March 26, 2009

Drupal Usability

UPDATE: For those visiting from Slate's article "Message Error" by Chris Wilson, please check out my rebuttal. Thanks!

As was discussed in my last blog post, one of the biggest complaints users have about Drupal is its usability, or lack thereof. This especially applies to new users and users who briefly gave Drupal a try and then opted for a more user-friendly CMS solution. While I acknowledge this shortcoming of Drupal, I believe that once one gets over the hump of learning the ins-and-outs of Drupal, the payoff is well worth the journey. For you newcomers to Drupal (or to those of you who tried it and gave up), I hope this post helps shed some light on the problem, what is being done about it, and how it affects you.

OK, so you’ve just installed Drupal... Now what? When faced with a fresh install of Drupal, many people say: "OK, what the heck do I do now?". It doesn’t look like there’s much to it -- no flashy icons, no slick buttons with polished-glass backgrounds, no sample content, no WYSIWYG editor (what-you-see-is-what-you-get editor, or Rich Text Editor... think of "Word toolbars for this web form's text box")... Just a bare-bones shell with a bunch of text links, and always in the top left corner, a blue water droplet with a smirk on his face, as if to say "OK, buddy, now try and figure me out." For some, this is no problem at all, for they are familiar with web technology and can easily adapt to the environment. For the majority, though, Drupal loses them at "hello world".

We've pretty much identified the problem: Drupal's administrative interface is so frugal and bare-bones to the point of detracting from its user-friendliness. I know I'm simplifying here a lot, as there are many facets to this problem. But rather than overwhelm ourselves, let's just look at one particular issue: Drupal's welcome screen. Have a look:

Screenshot of Drupal Welcome Screen

Not very exciting, is it? To someone like me who's set up a Drupal site before (countless times) it actually is exciting. It's a blank slate, and there's virtually infinite possibilities... But, to most people, this is not exciting at all, and doesn't do a good job of guiding them thru the process of setting up their new website. If you browse drupalusability.org, you'll see feedback that the relatively new Drupal Usability team has gathered from usability testing performed at the University of Baltimore earlier this year. Many participants felt that this page was somewhat anticlimactic and ineffective in successfully initiating them into the world of Drupal. If you spend the time to read this welcome page, it's pretty informative and actually points you in the right direction with text links. But, let's face it, reading gets boring, and furthermore, different people are creating different kinds of sites, so the four steps will not apply to everyone's needs.

So, how could this page be made better? Perhaps strategically placed icons? Perhaps a different layout? Perhaps customized messages depending on the type of site being created? Perhaps... well, what? That's one of the many things that the Drupal Usability team is working on... Drupal.org itself is even being redesigned with better usability and user experience in mind, and the progress is looking great.

Now, I don't think that Drupal should "bend over backwards" for people by dumbing things down or turning on more functionality by default. I don't want that at all, because what's great about Drupal is its leanness... However, I do think Drupal can do a better job of meeting people in the middle...

Here at DPCI, we work with our clients so that, well, they never see this welcome screen at all... We create Drupal sites that are customized and tailored to our clients' needs, so that by the time the site gets to them, everything's set up and all the "guess work" has been taken out of the equation.

I would love to hear what you have found difficult or confusing about Drupal. What do you think could be done differently to make the learning curve a little less steep? Leave a comment!

Posted at 03:17 pm by DPCI Bloggers

I recently took over a site that had just switched to Drupal. When I took over the job I was under the impression that Front Page would be the editor of choice. The page is donated by the ISP to the organization and so is my time. I am not a professional web developer but I do OK and can figure stuff out pretty much on my own, like CSS2 and such and I have been using HTML since about 1996. I am used to steep learning curves, like Microsoft Access, for instance. Drupal is infuriating for someone like me. BTW, the site is based on the Acquia Marina theme:I had NO CHOICE in the matter. Here are a few of my observations.
I have yet to get the hang of 'where things are'. Uploading photos is utterly weird. Some elements have an upload function, some don't. If I upload a photo to one 'page', then getting the path to use it on another page is hell. I would be nice to have a 'map' or a 'cheat sheet' that I could refer to and copy and paste from.
Editing elements for me, like Blocks, is clunky' at best. Why can't there be a block link on all pages? I have to keep going to the menu->administration->blocks. You feel like a rat in amaze and it does not create a warm fuzzy feeling for me, I feel like someone's behind the one way mirror laughing their butts off.
In the raw theme pages look good, when I edit them with the 'WYSI[NOT]WYG' editor the paragraphs have about three or four lines of space between them, a table has about 2 inches of space. I know tables are close to being, if not already depricated (I think that's the word) but the use of

is not easy with the editor. I HATE the way the editor substitutes good HTML for depricated HTML and also how it uses upper case in tags.
My theme has a welcome page, a waste of time and effort if I ever saw one, I abhor welcome pages and cannot wait till that phenomenon fades. If I try to get rid of it, then a default Drupal welcome page pops up. Again, the laughter behind the mirror.
I cannot seem to make the page look the way it does in the theme, spacing is off, the editor keeps rewriting my code, tables are not rendered well even when i figure out how to place them, colors are off depending on the browser, sections of a block will not adjust size for my text and will wrap inappropriately, divs, unless manually positioned will appear willy-nilly on top of other elements. IE6 and 7 compatibility is off the scale. Chrome and Firefox seem to render the best. I write the code in UltraEdit, substituting breaks for paragraphs and hope the editor will let me ge away with it. The guy at the ISP will listen for a while then remind you that the page is donated. Like if I donated a coat to someone and it was missing arms and a zipper they should realize it's donated rather than to inquire abour the missing arms. MY time is donated too, and what takes a few minutes with UltraEdit takes HOURS with Drupal. It seems you have to get a PHD to use these 'dumbed down' interfaces anymore. I didn't realize being a novice required such effort. Drupal people should actually sit down with users and see first hand how clunky it is and to find ways to make instructions easier to get and use. For me, one of the problems I see with open source stuff is that it is primarily created for and by more advanced users, perhaps this is an unfair generalization but if you are designing from a point of view that you already understand then you are likely to shut out the ones that don't. Take Linux for example. When I hear people say they are sick of Microsoft and they are going to switch to 'Linux' I always urge them to do it. I tell them they will be back with Windows in 20 minutes, half hour tops.
Listen to me go on, what a crybaby eh? But you asked for our experiences. I get the idea of Drupal, I just want MY page to look like the theme and not like a dummy with no sense of aesthetics did it.
I came to your site through the Chris Wilson rant, though by accident. It's pure coincidence that I came on his rant and am a new Drupal user at the same time.

Will

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