The Ultimate WordPress Backend Tutorial: A Guide to Customization

The Ultimate WordPress Backend Tutorial: A Guide to Customization

There’s a lot that goes into developing WordPress websites from the ground up, which is why I hope you’ve found the WordPress startup guide helpful. Having one cohesive guide that walks you through the process step-by-step can be an invaluable tool when you’re first starting work as a WordPress developer.

Update 7/3/18: Ultimate Branding 2.0 is here and comes stacked with an all new Coming Soon & Maintenance Mode builder, new modules for customizing WordPress system emails, social links for Author Boxes and a bunch of other upgrades. Check it out!

Once you’ve mastered the WordPress website setup process, be sure to tackle the SEO tutorial next. This will teach you all the ways in which you should optimize a website for search, whether they be more obvious tasks like keyword optimization or less obvious ones like page speed enhancements.

Then, when that’s under your belt and you know how to make a truly fine-tuned WordPress site, it’s time to start looking at ways in which you can use your clients’ WordPress installations to support your business’s goals. Not sure what I’m referring to? Then this WordPress backend tutorial is for you.

In this tutorial, I’m going to talk about how you can turn the backend of WordPress into a lean, mean content management machine for your clients… as well as a promotional tool for your WordPress business. Trust me, if you’re serious about building and eventually expanding your WordPress development services, then you definitely need to learn how to do this.

The Ultimate WordPress Backend Customization Tutorial

When all is said and done and you’ve completed development on a new WordPress website, you’re left with a dashboard that looks something like this:

The WordPress interface is inherently well-designed and intuitive, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with leaving it in its natural state. However, once you start adding premium themes and installing a bunch of plugins to optimize your site’s performance and security, the menus and dashboard can get a little cramped. If you want to deliver a truly premium service to your clients, you should think about customizing the WordPress backend.

Why would you want to do this? Well, there are a number of reasons actually.

  1. For one, a cleaned-up backend can keep clients from unintentionally doing harm to their websites.
  2. By branding the backend with the client’s logo and color scheme, and creating a more refined space for them to work in, you’ll turn WordPress into a more welcoming environment. The less threatening WordPress is, the more your clients will use it to keep their sites updated!
  3. You can also use this opportunity to provide ongoing support to clients even if you’re not actively working on their site. Your clients will appreciate you having the foresight to leave behind support material, helpful tips, as well as your contact information.

Sounds pretty great, right? Let’s jump right in and review how you can make this happen. All it should take is a handful of plugins and maybe an hour of customizations to get your WordPress backend in tip-top shape.

1. Install a Branding Plugin

Most of the customizations we’re about to cover can be executed by using a WordPress plugin. So, if you’re nervous about having to code these changes into the backend of the site, don’t worry.

There are actually quite a lot of backend customization plugins available–and I’ll include some suggestions as we go along here. But, to start, I would suggest you install WPMU DEV’s Ultimate Branding plugin.

This is going to give you the biggest bang for your buck in terms of how much customization you can do with a single plugin.

Once the plugin is installed, locate the Branding tab on the WordPress sidebar. You can enable the various modules for customization here.

Click on the Enable All button in the top-right corner. The following steps will cover how to use these to effectively customize the WordPress backend.

2. Customize the Login Page

Let’s start with the front door of your website: the login screen.

This is the default login screen. Again, there’s nothing wrong with the login page, but there’s room for improvement here.

Using the Login screen setting, let’s configure this so you can display your client’s logo and colors instead.

In this Logo & Background section, do the following:

  • Replace the WordPress logo with that of your client.
  • Remove the logo link and alt text or replace it with that of your client’s website.
  • Change the background of the login page. You can assign it a solid color (from your client’s color palette) or place a branded image of theirs as the background photo.

In the Form section, the only things I might suggest you update are the colors to match your client’s branding. Otherwise, the default configuration and style of the WordPress login form is pretty solid. It’s simple, easy to use, and doesn’t ask for too little or too much.

For the Form Labels, Error Messages, Before Form Links, and Form Canvas & Position sections, you might not have much to update here aside from colors. Of course, with any of these, you’re free to go as crazy as you’d like with customizations. You know your clients better than anyone else, and so you’ll understand which customizations will lead to the best user experience for them.

The last piece I want to direct your attention to here is the Redirects section:

This may be particularly helpful if you want all users to immediately be directed to a specific page (either inside or outside WordPress) when they log in or out. You’ll likely want to use this if you run a membership site or a Multisite network.

3. Adjust Login Security Settings

For this next customization, I’m going to suggest you use the Defender plugin.

In addition to its awesome WordPress security capabilities, it allows you to create a two-factor authentication for the login page.

Now, I’m not saying that you can’t trust your clients to do a good job creating strong passwords… it’s just that you have to assume the best but prepare for the worst here. Two-factor authentication ensures that, even if they do a terrible job generating a password for WordPress, they’ll be forced to authenticate their identity on another device.

4. Change the Toolbar Message

I think it’s fair to say that no one ever really liked the Hello Dolly WordPress plugin, which is why it’s always the first one that gets the heave-ho when you set up a new WordPress site. Once it’s gone, you’ll be left with a “Howdy, [username]”, and that’s totally fine by me. At least now your clients will have a somewhat personalized greeting at the top of the dashboard.

5. Revamp the Admin Toolbar Menu

We’re now ready to work our customization magic in the admin toolbar:

This doesn’t look too bad, right? Right. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t a few changes we can make to improve the menu options available. Let’s take a look at what the Ultimate Branding plugin can do.

Open the tab called Admin Bar and scroll down to the Hide Menu Items section.

In this section, you can remove any of the menu items in that top bar. So, if you don’t think it’s necessary for your clients to see the WordPress drop-down that out to various WordPress About and Help pages, click on the checkbox next to it. If you want to disable clients from visiting their site from the top menu (because it might be too confusing), check that one too. Just think about this from their perspective and leave only what would be the most beneficial for them to have here.

Next, go to the Advanced Settings section. Click on the button that says “Reorder Menus”.

Notice how the top toolbar menu now starts doing a little jig. This is to let you know you can drag-and-drop these menu items around into a different order if you think it’ll improve the user experience. When you’re done setting the order, make sure to hit the Save button at the bottom.

Note that if you choose to leave the WordPress menu in the toolbar, you can swap out the logo for the client’s (same as you did on the login page).

For consistency’s sake, I’d suggest you do that now.

6. Revamp the Admin Menu Sidebar

Once you have the admin toolbar at the top of the dashboard cleaned up and customized, it’s time to turn your attention to the sidebar.

If you want to have the same sort of control over the sidebar elements as you did the toolbar, I’d recommend you install the Admin Menu Editor plugin.

Once installed, here is what your menu editor tool will look like:

From the Admin Menu tab, you can:

  • Change the name of the menu items as well as where they get directed to.
  • Delete menu tabs altogether.
  • Add new menu tabs (which would be helpful if you want to add custom support or help resources to the menu).
  • Drag-and-drop menu items into a new order.
  • Add separators to better organize your menu.
  • Move sub-menu items out into the main menu and vice versa (e.g. if you wanted the Customize tab under Appearance to be on the main sidebar).

This gives you total control over how the menu appears, using the phrasing that makes the most sense for your clients, and in the order that’s the most logical.

7. Hide Plugins

The Admin Menu Editor plugin is also helpful if you want to hide certain plugins from your users.

That doesn’t mean you’re deactivating the plugins or that you’ll lose access to them. Instead, you’ll simply be hiding them from view within the Plugins tab so that no one but those granted explicit access to them can update the settings, deactivate, or activate them.

8. Customize the Colors of the Dashboard

Ideally, the color scheme of the WordPress dashboard will match whatever skin you applied to the login screen. However, if you have a reason to give something else a try, know that you have a couple options to play with here.

If you’re using the Ultimate Branding plugin, go to the Color Schemes tab.

In this tab, you can control two things:

  1. You can enable which WordPress color schemes you want to make available to users.
  2. You can choose an alternate color scheme for users to see upon logging in.

Your second option is to install an admin theme plugin. Some of these plugins work similarly to Ultimate Branding in that you can customize things like the login or admin toolbar, but there are also some that simply provide a better-looking color scheme.

9. Remove Dashboard Widgets

The WordPress dashboard automatically comes loaded with the following widgets:

  • At a Glance
  • Activity
  • Quick Draft
  • WordPress Events and News

If you want to deactivate any of these and prevent your clients from seeing them, click on the ones you want to be removed under the Widgets tab in Ultimate Branding.

You can also disable any widgets that auto-generated when you installed a new plugin. That said, it really is ideal to have a Google Analytics widget installed on your dashboard, so don’t remove that one unless you have good reason to.

Within this same section, you can also change the default WordPress welcome message that appears on the dashboard.

Simply type something into this text box and save your changes to load up the new welcome message.

10. Add Dashboard Widgets

For those of you feeling adventurous and wanting to give your clients a truly impressive and well-supported experience in WordPress, I’d suggest you utilize the Dashboard Text Widgets tab.

In this tab, you can create text-based widgets for your dashboard. So, if you have simple directions you want clients to follow or want to provide them with a reminder on how to get in touch when they need help, you can create those messages here.

Once saved, they’ll show up in the dashboard just like all the others:

Feel free to get creative with whatever you place in this section. Just remember that the widgets should be relevant and helpful. If they only distract or annoy your clients, they’ll end up hiding your widgets just like the default ones from WordPress that tend to get in the way.

11. Create Help Resources

In the Help Content tab of Ultimate Branding, you can create any number of messages for your clients.

You can include helpful reminders: “Always save a post as Draft before Publishing!”

You can share tips on how to make the most out of their new WordPress website: “Reminder: set Smush Pro to automatically compress images.”

You can include a list of resources to help your clients out if they get stuck or need further assistance (including your own contact information).

Anything you might find helpful, you can include up here. Just be sure that they’re aware of this “Help” tab that now appears in the top-right corner of the WordPress dashboard.

12. Add Tips Around WordPress

In addition to being able to communicate with your clients in the new Help tab as well as within custom dashboard widgets, you can also create tips that reach them at various locations around WordPress.

You can create these tips under the Tips tab.

Looks familiar, right? The creation of these tips is actually no different than creating a new post or page in WordPress.

The only difference is that you now get to choose where this tip is displayed. If it’s a tip specific related to something like writing blog posts, for instance, then you could assign it to only display on the Posts page. Or if it’s a more generic tip (like “Always remember to save your work”), you can apply it across all of WordPress.

13. Restrict Access Based on Role

There’s one other plugin you should think about using in WordPress as you seek to customize the backend for your clients. This one is called User Role Editor and it will give you deeper control over defining user roles on the site and what they’re able to access within the WordPress admin.

To control more of what your users can do in WordPress, navigate to the Users tab and go to the new User Role Editor tool. Within this section, you’ll see that you can fully customize what each role is capable of doing.

Now, when it comes to keeping clients in line, you’ll probably want to focus more on Core capabilities. This is where you can refine what exactly they’re able to do to the WordPress themes and plugins within the site, whether that be adding new ones, deactivating ones you put on there, and so on. Also be sure that the “General” privileges for their given roles are exactly what you want them to be (which really should only be “read” rights).

At the bottom of this tool, you can also hide the top admin bar altogether if you’re finding it’s too confusing to include that along with the sidebar menu.

Wrapping Up

You might not think there’s much that can be done to customize the actual WordPress content management system, but, as you can see from this WordPress backend tutorial, there are quite a few opportunities here to leave a lasting impression with your clients. Be sure to set yourself up with the right WordPress plugins to start and save yourself the hassle of trying to code these changes in on your own.

Over to you: What’s the most common request you receive from your clients after you’ve completed work on their website?
Brenda Barron
Brenda Barron Brenda Barron is a freelance writer from Southern California. She specializes in WordPress, tech, business and founded WP Theme Roundups. When not writing all the things, she's spending time with her family.