What does it take to make Drupal easy to use?

Dries, the founder and lead developer of Drupal, just posted this on his weblog:

For long I focused, completely and utterly, on the aesthetics of Drupal's code, neglecting eye candy and ease of use. I spent days trying to do something better, with fewer lines of code and more elegant than elsewhere. The aesthetics of Drupal's clean code has attracted many developers, but has also given Drupal the reputation of being developer-centric and hard to use.

--snip--

For Drupal to remain competitive in the future,

  1. we'll have to offer critical functionality not available in other content management systems, or
  2. we'll have to make Drupal easier to use and improve the aesthetics of Drupal's user interface design, and
  3. we have to maintain the aesthetics of Drupal's code.

As other systems are catching up in terms of critical functionality and because the amount of critical functionality is limited, we have little control over (1). Hence, we should focus on (2) and (3). To grow the number of users we should focus on (2) and to grow the number of developers we should focus on (3). Because the ability to make changes to Drupal's code is restricted, we can easily enforce (3). That pretty much leaves us with (2) to worry about

First reaction after reading this: Yes! Yes! Yes! (and more yes!)
Second reaction: Ok, but how?

The potential for Drupal's success on the web is staggering. If Drupal can rock all three: offer all critical functionality in an easy to use package built on a beautifully constructed and extensible framework - it will compete on a level no web-platform currently can.

But #2 seems to be the sticking point. For every message that goes by on the developers list or every CVS commit what percentage come from someone with training in usability? For every thought or effort that goes into building a new feature, what goes into trying to make sure someone can figure out how to use it?

Very succesful consumer mass market organicaly grown open-source applications are extremely few and far between. Heck, maybe they don't even even exist yet come to think of it. Firefox is just now nearing 10% market share, and they've had helping hands with pretty deep pockets since the start. Wordpress has big install base, but their blogtool market share is a relatively small slice so far, and their slice of all internet publishing tools is vastly smaller.

But more troubling, both these applications are - relative to drupal - in much more well defined application spaces. By the time FireFox came around browsers had been used for 10 years. Likewise, when WordPress was started blogging tools were well understood and are pretty straight forward and simple applications. But Drupal is off the map - innovating on many fronts at once. For code development this works out ok, developers simply adhere to Dries's oversight or their code doesn't get checked in. But for making the interfaces easy to use and aesthetically pleasing? That is hard work I don't think the Drupal community has the expertise to pull off currently.

But we certainly can get a lot farther along than we are right now. The before and after photos are impressive, Drupal has come a long way in a fairly short amount of time. Dries' consistant insight has gotten Drupal to where it is today. Just as Blake Ross' commitment to making a browser for his grandma turned Mozilla into FireFox and Matt's comitment to aesthetics and usability made WordPress into a work of art, Dries' commitment to making Drupal usable is a pre-requisite for what it takes to transition Drupal from a powerful gadget into a pervasive utility.

But Dries is going to need a lot of assistance. How can we help?

Here are some options that I see...

  1. Rally the troops: consistantly press on Drupal developers to contribute interface and usability improvements. Make it a chief objective of each point release. Dries is already doing quite a bit of this.
  2. Find allies: figure out a process for better integrating outside usability oversight and go find usability experts to contribute back to drupal pro-bono. Kieran is pursuing this.
  3. Hire mercanaries: go raise money to employee usability experts and interface engineers to reshape Drupal's interface. I will soon be in a position to pursue this.
  4. Clone Steven Wittens en masse: any takers?