WordPress UX Lessons. shh, we're talking.

I spend most of my development time these days with Drupal (which I firmly believe is the best Open Source CMS available), so it can be refreshing — and eye-opening — to work with a competitive product. Recently we've worked with several WordPress sites and it was an interesting opportunity to see some of the divergent approaches WordPress has taken in their current versions.

WordPress: focussing on the user.

Simplicity has always been WordPress' biggest asset. Need a blog? Once the files and database are in place with the proper permissions (not too excruciating if you use SSH or your host has an automated installer) you're golden. I hadn't played with v.3 very much, but after getting a chance to get my hands dirty and re-familiarize myself, there were some features I really appreciated.

The Command Desk.

Log in and we see one of the biggest strengths of WordPress — a consistent admin UI. It's a simple two-column layout with collapsible navigation so you can easily find whatever it is you're looking for. Drupal 7 has made some big strides to provide a similarly consistent experience for admins (the Overlay module), but it's not nearly as artful. Overlay doesn't seem to exist anywhere; when I edit a page where am I? Am I still on the page, in the admin section, on floor 7½? And then, in a puff, it's gone again. Of course it's not important to the functionality, but it is very important when it comes to user trust and feeling of control. I find it to be nebulous at best, and, at worst, extremely disorienting; I can only imagine how clients would feel.

So, if Overlay is problematic, what are the alternatives? As tempting as it may be to copy the WordPress navigation, there are simply too many options for this to be feasible. Luckily, Drupal 7 also includes the excellent Seven* theme. Yes, Seven (or any other theme) can be used within Overlay, but I think this is a case to too many options. Drupal always errs on the side of flexibility — which is what makes it so great — but a pervasive, well-designed admin interface theme would be the best direction for end users, designers and developers. Consistency would set up a certain level of expectation and familiarity that would reassure less savvy users.

* Seven is also available for Drupal 6 but you'll want to pair it with a module like Admin to replicate Drupal 7's functionality.

Getting around.

I love the WordPress menu system. Once you find it (seriously — how many people look under links when it comes time to change the navigation? I still do it.) under Appearance (?!), the interface is incredibly efficient. Pick a menu, select a checkbox to add a piece of content, drag to reorder, move the location of the menu, etc. One page, no reloads. It's beautiful.

WordPRess Menu Page

Go ahead, admit you love it.

Drupal's menu creation system is at least three levels deep. Sure, you can't add menu items when creating a page like in Drupal, but I'm not convinced removing it from content creation pages is a bad idea. The less there is to forget, the better.

Tart it up.

Themes. If you have to give a one-word answer to what makes WordPress great, that's the answer. Obviously Drupal is more about custom themes and templates to start you toward something else — WordPress is turnkey. I'm not suggesting Drupal should be moving toward a turnkey approach; that would be the worst thing it could do. But if there were more production-ready themes available, it would undoubtably be more attractive. Many hosts offer installation scripts, so if that barrier to less-technical users is removed, there's just the matter of making it look nice. As it stands with Drupal, unless you like Bartik, you'll have to be prepared to write CSS, HTML, PHP and do some graphic work. That's way too much to ask for the casual user.

WordPress Themes Page

An embarassment of riches.

You can see the way WordPress has embraced themes by how tightly theme (and plugin) installation is integrated. Search and browse the central repository from within your site, launch a functioning preview, install with a click and, when it has been installed, preview the theme with your site's content before it's activated... Pretty impressive stuff. Drupal seems to be moving in that direction with the ability to upload or install from urls, but the other features are sorely missed.

Caffeine wearing off...

Really the two systems serve different needs and differing audiences, so it's best not to get too caught up in arm-wrestling matches. Both have matured immeasurably over the last few years; WordPress has moved away from a blog-centric platform, and Drupal made great strides in usability and performance. But for Drupal developers looking to v.8 and beyond, there's a nice little CMS that's doing a lot of things right — perhaps you've heard of it?