on many levels. Simplistic, clean, and beautiful. But they’re not without their crucial differences. Yin & Yang allows for a heavier priority on visual content, optimal for say, a photographer or designer, but not so optimal for a copywriter. Conversely, Daisho (in homepage mode) allows a heavier focus on text, makes it ideal for a product or service that is harder to represent purely through visuals.

The content that best represents what you do should be the priority. Whether that is a Video, an image portfolio, or the writing itself. (Same principle for blogs and other websites.)

When it comes to how clean and intuitive a theme is, you will be forced to make a judgement call. As a general rule of thumb, you want there to be few options and distractions that could take the attention away from the main focus of your website. If you find that the theme invites you to take the actions that you want a visitor to take… for example, check out a portfolio, or read more about a particular service, then you might have a keeper.

When In Doubt: Go For A Simple And Clean Theme

If you’re not quite sure about the topic yet, or you might take the website in one of several directions in the future, pick something clean, simple, neutral. That way, you can make small, or even monumental changes to the topic and Logo, but keep using the same theme. (Making ”redesigns” incredibly painless.)

When I say simple, I’m referring to the design, not necessarily the capabilities of the theme. At the very least, it should be optimized for mobile as well as the web, given the large percentage of mobile users these days. (This is usually referred to as being responsive. A term you want to be on the lookout for.) If you want to start out with a simple blog, but want to have the option to create a great looking service page in the future, picking a theme that supports both off the bat can save you a headache, some hours, and possibly even a wad of cash, in the future.

You could for example go with our very own Total, which is responsive, has a beautiful blog layout, as well as a page builder for when  you want to build those landing pages.

But you might be wondering why should you pick something simple. You may have noticed that there’s something of a minimalism boom these days when it comes to web design. Logos are getting simplified. 3D objects and buttons are turning flat again. Big brands implement website re-designs that disregard artsy solutions, and fancy animations, and instead focus on simplicity and usability.

Maybe it’s because the research is in, and it says simpler = better looking to the majority of people. The more complex a website, the less attractive it is to the end user at first visit. (This doesn’t mean people won’t balk at the change during a redesign.)

Plus, limiting yourself to simple themes can help you actually choose one out of the hundreds of thousands that are out there a little easier. And the time you save can be put to better use (like creating content for your awesome new WordPress site).

Does Your Chosen Theme Check Out?

Before you finally decide to buy (or simply install) a theme, there’s a few things you should check out before you

  • Is it up to date?
  • Does it offer active support?
  • Is it bug free?
  • Is it a hassle to deal with?

If you’re using the WordPress.org directory, or the Themeforest marketplace, you can find out most of these things, and get a good handle on the others, extremely easily.

Is It Up To Date?

If your theme is not up do date, it could have security holes, or lack compatibility with the latest version of WordPress. The latter will give you a hard time finding compatible plugins, (or leave you with outdated versions that have less functionality, or even security issues). The latest theme update is listed to the right, under the ‘preview’ button in the WordPress directory.

dateupdatedwordpress

And a bit further down in the right sidebar on Themeforest.

dateupdated

If you find the perfect theme, and it just so happens to be slightly outdated, what should you do? It happens all the time. A developer/designer will create an under-appreciated masterpiece, and will stop paying attention to it because it just isn’t worth their time to fiddle with it. And who can blame them? It can be tempting to go for a theme like this. Especially since not many other websites are using it.

As a general rule of thumb, it’s a good idea to stay away from old themes that haven’t been updated in a long time. First of all, they might not function at all with the newest version of WordPress. Or maybe just some of the newer functions aren’t supported. But actually, the worst case scenario is that it does work, until the next update of WordPress renders it useless, and you have to deal with changing themes on your active site, on top of finding a new one.

But if you’re truly in love with an outdated theme, you might argue: “Why not use an older version of WordPress that it does work with?” And my answer would be to invite you to google “WordPress bug fixes”, and remind you that compatibility with plugins might become an issue as well. Save yourself the possible headache, and stay away.

Does it offer active support?

For WordPress.Org you can get a good indication from the numbers on the front page that shows how many support requests get answered, but it’s not always a very accurate portrayal. Some of the tickets could be duplicates, or a problem due to installation and not the theme itself, or the threat author might just forget to mark it as resolved after receiving help.

On Themeforest, you should check the comments, and also remain on the lookout for mentions about support in the body text. On the sales page of Yin & Yang for example, there’s actually mention of a dedicated support forum at the end of the copy.

Is it bug free?

In theory, themes in the WordPress.org directory and Themeforest marketplace should be bug free, as theme code is reviewed before inclusion is allowed. But in practice, because of the human capacity for error(especially when it comes to overworked people reviewing code), there are some exceptions.

One way to get a general impression of the integrity of the theme, is to diligently go through comments and reviews and see if there’s a direct mention of a troubling bug that didn’t get resolved as a result, you might be better off avoiding the theme altogether (If there are some mentions of minor bugs, and the author responds quickly, and implements fixes, this will usually be a good sign rather than a bad one…).

Is It A Hassle To Deal With?

While the comments/reviews are a go-to source for information again, I would recommend looking for full-length reviews by people who know what they’re doing. There’s a few reasons for this. First of all it can be hard to judge someone’s technical literacy by a one-three sentence comment/review. It also doesn’t say anything about the expectations they had going in. Which means short comments of this kind can be misleading. If you do decide to go strictly by comments, or there are no reviews, you have to make some judgement calls about the commentator’s technical literacy, their expectations, and whether or not it’s similar to your own.

If at this point you’re worrying about whether or not it’s worth spending this much effort on a theme, consider this, the way your website LOOKS is actually more important to any first impression, than the actual content. And also, the more diligently you go through this now, the less you have to worry about it, and the more you will be able to remain focused on writing, designing, or photographing. If you need some inspiration, you can see some of our theme recommendations here.

Ragnar is a writer/blogger for hire with a passion for WordPress.

Disclosure: This page contains external affiliate links that may result in us receiving a comission if you choose to purchase said product. The opinions on this page are our own. We do not receive payment for positive reviews.
Got something to say? Join the discussion.
  1. eminakepic15 says:
    Thesis and Genesis is both my favorite framework:) Thanks for sharing nice information
  2. SSCSWORLD says:
    WordPress is definitely the way to go. As a beginner I am very happy with this.
  3. jaysh4922 says:
    Great insight. Can you dig deeper into your thought process? A concrete example of how a theme could provide functionality or how a plugin could provide that same functionality.
  4. Pixlogix says:
    Interesting tips. Usually the decision of selecting a theme depends on business requirements and then features that the theme offers. Make sure that the selected theme is responsive and allows easy customization and is SEO friendly.
  5. Apurva says:
    Awesome !! Thank you for your tips. With it, I found for myself a beautiful theme: Thank you again and could I share your post on my social?. I think it will be helpful for more people
    • Kyla says:
      Kyla
      Of course you can Tweet, +1 or share our article (just use the social links on the left) :-)
      Admin
  6. weddingimageeditingservices says:
    Planning a theme change and this article along with the linked resources is everything I need.

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