Drupal Vs. We, the Hairless, Fat-Headed Monkeys With Keyboards

The other night, while working at "my office", I ran into a hipster who I knew from high school. We cycled through the usual cliche selections on the coffeeshop conversation menu: discussing atheism, exsistentialism, and the question "what makes one piece of art better than another", ect. However, the conversation soon turned to an ad-based artsy/alternative publication he had secured some seed funding for.

His goals struck me as difficult; he sought to build a community of volunteer contributors, with revenue coming from ads (two red flags which become a uber-red flag because of their dependencies on each other, imho). I began giving him some advice, and ideas -- and it was at that moment that I realized Drupal, in terms of design, planning, and development isn't an inherently geeky subject, or skill. Looking over my projects over the past few months, it appears to be a platform which attracts the artists and musicians, the progressives, the forward thinking businesses, the world changers -- those whom, in the words of Apple, think different.

PHP-Nuke strikes me as hopelessly geeky -- everything about it reminds me off those old IBM programmmer types from the 1980's -- with their thick-goggle glasses, humorless personalities, pastel-yellow dress shirts, and classic set of catchphrases like "mouses are for amatures"*.

Mambo/Joomla! reminds me of those business types that like to say things like, "let's focus on the bottom line", or attempt to sell their services with phrases as, "We are an innovative team of  engineers who work non-stop on finding profit-driven, hi-tech, solutions that can help your business compete in today's global interconnected marketplace." But, like so many of the other things in life, once you get through the marketing you realize its just a pig with lipstick and a wig. Anyways -- back to drupal.

Simplicity and Power: Dirty Stinking Rotten Lie

I really hate it when people ask for a "powerful platform which meets my goals,, which is simple and easy to use". There's a sort of magical thinking out there that software can be made simple no matter what the goals. That's horse shit. Simple goals conjure simple solutions; complex goals conjure complex solutions; and vague goals (the most common) conjure vague solutions. A successful drupal site needs an elevator pitch*. Always.

The traditional programmer gets a list of requirements and implements them. This worked back in the day when the web was nothing more than an online mail-order catalogue, with a brochure section. There was no need from programmers to understand anything besides code, because the people who planned the site generally were merely adapting the old to the new. Today, in a world of flickr, del.icio.us, basecamp, and other web 2.0 poster childern, the web is starting to develop a new for the new. And the reality seems to be that only programmers -- those who understand the technology, and the pain in the ass it is to implement -- are in a position to understand how to use it. So increasingly, it seems, the drupal consultant becomes a person of many hats: a marketer, a graphic designer, a statistical number cruncher, a content strategist, an information architect, a web developer, a bean-counter (the stuff is expensive), and last and most importantly, something of a social scientist. 

The Dead "User" Reborn as a Geek-Slaying Phoenix

Jakob Nielson, the famous usability expert, is something of a Newton when it comes to our ideas of a "user" and "usability". His theorms work: 1) put ads where people want them, not where they get in the way of the user. You need to look no further than the success of ad-sense to see why this is absolutely true. 2) don't pester the user with popups. 3) Don't be stupid -- mountains of research PROVE CONCLUSIVELY that your flash intro is a really stupid idea, and is having a profoundly negative effect on your website.

However, these observations miss the bigger questions: does someone want to use the usable website? For most websites, the answer is a solid: "hell no, I don't care about your company, or the fact that your little non-profit wants donations." To get past that, we need to look at the situation in a totally new way, much like Einstein when he dreamed up the Theory of Relativity.

Old-skool usability is now "common sense", the Einsteinian usability is the art of making people want to use the siteThis requires a new path in terms of project planning. You kill the idea of the user who you hope will buy, or donate, and replace it with a monkey with a keyboard, who is bored (it's the web, remember?), lacks motivation, has seen it all, and probably needs a date.

You no longer focus on the snappy "about us" section in which you describe yourself as innovative, or dedicated in the third person -- oh no; you move that online coffeemug, and t-shirt shop which features your business, or nonprofit's name (which no one cares about, by default) to the last phase of the project. You start with a simple question instead: "how are we going to make people care", and plan the project from there. You see, your website isn't about you, its about you taking advantage of people who stumble across it! (let's be honest).


Semi-, as these thoughts seemed so vague that they didn't deserve a full conclusion.

I think the greatest factor of success for drupal-folk is their ability to understand human beings. That seems to be the opposite of a geek. Geeks are not dead; they can go work on Oracle's byzantine code, and make it more byzantine for the sake of their job security. Meanwhile, drupal developers ought to visit more night clubs, keep up with fashion (i'm dead serious), and watch the habits of 15 year old teenbopper bloggers on live journal (they will be the most lucrative market after all). This may sounds like satanic talk, but what I'm suggesting here isn't really an ideal. Its more of a suggested way to begin to understand that "user" beyond their screen resolution, browser type, and IP address.

*lingo, means a 15-second pitch you could give a VC that you only have access to by catching him in the elevator.