Drupal Usability Past Present and Future

This past week Dries Buytaert of Drupal, Mollom and Acquia fame announced that Acquia would be engaging Mark Boulton and Leisa Reichelt "to help improve usability in Drupal". Mark and Leisa were of course behind the Drupal.org redesign project that I've alluded to in the past. (You can see the result of their efforts embodied in the Drupal.org prototype.) The purpose of the Drupal.org redesign project was to improve the usability of the Drupal.org site itself. The purpose of this new project is for them to help improve the usability of Drupal in general.

This announcement and some recent conversations I've had with Michael of the User Advocate Group got me thinking about the Drupal usability landscape again.

It has been nearly three and a half years since I authored one of the first Drupal usability reports while working with Web Networks. The report was commissioned by the Association of Progressive Communications so that organizations considering adopting Drupal had some sense of the usability of Drupal. The report itself was very limited in scope, but the overall conclusion was that Drupal was "usable" (in a very specific context for a specific subset of end users).

Drupal? Usable? Three and a half years ago? Is that possible?

Yes! I'm serious. At the time (and even today) given a decent theme, a thoughtfully configured installation and a limited set of user permissions, it is deadly simple to edit/publish content (edit/post nodes) to the web with Drupal. Given some basic computer knowledge and 10 minutes of training in such a context almost anyone can post content to the web.

Of course the report only looked at a tiny fraction of actions a user can take when interacting with a Drupal site. The report did not address how usable Drupal is for a power user that is tasked with "thoughtfully configuring" a Drupal installation so that there are only a tiny fraction of actions available for other users of the site.

Is Drupal usable today?

The enormous complexity of a full featured content management system (CMS) that has functionality enhanced by countless contributed modules is hard to grasp. Considering thousands of CMS implementation scenarios and use cases, and hundreds of user types and persona, it is tough to even come up with a meaningful question regarding usability.

If you have a firm handle on the complexity, you have to decide whether you are interested in measurable usability, user experience (UX) or some facet of usability like navigability that sits in the realm of 'good' information architecture design. (See an earlier article with a section on IA vs Usability)

So is Drupal usable today? Yes, no, maybe and it all depends. Are we talking about Drupal the product "right out of the box"? The answer may be "somewhat". Are we talking about a Drupal implementation that was professionally configured, customized, with attention paid to details like visual appeal and proper information architecture analysis? The answer is very likely to be "yes for visitors of that implementation". (but maybe not as much for the site administrators if the same level of attention wasn't paid to administrative pages).

How can Drupal's usability be improved in the future?

Regardless of which question about usability you ask or the answer you get, you always come to the same conclusion: There is always room for improvement. This is particularly true for Drupal "out of the box". Doubly so for first time users.

So what can be done to improve first time user experience and improve the perceived usability of Drupal. My opinion on this is still very much what it was three years ago (but I state part of that opinion here in a slightly different way).

    • Visual design and visual impact time and time again translate directly into a perception of usability from the user perspective. For some reason (and you will have to consult with psychologists for why) people gravitate towards the pretty and the attractive. Make something look good and people tend to rate their experience with that thing higher.
    • Visual cues in the interface to help identify tasks, highlight successes and clearly indicate failures. In specific use case contexts, lead a user's eye to the thing they are looking for. Make it impossible to miss feedback regarding success or failure when the user has taken action.

    These two points are entirely dependent on the "theme" Drupal has by default. Drupal's theme is the skin over the raw user interface. The theme becomes the user interface.

    Each of the last two major Drupal releases has enhanced one or the other of these and as a result in each case usability has been improved. But, there is always room for greater improvement.

    • Findability of tasks
    • Improved navigation
    • Labels

    In short, improve the Information Architecture of the default Drupal installation. The last major overhaul was two releases ago and its time to revisit this.

  1. And finally, education. Education in the form of improved documentation, both inline and on Drupal.org. Education in the form of improved help text when the user is seeking education. Education in the form of professional advice from blogs, videos and formal consultation and training. Its always easier to use something when you know how to use it.

Besides these three points there are countless other ways to improve usability or user experience in Drupal, but I'm just painting broad strokes here without getting into minutia.

All of this brings me back around to Dries' announcement from last week. i.e. the engagement of Mark Boulton to help with Drupal usability. My guess is that Mark's team's work will focus primarily on the first two points above. And at the end of the day, like all spectacular implementations of Drupal, it takes a team of professionals dedicated exclusively to the project to pull it off. In this case the implementation will be the default Drupal installation itself and the team will be Mark Boulton and company.

As for education, this is one area where Drupal doesn't wait between releases to improve. I am absolutely astonished by the volume of educational material available today compared to four years ago when I first started working with Drupal. This is a testament to the outstanding community that has formed around Drupal and the dedication and passion people have for it.

I've only scratched the surface of the past present and future of Drupal usability. The Drupal usability landscape is constantly changing, so I suspect I'll revisit the topic again (likely from entirely different angles).

*update (march 2nd 2009) For further reading on this topic I encourage you to check out Michael's (the user advocate) post "Drupal Admin UI - Extreme Makeover Edition"

February 9th 2009 9AM
By: andre
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You got me thinking too...

Andre, very thoughtful post that has got me thinking also and motivated me to find a way to get to Drupalcon. I'm looking forward to the discussions.

Here's a snippet from my blog post about this:
If we are going to avoid just dressing up the bones of Drupal’s core, I believe we’ll need to ask some pretty deep questions about the usability requirements from a ‘Meta-Role’ perspective. We’ll need to look beyond Personas and see Information Architecture from the point of view of Task sets that users perform while playing potentially multiple Roles. We’ll need to find ways to support users in both rapid Role identification and efficient Role switching. And we’ll need to ask good questions about the technological innovations and methods that would be required to support such capabilities.