planet drupal · user experience

Prairie Initiative Update at Drupalcon London

I had the opportunity to attend Drupalcon London this week and to talk some more about the Prairie Initiative – what is is, our goals, and the progress we’ve made so far. Unfortunately the audio in the session recording was very poor, so here’s an outline of what I presented.

Recently I came across a ‘register’ page on a Drupal site that was obviously Drupal (in a bad way). I thought – I wonder what it would be like for people who don’t know anyone in the Drupal community to come to and try to find how they can contribute their time, skills and experience to fixing the design of that page.

Try this exercise – go to homepage and log out. Now imagine you’re here looking to help out in whatever your area of expertise is (if you can’t think of anything, just pretend you want to help fix the usability and layout of that register form). Where would you go?

If you headed into Support and Community (which is probably the most sensible option) you’re hit with walls of text, no keywords that confirm that we want people like you and where you should go. Very little sign of a community at all, basically just a list of channels. It’s less than inspiring and a little intimidating.

IRC is not a solution – it scales badly, it’s intimidating and unfriendly if you’re new and unknown, and for a great swathe of us, it’s very unfamiliar.

Groups – try going there and logging out. This is also a pretty poor introduction to the community for newcomers.

Forums are also pretty haphazard and not really a recommended entry point.

If you decide to ‘register’ (for what, it’s not really clear) you enter a process that is riddled with small but unrelenting errors or bad experiences – from the lack of client side validation on the forms, to the ‘access denied’ heading once you’ve completed the form successfully, to the personality free email you receive (and the fact that we have even designed the sign up process this way – making the user do the work to reduce the spam on presumably)

Having completed the registration process, you’re left pretty much stranded on the final page (which announces that it’s unsubscribed you from a mailing list you’ve never heard of) – the dashboard for newbies doesn’t take advantage of a great opportunity to help you get started. Fortunately, in the journey that I was exploring – search does work, and if you make your way to the Usability Group page (which has been pretty well thought out and structured to be newbie friendly), you’re set – you can actually find some likeminded people and start finding your feet in the community.

These are all little things – things that could reasonably easily be fixed. And some might say that if you can’t handle this then you’re probably no use to us anyway – Drupal gets a whole lots hairier than this! And that’s a fair point – afterall, if you do make it through the onboarding experience, sooner or later you’ll meet the issue queue….*gulp*

The onboarding experience into the Drupal community on is a bit of a car wreck. Sure, it’s just a series of little things that could be relatively easily fixed – that’s not the point. The point is that we either have never bothered to check that the sign up / onboarding experience is any good, or it’s not high on our priority list. No one owns this job. This tells us some interesting things about the Drupal community and sends some messages about what we value:

  • We don’t really value our newcomers or care about the experience that new people coming to join our community and contribute have when the try to get involved.
  • We don’t really care about the quality of the products we create and the spaces we reside in (there’s no broken windows policy on, we don’t take pride in our flagship(?) website.
  • People who do manage to get involved using this process are to be admired for their determination!
  • There is an alternative onboarding experience – person to person mentoring and hand holding, particularly for those who have been hired by a Drupal shop or are working in an organisation that is adopting Drupal. This is a good process – perhaps it’s the one we really care about? Perhaps we don’t really want people to randomly stumble into the community? Perhaps – these are all questions to think about…

We need to work out what our position on all of this is.

  • What kind of people do we want to have in our community?
  • How do we want to ‘recruit’ them – do we want random people coming to the community from our website? (hobbyists etc?)
  • What kind of an experience do we want it to be to sign up to be a part of Drupal?
  • What kind of experience do we want to be to be an active contributor to Drupal?
  • How important is this to us? How much do we care?

It’s ok if we decide we don’t care about it so much. The right answer isn’t necessarily ‘the user experience must be fantastic’ but we should stop paying lip service and actually not doing anything about it, and not committing any resources to it.

We need a vision for what we want the experience of for new and long term contributors to be like.

Backcasting is a great exercise that helps us work out what we’re aiming for and then a roadmap/strategy to work towards that outcome.

For me, I think this is important. I believe that the way our spaces are designed is very influential on the way that we behave within them. Drupal the community and are both pretty good at tactical problem solving, but both pretty rubbish at defining and agreeing and acting on larger strategies.

This is what the Prairie Initiative is interested in – ways that we can design social spaces on that are more conducive to giving new contributors a better onboarding experience and that makes it a better, more productive environment for longer term contributors.

The Prairie Initiative is not a project. Rather, it is a family of projects that share a connection to a common set of goals. The goals of the Prairie Initiative projects are:

  • to improve the collaboration tools on so that we can do more and work better together and make Drupal better, faster; and
  • to grow the pool of contributors by making a better and easier place to become a contributor – to make it less intimidating to people who want to get started contributing.

Some of the projects within Prairie that we are moving forward with at the moment include:

  • Topic page – a place where activity from across the Drupal network can be aggregated and people interested in this topic can ‘follow’ the topic. This allows people to self identify their expertise, people to find likeminded peers in the community, people to find mentors, people can more easily keep up with activity on related to their topic.
  • Profile page – a better designed profile page allowing us to share our expertise and experience and interests and activities within and without of Drupal more easily, and a way to make the reputation system known to ‘insiders’ accessible to those who are new and as yet not well connected to the community.
  • Issue Queue – exploring ways that we can change the issue page so that it lets us work more effectively together.
  • Notifications – exploring how we can make it easier to keep up with activity on you’ll probably be interested in without requiring you to be on IRC, have people ping you links, or be scouring issue queues and groups endlessly to keep track.

I’ve been trying to do as much of this as I can in my spare time but – realistically – I’m not a great candidate to help lead this project. It really needs someone who works in a Drupal company and who gets some ‘gardening time’ (or equivalent) to work on community work without having to sacrifice income or time with their kids.

Having asked around a little to see if there might a chance of getting a little financial support so that I can work on this in place of client work, it seems clear that Prairie is currently not a very appealing investment.

I probably need to work on my pitch, I guess, but that’s pretty demotivating. Especially when you not only need someone like me doing cat herding, ‘product management’ and some UX work, but we really also need a tech lead (someone like this who, unfortunately, is much the same as me in terms of having no gardening time).If you’ve got time and inclination to take this on, step up. Otherwise, regretfully, it’s likely Prairie will flounder, as it has for the past month or so after an initial cracking start (this is entirely my fault and not for want of people willing to contribute their time).

I know this sounds like a huge critique of the work that was done by the redesign team and by those who continue to work on – please know that there are many, many things that need working on and people like Neil Drumm and Lisa Rex and others are doing great work that goes largely unrecognised and unthanked. This is absolutely NOT a criticism of their work and I’d like to thank them and the others who are working with them for continuing to incrementally improve

We might have re-THEMED the entire site but there was a LOT that never had the chance to be reDESIGNED. These are very different things.

We still have much work ahead of us – if we decide we care, enough.

14 thoughts on “Prairie Initiative Update at Drupalcon London

  1. I *hope* your post is a wakeup call for the amount of work that needs to be done on :) I know people want to help, but many aren’t sure how to help.

    Agree, the current Community and Support page is not good. It’s a slight variation to the mockup that we were given, and it sounds like that page never got the attention it needed during the design phase.

    I’ve got an open issue on some small improvements to the Getting Involved page. I would love to get some feedback from anyone in the community, though maybe it’s difficult to do that in isolation. Perhaps the we should do the entire C&S section…. there are also many content improvements that need to happen too.

  2. Tons of (potentially uncompensated) work… commercialization… companies looking to make millions. Perhaps Drupal needs a “community” version along with an “enterprise” version. And all the disheartened community that goes along with that.

  3. Drupal has a great community now with lots of volunteers who have been helpful to me personally on numerous occasions and who really value community-building. Having said that, I think there are also lots of ways that we can improve.

    I used to be fairly involved in the Wikipedia community, and although they’re not perfect either, I think it would be worthwhile to study some of the ways that they welcome new people and encourage participation. I’ll just point out a few things:

    (1) The home page tries to be very welcoming especially to new contributors. It prominently displays the slogan, “Welcome to Wikipedia: the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit.” Clicking on “anyone can edit takes people quickly to an introduction page which is written with newbies in mind, gives basic information about how to edit, and encourages them by saying, “Don’t be afraid to edit anyone can edit almost any page … be bold! Why not try out our editor right now?” Not only does it repeatedly and emphatically beg people to participate, it provides a way for people to get started that requires very little training or technical knowledge. People don’t even need to know much about the topic of an article in order to edit it, and many people actually provide useful contributions by simply making minor improvements to spelling, punctuation or wording. isn’t terrible about welcoming new people and introducing them to things that they can do, but it places the bar to entry somewhat higher. Instead of “Welcome…anyone can edit,” its slogan is, “Come for the software, stay for the community.” There is nothing right away that says, “you can participate.” Clicking through to the community page tells you how to find events, IRC chat, forums and mailing lists, but you have to click through to still another page to get to the “Getting involved” page. Most of the ways to get involved, aside from posting to the forums, require a significant degree of prior Drupal knowledge.

    To some degree these differences exist because Drupal is a software project, which seems to inherently require greater technical knowledge than WIkipedia. With some ingenuity, however, maybe we could create more participation opportunities for new people.

    (2) Wikipedia has a highly differentiated community of users who have chosen or have been assigned roles related to maintaining the community. Roles on Wikipedia include: administrator, bureaucrat, steward, reviewer, rollbacker, file mover and account creator, which confer permissions to block other users, roll back edits, protect pages, assign roles, etc. In addition to these formal roles which are have specific permissions inscribed in the software, Wikipedia users have also organized themselves into numerous teams with specific tasks, such as the Wikipedia Welcoming Committee or the Counter-Vandalism Unit. “WikiProjects” organize groups of editors that want to work together as a team to improve some section of the encyclopedia, with tasks such as stub sorting, scientific peer review, citation cleanup, copy editing, translation, usability, etc. It also has a team whose specific mission is to award “barnstars” — icons that are placed on user pages to praise them for their volunteering. Joining most of these teams is easy and requires simply adding your username to the team’s project page. To further encourage volunteering, Wikipedia’s community portal lists dozens of open tasks, fix-up projects, and tasks requiring special skills.

    Again, I can’t say that Drupal isbad at community building and suggesting tasks for would-be volunteers, but it doesn’t have as many options for people to organize themselves into teams, and often people have to undergo a challenging approval process before they are allowed to participate. A friend of mine waited more than six months before receiving approval as a module contributor. When I attempted to advocate on his behalf by posting comments about his situation in IRC, I was told that that this sort of delay was increasingly common because there are not enough people volunteering to review new contributor applications. They thought this shortage of volunteers stems from the fact that “everyone wants to write new modules,” but there aren’t very many people who are willing to take the time to serve in a reviewer capacity. I think it is fair to say that Drupal also has a shortage of volunteers working on improving documentation. Is this because those tasks are not very important? Is it because most people just don’t want to do them? Or could the Drupal community do more to announce the need for specific volunteer tasks and then reward volunteers with recognition? has its own systems for organizing subcommunities — forums,, IRC, meetups, DrupalCons, etc. However, I don’t think it puts as much focus on organizing that empowers participation. Maybe this is because Drupal serves a different purpose than Wikipedia, or maybe it’s because Wikipedia’s user base is larger. In one respect, however, Drupal actually does a much better job of organizing volunteers than Wikipedia does — specifically, software development. The contrib modules and themes sections on are hives of activity — people submitting tickets, patches, new modules. Wikipedia has its own system for maintaining the core Mediawiki software and third-party add-ons (called “extensions” rather than “modules”). However, it doesn’t have anywhere near the same level of organization with regard to bug tracking, revisioning and version releases, and as a result software improvements have not been as rapid.

    1. you’re right, something critical of our work is just what’s needed right now…. if you’d actually paid ANY attention to anything either of us have EVER said about the redesign you’d know we are the first people to say that our redesign did nothing for the existing community or onboarding newcomers at all. We had weeks to do our work – we only go through the bit that was most essential to our brief. Snarky, anonymouse comments do NOTHING to help the cause.

  4. I queued up to speak with you after your talk and I am fully excited about getting involved.

    Looks like Lisa and Bohjan are working on this – and I’m going to join them!

    Here’s a summary Lisa wrote up:

    We’re not going to let this languish. I had trouble understanding it before, and the presentation helped. Thank you!

  5. Considering the amount of time I spend trying to introduce people to the Drupal community in person and locally, if I even dedicated 10% of that time to a project like this, it would pay back exponentially.

    Sadly I think the new Drupal Association Grants aren’t intended for a project like this, so how do we convince some corporations and caring individuals to shell out? Benjamin Melancon and Allie Micka have a lot of great ideas we were kicking around in Chicago (honestly a lot of others too) at some BoFs and stuff… I can only assume their talks have continued in the past 6 months.

    I would love to have you on a future DrupalEasy Podcast to try and help people understand what you’re proposing and keep the public discussion going. Sometimes once something moves into g.d.o or other channels (i.e. not Drupal Planet) I tend to lose track of the progress. I must not be the only one.

  6. Instead of trying to quieten “Confused” in the comment above I think you should answer :

    1. Is what you say now a priority and a must do issue? If so it would have been fixed when “Get started” and “Overlay” were being worked and the perfectly okay drupal org front page was killed. There were months and years of iterations, and lots of valuable time lost that could have gone to actual code. If what you say now is not much of a priority why not forget it.

    2. Any soul that wants to help some another soul with a php script knows very well there are things known as issue lists and forum. If they dont know that basic the cant be of much help. They can find that intuitively or easily. And the old drupal org first page had easy ways to make those visible and reach. It was killed by UX experts with no prior expertise of things such as complex as Drupal. So why not simply bring that back. Or just forget it – the downloaded software (those who have downloaded and tested at least on local host can help better) has readme.txt with links to those.

    3. Must not you always try to offer “solution” and then invent a problem? That is how UX experts like you can survive. If what you say now is “solved” you will come up with another “problem”. Won’t you? Please leave Drupal alone. Will you?

    Please be bold to publish this, and instead of you reacting, let others. Be happy!

    1. This is a ridiculously harsh and unhelpful response.

      @Leisa: I really appreciate your efforts to improve the Drupal onboarding experience. At our local Drupal User Group(DUG), I’ve spent a lot of time just trying to explain what the heck Drupal is and how it can be best used.

      Not helping people get started on the right foot has long-term effects other than turning them off to Drupal. The user who doesn’t understand how to evaluate a module’s quality is the often same person who comes back to a DUG six months later with a hundred modules installed and a site that’s a total disaster. Improving the onboarding experience will ultimately lead to better ecosystem of Drupal sites and a world where the difference between the best and worst Drupal sites isn’t as frightening. It seems like this type of effort should be fundable. Could there be funding available outside the Drupal community?

  7. But if, this time next year, this blog isn’t running on Drupal and if it doesn’t look amazing – then please come and shout #fail as loudly as you can. Because then you’ll be completely right, we will have failed.

    Remember all those high talks, do you? That blog is still NOT running Drupal. Which means you have failed. With no success track record then, please leave Drupal as it is, and let the community do whatever best they can.
    Or may be you want to post excuses, remain silent or do whatever. But the fact is here :) So, be happy!

    1. You’re right, I don’t need to respond to this because you’re making your own position and biases completely clear… attitudes like this are the exact reason that Drupal needs people with outside perspective. And also the exact reason why it’s so difficult to get designers/UXers/etc to stick around and try to make a difference.

      also, re: why is my blog not running on Drupal, see

  8. As a general comment, it would be good if your site disambiguity had a categorised list of all the articles in this site. Trawling through by archive date or keyword tag is a bit of a pain. Once you click on a keyword tag you have to do a lot of scrolling and navigating by page number to see all the articles you have written.

    Just a page with a simple lists of titles under category headings would be useful…

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