ThemeBeans founder Rich Tabor released Merlin WP on GitHub in public beta this week. The project provides a beautiful experience for installing and setting up WordPress themes with all of their plugin dependencies, Customizer settings, widgets, demo content, and more.
“I was inspired by David Baker’s Envato Theme Setup Wizard and was working to add it to my own themes but pivoted after realizing I was just putting a band-aid on the onboarding issues surrounding themes in particular,” Tabor said. “It wasn’t a particularly grand experience and didn’t take care of the essentials the way I was looking for.”
Tabor said he wanted to make the onboarding experience much friendlier than what WordPress products are typically known for and needed a way to get his customers started on the right foot.
“Over the years I’ve had countless ‘how do I get this page like your demo’ and ‘where do I even start’ questions — and my themes aren’t even particularly confusing/difficult to use.” Tabor said.
Ordinarily, users have to hop from screen to screen to install a theme, recommended plugins, and apply Customizer settings. Even an experienced WordPress user often has to refer to documentation to get a theme set up with the right customizations to match the demo. The video below shows an example of Merlin WP in action as it guides a user through setting up York Pro, a fork of one of ThemeBeans’ commercial themes that is included in Merlin WP’s GitHub repo.
Merlin WP makes the process of setting up a theme nearly effortless for users. It also leaves less room for error or confusion.
Developers can add Merlin WP directly to their theme files. It includes a configuration file that allows for customization of any text string in the wizard. Theme developers add the Merlin class (merlin/merlin.php) and the merlin-config.php file, along with any demo content (included in the demo directory location specified in the merlin-config.php file):
- content.xml — Exported demo content using the WordPress Exporter
- widgets.wie — Exported widgets using Widget Importer and Exporter
- customizer.dat — Exported Customizer settings using Customizer Export/Import
Merlin WP was also developed to work seamlessly with TGMPA, a PHP library that many WordPress developers use to require or recommend plugins for their themes and plugins. It will automatically pull the recommended plugins into the wizard.
Tabor said his targeted distribution channel is commercial themes, though he believes Merlin WP could also be useful for themes hosted on WordPress.org.
“I’m honestly not sure if it would be allowed,” Tabor said. “I guess that’s where getting more eyes on the project and more input from the Theme Review team comes in handy. I have had a lot of feedback from authors who are eventually considering adding Merlin WP as an ‘up-sell feature’ for their lite offerings currently on .org.”
Tabor estimates that Merlin WP will be in beta for another two weeks. There are a few issues he wants to resolve before bringing it out of beta. He is testing the wizard in his own products at ThemeBeans, which is what he built it for originally. The shop has more than 40,000 customers and Tabor plans to push the wizard live across his entire theme collection once the last few issues are resolved.
Merlin WP is GPL-licensed and available on GitHub for any developer to use in open source projects. Tabor said he is considering creating a pro version but is not currently interested in pursuing an add-on model.
“I’m considering having an advanced version, with different developer-level capabilities, such as EDD Software Licensing support (where theme users can enter their license key issued from the developer in the onboarding process),” Tabor said.
Tabor anticipates one of the main benefits for theme shops using Merlin WP will be a decreased support load where questions about initial setup and “how do I do this like the demo” become less common.
“Customers will have what they’ve purchased right off the bat (instead of installing plugins, installing a child theme, importing content, setting menus, widgets, etc),” Tabor said. “They will likely appreciate the ease-of-use and share that experience with others.”