DrupalCon London 2011

I am a beginner to the content management system, Drupal, so it was great to have the opportunity to attend DrupalCon 2011 last week, held in East Croydon.  I’ve now learned what Drupal is, what it is not, its history and some insight into future plans.  I now understand what everyone’s  talking about – and how much there is still to learn!

I know, for example, that there are two sides of the coin when it comes to the user experience (UX) of Drupal:

  1. UX for the interface used to build Drupal sites – the ‘console’/ ‘dashboard’ interface- basically where the thing is bolted together and where content is inserted.  Users of this interface are the developers, and the client i.e. once the site is handed over.
  2. UX of actual Drupal sites once online – i.e. the resulting output of point 1.  These can be varied and you can only really spot a Drupal site for sure by looking at the code.  The Drupal Museum shows how the look and feel of Drupal sites has changed over the years.

Point 1 above, appears to be the responsibility of the Drupal community (drupal.org), a not-for-profit ground-up initiative, comprising the contributors of the underlying code for Drupal.  Whereas point 2 is up to the individual site builders themselves, and will depend on how much they choose to engage with a user-centered design process during the site’s inception and development.

Dries Buytaert, creator of Drupal, talks about usability/ease of use and Drupal at DrupalCon London. Usability was the no. 1 challenge as per the Drupal survey results. He also talked about the ever-present tension between usability and adding new functionality

The topic of usability/ ease of use was explicitly mentioned several times by different speakers.  Most notably by Dries Buytaert, the creator of Drupal, who talked about the Drupal user survey results, and his company’s (Acquia) Head of UX, Jeff Noyes, who gave a quick tour of the UX techniques he exploits.  There was also a talk about the findings of usability testing of the Drupal 7 ‘console’ carried out at the usability laboratory at the University of Minnesota; this was presented by various Drupal community folks.

Dante Murphy and Angel Brown from UX at Digitas Health spoke about systems thinking for designing user experiences – and how constraints on design are a good thing to have, so you can be free to explore a specific idea space.  I particularly liked the talk by Todd Ross Nienkerk (Four Kitchens) and Adam Snetman (Thinkso), on ‘Designing Web Systems’, which included a case study of a Drupal website that was created from scratch using personas, paper prototyping and wireframes.  They also talked about mood boards and style tiles too, which was very interesting.  All of the talks are posted at the DrupalCon London website, including descriptions, slides in pdf and videos.

To sum up, I would say the conference was aimed at Drupal developers (as expected), not at designers and UX folks like me, but I think in future Drupal.org should make a concerted effort to attract more UX people to attend and give talks to raise awareness of the importance of UX.  After all, beauty and efficiency of Drupal coding is one thing, but only a select few see the code, everyone else sees/has to use the end products!  For me, I think the event was a really helpful for finding out not only about the technology that I will increasingly be exposed to in my current role, but also about the people behind the open source phenomenon that is Drupal.

On a general note:

The conference host, Fairfield Halls, did really well to cope with the huge numbers of Drupal-ers (1,750 people) and the ubiquitous Mac laptops – providing 1,000’s of power supplies, and pretty reliable Wi-Fi for everyone too.  They even managed to serve tea in proper cups and saucers, and lunch with proper crockery – even a Sunday roast.  For the keynote talks, I liked too how they over-layed the live videos on to the PowerPoint slides, and the grungey music between speakers.  The tea lady was a legend too!

DrupalCon Tea Lady

As a beginner to Drupal, there were plenty of talks I could attend and follow, which was great and not what I was expecting.  So well done all round to the organisers!

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