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.

Drupal contributor sentiment survey

As you may know, I’m working with the Drupal community on a (voluntary) Social Architecture Project called the Prairie Initiative.

We’re looking to tune up Drupal’s collaboration tools so that it’s an easier, more efficient and more collaborative place for all the different disciplines that Drupal needs to be great.

If you’ve got any experience attempting to, considering or actually contributing to Drupal, I’d really appreciate if you’d come take our sentiment survey. We’re taking a benchmark now and will check back every quarter to see if and how any changes we make impact this and some other metrics.

Much appreciated.

The Prairie Initiative – A Social Architecture Project for

I’m excited to be making a start on my current contribution to Drupal which to help drive a project code named Prairie. This is a project with two big, ambitious goals:

1. to improve the collaboration tools on so that we can do more and better work together and make Drupal better, faster.

2. to make a better and easier place to become a contributor – to make it less intimidating to people who want to get started contributing to Drupal, coders and non-coders. To increase the number of members who are actively contributing and to recognise a wider range of contributions.

This started out as a ‘Redesign the Issue Queue’ core conversation at Drupalcon in Chicago, but rapidly increased in scope so that it’s now really more accurately described as a Social Architecture project.

For those amongst us who are actively contributing Drupallers, comfortable with the Drupal Groups infrastructure, there’s a group you can join and contribute to.

For those who find the Groups Infrastructure perplexing or just plain frustrating (and you can count me among that number – you’ll find Groups Usability as part of the scope for this project), I’m going to try to keep you up to speed here and I’m experimenting with sharing some screenshots that we can annotate together… we’ll see how well that works – at any rate, I do want to try to open the discussion up outside of the Groups infrastructure so that we’re not just a bunch of insiders talking amongst ourselves.

The issue page – Designing a tool to fit the task

So the first thing I’d love for you to give some attention to are some initial ideas on redesigning the Issue template.

The ideas in this rough wireframe draw heavily from Quora and Open Ideo and try to address opportunities for us to make our discussion more comprehensible and focussed, as well as to make sure that they move through the stages of problem solving (possibly with custom designed interfaces for the specific requirements of each phase) to make it easier to ‘call in the troops’ from the various disciplines when they’re required and also to create spaces that are more appropriate for each discipline in turn (rather than all trying to squash our requirements into the one UI). It also introduces the concept of collaboratively naming an issue and providing a summary for it.

You can take a look and provide your feedback on this wireframe and these ideas here (or in the group if you prefer).

For those who are wondering, no, I’m not being paid to do this work. I’m a freelancer, so I have to take time off consulting, playing with my kids or sleeping to do this work.

I’d happily take sponsorship to do so though, if you think the work is important enough for me to be able to dedicate more of my time to working on it. Let me know if you’re interested.

Five User Experience Initiatives for Drupal 8 (A Drupalcon Debrief)

I had the pleasure of spending last week in Chicago at Drupalcon. I was there to run a workshop and do a talk but, to be honest, I was also mostly there to decide whether it was time to break up with Drupal for good.

My relationship with Drupal is now heading towards the 3 year mark. The number of hours that I’ve contributed (unpaid, in addition to those I’ve been fortunate to be paid to contribute) are really starting to rack up. I was starting to question whether those hours were well invested and whether it was wise to invest any more. Whether in fact it was possible that my contributions might actually constructively lead toward significant improvement or whether, after all, trying to do good UX in open source is really just thrashing.

Well. We didn’t break up. It’s not all roses, but there’s hope.

The first sign of hope came in Dries‘ keynote where he identified not just usability but delightful experience as a goal for Drupal8. Frankly, I’ll be beyond surprised if Drupal8 gets anywhere close to ‘delightful’ by the release of version 8 but as long as we’re tracking in that direction, I’m pleased.

The second sign also came from Dries’ keynote where he started talking of initiatives and distributing leadership throughout the community. I think this a great idea and gives not only UX but other disciplines the opportunity to really stand up and take a key role in the community. I noticed, however, that Dries didn’t mention any specific UX initiatives, so I thought I’d share five that I think Drupal should embrace in the coming months and years.

1. increase the overall UX/Design competency within the Drupal community – help developers (who always make loads of design decisions, in Drupal-land and beyond) make good design decisions.

What does this involve?

– Making and publicising a good pattern library so that developers contributing user facing code can help us maintain consistency and enhance usability.

– Continuing to make the case for good usability through sharing ongoing usability testing and showing how, where and why users struggle to complete tasks

– Increasing the size of the usability team in the Drupal community – here we need to focus on lowering our pretty atrocious attrition rate – keeping the good people we attract rather than just attracting more people only to see them give up and leave, exasperated, in short order.

– Creating an environment that supports and encourages good design practice. More on this below.

2. Incrementally improve known usability problems from Drupal 7 in Drupal 8. Refocus on the Site Builder persona.

There are lots of known usability problems remaining in Drupal7 that it would be great to see nailed in Drupal8. In particular, a lot of the site building tools were not given as much attention as they deserve because of Drupal7’s focus on Content Creator.

At the Usability BoF in Chicago the team discussed refocussing Drupal8’s UX goals on the tasks of the Site Builder and therefore on improving the interfaces that are encountered during the core site building tasks. Regular usability testing on these tasks will also be undertaken during this cycle.

3. Improve Drupal’s ‘Out of the Box’ experience

The learning curve of death cannot continue. We can’t expect newcomers to sign over their first born child before we let them set up a simple website. We need to give them something quickly. Enter the Snowman (nee Tsunami) (see also @eaton’s initial proposal for this project).

4. Improve the experience for Content Creators

Refocussing the UX efforts for Drupal8 on the site builder leaves our Content Creators in an awkward, somewhat unloved position. The challenge remains to find a way to enable the people who run our Drupal websites day to day (and the people who can be incredibly influential in deciding whether or not Drupal is the chosen infrastructure or not) to have a good user experience.

There are several efforts in progress addressing this challenge including Project Verity (the not-drowning-tho’-equally-not-quite-waving project that I’ve been working on with the team at Mark Boulton Design), Workbench (recently released by the guys at Palantir) and no doubt many others that I’m not aware of (yet!)

It seems at this point that the fate of the content creator is in the hands of contrib not core. If you’re looking for an opportunity to really contribute to the future growth of Drupal consider this a worthy cause.

5. Make a better environment for creating good user experience

Nobody I’ve ever met who works on the Drupal project actively wants to create a crappy UX, but our tools don’t necessarily make it particularly easy for us to do so. needs better collaboration tools that encourage us to follow good process (eg. to explore the problem space and possible ideas before we start coding the first one we think of), to get the right people in the room for discussions at the right time (smart but not annoying notifications), to help drive productive, efficient, consensus focussed discussions, and to help ensure we’re all pulling together, not frittering our energy away on related projects that don’t know about each other.

This is the goal of the initiative that Randy Fay & I kicked off in our Core Conversation at Drupalcon, it’s called the Prairie Initiative (also see Randy’s and my slides on this topic aka ‘Redesigning The Issue Queue’ ).

This is where I want to spend the bulk of my ‘Drupally’ time over the coming months (albeit only a few hours a week – I’ve got work, kids, side projects, a mortgage to pay – don’t we all).  I’ve got some unfinished business on the redesign project anyways, the issue queue is my itch to scratch (I’ve moaned about it enough) and getting this right (or at least, a little righter) seems like a fascinating and challenging project to me. Also, I get to work with some of the Drupal community’s finest. Expect to hear more on this in the coming months.

There they are – the five UX initiatives I’d like to see for Drupal 8. I’m not sure how things become official initiatives in our new Drupal 8 landscape but I imagine that if a whole bunch of us keep saying it over and over, form into working groups and start getting exciting stuff done, that’s got to be a good start. If a delightful experience is really what we want to achieve then, IMHO, this is how we get started.