Aug 26 2011
It has been great to learn about Drupal at DrupalCon 2011 this week; what it is, what it is not, its history and future plans. I now understand what it’s all about – and how much there is still to learn!
I know, for example, that the UX of Drupal has two aspects:
- UX for the interface used to build Drupal sites – the ‘console’/ ‘dashboard’ interface- basically where the thing is bolted together and where content is inserted. Users of this interface are the developers, and the client i.e. once the site is handed over.
- UX of actual Drupal sites once online – i.e. the resulting output of point 1. These can be varied and you can only really spot a Drupal site for sure by looking at the code. The Drupal Museum shows how the look and feel of Drupal sites has changed over the years.
Point 1 above, appears to be the responsibility of the Drupal community (drupal.org), a not-for-profit ground-up initiative, comprising the contributors of the underlying code for Drupal. As I see it, the main stakeholder, who would be affected by improving the UX of the ‘dashboard’, is the ‘Drupal shop’: that is, web design companies who build and sell Drupal websites/ solutions as their main business. They will benefit, because when they deliver a flashy site, with lots of functionality and personality – they can also show their client how easy it is to add/modify content to it themselves, as and when they need to, without needing developers to do it, which is unlike other ‘hard-coded’ websites like PHP ones, for example.
Point 2 is up to the site builders themselves, and will depend on how much they choose to engage with a user-centered design process during their site’s inception and development.
The topic of usability/ ease of use was explicitly mentioned several times by different speakers. Most notably by Dries Buytaert, the creator of Drupal, who talked about the Drupal user survey results, and his company’s (Acquia) Head of UX, Jeff Noyes, who gave a quick tour of the UX techniques he exploits. There was also a talk about the findings of usability testing of the Drupal 7 ‘console’ carried out at the Usability Lab at the University of Minnesota; this was presented by various Drupal community folks. Dante Murphy and Angel Brown from UX at Digitas Healthalso spoke about systems thinking for designing user experiences – and how constraints on design are a good thing to have, so you can be free to explore a specific ideas space. I particularly liked the talk by Todd Ross Nienkerk (Four Kitchens) and Adam Snetman (Thinkso), on ‘Designing Web Systems’, which included a case study of a Drupal website created from scratch using personas, paper prototyping and wireframes. They talked about mood boards and style tiles too, which was interesting.
Pretty much all the UX material I saw in talks at DrupalCon was not brand new stuff. I am familiar, for instance, with how to apply most techniques covered in Jeff Noyes’ talk – from material I have seen at UX London or on Syntagm Usability courses. However, it was probably new for this audience. Presenters were serving up information on UX specifically for the Drupal code contributors to hear, and for the Drupal community to raise awareness and empower individuals to improve the UX of Drupal 7 and/or 8. To hear it presented in this way was interesting and served to show me how generally (un-)familiar open source software developers are with the practice of UX.
To sum up, I would say the conference was aimed at developers (as expected), not at designers and UX folks, but I think in future Drupal.org should make a concerted effort to attract more UX people to attend and give talks to continue to raise awareness of the importance of UX. After all, beauty and efficiency of code is one thing, but only a select few see the code, everyone else sees/has to use the end product! For me, I think the event was a really helpful for finding out not only about the technology that I will increasingly be exposed to in my current role, but also meeting the people behind the open source phenomenon that is Drupal.
On a general note:
The conference host, Fairfield Halls, did really well to cope with the huge numbers of Drupal-ers (1,750 people according to Dries) and the ubiquitous Mac laptops – providing 1,000’s of power supplies, and pretty reliable Wi-Fi for everyone too. They even managed to serve tea in proper cups and saucers, and lunch with proper crockery – even a Sunday roast. For the keynote talks, I liked too how they over-layed the live videos on to the PowerPoint slides, and the grungey music between speakers. The tea lady was a legend too! Geekiness of the event was on a par with Agile Cambridge, and as a beginner to Drupal, there were plenty of talks I could attend and follow, which was great and not what I was expecting. So well done all round to the organisers!
I stayed at Selsdon Park Hotel for the duration of the conference – what a find! I didn’t expect to find such a lovely hotel in Croydon.