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Things I learned at DrupalCon

Things I learned at DrupalCon

The future of Drupal

The big event at each DrupalCon is always the keynote by Dries Buytaert, the creator (and copyright owner, interestingly) of Drupal.  He holds the position of president of the nonprofit Drupal Association, which coordinates development of this open source software and hosts Dries is also the founder and CTO of Acquia, which is a commercial service that provides hosting and consulting for Drupal sites including this one. His keynote generally conveys the big picture directions for Drupal, and in this year's DriesNote (yes, they really call it that) we learned about some of the great things that are coming in 2014 release of Drupal 8.

As you may know, we are currently preparing to upgrade from Drupal 6 to Drupal 7. The upgrading process in Drupal is notoriusly difficult, and for some reason the developers of each new version don't seem to put much thought into the existing users of the previous versions. I believe this is somewhat due to the software being driven by the developers themselves, and much of their interest lies in innovation. However, Drupal is also widely used by organizations like HASTAC that appreciate it's affordability and great community features. I didn't see many people like us at DrupalCon (although I did meet quite a few at the Advocacy and Social Change BOF), and I have concerns about how well our long-term interests are understood by the Drupal Association.

Another upcoming version that I am very concerned about is Drupal Commons. DC is a distribution of Drupal that was designed to serve large, social communities and it is the foundation of the current version of that we launched in 2011. As is often the case, HASTAC has been pushing the envelope and as such, we are using a 2-year-old Drupal Commons 1, while the maintainers of DC are now working on DC 3. Again, there is no upgrade path, however I learned that the developers want the next version to be much easier to upgrade. The term "future-proof" was even used although I am skeptical that such a thing is possible, especially between major versions of Drupal.

The new site will definitely run Drupal 7, but the question whether it will be based on Drupal Commons is very much open. In the Advocacy and Social Change BOF I learned about several other Drupal distributions that are designed to serve communities, but we also may decide to "roll our own" by selecting the individual modules and configurations we want. This may mean working out incompatibilties, but also allows us more control over site performance and future compatibility.


For me, DrupalCon Portland kicked off with an excellent session about Programming Diversity in the tech community. Ashe Dryden did a great job of laying out some of the very real problems that exist and also had some instructive analysis of issues such as intersectionalty, impostor syndrome, and stereotype threats. As is always the case, the people who most need to hear this message are not those in the room, but the presentation was still helpful in giving the rest of us good language and tools to use in working for more social justice in our professional community.

Ashe also led a BOF ("birds of a feather" informal gathering) for further discussion about these issues. It was helpful just to look around the room and see all those allies in one place. It was unfortunate that Angela Byron, one of the most visible members of the Drupal community was not at the conference and missing from this conversation, but she and her partner had just become mothers a few weeks ago! I was pleased to find that the number of women was great enough (I'm guessing we were about 25% of the 3,300 attendees) that I didn't find that I recognized all the women there as i had expected.

User experience

DrupalCon has an entire track about User Experience (UX) and I attended several sessions on this topic, since usability is one of the biggest challenges of current web site. From Jakob Persson's talk on the value of UX, I got a clearer picture of the different facets of UX, including Information Design, Usability Engineering, Interaction Design, Information Architecture, Experience Design, Graphic Design.  And I also got a stronger grasp on how to frame questions that can better measure users' success in acheiving their goals.

Another session I attended was a presentation by Becky Gessler who is the head of user experience for University Now, which turns out to be a very interesting (and possibly questionable) venture-backed, accredited, low-tuition institution of higher education. They primarily teach online, but also have a physical campus. Because of their different classroom model, they have found "mismatched expectations" from their students/users. Becky used three techniques to help their website better serve students: 1. Understanding the users' mental model of the site. If reality doesn't fit their model, you need to adapt to their model or educate users better. 2. Use paper prototyping techniques as well as card sorting for a low-tech way to better understand what works for stakeholders. 3. Create a continuous engagement cycle by doing things like inviting feedback through UserVoice and doing one-on-one interviews with users.

There's often a feeling of frustration that arises forme when hearing from UX experts who have whole teams of designers and engineers that dedicate themselves to understanding how users think and what they really want. Since I am the entirety of HASTAC's New Media "department" this is an area in which we hope to bring in some outside expertise as we are rebuilding our site this year.

Multilingual websites

One of the most useful sessions I attended was Multilingual Module Madness with Kristen Pol. This was a very clear and practical review of the way Drupal handles multiple languages. Although Drupal is considered one of the best tools for website internationalization, it's still extremely complicated to set up and to manage. For example, there are currently over 100 multilingual modules available for Drupal!  There are three major types of information that can be translated, and each is done in a different way: the content, the user interface, and the configuration of the site.  If we decided to undertake internationalization of, we would be primarily looking at the latter two which would make it easier to use the site for people who do not speak English. As Cathy Davidson said at the HASTAC 2013 conference, any translation of our content would have to be a community effort. This would bring some very unique challenges, but it's an area I think we'll be discussing more with our 2014 conference coming up in Peru.

Doing it all

This challenge of how to do it all when you're a team of one kept recurring in different contexts, so my friend Ivan Boothe suggested that we organize a BOF just for people working at small organizations. The BOF system is not as well-organized as an unconference, so it's sometimes hard for the right people to find the right groups at the right times. We did host an interesting conversation with about a half dozen others that work for small businesses and nonprofits. One participant even acts as the system administrator for his high-traffic online publication!  We also shared our experiences with different hosting services.  For a generalist, it can be very rewarding to get to dabble in a wide range of areas, from theming to programming and even server administration. It can be challenging for small organizations to find one person with the unique blend of different skills needed.

We agreed that while Drupal can be a fantastic tool for this type of small, nimble organization, DrupalCon is not serving people like us very well. The specific tracks really lend themselves to people who work exclusively in one area (like the user experience leader with a team of designers and usability engineers working for her). I also wonder if the Drupal Association in general is in touch with the needs of small organizations. For example, they strive to release new version of Drupal every 2 years, but each time they do we are faced with enormous expense in having to essentially rebuild our site since there is no backwards compatibility and no upgrade path.

Taking it home

As you can see, this was a rich and productive for me and I learned a lot of useful things about Drupal that I can put to work for HASTAC in the future. This post does not cover everything I did and saw, but focuses on the parts in which I thought HASTAC members might be interested. As I mentioned above, we are gearing up to build a whole new HASTAC site, and we really rely on your input to make it a useful tool for this great community. Please keep an eye out for future feedback opportunities, and know that we are always interested in your input at  Thanks!


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