This week sees the release of Drupal 7 – a big event for the Drupal community and also individually for myself and the team at Mark Boulton Design as we worked together with the community on the D7UX project which aimed to significantly evolve and improve the user experience and usability of Drupal.
I’d like to start by congratulating the community on coming together to once again significantly improve Drupal and give it all away for free. Let us never forget what an amazing thing open source software development is.
The last couple of years have been interesting both as a participant and as spectator (because I do feel as though I occupy both of these roles, as incompatible as they may seem… many others who have attempted to participate as a designer in an open source community can probably empathise). It has been exciting to see Drupal embrace the idea of design and user experience as vocally and visibly as it has. I think this visible and actual (financial) commitment has really paid dividends although – as ever, the numbers will ultimately tell that story.
There have also been some fairly significant frustrations. I hope that as we raise a glass to celebrate the release of Drupal 7, we also take some time to resolve to think about how we can make design work even better in this community (and all open source software communities).
To that end, here are some challenges I’d love us to attack:
1. Designing participation for designers
Issues queues and IRC are the traditional communication environment for open source development. If you want to be involved in design for an open source community that’s where you need to be.
During D7UX I was there all the time. Since then – not so much.
I have no idea how people keep track of what’s going on in the issue queue – on it’s own, it doesn’t work (unless I’m doing it all wrong?). You need people to ping issues at you in IRC (or elsewhere) to make sure you know what’s going on.
Being on IRC 24/7 is just not an option for me – much of my work is done away from my computer (sketching, running workshops, doing research) and when I’m at my computer I need to be focussed – IRC is not good for focus.A culture of participation that is designed around IRC and the issue queue is not compatible with getting designers to participate in design problems at the right time (that is, toward the beginning, not at the very last moment).
We need to come up with a way that is more proactive – that goes out an pings designers who might be interested in participating, rather than relying on them coming across something in a timely manner.
Yes, this means changing the way the system works because designers have special needs. Do you want good designers to participate in a meaningful way?
Deal with it. (And yes, we’ll help you design this change. Happily.)
2. Recognising participation for non-developers
At this point I’d like to give the accessibility team, the security team, the documentation team a shout out and congratulate them for their brilliant work on Drupal 7.
I regret that there are probably more people whose lack or recognition I am currently perpetuating, because in Drupal, if you’re not listed in the commit message, your contribution, literally, doesn’t count.The Drupal community subscribes to the saying ‘talk is silver, code is gold’ and there’s been no better demonstration of this then the various thank you pages that have been posted recently using the list of commits to Drupal 7 as an indication of the amount you have contributed to the project.
This means that someone who, in a few hours here and there, submits a handful of minor patches is more recognised than someone who spends hours every week taking all kinds of flak from the community trying to educate them on the importance of accessibility, or explaining a design pattern, or reviewing Drupal.org and organising the design and content work required in preparation for the product launch. For many of us (and in fact, probably for developers as well) there is a whole lot of thinking and talking and sketching and research that happens before any code is written – actually writing the code is (sometimes) the easy part.
We need to change this culture. We need to make non-code contributions much more visible and recognised. (And this can’t be achieved by simply sitting in IRC 24/7 having a presence and ‘gaining respect’).
Yes, again – people who don’t write code have special needs.
If we want more of these people we need to change the environment because these needs will not change.
3. Maintaining coherence without ‘owning’ design
Design ideas in the Drupal community need a maintainer, just like core or a module or any important piece of code.
How is it that the Drupal.org homepage can be radically changed within the space of a few hours without any consultation at all with the people who did the research and design work behind it? Or even any adherance to the style guide that accompanies it. (Not to suggest that a style guide is capable of providing specific guidance for every possible outcome).
Of course design needs to evolve as the community and product needs evolve. Of course designers need to respond to the competing requirements of end users, developers, and everything else. This is not about design being precious and permanent.
Just because you *can* change the design, doesn’t mean you should be allowed to – not without a ‘maintainer’ of the design giving approval or at least feedback that you can then act on or against. There is no point investing in good, thoughtful design and then not making any effort to preserve it. Especially when the designers who have done the work are around and more than happy to contribute.
This is not about ‘special needs’ – this is about crediting designers with some ownership over their own work. Not wholesale ownership, just a little. Enough to warrant the opportunity to participate and be consulted.
4. Design leadership in open source communities
Reliance on the current model of participation (issue queues and IRC) means that leaders in the design/ux community currently emerge by virtue of presence – being available on IRC and active in the issue queues. You can’t ‘commit’ design in the same way that you commit code, so you can’t build your reputation in many other ways than being there and participating. (The relatively recent movement toward designed distributions is possibly starting to shift this a little, although still relies on code).
This is good because it means that these people are passionate about design and UX in Drupal and show commitment to the project. It is bad because it naturally privileges people who have more available time and who tend to be less experienced. Designing for Drupal and in the Drupal community is a challenging prospect. UX and product design considerations impact an ever increasing audience who rely on Drupal for ever more critical capabilities.
We need to find a way to allow experienced designers (and in this I include UX/Usability people) to play a proactive, leading role in shaping design in the Drupal community at a strategic, not just tactical level, without requiring them to be on IRC every hour of the day and night and having to respond within minutes.
It is not an acceptable response to say (or think) that there are no designers or usability people out there who are interested in participating or that they just don’t have what it takes to stick it out. There’s no shortage of people who would willingly contribute time and expertise and many who, over the years, have attempted to contribute much more.
I’ve been reading a lot about change management lately and one of the keys to successfully making change is making the environment conducive to the behaviour you want to achieve. That’s our challenge moving forward.
I think this is possibly the most important consideration in my list.
5. Defining our value proposition
I’ve said it before and I’ll no doubt say it again – you can’t meet the needs of the wide range of activities of the incredibly broad Drupal audience in the one interface. Not well. Drupal 7 via D7UX is – hopefully- a better experience for both newcomers, content creators and, in some ways, developers. It is nowhere near an optimal experience for any one of these groups, because they have conflicting needs, behaviours, and characteristics.
Drupal is just like most of the clients I’ve ever worked with who are seeking growth – struggling with their value proposition. I’m not saying we need to abandon any one of our audiences, but we need to address them in different ways, not through one incredible interface. Thankfully I’m now able to stop just talking about this and actually do something through the Project Verity theme work Mark Boulton & I are doing together. (It’s really starting to come together now – stay tuned!) We need to define a UX strategy for our key audiences and then optimise the environment for people to design most effectively for them. We need to do that before we start designing Drupal 8.
It has been a great honour to have worked on the D7UX project and the Drupal.org redesign and, through that, to have had the opportunity to work with some of the passionate and talented people who contribute – in many ways – to Drupal, it’s current and future success.
I look forward to having some kind of continued involvement in the community – exactly what that is will depend on how seriously the community takes some of the issues I’ve outlined above. Regardless of that, I’m here – you want some help, you know how to find me.
Cheers Drupal – Congratulations!
Here’s to the success of Drupal 7 and beyond.
I’m thrilled to be attending Drupalcon Chicago in March – I’m even doing a pre-conference training session called What Users Want that I think will be really fun and which is focussed on teaching people to do what I do (UX research and design), especially those who have never done it before (managers, developers, marketers, I’m looking at you!).
Want to talk about this stuff in person? I’d love to see you at Drupalcon. It’s a great conference and, with Jared Spool, Clay Shirky, Mark Boulton, Jeremy Keith, Russ Unger, Karen McGrane and more coming to share their experience, it’s almost a design conference with added Drupal – hooray!