As LearnDash developers with some visibility in the WordPress LMS community, we get a lot of requests to fix bad projects. It’s so easy for things to go wrong, and selecting the wrong partner can often mean the project is doomed before you even start. In this post we’ll explore the most important things to consider when choosing a developer for any WordPress elearning project. Our expertise is in LearnDash, but all of this applies equally to LifterLMS, Sensei, and any other WordPress LMS plugin that you’re building your platform around.
This post isn’t about selling our services; we’re already at capacity and have unfortunately had to stop accepting new clients several times recently. What we want to do with this blog post is raise awareness so that when you are looking for a partner to help build your LearnDash site you better understand how to choose an organization that is competent and will be able to deliver a robust platform that meets your needs.
If you’re starting out on your first LearnDash development project, here are some things to consider as you look for a partner:
Start with a conversation. We really find that emails don’t work well enough to ensure all parties are on the same page and to ask questions easily. It’s great if you can come to that conversation with clear goals and questions. The vendor should have questions too. Relationships are absolutely critical to successful projects and this is where they start. Take notes and be thorough. If you’re comparing vendors, make sure you have a consistent way to assess them and document everything immediately after the conversation. Also be prepared for several conversations; it’s rare that initial discovery and planning can be completed in a single session, unless it’s a very small project.
Ask if you can see some of the company’s other projects. Do keep in mind that for LearnDash projects most of the development work tends to be behind registration or a paywall, so the access developers can provide is limited. Again, this is where a call (or preferably web conference) can be very helpful, as on a call the developers can actually sign into sites and show how things are set up or created. Experienced LearnDash experts should have easy access to a variety of representative samples. Ask for some walkthroughs and get more information about what specifically the developers did. Give consideration to what works and what doesn’t, and how similar previous projects might be to your own. Experience is extremely important when setting up intuitive, effective elearning platforms with WordPress.
Check out community feedback. This can be really hard to find in the LearnDash space, but it’s still important to make an effort and solicit experiences about working with the vendor. Maybe there’s feedback on social media, plugin reviews for things they may have developed, the LearnDash support forums, even reaching out to previous customers. Also look for negative feedback, which can often be more telling than positive comments.
Don’t just look locally. There are very few WordPress agencies and developers that have a significant amount of LearnDash experience. We’ve seen a lot of projects where businesses chose someone they know who’s done other work for them (LearnDash is just one plugin, right?) but couldn’t transition to considerations like the signed-in experience, student workflow, making things work together, etc. To get the best partner, expand your search range, potentially even to other countries. We’re in Toronto but we have many clients in Australia; it’s not as hard as you might think to make projects like that work.
Get to know who you’ll be working with. Without question, the #1 reason we’ve taken over several projects from experienced LearnDash developers hasn’t been bad code quality or poor implementation—it’s been a communication breakdown. Communication issues are painfully common with these projects and site owners come to us because they have a site they don’t know how to use, isn’t what they expected or they’re tired of saying the same thing over and over. Whoever is setting up your site is someone you’ll be working with for over at least several weeks, perhaps even several years. There has to be a rapport. There must be trust. And it has to be really easy to communicate and make sure everyone is always working towards the same goals and scope. You don’t want to be talking to 5 different people and for discussions to only happen by email with week-long gaps between them.
Try to assess technical competence and workflow. While communication issues abound, there are still a lot of developers out there that simply bite off more than they can handle with LearnDash and don’t really know what they’re doing. They might be great people that really want to help, but that doesn’t mean they should be building LearnDash sites. Just last month we took on a site where the developers had made changes to LearnDash core and even WordPress core—and that should never, ever happen. The client, of course, wondered if it was normal for everything to break and have to be fixed on updates (it’s not). So ask LearnDash partners how they work and look out for red flags. How do they implement changes? How do they test updates? How do they work collaboratively? Who’s responsible for testing and validation? How does a project actually come together? If they have public plugins, what are the reviews like and what issues are people having? We have also seen individuals take on projects that were just too big for one person and then, when they’re overwhelmed, they’ve walked away. Try to get a sense of whether or not the developer or development team has the right skill set and/or the right people in place to handle everything that’s needed.
Ask about training and maintenance. Building a LearnDash site means a lot more than setting up a site and installing some random plugins—yet we see that happen a lot. Your goal also shouldn’t just be to have a site that seems functional at the end; it should be to have a LearnDash site that you understand how to use and leverage to improve your business. When we’re investigating a new site, we almost always have a conversation that goes like this: “Do you know why this is set up this way?” “No.” “Do you have any documentation that might explain it?” “No.” “Is there any way you could find out?” “No.” As a site owner, we understand how scary it can be for you when we ask those questions and you realize you don’t really understand your site. From the beginning you need to make every effort to ensure you’re working with a partner that won’t leave you in that situation. Training and communication throughout a project are absolutely essential. We average creating maybe 4 screencasts per project so that clients always have a point of reference for how things work and why. Find out what your partner’s process is to make sure you’ll be left in a place where you’re comfortable. Also confirm what’s typically required following projects in terms of maintenance and who will be taking care of that. For most projects we are able to hand things off in a way that clients can safely make updates themselves and we’re only needed for answering questions on an ongoing basis—not to keep things up and running.
Don’t be driven just by price. You will inevitably get what you pay for. We’ve taken on a few projects that we scoped out months or even years previously; the business decided to go with a different vendor that was a lot less expensive, and then they came back to us to fix them, often at a higher price than they would have paid if we’d just done the project originally. Budget is a huge consideration, of course, but it should be carefully balanced against other factors like the competence of the developer, your relationship with them, the developer’s experience in similar projects, etc.
Understand exactly what will happen during the project. If you start a project, then leave it in the developer’s hands for 2 months and suddenly get an email at the end saying it’s all done, you’re going to end up with a bad site. Take some time to understand what’s going to happen during the project and how collaboration will work. What do you need to provide? What are your responsibilities and what are the developer’s? What are the milestones? To meet the timelines, how do reviews work and how quickly do things need to be turned around from both parties? Are there any dependencies or bigger risks that everyone should be aware of? How will you and the developers keep each other updated and make sure things are progressing as expected?
The tips above should go a long way in helping you select and retain a vendor that’s the right fit for your LearnDash project. Sometimes, however, it’s still not enough, and due to unforeseen circumstances projects can still go off track. While this is just a quick list, here are some things you should be doing during the project to encourage positive outcomes:
Be involved. Some of our worst projects (and yes, we’ve had a few that disappointed both parties) were when clients just dropped communication. They got too busy or had other priorities, or just stopped caring about the site. We’ve had projects delayed 6-12 months because of client delays, and when that happens it inevitably leads to bad outcomes. Objectives get lost, people stop caring as much, the results just aren’t there. The best projects are when everyone is on the same page and working collaboratively at the same time. We’re adding features and testing while the client is adding content and providing feedback. We’re having discussions to address scope creep or new problems. Being active and engaged is one of the best ways to see good results.
Test continuously. Very recently we took over a project where testing on the site by the client didn’t begin until the day before launch. The site was extremely complex and, of course, everything was broken. That’s when the developer realized they were in over their heads and the client realized they were in an unimaginable amount of trouble. It’s an avoidable situation though. With WordPress LMS sites it’s not like everything is suddenly ready one day; pieces will be finished throughout the project that can be tested independently. Be involved and testing often not only helps identify issues early but it’s a chance to understand your site better and work collaboratively.
Maintain a good relationship. Yes, even if your developer is doing a terrible job and you’re miserable, try not to throw the entire relationship away if you’re in the middle of development. We’ve seen angry developers lock companies out of their sites. Like it or not, and the legal side can be messy when you’re working with partners in other states or countries, your developer can make things very difficult for you if they host and/or have admin access to your WordPress site. If you need to sever a relationship with a WordPress developer try to gain control of the site before things sour too much.
The goal of your LearnDash development project is to always end up with win/win situations for you and your developer. They are possible, and by following some of the guidance in this article we hope you’re able to partner with a great LearnDash development team for your WordPress LMS project.