Customizing the WordPress Admin Experience for Clients

For those of us that are logging in and out of WordPress sites all day every day, the backend of WordPress couldn’t be easier. We know exactly which sub-menus are hidden where, and the fastest way to edit the part of the site we need to.

But for users new to WordPress, the admin area can seem overwhelming. It’s full of jargon (plugins, widgets, menus anyone?) and organized a little haphazardly. So when you’ve created a wonderfully crafted site for your client, wouldn’t it be nice if the backend provided an equally well thought-out and intuitive experience? This will not only improve your client’s overall satisfaction but will also reduce the amount of support requests you’ll have to deal with.

Without re-building WordPress from the ground up, here are a handful of ways in which you can easily tweak the admin experience for your client.

Who Needs Access To What?
There are several ways to approach streamlining the admin area of WordPress. A good first step would be to think about the people that will be using the site and what areas they actually need access to. You don’t want to overwhelm your client and any other staff members/users with unnecessary options to play with that could, at best, confuse them and at worst, enable them to break the site. For example, disabling access to the Plugins > Editor and Appearance > Editor screens is often a good idea, since unskilled changes in those places could easily take the site down.

The above access modification is just one of the built-in features of the Webmaster User Role  plugin. Webmaster User Role provides a good starting point for streamlining by creating a new role named “Admin” that lives between the existing Administrator and Editor roles. There is a pro version of the plugin which will give you considerably more settings and features to tweak including integrations with other plugins. You can also couple it with the free User Role Editor plugin to further modify the user role it provides. User Role Editor is a great plugin in its own right for fine-grained control over user roles.

It’s really important to be transparent with your client about the changes you’re making and why, and to make sure that you never leave a project or end a relationship without restoring all back to default. You never want to leave a client with a crippled site. So if a client is NOT on a maintenance plan with you, do not disable their ability to update plugins. If they are on a plan and you are going to be doing that, you could choose to disable that functionality.

Better, More Intuitive Organization of Menu Tabs
After you’ve taken any access control steps that may be necessary, you can then further clean up and organize the menu column in the WordPress backend.

By default, there are a lot of tabs over there on the left hand side and you’ve probably added at least a few plugins that have installed their own menu tabs as well. This results in a haphazard menu column that doesn’t have an intuitive flow to it. In the example below, it doesn’t really make much sense as to why the All In One SEO pack plugin would be at the very top and Products would be separated from the other content entry tabs such as Posts and Pages.

Using the excellent Admin Menu Editor plugin, you can easily move things around and create a more sensible grouping. It also has numerous other really helpful features you could get creative with.

For the sake of this example I’m going to show three functions possible with this plugin:

  1. Group similar sections together under relevant headings
  2. Hide some unnecessary items
  3. Rename Menu Items

Group Similar Items Together
Admin Menu Editor has a drag ‘n’ drop interface for moving menu tabs around. You could even get as granular as moving sub-items from under one tab to another. There is also a “Separator” item you can add to help section off the grouping – it adds a little extra space around those menu items, but it’s not particularly effective, visually-speaking.  A nifty little plugin you can add is called “Bring Back Admin Menu Separators”.

This brings back the visual separators from pre-version-3.8 to the interface so that when you add a separator it stands out more, creating an immediate, more intuitive visual grouping. You can take that one step further by adding headings to those groups in Admin Menu Editor. The plugin lets you assign CSS classes to your menu items so you could customize this even more if you wanted to.

The end result looks like this:

Hide Unnecessary Items
It’s easy to remove un-needed items as well. For example, fresh installs of WordPress after 3.5 won’t have the Links tab on the left. But ones that existed before and were upgraded will still have it. You can hide that and any other items easily in Admin Menu Editor. If you have a site which does not use the Posts function at all or if Comments have been entirely disabled comments both those tabs could be hidden.

Rename Menu Items
In addition to easy streamlining, another nice feature of the plugin is that you can rename the tabs. I’ve come across some site owners that prefer the term Articles to Posts, for example. Or perhaps Posts have been repurposed into something very specific such as Press Releases or Recipes. So, using the plugin, you could rename that menu tab to your chosen name instead, making it more logical for your client to use.

Clean up All Posts / All Pages Screens
By default, when you click on Posts > All Posts (or All Pages) the resulting screen has a number of columns showing info at a glance that may or may not be useful. For example, if you don’t allow Comments on your site, that column is a moot point. Not only that, but some other plugins may add their own columns. The ubiquitous WordPress SEO plugin by Yoast adds an additional four columns. So it’s very easy for this screen to become cluttered and unhelpful.

A really nice tool to have at your disposal for cases like this is CodePress’ Admin Columns plugin.

It provides an elegant solution for controlling the columns that show up on the All Posts, All Pages, Media Library, Users and Comments screens. If you have any custom post types on your site, the plugin detects those and allows you to control the columns there as well. You can not only remove unnecessary columns but add more useful ones in and re-order them with a drag n’ drop interface. The data you can display in the columns is comprehensive, ranging from showing a thumbnail of a post’s featured image, to the word count of a post, or any information pulled from a custom field. I personally like adding the image dimensions into the list view of the Media Library.

With this plugin, we can turn the column chaos into the above example to a leaner display:

The pro version of the plugin has additional features such as adding more options to the dropdown filtering menu.

Hide Meta Boxes on Edit Screens
Another place we can streamline things to remove overwhelm is on the content editing screens themselves. While the user can utilize screen options to remove boxes themselves, there are some items that might be better hidden for all. As with all things WordPress, we have to consider the default items that WordPress itself adds, along with boxes added by themes and plugins. The best solution I’ve found so far is IM8 Box Hide. The two main reasons it’s my preferred solution are:

1. It allows you to customize screens per user role.
2. It detects and allows you to control meta boxes added by themes and plugins.

A number of other plugins, such as White Label CMS, Point, and Stare CMS, claim to offer this functionality but are limited only to the standard WordPress meta boxes, therefore making them incomplete for this task.

Make The Dashboard Useful
In this case, I’m using “dashboard” to refer literally to the first screen that is seen when you login. This is perhaps one of the least helpful screens WordPress offers by default. Dashboard Widget Sidebar lets you easily change that. It lets you easily add items to the dashboard via the Widgets screen. So anything you can use in a widget on the rest of your site, you can add into the dashboard. By setting the priority on each widget you can ensure they show up at the top.

The only thing it doesn’t seem to do is let you remove the default set of dashboard widgets (Quick Draft, WordPress News etc). So if you want to get rid of those, you could use the ABD Dashboard Widget Manager plugin or write a function to do this.

Provide Help
Finally, to really cut down on those support requests and those  “I forgot how to do x, y or z” emails, you can easily include documentation within the dashboard for your clients to use as a reference. The WP Help plugin is a great solution for this. Help documents are created as content types so you have the liberty of including, text, images and video. You can create multiple documents and organize them hierarchically as needed.

Since one of the big selling points of WordPress is easy content management for its users you can use some of these tools to help your clients focus on their content and feel in control of their sites.

Do you have any favorite tools for customizing the WordPress admin area? Leave a note in the comments!

About the Author Lucy Beer is a web and WordPress consultant focused on making WordPress accessible to the beginner and a powerful development platform for the advanced user. Lucy runs Web Training Wheels and can be found speaking around the country or on Twitter. More by this Author