Drupal 7 UX: design in the open

Leisa shares her experiences in a community driven design process.

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So, you think we interaction designers should be sharing our work a little more? Work on a community design project like Drupal7 UX (#D7UX) project and you’ll have your wireframes on Flickr before the ink is dry. It’s a crazy, terrifying, exciting ride and we’re right in the thick of it.

Over the coming months I’m going to be sharing with you my experiences as the User Experience Person on this project. The D7UX project was initiated and funded by Acquia, a Drupal-related company, with the goal of making Drupal more accessible and desirable to non-developers. I’m working with the Cardiff-based team of Mark Boulton Design and we’re working closely with the Drupal Community, web content managers the world over and also some colleagues in the design and UX community to achieve this goal.

Design challenges

Redesigning a system like Drupal is full of great design challenges. Despite the best efforts of the community usability team; in many places the interface design mirrors the technical architecture closely. The user is put through a series of challenges in which he or she must understand what the next required step is, locate it within the system and make sense of a language that can only be described as ‘Drupal-speak’.

The design challenges pale in significance when compared to the ‘human’ challenges.

We can do the best design work of our careers on this project, but if is it not accepted by the community then the project is doomed.

Not only do we need to do amazing design work, we also need to find ways to get a predominantly developer-led community to engage in our process. They need to understand and value the work that we do, to participate in the design iterations, and to take joint-ownership of the end result. This poses a plethora of complex problems both from a design front and a community front.

Asking questions

Some of the key questions that we have identified for ourselves and that we ask ourselves regularly as we move through the project are:

  1. How do you redesign something that a big group of incredibly passionate people have built by hand without making them hate you, the design process and the design that is born from your process?
  2. How do you engage a community in design?
  3. How do you design in an open source way?
  4. How can we show ‘what designers do’ to a primarily developer-led community?

I’m not sure I’ll ever know the answer to any of those questions, but what I can do is show you a little of what we’ve been doing in response to those questions in our project so far.

One of the greatest risks of a community design project is that most of the community don’t know what you’re doing. They only find out right at the end, when it’s too late.

Here is the first challenge of community design. You want to put your head down and start working but what you need to do first of all is devise a PR strategy – how can you make sure that as many people as possible get wind of your project as quickly as possible. For us, this has taken three main paths so far:

  • presence at Drupalcon: we managed to get ourselves a table in the sponsors hall at Drupalcon. We went to the conference armed with posters, postcards, balloons, jellybeans and a couple of participatory activities (in this case, a ‘suggestion box’, a screencasting activity (Pimp Your Admin) and some ‘blue sky design workshops’. All of our activities were publicised by us and as many others as we could get to help us blog and tweet in the week leading up to Drupalcon and throughout the conference.
  • project presence online: we have a project blog (d7ux.org) we use our own blogs, a Flickr group, a YouTube group, a Twitter Group and hashtag (#drupal7ux), presence in the existing forums at Drupal.org and a regular presence on the main IRC channels
  • community presence: within any community there are influential leaders, we are really fortunate to have existing relationships with some of those people in the Drupal community but there are many more with whom we are just beginning to reach out to and foster relationships with.

All of this takes time and preparation. And time that we spend doing this type of work is time that we are not spending designing.

This is one of the challenges inherent to community design projects – you feel as though so much time is being spent NOT designing, and yet if you don’t spend time on these activities whatever time you do spend designing is bound to be worthless.

In some ways it is frustrating, but the pay off is in the quality of the interaction you have with the community – the great people you get to meet and the great insight they can bring to the project.

So important is this evangelising to our project process that it could be (and has been) suggested that we make it more difficult for ourselves than we need to. We don’t run our project online in one nice neat location where everything related to the project is posted. We spread it not only across a range of mediums (for example, visual Flickr/YouTube and written blogs/tweets), but often in several locations. Content that is posted on d7ux.org is often cross posted on the drupal.org forums, on my blog and on the Mark Boulton Design blog. With comments open in all locations.

We’ve been using video extensively in this project to try to communicate our process and ideas, which has been generally well received and largely successful. It gives an ‘easy’ way for people to consume our work (we transcribe the key points for those who are not able or inclined to watch the video). And it’s also a nice object to ‘pass on’ to help promote the projec further. Plus it’s another medium for people to ‘feedback’ into the project and several have taken the opportunity to do so already.

There are pros and cons to this ‘messy feedback’ approach. Your feedback is scattered and it is challenging to keep up with and to synthesise. However, opening up the discussion on my blog and Mark’s provides a ‘safe place’ for those who are less entrenched in the Drupal community to provide their feedback – I’ve had feedback from lots of people directly who tell me they are afraid of being ‘flamed’ by the community.

From experience, I can say they are, unfortunately, right to be a little afraid.


Ah, communities. There are so many things mixed up in being a community that make communication challenging. There’s the fine line they walk between passion and hostility. There’s the ‘pecking order’ – earning your stripes, needing to be seen to know your stuff and be an expert. There’s group think, mob mentality, team spirit. There’s the imbalance that comes from the difference between the people who choose to post and those who choose to watch. There’s history – pages and pages and pages of history. Threads and issues opened and closed and reopened and reclosed.

It is complex stuff, it is easy to inflame, and incredibly difficult to predict.

Over the past week our ‘community presence’ has been dialed up as an article promoting our project has been posted on the Drupal.org homepage. In the days following both the project Mark & I personally have been the subject of everything from warm support to openly personal dislike. It’s incredibly necessary to our project that this happens and that it happens as early in the project as possible – we *need* the community to engage and we need it now. And yet, it is an incredibly challenging process to go through. There have been frequent mentions of ‘duck’s backs’ and ‘thick skins’ this week. At the same time, it is a great insight into attitudes to design and usability and the challenges that still abound.

Moving forward we have a raft of design and community challenges and I look forward to sharing them with you here on Johnny. There are a million things I want to tell you about the project and, as it’s all open source, I probably can tell you. So do let me know if there’s anything particular you’d like to know.

Meanwhile, go check it out for yourself (and get involved!) at www.d7ux.org.

Leisa Reichelt

Leisa Reichelt is a freelance contextual researcher and user centered designer based in London, UK. She is also user experience person on the D7UX project.

8 comments on this article

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  2. Leisa Reichelt is a freelance contextual researcher and user centered designer based in London, UK. She is also user experience person on the D7UX project.

  3. sohbet on

    Exclude Pages is great – I have been keeping an eye out for something like this. I had been using Pagemash, which is a good plugin, but not very scalable beyond twenty or thirty pages, in terms of how it manages content. Thanks for the great writeup.

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  4. necessary because of sharing of experience, yes d7ux project began..

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  6. t’s incredibly necessary to our project that this happens and that it happens as early in the project as possible

  7. sohbet odaları on

    don’t run our project online in one alevi sohbet nice neat location where everything

  8. sohbet odaları on

    contextual researcher and user c chat entered designer based in London