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Two proposals for simplifying the Drupal 7 admin

on Mon, 09/27/2010 - 18:28

"One of the thing that engineers get excited about is shaving seconds off of load times, and improving performance, but what about shaving seconds off of the time it takes for a page to load into the users brain?

The tyranny of small decisions

One of the problems with the Drupal 7 user experience is what has been called "the tyranny of small decisions" (TTSD). When the user is presented with a page full of choices they have a tendency to get overwhelmed and freeze up. Drupal veterans might say "but all those options are necessary and that's what makes Drupal so powerful". That's true, but I'm not proposing reducing the functionality of Drupal in any way. What I propose is changes in the way the tools are presented. Simplifying, is not the same as dumbing down. Everyone in the Drupal community should be invested in increasing the adoption of Drupal and making Drupal simpler to use will aid that process.

Forms are a pain

It hit me the other day that the D7 admin in many places looks just like a web form. Nobody likes forms. In fact most social web applications go to great lengths to make forms as short as possible to reduce "friction" and get the user quickly through the task at hand. Because the D7 admin looks like a form the user is likely to assume that every field must be filled in or the form will return an error. Right away we have TTSD.

Certainly required fields are, well, required, but throughout D7 there are exposed fields that are not required. By changing these fields to a checkbox with an option (ie, "[checkbox] Use a site slogan." which expands when checked to show the field, instead of "site slogan. [field]" we avoid TTSD. The difference is that when the user sees the checkbox she thinks "This is optional" or "I can ignore this" or "I can set this later" wheras when the user sees the field she thinks: "do I have to fill this in?" or, "What should I put here?" or "is this required?".

Help that is not helpful

The second thing think would clean up a lot of visual cruft is hiding help text. Help text is one of the hallmarks of Drupal and it is a useful feature to be able to add help text to any field that you add to your UI, however the proliferation of help text in the D7 UI adds to the TTSD in a big way. The fact is that help text is only helpful when the user needs help, at all other times it just adds clutter and noise to the interface and increases the confusion of the user. D7 already has a model for contextual help icons on the modules page (in that instance they open a new node from the help pages). What I propose is using the "?" icon everywhere there is help text and showing a pop-up bubble on hover (users with javascript disabled would see the help text in the current format).

An example

In figure A we see the site information overlay as it exists now:

Figure A.

In figure B we see the same interface with all help text and non-required fields hidden.

Figure B.

Figure C shows the checked stat of a non-required field in which the field expands for the user to fill in.

Figure C.

Figure D shows the help text bubble.

Figure D.

What is the overall gain? In the original (figure A) there are 202 words, figure B has 54. Figure A is also 1287 pixels deep, way below the fold on most monitors, whereas figure B is only 728 pixels deep. This means that most users will see the entire form on one page. These changes have not been prototyped and tested (Acquia may prototype and test this if the community shows interest) but I would be astonished if they did not produce a significant reduction in the time a new user would take to comprehend the page and complete a task. Now imagine if this model were applied to all of D7, the results could be dramatic.

A bottom-up approach

One thing that makes both of these changes attractive is that they make simple adjustments to the D7 UI without trying as many have done, to re-invent the entire interaction pattern. It is my belief that the perception of the "steep learning curve" of Drupal could be greatly reduced by implementing some simple UI improvements like these. I invite the community to give me feedback on this.

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