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How Not to Build a Website Admin Experience

Stephen Lucero

Engineering & Developer Operations Director, Forum One

Nobody sets out to build a poor user experience, though it sometimes happens anyway. The admin user experience, or UX, built is the byproduct of choices along the way, choices that are focused on critical features seemingly unrelated to the administrative experience.

A number of common justifications come up when discussing the improvement of the admin UX. Similarly, a variety of solutions exist that can eliminate deliberate focus and effort to improve an admin experience gone awry.

Priorities along the way

Priorities have to be identified when building a website, and it is often the case that the full scope of those choices for prioritization isn’t understood. Audience research and feature planning usually focus on the end-users of the site with those users most frequently identified as content consumers coming to explore the site or use available tools it may provide. Unfortunately, this may place the content creators and managers in a position of secondary, sometimes lower, priority.

Even if this is not a deliberate choice, the typical side effect is that the website functionality, and sometimes design, drive the administrative experience without consideration for the editorial role and responsibilities. Over time, these decisions and their repercussions on the admin UX of the project build up as technical debt in the development that becomes harder and harder to pay back down as the site is being built. One or more components of this experience are likely to be raised as a discussion item for specific prioritization against other features.

Why the admin user experience is often neglected

In discussions about prioritizing elements of the administrative experience, a number of perspectives and concerns should be raised and explored for prioritizing.

Administrative features may be seen as less “valuable”

The “value” placed on the admin experience is dependent on the role of decision-makers in the development process and their understanding or opinions on the value of an effective admin experience. Because of this, it is essential that all decision-makers involved have a shared understanding of the value of an effective admin experience.

To ensure a shared understanding and informed decision-making, all decision-makers should understand the trade-offs of not addressing the administrative experience, including:

  • Additional time required from editors, particularly for every edit in an affected content workflow;
  • Increased risk for errors and misconfigurations;
  • Unexpected support costs to answer questions about usage;
  • Delays in updates if usage is unclear and support is needed; and
  • Additional training required or single points of failure if limited users understand a feature.

Over time, any or all of these unexpected expenses and issues can add up. These factors and risks should be heavily considered when evaluating the final “value” of any admin UX development against other features.

Administrative customization is too expensive

Another common misconception is that administrative customization is costly or time-consuming. The administrative interface of a Drupal site is typically assembled using the same processes as the front-end interface of the site. Because of this, developers often find working in administrative themes and functionality to be more approachable than expected.

 A lot of ground may be covered very quickly to improve the administrative interface without the need for custom code. The Drupal community maintains a wide variety of contributed modules addressing common issues. Many problems may be resolved with the addition of a new module and some light configuration. Some examples of this include new field widgets, configurable alterations to various areas of the stock interface, and preconfigured dashboards assembling most of the tasks and reports commonly needed in editorial roles.

Even if the budget is too significant a constraint for an effective administrative workflow, limited improvement can still be better than ignoring the issue altogether. Sometimes, compromise is the best solution. You may be able to piece together contributed modules to get 80% of the solution easily, but that last 20% could be prohibitively expensive. If this is the case, make sure to consider the option of a “better” solution within an achievable level of effort over no solution if “perfect” is out of reach.

Not enough time to build front-end and back-end features

Another constraint could be the timeline. When there are timeline constraints, extravagant improvements may take up valuable time. One way to get around this is the drop-in module improvements mentioned above. In many cases, carefully selected modules, installed and configured along the way, can result in a significantly better administrative experience within a very limited timeframe.

Making improvements throughout development is one of the most effective ways to create a better admin user experience. With proper awareness of available tools, including contributed modules, and a clear understanding of some basic UX principles, it can be quite easy to build a considerably better system and an easy-to-use admin UX.

It can be surprising how effective intentionally organizing and choosing form elements may be for an administrative experience overall. By placing form elements in sensible groups with thoughtful labels and help text, the workflow of creating a new piece of content can turn from a frustrating scavenger hunt complete with riddles to an intuitive walkthrough of the page to come.

For now and next time

Next time, I’ll explore ways to determine if the admin UX you are working with or building may need some work by exploring common symptoms associated with a poor interface.

Written By

Stephen Lucero

Engineering & Developer Operations Director, Forum One

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