The Drupal UX Elephant in the Room: Talk context, ideas and slides

Author picture
Keith Jay profile image
Posted by
Keith Jay

One of the great things about Drupal is its community. But sometimes, collectively, we have to ask some hard questions. We have to both hold the mirror up to ourselves, and look beyond our own boundaries. We need to understand the wider reality of where Drupal is ‘at’. Why? Because we all want Drupal to thrive.

Inspired by Dries Buytaert’s Keynote in Barcelona 2015 Lizzie Hodgson (who co-authored this blog) and I wanted to extend the critical discussion around design, the wider impact of user experience (UX) and ultimately what this might mean for Drupal. We recognise that as a community there are many different perspectives. Our session at DrupalCamp London 2016 and this blog is one such example.

For absolute transparency, some of the slides in this blog and slide deck will be developed for future talks on this topic. Regardless, we believe there are aspects in them that should be kept in mind as valid perspectives for consideration.

Background and context for our DrupalCamp London 2016 session:

As part of his Keynote at DrupalCon Barcelona, 2015, Dries asked: “Can we get UX right?” This strong statement is a signal in itself and his message resonated deeply with us at Five Mile: putting that extra effort into providing our customers with a good UX in Drupal, often on an uncharged basis, has always been part of what we call ‘MVP’ (Minimum Viable Product). We love Drupal and we think it’s essential that everyone using it must come away having had a positive experience, no matter what type of user. We believe that this is immensely important, even critical, to promoting and presenting just how brilliant Drupal actually is.

Five Mile even did a Drupal Show and Tell on UX back in November 2013. However, the feedback and response following that talk did surprise us in that out of those attending, our approach to interface development wasn’t ‘typical’.

To be clear, the types of user that we discussed in our DrupalCamp London 2016 session, and those that we are focusing on in this blog, include (but are not necessarily exclusive to):

  • Those considering using Drupal for themselves or their organisation
  • Designers
  • Developers
  • Site authors
  • Site owners
  • Site builders

And for site builders, we give special attention to the topic of delivering intuitive, effortless UX especially if they are just starting out with Drupal for the first time. 

Our interest is in considering if, why and should we improve Drupal UX for early adoption: is there a better way of ‘on-boarding’ individuals, startups and small businesses, for example, that have the potential to scale and grow with Drupal? 

What’s more, if by focusing on a specific type of audience helps us to create a highly intuitive UX for them, is there also the potential that other types of user will benefit from the same UX improvements?

With this in mind, we used our talk to explore how a ‘product-like’ experience is being provided by other CMS platforms such as SquareSpace and WordPress. We demonstrated that these platforms provide user experiences that allow their users to get up and running within minutes. 

But it’s important to stress that our observations are limited to the UX alone and by no means are we making comparisons on any technical capability levels. What we want to better understand is what these alternative platforms offer their existing users and how they present their 'product'.

So we hope that by broadening the perspective on the challenges around UX in Drupal (including understanding the ‘competitor’ CMS platforms and the sorts of experience they provide) we might be able to learn from them and carry out the work on improving Drupal in an ever more inclusive and informed way.

The DrupalCamp London talk:

As already mentioned, part of the session focused on identifying Drupal’s users. And as many in the audience pointed out, there are lots of user types - all of which obviously have their own ‘need’ where UX is concerned.

There has been some great work by the community around usability and experience. In preparing for our talk, we took a look at some of the usability efforts already happening including the UX Drupal 8 core testing. The session at DrupalCon Barcelona 2015, covering the results of these tests, were an eye opener. We realised that others, like us, are looking for Drupal to be more intuitive as an out-of-the-box experience, even to make it ‘shine’ as this video by webchick, Bojhan and LewisNyman shows.

Obviously none of us at this point are going to have the answers. But we think we need to start asking the questions, have the discussions, agree, disagree, but ultimately find a meaningful way forward. Because no matter how brilliant Drupal and it’s community are, one thing we cannot be is complacent.

The slides:

You can view all the slides below, but we’d urge you to also read this blog in full in order to understand the context and reasoning behind some of them. Many of the points we raised in our presentation are in parallel with ideas and conversations that others are already having. We are simply joining the conversation.

Our reasoning behind some of the slides: How do we keep Drupal relevant?

Slide about developers and end users

The above slide presents a quote from Dries’ blog ‘Turning Drupal outside-in’. We’ve interpreted this as a conversation that needs to evolve - we need to discuss the goals of improving UX in relation to driving up Drupal’s adoption. But what do we mean by Drupal's relevance? It's certainly one of those 'difficult questions'.

Slide with graph about the relevance and reality of CMS

We also explored the idea of how perception can become the personal reality when people miss the point of how brilliant Drupal is. Is this perhaps because they are not getting the ‘out-of-the-box’ experience?

Slide of a tweet relevance perception

This then led us to ask: is the perception of our ‘competitors’, amongst other things, based on the outstanding UX they provide coupled increasingly with clarity of message and mass marketing? Is that not also the reality?

For example, you just have to take a ride on the Tube in London to see SquareSpace targeting specific users - from the bloggers to businesses. Meanwhile Wix are all over the SuperBowl, and WordPress is investing millions of dollars into its offer.

What’s more, our potential customers are growing out of the Instagram generation: the drag and drop experience. They simply want, and expect, things to work. 

Ok, you’re probably thinking that we should not be comparing ourselves with WordPress, least of all platforms such as SquareSpace and Wix. As Dries said of comparing ourselves with WordPress, it’s like comparing a ‘ship load of apples to a truck load of really big oranges’. And of course you are right. Drupal is technically streets ahead, and this is not a platform capability comparison. But do our potential users understand the differences?

We believe it is important that we take the time to look at what the other platforms are offering and learn from them. For that reason, in order to create one of the slides in our presentation demonstrating the out-of-the-box experience in WordPress, we asked Neil Moss to create a small site without any input from us other than installing mamp and purchasing a low-cost theme. Neil is our photographer and has no experience in development but managed to create this (fake) band promo site in a little under a day.


In our talk, we explore whether we’re ‘under threat’? (And yes, we accept that depends on what we mean by ‘threat’.) Well, one way we could look at it is to ask the question: what happens as the architecture of these ‘competitor’ platforms improves in relation to Drupal? Not only have they nailed the experience and the message, they’re starting to encroach on what many perceive as ‘traditional’ Drupal territory. We appreciate this is a potentially contentious thing to say, but we are starting to see WordPress being presented as a viable enterprise solution for some applications. Again, this means we simply cannot, and must not, assume technical leadership is all we need for Drupal.

Should we therefore be asking: If we don’t deliver a relevant ‘out-of-the-box’ experience to potential site owners and site builders, then what are we doing to improve our relevance and reach? Is this not exactly the audience we are trying to pull in? Instead, might we risk shrinking as those users stay and even grow with other platforms?

Afterall, we are amazing! So we must do all we can to improve UX by learning from our competition and utilising the immense talent and experience we have to deliver exciting, relevant and meaningful Drupal experiences. 

In the slide deck you’ll see that we did a sketch of how an ‘out-of-the-box’ experience might look. Again, this is not what we’re saying it needs to look like. This is just an idea to extend the conversation. Indeed, we'll be following up on some of the issues and ideas ourselves with blogs to participate in the wider community discussion. 

The reaction to the talk:

Understandably there were strong opinions about our talk. So to clarify, we’re not saying we have to imitate our competitors. We also aren’t saying we have the answers

Yes, we’ve done some mock ups on how we could move forward to make the end user experience clearer and more engaging. And yes, we show just how easy it is to create a WordPress site. 

But we’ve done this to show the reality of what we are up against in terms of UX. So take a look at the presentation above, agree, disagree, get inspired. Just don’t ignore the elephant.  

About Keith Jay

Keith is owner and Managing Director of Five Mile. He specialises in business strategy as well as creative design, content strategy and user experience. He's a developer and has been a web designer since 2000.

About Lizzie Hodgson

Lizzie is founder and director of ThinkNation and a digital strategist. Her experience bridges both public and private sectors including ex-speechwriter and communications manager at Department of Health. She's also a TEDx speaker and a Katerva Gender Equality Panelist.