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If Gmail were built with Drupal

November 09, 2013

A comparison of the Gmail interface with similar fields in Drupal's interface

So what are you trying to say?

Admins and content creators who use Drupal are going to compare their experience using Drupal to the other modern web applications they use, like Facebook, Evernote, and Gmail. Many of those products have entire teams of usability experts who optimize their products for their users. While Drupal has come a long way, just comparing the interfaces is instructive for showing us where we can improve.

Is Drupal's interface really that bad?

It works, but the data is in and content creators are struggling. The form is long, which is intimidating, and requires scrolling to complete. It's long because space isn't always used efficiently, with wide gaps in some places, and seldom-used features taking up a lot of room. The form itself lacks some of the more clever and user-friendly form elements that other applications use for autocomplete, tagging, multiselect, drag and drop, and others.

What do we do?

We raise awareness. We explain that if Drupal is succeeding, it is despite its authoring experience, not because of it. We acknowledge the issues that exist, and we chip away at them in the core issue queues as much as we can. Then we celebrate every victory we have (three cheers for the improved installation interface!).

And in the mean time?

There are plenty of small things you can do to improve things on your existing sites. Integrate better form elements. Simplify the node-edit page. Try out some alternative admin themesOrganize your fields to help reduce confusion. There are a lot of contributed modules that can help empower your content creators, and if you can't find the one you're looking for, then build it (and share it with the rest of us). Piece by piece, we can make Drupal actually feel like the modern web-publishing powerhouse that it is under the hood.

Note: This image came from a talk I gave at Capital Camp, where I go into more detail about the specific issues in the Gmail clone, and some things site builders can do to improve things. If you find this topic interesting (or you just want some more context around this example), go check it out.


I like the interface of Drupal better :D Much more informative.

I think it's silly to expect Drupal to be fit for all purposes. Drupal works best for CMS's, for everything else a framework is a more appropriate fit (and no, Drupal isn't a framwork)

I certainly wouldn't recommend building Gmail with Drupal. I only use it as a reference point because content admins who are using Drupal also use modern apps (like Gmail) as a usability reference point. As far as the CMS vs Framework discussion goes, I agree with Larry Garfield's perspective, as shared here:

Erratum: "it's authoring experience". Remember, it's = it is.

Good catch. Fixed it. :)

For anyone interested in some quick wins on their own site I'd stronly recommend watching Jennifer Tehan's talk "Building a tasty backend"

It recommends installing a few modules, my favourite of which is admin_views. With about 10 minutes work that allows me to add filters for the site's taxonomies to the main node listing page.

That example is what you would get if you click a site together without any custom development. Only a very lazy (or very cheap) developer will deliver an interface like that.

There is nothing in the gmail screenshot which is not possible in Drupal with some custom development.

Bingo! I think the biggest takeaway from this post is that very point: If you're building a Drupal site, it is your responsibility to tailor the admin experience to your content admins needs.

I can only echo Pieter's comment. He nails it.

Also, the other major flaw in this article is using Gmail as a standard for a quality interface comparison.

Well, that's pretty much the point, isn't it? Instead of having sane defaults with good usability we have a quite bad default interface that demands customisation on each site, even without adding any extra functionality.

The problem isn't necessarily one of functionality - the problem is that the default administrative themes have had no real UX thought put into them.

Drupal community and/or Drupal association should have a concerted effort in getting a 'real' administrative theme in that is nice and friendly for the end user, and keep Seven for the poweruser / super admin. Even the one in D8 doesn't look that different.

1) You are belittling thousands of hours of thought, discussion, and collaborative effort that has gone into Drupal. What we have in any given release is a snapshot of a specific point in an iterative process. The use case and user that Drupal 7 was developed for was not "easy authoring" and it is way better than D6, which was better than D5, which ...

2) The Drupal Association is, by charter and definition, not involved in Drupal development or direction.

3) If you say "Someone should", "The Drupal community should have", "Dries needs to" or any other variation of this, you are missing the point of a collaboratively developed, open source project. If you care enough to complain, but not enough to jump in and make the change you want to see, that doesn't help. *You* should be the change you want to see, put your coding where your mouth is, file bug reports, submit design mockups ... See?

I liked a lot of the ideas I got form looking through your article and the articles you liked to - but it's a shame about how many of them either had no Drupal 7 release, or the Drupal 7 release wasn't final and hadn't been updated in a while. :(

Note that the default node form has already changed in 8.x, see for the original discussion that led to that.

Thanks for sharing. I feel like this and the new styleguide for Seven are laying the groundwork for big improvements to the default content creation workflow in Drupal 8... not to mention WYSIWYG and the other features from the Spark initiative. Certainly a lot to look forward to.

"The form is long, which is intimidating, and requires scrolling to complete."

Do you have any data to back that affirmation? I know users are changing and "dumbing" down interfaces is a trend, but I'm not sure if I get your point.

I find with long forms it's difficult to get an overview of the whole form.

If your long form upon submission does a round trip, with some of the form requiring further attention - say near the bottom - it's easy to miss. You have to make that really obvious to the end user and help them get there.

Also with long forms, sometimes finding navigating to the save button is hard. This is more annoying when you do a small edit. Perhaps a fixed button would be better.

The alternative to long forms could be to split forms into sections (perhaps using tabs for field sets). And/or provide error checking and hand holding in-line.

I know when I used to work with Drupal sites, you could restrict access to some parts of the form and and back-end in general for specific roles. That could reduce the length of forms.

Some CMSs use two columns for the form, this doesn't work for me either as I can totally miss options.

But will the next post be about how your host can't support traffic from HN?

But, you are comparing a product, that it's Gmail, with a tool to build products, that it's Drupal.
If you add custom css, display suit form and ckeditor you will get a better experience for editors.

Drupal is a massive pile of crap. I've wrote about it before

Most of its popularity comes from its successful past, when it did what no other CMS could. Nowdays there are better CMSes that can do the same. Yet the old drupal devs still continue to use it and their favorite collection of 30 plugins. Anyone having to go through the drupal learning curve just sticks with it as they invested too much time in it.

Read this link. Kind of summarizes my thoughts on why CMS' like Drupal and Wordpress are not necessarily the best options. Be a fan of whatever you like, but to say it's the best is sillly because there is no such thing. The best CMS is the one that fits requirements best before needing to extend. That's why I love CMS' like Harmony and Craft.

Well, if I were the developer, the end user would never see that message/warning!
I would have take care of the updates before anything is broken on the site!

But the point is, Drupal is really great to work with!


There are quite good admin themes you could use to "fix" this "issue" :-)

All the comments here to the effect of "but you can do x to make the admin area better" and "obviously only a lazy dev would deliver the default Drupal admin interface" are perfectly illustrating the point: Drupal's admin UI choices are absolutely terrible.

Where Drupal fails compared to something like WordPress is they cram every possible configuration option into the admin UI and some things are simply better left to code. WordPress out of the box is incredibly simple to set up and understand. If you want to really customize it, you can make it do anything you want, but you're probably going to need a dev with at least some basic PHP chops, which is as it should be.

With Drupal just getting the thing set up in a basic form is a nightmare. You have in install and configure your own module for a WYSIWYG editor for f*ck's sake! Why should you need a developer to get a simple, usable admin user interface?

I've done a lot of WP development, and recently moved to a full time gig at an academic institution where Drupal is king. It boggles my mind watching people spend literally weeks setting up the simplest of things with Drupal.

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