#476 WP-Tonic Show With Special Guest Dave Warfel of EsapeCreative

People Behind Design Upgrade Pro & Quiz Customizer

We Talk All Things LearnDash & It’s Strengths & Weaknesses

More About Dave

I’m a teacher at my core. I love sharing my knowledge & experience, helping people learn new things. And I have much more to give.

For the remainder of 2018, I’m dedicated to producing educational content and sharing it with as many people who are willing to listen.

If you made it this far, I really appreciate you taking the time. Thank you for your support.

Jonathon: Welcome folks to the WP tonic show, our interview show is episode 476. I have got my great cohost Adrian. And we also got a great guest. We’ve got Dave Warfel of Escape Creative. They’re the people behind design upgrade pro and quiz customer, a couple of the leading add on plugins for learn dash. So Dave, would you like to quickly introduce yourself to the listeners of viewers?

Dave: Sure. So I’m Dave Warfel. And I run Escape Creative and like Jonathan was just saying we’ve got a couple of plugins for LearnDash. I started a web design company about 11 years ago. And after a year or two of building sites from scratch by hand with HTML, CSS and that kind of thing. I found WordPress and have been kind of working on WordPress ever since. And just in the last couple of years, I discovered LearnDash because I was looking for a way to take all the things I had learned about web design and about WordPress and package it up and start to sell it to people in the form of online courses. And in doing that research to figure out what platform would work best that’s where I actually discovered LearnDash. And then I kind of morphed into, I wanted to customize the look and feel of LearnDash and that was something that was in my wheelhouse and the specialty and in terms of the CSS and the design and user interface.

And I thought other people might want something similar as well. So I figured out how to turn it into a WordPress plugin. And then that’s been way more successful than I ever could have thought it would be. And so that’s kind of where I am now, is really focusing on LearnDash. I do some customization for some clients and then I’ve got a couple of plugins that I have as well. And I’m also getting back into the training space. Now that the plugins been out for a little while and it’s doing well. And also planning on going back into teaching people how to use WordPress as well as now how to use LearnDash and get all of that set up. So I planned to be launching some online courses at some point this year as well.

Jonathon: Oh, fantastic. And I’ve got my great cohost Adrian. Adrian, why don`t you introduce yourself to the listeners and viewers?

Adrian: Hi everyone. My name is Adrian. I’m the CEO and founder of Groundhogg. And we produce and sell marketing automation plugins for businesses that use WordPress.

Jonathon: That`s great. And before we go into the main part of the discussion, folks, I like to mention one of our major sponsors. And that’s Kinster hosting. And what is Kinster? Kinster is one of the leading, I would say the premier specialize WordPress hosting provider on the market at the present moment. They use Google cloud as their leading technology. But what you get additionally by going to Kinster is a great UX design. I think one of the best. When I have to support clients and I’ll go to other hosting provider’s interfaces, which I will not mention. I just think to myself, I just couldn’t leave Kinster for this.

When you get used to the best, it’s hard to downgrade. Also, you get some of the best and I mean some of the best support on the market at the present moment. I’ve had to use their support chats, email and you just talk to somebody that you know straight away, really knows their business. And you don’t have to be a setter it up the food chain. Your problem is dealt with almost straight away immediately. That’s really reassuring, especially if you got an ecommerce or a large membership site. So if that sounds interesting go over to Kinster for yourself or for your clients and look at their packages. I suggest that you buy one and also tell them that you heard about Kinster on the WP tonic podcast. So onto the main part of the discussion Dave. So Learned Dash had a major upgrade 3.0. I think it was a massive success. They knocked the ball out of the court in some ways. But what were some of the things you really enjoyed about the upgrades and some of the things you think that might need improving?

Dave: Sure. Probably my favorite part, and I think it’s a lot of people’s favorite part of the 3.0 update was the focus mode. And so essentially what focus mode is for those that might not know, it’s a customized screen LearnDash sort of takes over from your theme. And they kind of removed some of the header in the footer in the sidebar elements that you might have throughout your site. And they just really focus on the learning content. So for all of your lessons or topics or quizzes that you might have throughout different courses. They cleaned everything up. Put a nice navigation on the left hand sidebar. And made your content front and center. And I think that’s one of the things that that was really missing, especially with the way LearnDash works and the way WordPress works is you’ve got so many different themes to choose from that people’s courses could look absolutely different depending on what theme they were using. And a lot of times that just introduced clutter and things that took away from the actual learning experience. So that was by far the favorite feature that I had that that they released with the 3.0 update for sure.

Jonathon: That’s great. What do you think still are some of weaknesses of the package?

Dave: Sure. The certificate building platform and I actually was listening to one of your previous podcasts with Justin. I know that’s something that they want to improve that that’s kind of on their list. And there have been a lot of people that have been asking about it. I’m sure it’s a very tricky thing technically to do. So it’ll take them a little while to figure that out. But that still requires some HTML and kind of getting into the code. And for a lot of beginners, there’s a lot of small businesses that use LearnDash that are fairly new to WordPress and don’t have a lot of technical skills. And it can be pretty tricky for them. And admittedly, sometimes it’s even tricky for me at first to figure out how to create that first certificate. And get all the spacing done well and really have something that looks very professional at the end.

So I know that’s something they’re working on. And I think that it’ll come as soon as they’re able to figure it out and do it right. They’re probably making sure that they can do it well before they launch it. So but that’s something that I think really needs a lot of improvement. One other piece to that I was a little disappointed that I didn’t see any more work done when in 3.0 to the quiz part of LearnDash. It didn’t seem like they did a whole lot to improve the quizzes. They really focused on the focus mode part and they did a kind of a native login and registration to make it easier for folks to login to their account. Or sign up for a new account to start taking some free courses.

So those are great things, but I would have liked to see a little bit more development with the quizzes. Maybe a couple of different types of new question types that could have been introduced. And maybe some different design options or a little bit more customization there with the quizzes. So that’s something that I hope that they iterate on in the future. And we see a little bit more development there.

Jonathon: Yeah, I totally agree with you. I think they are two areas and especially the certificate it really compared to the other parts which are quite slick. I’m looking for the fairest comment about it. It comes across a little bit across Mickey mouse, really the actual certificate compared to the slickness of other parts. Over to you Adrian.

Adrian: So you’ve obviously hitched kind of your bandwagon to the learn dash train, which is awesome. Now there are several LMS platforms to choose from. There’s tutor, there’s lifter and I’m sure I’m forgetting a whole bunch of other ones as well. I mean we have at least five integrations for LMS plugins from our own platform. And I’m curious what the value proposition of, of LearnDash was that made you attracted that platform versus other platforms and potentially why other businesses? Let’s do this. They want to consider LearnDash over something else.

Dave: Sure. That’s a great question. The first thing I thought of when evaluating different LMS platforms was whether I wanted to go with something hosted like a Kajabi or Thinkific or something along those lines. Or whether I wanted to stick with WordPress. Even though I’ve been working with WordPress for a long time, I obviously love it. I’ve made a living off of it for a long time. I didn’t want that to make up my mind for me. I still wanted to do my homework and really think about things. Because it could have turned out that maybe a hosted platform might have been better for me even though I make a living off of WordPress and like it for other things. So I did look at that and I just really love, I always come back to the flexibility and I know how to use WordPress and I know how to customize it.

And so the customization was a huge piece. That not only led me to looking for a WordPress LMS but also led me to learn dash. I remember reaching out to their support team before their sales team actually before I even purchased it. And I was curious if I could customize the layout and the look and the templates. And they have an entire templating system that if you’re a developer and you know some PHP and HQ now and you’re comfortable with WordPress, that you can go in and really create a bunch of your own custom templates so you’re still letting learn dash do all of the heavy lifting. And all of the actual true LMS stuff and then the progress tracking and all of those things you look for in an LMS. But then I knew I would have the ability to go in and write my own CSS, adjusting HTML a little bit, kind of create some on custom templates.

And that’s something that a lot of the hosted platforms don’t offer. And so I really liked having that flexibility with LearnDash. And to be honest, one of the other things that led me to learn dash especially over lifter cause at the time lifter LMS was the other really big player in this space. Tutor hadn’t even. I don’t think come out yet. I think they’re still relatively new. And this was a little over two years ago when I was doing my evaluations. And honestly the, the pricing structure for LearnDash was a, another big selling point. I think lifter LMS, I don’t, I haven’t looked at their pricing recently, but they have sort of a bundle of a whole bunch of individual plugins that could run upwards of close to a thousand dollars. I think to really get all of their features.

Whereas LearnDash you can pay about $50 and get everything. And there was a lot of official third party add on’s that LearnDash gives you with that $250 yearly fee as well as just a huge, community of third party add on`s as well. So I felt really confident that I would be able to find help in the community and other resources and tutorials and things like that around LearnDash. So even if I wasn’t able to figure something out on my own, there was a lot of other people out there that were saying really great things about LearnDash and it developed solutions and work with the platform before. So those made me feel really comfortable too from a development standpoint.

Adrian: All good things. There are always different value propositions for when you’re choosing products. It’s like sometimes people think about going for the cheapest option. Sometimes they think about going for the most expensive option. But I really like when it comes down to the end of the day, the best option is the one where there’s the most available help in order to help you succeed. So you always want to be looking for the product A may be cheaper than product B, but am I going to get the same amount of support and help from their community as I would if I just paid a little bit more or invested a little bit more into A solution. But in this case, it sounds like you got the best of both worlds.

Dave: For sure. Yeah. And it’s similar. I think LearnDash has done things very similar to how WordPress has done things in our WordPress has grown. I think a big reason why people want to use LearnDash is because WordPress, excuse me, is because when they start looking around for what should I build my website with? WordPress keeps coming up and everywhere you look and there’s tons of health, there’s tons of free health, there’s tons of free plugins, there’s just so much availability for we’re getting help when you need things. And there’s a lot to say about that. And there’s a reason why that many people are using it and it’s growing that much. There’s that kind of leads itself to, Hey, this is, there’s probably a good reason why a lot of people are doing it. And LearnDash I think is playing off the same kind of thing.

Adrian: Absolutely. Jonathan.

Jonathon: So I think a lot of plugin developers, small plugging shops like yourself know that specialize in a specific product adding functionality to it, especially around visuality. I’m not sure if there’s a word for it.

Dave: Design?

Jonathon: Well, they should be designed in the same.

Dave: I like visuality better.

Adrian: Jonathan’s got his own personal dictionary.

Jonathon: I do actually. So I think things are getting a bit complicated because you’ve got Gutenberg. And then you’ve got these page builders and you’ve got Beaver Builder, Elementor and the DV community. And in some ways it’s almost like you’ve got to decide what do you tempted to kind of hit yourself to Elementor or DV? I really focus on that community with your say you could offer more integration, more slick, smooth integration with those design platforms. Hopefully that question makes sense, Dave.

Dave: Well, yeah, so there’s a benefit to the plugin that I have that plays with the style and the design. But there’s also some challenges to it as well. So the one thing I have going for me and working with LearnDash is LearnDash outputs all of its own HTML and CSS for the entire blocks ad Gutenberg as well as all the short codes. And everything in focus mode. It’s all completely done by LearnDash. And so that kind of hurts users a little bit because they want to use Elementor or DV or whatever it might be to completely design things in focus mode, but they really can’t because it’s all controlled by LearnDash.

So that does make my job a little bit easier because my plugin works specifically just with LearnDash. I just need to make sure that I stay on top of the CSS changes and things that LearnDash is doing. And as long as I’m doing that, then my plugin will continue to be really compatible. But they’re definitely, I’ve heard some frustrations from people as well that want to use these page builders because they’re incredibly powerful. And I’m a huge fan of elementary myself and think that they’re doing really, really great work. And I use it for certain parts of, of my websites.

Adrian: I’m looking at the sales page right now and I know that wave, the fricking DV. Yeah. I know I’ve used that.

Dave: And Elementor makes it easy to do things like that and people would love to put that, within their lesson in LearnDash and they can’t. And so there are some frustrating things with users. But in terms of my plugin, I need to make sure that I stay on top of what LearnDash is doing. But I honestly right now don’t have to worry too much about the page builders. It’s also to say too, there’s kind of an opportunity for me if I wanted to go in and figure out a way to make Elementor and LearnDash more compatible so that the two could kind of tie in with each other even better. That would open up a whole new set of tools for LearnDash users to be able to customize things in a much more elegant way.

And I know that there’s actually a tangible plugins. Gabriel Gallagher I think is the owner over there. And those guys do something similar with Beaver Builder where they really tie LearnDash and Beaver builder in pretty tightly. And I haven’t used any of his products specifically, but I know he’s very active in the LearnDash community and he’s helped people out a lot. It seems like a really cool plugin. It’d be awesome to see that with Elementor as well. I’m not the guy right now to be able to create that. But maybe somebody else in the community could really tie things in together.

Jonathon: Awesome. Well, we’re going to go for a break. When we come back, we’ll be talking more with David about learning management systems. Building your first plugin, commercial plug in and things he’s learned. It’s going to be a fascinating conversation. We read back in a few moments. Folks,

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Jonathon: We are coming back. We have had a feast about LearnDash. I’ve created a new word. What was it?

Adrian: Visuality Webster’s 2020.

Jonathon: Secondly, it’s likely it’s all up to you young Adrian. When you get to my age you only get small victories.

Adrian: Well, Dave, we were going to talk about a little bit about running a plugin shop. The ecosystem for WordPress likes changes drastically. And I myself I`m a plug in developer. You have chosen a different road for developing plugins. So what you’ve done is you’ve kind of really hitched your products and your bandwagon to learn dash, which is a smaller subsection of the WordPress community. Is there any particular reason that you decided to instead of going on your own road and building, for example, like a core plugin as it were, like that stands on its own. And why didn’t you decide to do that and why did you specifically do that? Does it go to lift to learn dash rather and follow up? Are you going to be introducing anything that will be standard that will stand on its own the future?

Dave: Yeah, that’s a great question. A big part of actually the first plugin when I created it was kind of just an experiment to see if it could work to kind of expand upon my skillset a little bit. And to give back to the WordPress community because I’ve been building custom sites for clients for seven, eight, almost nine years in WordPress and haven’t really given a ton back to the community yet. So I’ve always had that sort of looming over me and thinking that I would like to do that and wasn’t sure how. And so I’m offering both the free plugin as well as the premium one. The free one definitely gives back to the community that way. So a lot of it was, was just an experiment, but another, a big reason why I decided to do it was and do it just for LearnDash.

Because I wanted to stay in my own lane. I’ve always been much more of a front end developer than a backend developer. I know enough about PHP with WordPress to be able to create custom themes and use hooks and that kind of stuff. But I’ve never really built any custom PHP from scratch and I’m not, I wouldn’t consider myself an advanced PHP developer by any stretch. And so to build something on my own from scratch would require I think a little bit beyond what my skillset currently was. And for the very first plugin that I create, I really wanted to just stick with something that I knew very well. And so CSS and customizing HTML markup and using CSS and a lot of creative ways. And really creating a nicer looking user interface was something that I knew that I was very good at and that was really in my lane and I wanted to stay there.

So the other benefit is just that the initial plan was for me to be using LearnDash to build my own courses. And so I would be in the LearnDash community and I would know the product very well. And so that was another sort of reason why it was kind of nice to stay in the LearnDash lane because I would be using it myself and I would know it very well. So I’d be able to provide great support and those kinds of things. So a lot of it sort of was really staying in my lane. And one of the great things that happened that I did a little bit of research before I launched it. But one of the great things that ended up happening is right now I’ve kind of written on the coattails of LearnDash is success, which has been awesome.

There’s always the opposite side of that if something should happen to LearnDash. Or they should make some crazy decision and go a different direction and things should fall off and a bunch of people leave LearnDash it could hurt me a lot. And that’s sort of out of my control. I don’t foresee that happening anytime in the near future, but it’s something certainly to keep in mind. But definitely the popularity of LearnDash and the great job that they have done has allowed me to benefit off of that.

Adrian: How big is their community?

Dave: I wish I knew. I wish I knew. I mean I’m willing to share a little bit about how many plugins I’ve sold. I mean my free plugin which you have to be using LearnDash in order to use it. Just hit 5,000 active installs. There’s another plugin that’s also LearnDash specific, the uncanny LearnDash toolkit. Jonathan, I’m sure you’ve heard of it. And working with a lot of LMS clients yourself. They just hit 20,000 active installs on their free plugin. So those are two free plugins. And then once you factor in all of the other premium plugins that are on top of it.

I think LearnDash has been around for about seven or maybe close to eight years, seven years, something around there. It’s a large amount of people. And I was surprised at the success and how many people were installing the free plugin and then purchasing the premium plugin. So I don’t have any numbers. I wish we kind of knew. I don’t think Justin would kind of throw that out there for us. But it’s pretty substantial and I’ve been able to make quite a bit of a good living off of really just selling the LearnDash plugins themselves. So it’s been great.

Adrian: Awesome. Jonathan.

Jonathon: So I have used your design upgrade pro. I haven’t used so far your quiz customizer. Can you give us an outline of what both those plugins, the premiere versions of those plugins, what they do?

Dave: Sure. I would like to just mention about the free plugin. The free plugin really just throws a CSS file behind the scenes. And it doesn’t have any customization options, but what it does is it just adjusts a lot of learned ashes styles. And so it kind of just cleans up things that I didn’t think that I liked some of the things that 3.0 did from a design standpoint, but I thought some other things could be improved. And so really the free version just rewrites the CSS a little bit and it makes some improvements there. With the pro version, both the quiz customizer and design pro work in a very, very similar way. The quiz customizer just specifically focuses on LearnDash quizzes. So I wanted to decouple the two because a lot of people don’t use quizzes with LearnDash. And I didn’t want to put a lot of options and overload people with too much if they weren’t even using quizzes.

And so that’s why the two exist, but they both really work in the same way. And so all they really do is they give you a separate panel in the WordPress customizer. And they provide a bunch of different options for, for colors, for spacing. You can show and hide a bunch of different elements. You can add background colors. You can change all the buttons, a lot of different things like that. So they allow you to completely rebrand and re customize your entire LearnDash site, but they specifically focus on just the LearnDash elements. So you’ll inherit a lot of your theme styles in terms of what fonts you’re using and things for your headers and footers and all of that will still come from your theme. But then if you’re using LearnDash, you can further customize all of your courses, lessons dash buttons, and then the quiz customizer lets you customize a lot of the specifics to just the quiz interface.

So it’s all in an effort to make it super easy for somebody who doesn’t know CSS and doesn’t want to have to write custom CSS. But they can just open up the customizer, click and choose a handful of different options. We actually have a little bit over a hundred different options now for the design grade pro. So there is a lot so it can get a little bit overwhelming at first. But we try to reuse certain pieces where it makes sense. So for example, one thing we do is we have a global border radius. And I think one of the, the things that I’m most proud of with the plugin is that it doesn’t add additional options and clutter things up. And so in one place you can set a global border radius. And let’s say you want all of your elements to be completely squared off edges or if you wanted them to be super rounded and have like a really, really flowy kind of Google material design, rounded corners everywhere. You set that option in one spot and the customizer and then our plugin intelligently applies it to every single LearnDash element that it makes sense to have a border radius. So we try to reuse elements in that way.

Jonathon: Yeah, that’s one of the reasons why I asked you to come on the show because I thought you did a really great job with the options. With the balance between usability functionality and it becoming very complicated. The interface I fault you for using customize the options that you’ve zeroed in and you found a really great blend Dave.

Dave: Thank you. I appreciate that feedback. A lot of thought goes into it and I really try to also keep in mind the word WordPress has a philosophy of decisions, not options. And so I really tried to keep that in mind with this as well. And try to use my knowledge and background in web design to make some decisions for users so that they wouldn’t end up kind of making too many crazy decisions that might’ve made things look a little off. But still giving people a lot of options so that the plugin was enticing for them to use.

Jonathon: Was it a major decision to actually use the customizer and not have your own option panel?

Dave: I did give it a little bit of thought but it didn’t take me very long to come to the conclusion to use the customizer. I remember a handful of years ago, I don’t remember how many years ago, but when word for us was making a big push to get all of their developers to start using the customizer. Cause there was a lot of theme developers that were using custom control panels. And at first there was a little bit of friction to doing that because it limited flexibility somewhat. People couldn’t completely do their own thing. They had to conform to certain customizer rules in the way things were laid out. So I remember there was a little bit of friction but at this point in time, so many themes have moved that way. And users are getting used to it and that’s where they’re looking for their entire theme options.

And so for me it made perfect sense to put similar options all in the same place. And so because the design upgrades pro plugin, all of the options are very similar to the theme options that you would have. I wanted to keep that all in one spot instead of creating a separate place for people to go. And also the live refresh and being able to preview it before you publish it was another thing that the customizer does pretty well. And it does it for me without meaning to write my own Java script and do that kind of stuff. So I wanted to take advantage of the preview as well.

Jonathon: All right, we’re going to wrap up the podcast part of the show folks. We’re going to have a continued discussion with Dave, which you’d be able to see on the WP tonic website with a full set of show notes. So Dave, how can people find out more about you and your plugins?

Dave: Sure. The best place to go to find out about the plugins and be able to purchase them and learn more is on escapecreative.com. That’s where we sell all of our LearnDash plugins. And you can find me on Twitter. I’m just Dave Warfel first and last name on Twitter. I’m not super active. Actually try to stay off social media. I find it a little bit of a distraction. And so I’m not super active on there, but if you contact me through escapecreative.com I’d love to chat with you and answer any questions you might have.

Jonathon: And Adrian, how can people find out more about you and Groundhogg?

Adrian: So if you’re looking to add an element of marketing automation and email marketing to your LearnDash course operations, if LearnDash is your LMS of choice, then you can go to Groundhogg with two gs.io to learn more about how you can essentially have the power of something like MailChimp or Infusionsoft or Active Campaign right within your WordPress dashboard and deeply integrate that with WordPress.

Jonathon: And if you really want to support the show go to the WP tonic website and sign up for our monthly newsletter. It has all the kind of new stories that we discussed in the round table show, which we do on Fridays. Plus some unique articles about learning management systems and the latest WordPress news in general. So it’s feature rich. And I do spend a fair bit of time on it getting it assembled for you, listeners and viewers. So go to the WP Tonic site, sign up for the newsletter. And you also can be part of a monthly competition where I draw a new listener like you that signed up for the newsletter. And they will win a prize up to the value of $100 and we’re going to announce the first winner of that prize in the last show of March. So go over there and sign up. We’d be back next week with another great guest, or we have an internal discussion between me and Adrian. We will see you next week folks.


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