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Five More Nifty Drupal Modules

Back in February I wrote about Five nifty Drupal modules we use, and I thought it was time to add to the list of the ones we have found very useful.  Please note that the availability of these modules may vary across the different versions of Drupal (5, 6, and 7), and in some cases module features and functionality differ some as well based upon Drupal version.

1. Boost

We have found that Drupal’s out of the box caching functionality is very helpful in improving the performance of our sites.  However, there are very few ways to configure the caching.  That’s why we like Boost; it allows us to configure caching more.  For instance, the module allows us to disable caching on specific pages while leaving it enabled on the rest of the site.  In regards to Drupal 6, it also has a much more efficient cache due to the fact that it is a file-based cache instead of the database based cache built in to Drupal.

2. ThemeKey

A theme is a basic design template for a Drupal site.  Drupal sites can have multiple themes.  In some cases we use one theme for the main version of a site while we use another theme for the mobile site.  However, there are times when a section of a site needs a different theme – regardless if it is viewed using a mobile device or not.  We recently implemented a blog section of a client’s site, and we used ThemeKey for that purpose.  There are many rules you can set up to govern which pages use which theme, and in this case we based upon the node’s alias.

3. Colorbox

On many of our sites we use pop-ups for splash pages, social share options, image and video embeds, and other similar content.  The Colorbox module provides such functionality and is very helpful when setting up pop-ups.  While this is not a surprise, it is nice that one can use css to modify an pop-up’s appearance.

4. Features

We are constantly tweaking and adding functionality to many of our Drupal sites.  Before we implement major changes, we’ll get them set up and approved by our clients first on our development sites before pushing them into our production environments.  Pushing new and reconfigured content types, modules, blocks, and similar features from a development to production environment is tricky at times since the environments are rarely truly synced.  Further, in some cases this requires that one remembers a multitude of changes to settings. The Features module provides mechanisms that aid in this process by allowing users to export new features from a development site as a module for installation in another environment.

5. Google Analytics

I’m not a big fan using modules for simple things like adding Google Analytics tracking script to sites.  That’s simple enough to do.  However, sometimes once you look closer, modules like this have a lot more to them.  For instance, this module allows you to control when the tracking script appears on the site.  One common thing to do is to not display the script for admin users.  Why would you want to track what you or your staff is doing on the site when what’s important are the actual site visitors?  This module allows you to control that.  Another cool feature is it allows one to add custom variables for custom reporting purposes using a very easy interface.  Thus, one doesn’t need to understand how to modify the script properly execute these changes.

The Advantage of Time

As someone who has spent some time consulting for political campaigns,  I always find the post mortems that pop up fast and furious after election day predictable and simplistic.  The winner is a genius.  The loser is a moron.  Nuance is generally sacrificed at the alter of the greater narrative. 

Having been in a few fox holes, I can tell you that things are never as black and white as they are made to appear.  The winners aren’t as smart as they look and the losers aren’t as dumb.  So I take all these articles that are popping up about the Obama and Romney digital campaigns with a healthy grain of salt. 

Having read a bunch of post mortems, I think the one thing that is being actually being understated is the huge head start the Obama campaign had from a technology and data perspective.  The Romney campaign was playing catch up, with no real chance of ever evening the race on this front.  Let me dive in.

Project Orca

For Romney, the big post-election narrative revolves around the failure Project Orca.  Project Orca was the Romney campaigns ambitious effort to get detailed analytics on activity at each polling place in the country.  If implemented correctly, this system would have allowed the campaign to make strategic decisions on election day about where to focus precious last minute GOTV resources.

I won’t go into detail here, but it didn’t work.  At all.  Ars Technica has a good summary of the project’s failures.

The Romney campaign is taking a beating over the failure of the system.  From the stories I’ve read, most seem to attribute the failure to poor planning, disorganization and incompetence.  All I know is what I’ve read, but I tend to be a bit more forgiving of the Romney campaign then the press. 

For obvious reasons, the Romney campaign didn’t start building Project Orca until the end of the GOP primaries.  Project Orca was built in a compressed timeframe (six months) during the heat of the campaign.  From experience, I can tell you the last days of a campaign are a terrible environment for software development.  People are tired, overworked and frazzled.  Most campaign staff have no background or understanding of the software development process.

Building custom software is hard work in ideal conditions.  Deadlines are often missed and unanticipated issues inevitably pop up.  Building something as ambitious and important as Project Orca in six months in the hot house of a political campaign is a recipe for disaster. 

I credit Romney campaign for their effort, but given the environment in which it was built Project Orca was always more likely to fail than to succeed.  For Project Orca to work, it needed to be planned years in advance and likely spearheaded by the Republican Party itself,  since there was no anointed candidate to drive development. 

Obama Advantage

For Obama, the narrative is about the team’s use of data gleaned from six years of near constant campaigning to optimize everything about its effort.  Here are a few of the tidbits that have come out:

  • In 2008, the Obama campaign didn’t really have a central database containing all of its data about voters.  Immediately after winning the Presidency, the Obama campaign started building a central database containing all data.  The effort was code named Project Narwhal.  Source
  • The campaign launched a Quick Donate tool that allowed donors who signed up to give with a single click.  The campaign estimates that the tool “netted the campaign about $60 million more than it would have raised with email blasts alone.”  Source
  • The Obama campaign conducted extensive A+B testing on all aspects of the program.  The campaign estimates that the move to a four step donation process resulted in a 15% increase in conversions on the page.  That is huge.  Source
  • In 2008, the campaign’s volunteer organizing tool, My.BarackObama.com, was hailed as one keys to their success.  In 2012 the Obama campaign launched a new version of the tool, labeled Dashboard, that the campaign claims was even more effective.  Source

Bottom Line

You get the picture.  The Romney campaign was still putting together the building blocks of its digital infrastructure up until the last day of the campaign.  Since the Obama campaign already had the building blocks in place, it’s focus was on analyzing six years worth of data to optimize efforts that were already working pretty well.  I suspect the Romney campaign was well aware of their disadvantage, as they frequently would mimic tactics deployed by the Obama campaign (Quick Donate, contests, etc.).

No matter how smart and talented the Romney campaign was, from a technology infrastructure and data perspective, they were at a huge disadvantage.

While probably an overstatement, the analogy that comes to mind to me is a well funded search start up trying to take on Google in the search space.  Google has spent fourteen years tweaking and refining its algorithm.  No matter how well funded or brilliant a new challenger might be, it is going to be nearly impossible to build something more advanced. 

From a technology and data perspective, the playing field simply wasn’t even in 2012.

Is the Homepage Slider Dead?

The homepage slider has been a design staple in the political and public affairs space for the last half decade, at least. 

For those not familiar with the concept, a slider is an area of a website that allows visitors to scroll through different options like they would a Powerpoint deck.  In the politech space, these sliders are commonly used as the central element of a site’s homepage.  Here is an example from the current www.greenpeace.org.  The Greenpeace site allows you to scroll through the slides using the little arrows and dots in the bottom left.

  greenpeace

Sliders have become popular because they solve a common problem.  Organizations want their site to make a strong visual impact  while at the same time they want to feature a gazillion different pieces of content.  Sliders allow you to have things both ways. 

The concept was all the rage in 2008, with both the Barack Obama and John McCain sites featuring similar tab based sliders.  Here are screengrabs of both sites at this time around four years ago.

2008

In 2012, both the Obama and Romney campaigns have abandoned the slider and gone with a simpler, more streamlined approach.  Screenshots below.

2012

As I’ve watched some large sites abandon the slider approach, I’ve started to look at the data and think about whether sliders are the best approach in our own work.  From my perspective, there are three main reasons I see organizations moving away from sliders.

  1. The dirty little secret of sliders is that visitors rarely see any content beyond the first slide.  Very few people will click through your slideshow.  Even if your slider auto scrolls, most people aren’t going to be on the page long enough to see that great content hidden in the third or fourth slide.  This issue is made worse by sliders like the one used by Greenpeace, where the user has no idea what the content of the next slide is.  The McCain and Obama 2008 examples at least let visitors know what content they were clicking to access.
  2. Sliders don’t really work that well on smartphones or tablets. Try using the Greenpeace slider on your mobile phone.  Sure, you can make touch friendly sliders, but I’d much rather scroll up and down on my smartphone than try to navigate a touch friendly slider.
  3. Sliders are often in a misguided attempt to get critical content “above the fold.”  I think most people now understand that users are willing to scroll.  Longer pages are the norm now, so people don’t feel the need to cram all their content into a single slider that appears on screen when you first hit the site.

So should organizations abandon the homepage slider?

I would not go that far. 

But I do think most organizations are using them in the wrong way. 

Too many are burying critical site information in the third or fourth slide of their homepage slider, insuring that the  majority of visitors will never see the content.  If you use a slider, think of the information presented on slides 2-5 as bonus content for visitors that take the time to explore your site.  Think of the slider as a way to add a little interactivity to your site as opposed to as a critical part of your content delivery strategy.  Don’t use the slider as an excuse not to make editorial decisions about the content on your site.

If you do implement a slider and want people to actually see your content, don’t use little dots and arrows as the only navigation tools.  Give people a hint as to what they are getting into.  The charity:water site has a great, usable slider on their homepage.  It works because they don’t surround it with clutter and the headlines/thumbnails below give users a clear idea of what they will get when they click.

charity_water

In the end, I think sliders can still be used effectively.  They just need to be thought through strategically, and designers and content creators need to understand their limitations.

This is the End: Last Call for the Obama and Romney Campaigns

You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.

We’re finally in the home stretch of the 2012 Presidential election and like a Chili’s at last call, it’s all about some action now. The lights are on and Smilin’ Joe Biden is looking less debonair than he was a few hours and drinks ago, but it’s time to fish or cut bait. The two candidates’ sites are similarly stacked with opportunities at this late stage to pitch in and help with the final push (while seeming to give the appropriate amount of real estate to the Hurricane Sandy relief effort). I haven’t taken a fresh look at the Obama and Romney efforts in a while because I feel like I’ve perhaps been getting just enough of their giant heads on tv lately. That changes today as I bravely pull screen grabs of the sites and make comments on the successes, failures and oddities (Biden inexplicably wearing someone’s shades for the glamour shot/ Ryan nowhere to be found).

To state the obvious, the numbers on the site screenshots correspond to the comments below.

BARACKOBAMA.com

obama_grab

  1. FORxWARD. I’m not sure how long this cutesy tagline edit has been up, but I see what you did there. I’m surprised that this element has been placed as the heading of the site. Healthcare wasn’t a prominent part of any recent discussion or even a highlight of any of the three debates but it gets the star treatment now.
  2. Smartly positioned and localized call to vote early.
  3. Puzzling image of VP Biden looking as if he left his bomber jacket in the limo. It might be me, but Joe looks like a South Park character in this photo.
  4. Donating at this stage seems belated, but these ads need to keep running through Tuesday night, sadly.
  5. Call Voters prompt. She wouldn’t be making that face if she called me.
  6. Under (and part of) the Hurricane Relief banner I am asked to Find An Event, which is intriguing because I’m unclear what kind of a volunteer opportunity to help victims I might be able to…oh. Find a campaign event. Nothing to do with the hurricane. Huh.
  7. Quick Donate! I don’t know this strategy, but I like it. A quick hit 5 dollar donation aimed at young people so they can feel that they are part of the movement. I would like it better ( and it would be funnier) if they placed a comma after Quick.
  8. The old Action Items are now pushed down the page a bit to allow for those same actions to be highlighted in a slightly different and louder way above the fold. This tactic is used by everyone in politics because it always works.
  9. The President shown prior to his victory 4 years ago brings a positive feel to the dull lower half of the homepage.

MITTROMNEY.com

romney_grab

  1. Where Obama went with Rx in the header as the campaign’s final tagline, Romney’s team pushes more jobs and take-home pay.
  2. The deliberate absence of Paul Ryan is curious here.
  3. Joining the team at this late stage might seem pointless, but emails with more volunteer opportunities will go out immediately.
  4. Mitt is surrounded here like Custer. Action Items everywhere you look. You have to assume (if you’re cynical like me) the placement of the Red Cross banner was agonized over for maximum effect.
  5. Again, some of the original Action Items are repeated directly below the newly designed versions.
  6. To me this looks like a an image reserved for the after party website.
  7. A variation on the Obama positive vibe layout with a choice to load more of this content if that was something I felt was needed. I don’t.
  8. The only mention of Paul Ryan that I can find on this homepage.

I think the most interesting aspect to the stretch runs of these campaign sites is how incredibly similar the strategies are. Down to controlling the order in which your eyes scan these pages, both camps are careful not to swing too far out of what is tried and true. On the plus side (for me, at least) there’s a sweaty, smiling desperation to the sites that even the best photographers and copywriters can’t hide. Except for the delirious and perplexing confidence of Joe Biden’s Top Gun photo, the swagger of the debates is now replaced with focus group tested methodologies and old school panic.

What does a Sci-Fi site do when it is taken out by Frankenstorm?

io9 is a Gawker-owned site that covers science fiction and related culture, science, and other geekiness.  In an interesting turn of events, the Hurricane/Super Storm Sandy wiped out the power to the site’s data center.  Thus, the site went down.

It seems kind of fitting that a sci-fi site was blasted off the planet by some freak weather event nicknamed “Frankenstorm.”  That seems much cooler than them saying: “Sandy didn’t like what we said about hurricanes.  Then she knocked out the power to our data center.  She could’ve just left a comment on our site or tweeted her rage…”

In all seriousness, io9 (and its Gawker site siblings) found a decent solution.  Granted, the Gawker people likely freaked out when their data centers went down and their sites were displaying 503 error pages.  However, it is clear that they calmed down and thought of a way to continue despite the situation. The error pages now state what happened and now point people to their back up sites using Tumblr that the staffers set up to continue publishing content while the data center situation is straightened out.

io9_503error

For instance, the io9 503 error page now automatically redirects to the io9 Updates site; its introductory post io9 Has Survived Frankenstorm! states:

Welcome to io9′s emergency space station data center. When storms took out our New York City data center, we had to start broadcasting from low Earth orbit. We’ll be here for as long as it takes for the engineers working planetside to get io9.com back up! Welcome.

This was some smart thinking with a splash of the site’s personality.  I’m sure that Gawker will explore options in geographically distributing their hosting and data center solutions more after this mess all ends to hedge against another Sandy.

As I think about it more… io9 claims to come from the future.  I’m sure that the staffers from the future chose Tumblr to remain compatible with our “vintage” or “retro” (let’s give ourselves credit and not rely upon unhip terms like “obsolete”) technology.  However, if they truly come from the future, why didn’t they see Frankenstorm coming and prepare in advance by using data centers out its path?

Regardless if you and your organization can or cannot anticipate future events that seem straight out of sci-fi, following Gawker’s example won’t hurt if you’re caught in a similar situation.  Hat tip to the peeps at Hubspot for their recent Internet Outage Crash Your Website? The Marketer’s Response Plan post, too.