Power to the people: a new approach to Drupal

Late Friday afternoon, the first news broke about a project that I’ve been working on for the last few months. Internally, the Lullabot folks have been calling it “Project Codename,” because we like recursively cheeky names. The goal is pretty ambitious: build a dirt-simple hosted service that lets people with great ideas leverage the power of Drupal.

For the past couple of months, a lot of cool things have already come out of the project for the Drupal community, though we haven’t been able to say much about what was going on behind the curtain. SimpleViews, my new task-oriented front-end for the Views module, is one example. Rather than constructing content listings bit by bit, it lets site-builders make a few simple choices and get quick results. Nate Haug has been building similar tools for the CCK module; Angie Byron has been working with user experience experts to streamline Drupal’s administrative interface; and Jeff Robbins has been hard at work on some amazing tools that allow site builders to customize a site’s layout and CSS skins with point-and-click, drag-and-drop simplicity. Subtler stuff, like John VanDyk’s recent improvements to the Views Bulk Operations module, have grown out of the tools we’re building for simple, customizable administration panels.

All of these things are really exciting, but they share a deeper connection that’s at the heart of our project. Getting a new Drupal site is pretty easy now – Bryght’s turnkey hosting, Acquia’s new support network, and one-click installs on a host of ISPs make the initial hurdle a lot less daunting. What comes after that – turning a great idea into a fully implemented web site – is still tough. Drupal is all about combining lots of small pieces into an awesome package. Views, CCK, custom field types, Organic groups, UberCart and eCommerce, Rules… harnessing that power requires learning a lot! The toughest part isn’t the technical stuff (how to sort a Views or how to add a field to CCK) but the conceptual aspects of what these things mean, how they work together, and how the abstract pieces can be combined to achieve the goals a site builder is working towards.

Over the past year or two (especially while working on our upcoming O’Reilly book, Using Drupal) it’s become more obvious to me that making Drupal accessible to non-gearheads requires a new approach. Rather than dumping all of those tools in front of people, and sweating bullets to make each one a bit simpler, we can build new kinds of tools on top of them, bridging the gap between hardcore developers and idea-oriented folks who just want to build a great site.

Some of these things are part of Drupal’s core push towards better, tighter user experience. Others are specific to our project – carefully calculated decisions to hide Drupal’s more advanced capabilities from users who won’t need them. Still others require new tools like SimpleViews, tools that provide users with concrete task-driven ways of achieving goals without revealing the underlying complexity of Drupal’s building blocks.

The folks we’ve been working with on this project are awesome: genius folks like Karen McGrane, Josh Rubin, Jenny Ng, and others from Bond Art + Science have brought tons of experience and talent to the table. They designed the New York Times web site and they’re passionate about bringing Drupal’s power to more people. Ed Sussman, who was at the helm of FastCompany.com’s conversion to Drupal, has just joined the team as CEO: his understanding of the tech industry and his excitement about the project is awesome.

That’s what Project Codename is about: leveraging the power of the tools we’ve built as a community, putting choices that make sense in the hands of creative users, and giving them a simple hosted platform to run it on. In a lot of ways, it goes back to How Drupal Will Save The World., Jeff Robbins’ opus on the platform’s potential. It’s a lot of work, but the payoff for the Drupal community is really exciting. In the coming weeks and months, it’ll be great to see how the stuff we’re building can be fed back into the community, too.

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