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Nine Ways to Improve the Drupal Administrative Experience

In the open source world, you often hear people observe that Drupal was built for developers while WordPress was built for content managers.  This observation contains thinly veiled criticism of both platforms.  For Drupal the implication is that the platform doesn’t provide a great user experience for content managers.

The criticism sticks because it is sort of true.  Right out of the box Drupal’s administrative tools aren’t intuitive or easy-to-use.  With the release of Drupal 8, Drupal out of the box is better than it used to be, but is still somewhat baffling to folks that aren’t familiar with the platform’s quirks.

As someone who builds sites in both WordPress and Drupal, I have to admit that I have contributed to Drupal’s bad content management reputation.  I am guilty of not focusing enough on the experience of people that do the day-to-day work in Drupal: content managers.  The fact is, with a little effort you can create a good content management experience in Drupal.  Below are some tips on how you can improve the Drupal administrative experience.

(1) Create Custom User Roles

By default Drupal creates an Administrator user role that has access to the entire backend administrative system (content, theme, blocks, views, etc.). When setting up a site, all administrative users ware often given access to the full suite of backend tools.  This is confusing to many users as they have access to lots of features they aren’t familiar with and really shouldn’t be using.  It can also lead to bugs as admins experiment with backend tools they haven’t been trained on.

Drupal features a powerful user role system that allows for the creation of custom user roles.  Once a custom role is created, super administrators can pick and choose what backend features and functionality the role has access to.    At the beginning of a new project user roles should be set up for the different types of administrators.  People who are just going to be managing content should only have access to the content editing tools.  If someone is just posting press releases, they should just have the ability to post press release.

This approach both makes the administrative tools easier to use and prevents mistakes caused by people using features they haven’t been trained on.

(2) Customize the Look of the Administrative Section

The default Drupal administrative themes that come with Drupal 6 and 7  aren’t very attractive or usable.  Fortunately there are a myriad of slick administrative themes you can install to improve the Drupal administrative experience.  We are partial to Ember for Drupal 7 sites.

Drupal 8 actually has a pretty nice default administrative theme, although you can use a different theme (or create your own) if you want to.

Take the time to make sure your Drupal administrative section looks as nice as the site’s frontend.

(3) Customize the Options in Your Administrative Menu

If you have used a Drupal site you are undoubtedly familiar with the menu options that are available by default.  Content.  Structure.  Appearance.  People.  Modules.  Configuration.

While these options make pretty good sense for people that have full administrative rights and know Drupal, they aren’t relevant for all users on all projects.  We recommend customizing the menu options based on your site’s workflow/needs.

Some tips:

  • Minimize clicks by having frequently used administrative pages accessible via the top level navigation system.  If 90% of the site’s content involves creating and editing blog content, have “Create Blog Entry” and “Edit Blog Entries” be two of your top level options.  Give admins easy access to the functions they perform frequently.
  • Don’t be afraid to rename things.  If you think “Theme” makes more sense than “Appearance” then simply rename the tab.
  • Add links to other resources you use in managing your site that may not be part of Drupal.  Add links to documentation, style guides, Analytics accounts, etc. so that the Drupal administrative section can serve as the definitive resource for your web program.

(4) Create Custom Administrative Views

By default Drupal features a “Find Content” section that allows for users to filter results by content type.  On more complex sites this section becomes inadequate as your administrators will want to search using different criteria based on the content type they are reviewing.  For example, an administrator may want to filter the content type blog post by author.  This author filter may not be relevant for a content type such as press releases.

It is easy in Drupal to customize the options available on that main Find Content page and to create custom views for specific content types.  Take the time to customize the backend content view pages so they are truly useful to administrators.

(5) Take the Time to Set Up the Dashboard

Drupal comes with an administrative dashboard section that allows you to create quick links to the most frequently used content.  Take the time to set up and customize your site’s administrative dashboard.  Here are some ideas on how the dashboard can be used:

  • Create quick links to functions that are performed all the time.  This would include things like Add Press Releases, Edit Press Releases, etc..
  • Create quick links to third party resources the client may want to access.  This might include links to Google Analytics, Mailchimp, Client Reports, Style Guide, etc.
  • Include a list of recent content the user has edited.
  • Include a list of content updated by other users.

(6) Write Instructions

When building large Drupal sites it is inevitable that some content types end up with a ton of fields.  These fields can be mysterious to people not familiar with the site..  We recommend grouping these fields into logical field collections and writing clear instructions as to what the fields are used for as a way to avoid confusion.

As an example, say you have a content type called Research that includes a checkbox called Featured Research.  On the backend you should explain that clicking this checkbox causes the research node to be featured prominently on the main Research page.  Write clear instructions so that administrators always know the ramifications of the choices they make.

(7) Document Image Sizes

Over the years our Drupal sites have gotten more and more image intensive.  And with the rise of mobile we also find ourselves having to upload multiple versions of images to ensure they look good on phones and tablets as well as desktops.

It sounds simple, but on the backend you should provide specs to content administrators regarding the file size, dimensions and format of images.  If you want a square jpg that is no more than 500*500 to be uploaded, tell the administrators that up front.  It will save a lot of trial and error.

(8) Install and/or Customize the WYSIWYG

It sounds crazy, but Drupal 8 is the first version of Drupal to include a WYSIWYG in core. (I told you Drupal was built for developers).  So if your site is in Drupal 7, as a first step you will need to install a WYSIWYG module such as CKEditor if you don’t want your content editors to have to write straight code.

Once you have a WYSIWYG installed take the the time to customize the options that are available based on what your content managers will be doing.  If you know your content managers will be copying a lot of content from Word, include the Paste from Word option.  If you don’t want content editors to change fonts, don’t include the font selector option.

While we encourage the installation of WYSIWYG’s for basic formatting, we advise against providing too many options.  If you have set up your Drupal site in an intelligent way, content managers should only be doing basic editing work (adding links, bullets, etc.) in the WYSIWYG.

(9) Don’t Forget to Do Spring Cleaning

A lot of the sites we manage have been in Drupal for years.  In many cases the backends of our sites have gotten really messy as a result.  Take the time a few times a year to go in and clean up to make sure the administrative tools remain easy-to-use.

Are there fields, taxonomies or content types that are no longer in use?  Remove them.  Are there new materials that should be featured in the overall administrative menu?  Add them.  Are there materials that are no longer relevant?  Delete the links.

Periodic clean up is important.  Without it the administrative section can get really confusing for new people who come on board who may not have historical knowledge of a site.

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