Thoughts on Drupal 7

Things are happening on the Drupal front. There’s a new website up today; and the first beta of the long-awaited v7 emerged a fortnight ago. I hear talk of Drupal-based projects and proposals in the vicinity of Whitehall, including various staff moves. There may be big announcements on the immediate horizon.
It’s been a while since I ventured into Drupal – so I downloaded the v7 beta, to give it a spin. And whilst it looks a bit prettier than previous versions, it still feels like the same old Drupal underneath. A rather tortuous installation process, requiring much chown’ing and phpmyadmin’ing, and manually shifting files from folder to folder. And at the end of it, an empty shell, with little guidance as to what you might do next.

Let’s just imagine for a moment that you want to start creating a page. You click on the ‘Add content’ button, which now lives in an admin bar across the top of the page. This generates an overlaid window offering various content types: choose one, and you end up on an authoring screen – with no WYSIWYG text editor. That’s right – out of the box, you’re expected to code your own pages in HTML.
Of course, you can have WYSIWYG: but you need to add it as a plugin – er, sorry, module. You can choose from a dozen different WYSIWYG editor functions, all of which have various benefits and drawbacks. And then, you’re probably going to have to put them in the right folder manually.
This rather encapsulates the Drupal mentality. Perhaps you’re someone who gets very worked up about the use of one particular WYSIWYG component over another: well, Drupal gives you the choice. And for a certain type of person, that’s just what you want.
The WordPress mentality, on the other hand, favours sheer simplicity. Install WordPress, and a WYSIWYG component is already installed. (TinyMCE, since you asked.) It’s more than satisfactory. There are certainly a few things it could do better. But it looks and feels like Microsoft Word – and for the vast majority of my clients, that’s precisely what they want.
Geeks love Drupal; people love WordPress. The Drupal guys know this. In kicking off the Drupal 7 user experience process, Drupal founder and project leader Dries Buytaert wrote:

Drupal’s steep learning curve filters out far too many smart, motivated people who could benefit from Drupal. We see it all the time in the forums, in my “State of Drupal” surveys, on Twitter, when talking to customers, and on the web. Even though we’ve made significant progress with making Drupal easier to use, a lot of work is left to be done. With other content management systems such as Joomla! and WordPress making strides to catch up to Drupal in terms of development flexibility, if we want Drupal to remain competitive, we have a challenge we have to face: we need to create a user experience that makes it easier for people new to Drupal to discover all of its richness and power.

Oh – and which platform did the Drupal 7 user experience team use to blog their work? You’ll never guess. Leisa Reichelt writes:

We know Drupal is amazing and we love it … but unfortunately, for the time being, it is too broken for us to be able to do the work we need to do on this project at the pace that we need to do it. We don’t have time to ‘learn’ Drupal, nor the skills to bend it to our will (and make it look acceptably pretty), we can’t even get a blog post on the homepage. We appreciate all the offers of porting this blog over to Drupal, but to be honest, I really like using WordPress and nothing I’ve seen of Drupal makes me want to switch over at the moment.
We know that Drupal is not WordPress, and we have no intention of making it so, but using WordPress helps us get our work done faster and easier for the time being, and it helps us maintain perspective and distance – and for now those things are really important to us. 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.

That was written in March 2009. The blog is still on WordPress, by the way.
Leisa later hints at some of the underlying tensions in making Drupal more human-friendly:

Drupal developers are … the most important audience. What this audience wants is not Drupal as a product that (ordinary users) can use out of the box, they want a developer toolkit that gives them more and more flexibility and capability to build cool stuff, and to push Drupal way beyond the realms of a simple Content Management System. And so we have this tension. Drupal as a ‘Consumer Product’ and Drupal as a ‘Developer Framework’. Currently, the official direction is that the project is going to attempt to be both. I think this is a serious problem.
I know that for many people the idea of making a Drupal that (ordinary users) can love, making something that can actively compete from a UX perspective with the likes of WordPress, is a grand aspiration. So it is, but unfortunately I also think it is the wrong aspiration for Drupal core. The sooner we focus on the core target audience of Drupal core – the developers – and commit to making a user experience that supports them in their use of Drupal, the sooner we’ll really have actually achieved a really Great User Experience for Drupal.

Now let me be absolutely clear. Drupal is an excellent platform. Great things can be done with it. And on some levels, comparisons between Drupal and WordPress are pointless. They are currently aimed at different types of people, and different use cases – so it’s ridiculous to say that one is materially better than the other. Besides, they’re rapidly converging: Drupal with its UX improvements, WordPress with its custom post types etc. They can both do clever things like multisite installs. They both have thousands of user-created plugins/modules. They can both be whatever you want.
But if I were contemplating a large-scale decentralised publishing platform for mainly text-based information, there’s absolutely no doubt in my mind: it has to be WordPress. Our recent work with Defra is a perfect case in point: multiple independent child sites, with tweaked themes as appropriate to the subject matter, giving relatively non-tech-savvy authors considerable creative freedom and flexibility, within bounds permitted by a central administrator.
If you’re listening to the users of that platform, you’d build it in WordPress. If you’re listening to the geeks, you’d build it in Drupal. It’s your choice.

6 thoughts on “Thoughts on Drupal 7”

  1. Hi Simon, if you want to see Drupal easier out of the box you should take a look at which targets enterprise microsites. Not quite the average user, but the marketing and design teams who want to put up quick powerful websites with a great design without having out to do any custom coding. If you want to see a super easy local install of Drupal try Acquia’s stack installer: It installs a local AMP stack on Windows, OSX, and Ubuntu without any of that messy systems configuration.
    You might also want to take a look at distributions of Drupal like and which has a much more focused user experience.
    I think when you are trying to meet the needs of content contributors WordPress has the better out of the box experience. But Drupal is has much deeper feature sets and greater customization ability. Some businesses require those application customizations and that’s where Drupal really shines. WordPress’s default configurations frustrate developers who have to undo those default assumptions when their clients needs diverge. Drupal’s minimalism is exactly what complex site developers want.
    So I think the appropriate distinction would be are your websites primary stakeholders content contributors or business application owners. The geeks just recommend what they know is effective to meet those business application owners needs.
    Drupal community adventure guide

  2. You raise some very valid points Simon. WordPress has set the bar when it comes to usability for everyday content contributors.
    I encourage you to take a look at Drupal Gardens, a Drupal-as-a-Service platform, built on Drupal 7 by Acquia. We are addressing many of the challenges you articulate above – installation headaches, the blank-slate syndrome when creating a new site, a default WYSIWYG editor, easy image and video gallery creation, and more.
    We are committed to working with the community to move the ball forward in this area – we are doing extensive usability testing, working with module maintainers, and contributing code back to the community for use across the entire project.
    Ultimately, both Drupal and WordPress have the potential offer lots of goodness to both geeks and people, so more organizations look to open source to build beautiful, powerful websites.
    I’d love to hear your feedback on Drupal Gardens, hope you can take some time to check it out in the context of this discussion.
    Bryan House
    Sr. Dir. Marketing

  3. Hi Simon,
    Really interesting post and I have to say i broadly agree; WordPress does seem easier to use out of the box where as maybe you do need a bit more specialist knowledge to get Drupal working the way you want.
    As you say both platforms are starting to take hold across government; (which I’m part of) has been using Drupal from the start and it’s been a terrific platform for our needs…but we do have the right developers on hand which is crucial. It’ll be interesting to see how both platforms are adopted more widely across the public sector going forward.

  4. There’s plenty to like about Drupal Gardens, and it’s an interesting concept – develop your own package in a live hosted environment, then download it when you’re ready to self-host. Except that when I just tried to do that, it threw up an error: ‘The website encountered an unexpected error. Please try again later. ‘ I’m not convinced it’s going to help if I wait all night. And yes, I know it’s all in beta.

  5. To a man with a hammer….
    As Kieran says above, it all depends on what you want to do. If you want to publish content on a web site then I’d imagine wordpress is the thing to go with. If you need to build in more custom functionality then the world’s your oyster really – be it Drupal, other CMSs, bespoke development, etc etc.

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