As much as we may not want to admit it, a successful course isn’t all about content.

We spend a lot of time discussing instructional design on this blog, but less on visual design. There are obvious reasons for this, but it’s also worth noting that the two are linked. A poor visual design can make it harder for learners to absorb information, while a clean and coherent one can aid it.

More practically, visual design has an impact on marketing. Not only can the right design communicate professionalism, it also directly affects your ability to sell your course, as we’ll see in a few of the following examples. So if you’re searching for ways to improve your site design, or if you haven’t looked at in a while, here are a few tips to help you out.

1. You’re using a responsive design, but you haven’t tested it on mobile.

Responsive design has become such an internet standard in recent years that most people never think twice about it. They may check when they’re first choosing their theme to be sure it works on mobile, but once they install it and begin uploading content, they forget to look again.

Unfortunately, while their new theme may be responsive in theory, there’s more to responsive design than a website that can easily conform to different screen sizes. In the process of doing so, images resize and are cropped, text sizes change and take up different amounts of space, as do buttons and other design elements.

So, before you just assume your website is responsive, it is important that you test it yourself. Make sure images resize well, that content is readable, and that learners can easily navigate the site.

2. Your pop-ups are a usability nightmare.

Pop-ups, when handled tastefully, can be an effective way to alert visitors to opportunities on your site. But they can also be significant usability and accessibility concerns, especially on mobile.

If you’re going to use a pop-up, there are two ways to do so effectively. The first is to have one that comes up along the side of the screen, but doesn’t block content. The second would be more intrusive, taking over the center of the screen, and would need to be closed before the user proceeds. For this, it is essential to keep the controls to close the pop-up in plain sight, rather than hiding the close button or forcing a user to click one of your own buttons.

Most importantly, look at your pop-up on mobile. I’ve been on multiple sites where the pop-up did not scale properly, making it impossible to close it and continue using the site. That’s a site killer if ever I saw one.

3. You’re using too many plugins, and they’re creating visual chaos.

The plugin ecosystem on WordPress is its greatest strength, but it can also lead to front-end confusion for visitors if you aren’t careful. While many of the most essential plugins serve a backend role, those that serve front-end functions often affect the appearance.

Some plugins offer styling options, and others can be edited if you have the skillset. Page builders such as Elementor can also be used to edit the front-end appearance of some plugins. No matter what you’re using, take the time to work with it so that it looks good on your site, and avoid adding unnecessary plugins that only clutter your pages and slow down your site.

4. Your user path isn’t directing visitors toward the right calls-to-action.

Many e-learning sites fail to convert visitors into paying learners because they have too many calls-to-action (CTAs), or because the ones they do have don’t lead to the right actions. If you’ve ever been on a site that was overloaded with buttons, you’ve probably experienced the confusion that comes from too many pulls in too many directions. Similarly, you may have experienced sites with no direction at all. Both are bad design.

Your website should do two things for visitors. First, it should signal to visitors that they have come to the right place to find whatever it is they’re looking for, and in the process, help those visitors sort themselves into the right audience bucket. Second, your site should give each audience a clear “next step” to perform if they want to move further into your site.

5. Your theme is old and clunky and slowing your site down.

After plugins, the biggest killer of a site’s speed is a bad theme. We’ve already talked about how themes can be responsive and still fail at delivering a satisfying mobile experience. But themes can fall short in other ways, too, ultimately resulting in sites that not only look bad, but directly contribute to lost visitors because they’re so slow.

Don’t let yourself fall into the trap of buying a theme that’s overloaded with bells and whistles that you’ll never use. Instead, stick to themes that are lightweight, flexible, and proven to perform well in e-learning applications.

6. Your navigation is overloaded and confusing.

Finally, take a moment to consider your navigation. Like, the problem mentioned earlier with CTAs, many websites crowd their navigation bar, filling it with too many top-tier navigation items, and then letting their navigation bleed into a third—or even a fourth—tier. Either this, or they hide their navigation behind a hamburger menu where, at best, it adds another click to navigating the site, and at worst, is lost entirely.

Navigation items should be included selectively. Use them to help users self-select into audiences, then guide them toward what you need them to do for your course.

Choosing a light theme, making thoughtful design decisions, and taking the time to style everything correctly will go a long way toward improving your course sales.

You can get a long way on WordPress. One of the most important benefits of choosing it as your CMS is that it gives you control over your site. However, in removing restrictions, it also leaves you with the task of wrangling everything into order.

It is perfectly possible to build a beautiful site for your e-learning course on WordPress, even if you don’t know how to code. It takes time and patience, but rest assured, your efforts will not go unrewarded.

Laura Lynch photo

About Laura Lynch

Laura is a marketing specialist with experience presenting at WordPress events in Ann Arbor and Vienna. She speaks Russian and German and holds a double MA (Hons) in History and Russian Studies from the University of Edinburgh.

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