Published on June 27, 2020

Written by Suzanne Dergacheva

Co-founder and Drupal Practice Lead, Evolving Web

My experience is that universities and colleges implementing Drupal for the first time are going to face challenges. Whether they’re successful isn’t a matter of luck. It comes from having a well-researched strategy for rolling out Drupal at a large organization.

Drupal is often used at institutions where a common web platform is shared across a large number of sites. This adds complexity because each site has slightly different communication needs, different staff, different workflows, different terminology, and even a different tone of voice. Usually individual websites are run by site owners with varying degrees of technical and communications experience, and getting consensus across campus is almost impossible. 

Web teams at universities and colleges are also tasked with building websites to a high standard. Websites must keep student and user information secure, be accessible, and communicate a large amount of information that influences big life decisions. Higher ed websites help users decide which programs or scholarships to apply to and provide resources for our biggest career decisions, like which internship or exchange program to apply for. And universities and colleges also share research findings and knowledge with the world. 

Across all the universities and colleges I’ve worked with, I’ve seen a few trends in successful implementations of Drupal. Here are five things that stand out:

1. Creating Reusable Patterns

Reusable themes, modules, and UI patterns are the key to building many consistent websites. Consistency creates a more predictable experience for end-users and for content editors.

Some site owners are resistant to the idea of using a template for their website. They rightfully see their department, faculty, or research group as unique. That’s why it’s important not to provide a “one-size-fits-all” template, but rather a set of options that organizations can use and adapt to their needs. Modules like Layout Builder and Paragraphs, combined with a style guide management tool like Pattern Lab, can help provide the flexibility that site owners want. Just add some comprehensive documentation, like Georgia Tech’s Guide to their Layout Builder Implementation, and you’re all set.

In terms of modules, having a shared set of modules that are approved for use on campus is a real asset. This could also include a small set of custom modules.

All these modules, themes, and configuration can be packaged up into a version of Drupal that’s specific to your university or college. This could take the form of an install profile that you use internally. One option for managing this is to use Pantheon Custom Upstreams.

2. Prototyping before you scale up

If you’re building your first Drupal site, don’t start with your school’s homepage or the most important website on campus. Start with a prototype and a pilot project for a smaller project. This way, you can try out how your new install profile works for one use case before building it out across dozens or hundreds of sites, and leave time to iterate and improve.

Don’t forget to leave time to iterate on that core, so that you can make adjustments based on user and content editor feedback before rolling it out to other sites.

3. Balancing flexibility with limitations

It’s important to provide site owners with flexible tools. At the same time, limiting what they can do has big advantages in the long-term health of a large web platform. For example, removing the WYSIWYG (aka the What You See Is What You Get) editor and replacing it with pre-defined fields for text, images, and links, can greatly increase the consistency and accessibility of content. By creating more structured content building blocks (something that Drupal is excellent at), you can provide a flexible tool with fewer options. 

At the same time, content editors want to have more flexibility in building pages. Providing a tool for that is going to help them feel more empowered. I recommend looking at Layout Builder and Paragraphs and setting them up in a way that promotes content consistency.

4. Investing in content governance for content editors and site owners

Creating consistent and easy-to-use tools for content editors, and having policies, documentation, and training around web content will pay off in the long run. With Drupal, you can simplify the content editor experience to make governance easier. Here are a few things I would recommend in Drupal:

  • Use simple content moderation workflows. Don’t add extra processes that aren’t strictly necessary. Start simple and add a workflow if it’s needed. Allowing authors to create drafts of content is always useful.
  • Test your content structure with real content. This will avoid the content editors running into issues with the configuration of your WYSIWYG editor or your fields when they’re editing the site for the first time. Content editors aren’t guinea pigs. 
  • Provide documentation for content editors. This can be really simple, but a few pages of documentation available online for everyone to access will be a huge asset in maintaining standards. Including a content style guide that addresses the tone of voice of your institution
  • Tools like Siteimprove can help with quality maintenance and provide site owners with visibility on the quality and accessibility of content, so that responsibility can also be in the hands of content authors.

5. Embracing open source

Teams that have even one team member involved in the open source community are usually much more aware of best practices and tools. 

And the Drupal community is particularly welcoming and full of higher ed folks. Join the higher ed summit at DrupalCon or a DrupalCamp in your area!

Looking for Drupal training at #PSEWEB? Join Suzanne Dergacheva for Pre-Conference Workshop: User Experience Design for Drupal.