The Long Distance Drupal Trek

How a challenging long-distance hike and building a Drupal site are similar

This August I crossed the famous West Coast Trail off my bucket list (aka. ‘Wet Coast Trail’ or the ‘ Worst Coast Trail’). 130 bridges, 70 ladders, various water crossings using hand-powered cable cars, slippery walkways, wobbly suspension bridges and 46.6 miles of muddy, root entangled trekking. Much more than a checkmark on a list.

Walking through an astonishingly beautiful coastal temperate rainforest entirely off the grid for 6 days is about as far away from my regular work as I thought I could get, but I still couldn’t help thinking how eerily similar some of my advice for a long-distance trek and building a Drupal site would be.

Many projects begin as flat lists of features or requirements, when the complex and creative activities of designing and developing a website are probably more comparable to a journey.

In preparation, you will need to have an idea of the terrain you’ll be crossing so that you can plan your route and equipment accordingly. Outline where you’ll start, what you need to bring, where you’re hoping to get to, and a few notable milestones along the way. Do this by…

Creating a Plan

Anything you need on the trail you must pack with you and carry, so careful planning is essential, but pack weights shouldn’t exceed 25% of body weight for women and 30% for men. Naturally you’ll want to bring anything and everything you might need, but a lower weight is easier on your body - I noticed a huge improvement in my performance as the food stores ran lower and my pack weight came down.

A project scope is like filling up a backpack of budget with requirements (and desirements). At home I really felt that a change of clothing each day was going to feel awesome, but on the trail I really wished I’d used that space for more high energy foods. Doing a bit of strategic business analysis can really help you get your pack weight down to the essentials - you’ll be able to move faster and stay on budget.

In order to refine your scope, be clear on your goals and…

Conduct Research

In the trekking world, just as in project work, advice from the experienced can be much more eye-opening and educational than dry how-tos and general overviews.

Explore similar organizations websites who have recently completed redesigns and/or feature expansions. Consider conducting user tests of your current website and your competitors as well. Understand the role your website plays in your business, and what online success looks like for you. Define your site’s audience, conversion goals and mission-critical user tasks.

If you’re not sure how to do this on your own…

Consult Experts

Search for experts in their field who write about their day-to-day work giving relatable, concrete examples. I love reading Karen McGrane for her musings on content strategy and and David Hobbs on successful large scale CMS implementations.

When it came time to choosing an ultra light backpacking tent for my hike, I found the specs and photos on product websites a good preliminary resource, but it was the reviews from the ordinary backpacker I found most helpful in making the final decision (I eventually choose the Northface Minibus btw)

When you're ready to get going…

Choose Your Teammates Wisely

Everyone has strengths and weaknesses. Choose people that complement yours. In my experience, people like to work on a healthy mix of stuff that they are good at and things that they want to learn more about. It’s extremely satisfying balance being both challenged and successful.

The West Coast Trail was a hike I’ve wanted to do for a long time and I finally had the right combination of fitness, gear, and companionship which made for one of the most satisfying and enjoyable challenges I’ve ever completed!

On a web project, chances are you’ll have an in-house team of subject matter experts as well as folks with technical and communications savvy backgrounds, but there will likely be gaps that will need to be filled by outside vendors…

Reach Out to the Community

We greeted everyone we met on the trail and asked about their recent experiences. Other hikers were our best source of news (bear sighting 2 miles down the trail!) and weather (30% chance of precip, ew)

The Drupal community is a great resource to find reputable help and well as ways to...

Give Back to the Community

After a few miles of trail we were able to start providing information to hikers heading in the opposite direction (draw water from further upstream at Tsusiat Falls and the outhouse is out of order).

Drupal exists because loads of people have generously contributed their time and knowledge. Your website might require a bit of custom work that will be exactly what the community has been pining for, or you might find a contributed module that does exactly what you need… However...

Some Things are Not as Great as They Sound

Hiking on the beach sounds awesome. It is not. Trudging through ever-shifting sand with a 45lb pack is exhausting. Every footstep sinks deeply, is a concerted effort, and soon one starts to yearn for firmer ground.

Some modules sound perfect -  like they’re just going to plug in and give you the exact functionality you need. The reality is that some features might not play nicely with others. If you have made a list of modules you’re interested in using, make sure you consult with an experienced Drupal developer that can tell you if installing them will be more trouble than they are worth. In fact, if you can explain the driving need behind the desire for a particular module, you might just find that…

Some Things are Easier Than They Look

Most of the rivers along the West Coast Trail are meant to be crossed in a hand-power cable car - the novelty of which wears off after the first crossing. But by August, a couple of the rivers are low enough to just slip your boots off and wade across.

With a solid information architecture, you may not need a bunch of special modules. Drupal has some powerful tools built in that an experienced team will be able to leverage. Remember, the simpler and less custom your site is, the easier (and cheaper!) upgrades and maintenance will be. Allow yourself some time to…

Learn as You Go

Design files are typically two dimensional, as are wireframes and use case workflows. The best way to find out whether your features resonate with your users is to test early and test often. A good business strategist and usability professional will be able to set up an expert review or user testing of your current website to help identify where your business objectives and user goals intersect and help define priorities for improvement.

On the trail it’s a constant battle to keep feet comfortable and happy. My best advice for a long  hike, is to use body glide on your heels… on and between your toes, shoulders… and just about anywhere you can to avoid chafing. You are welcome…

Keep an Open Mind (look for possibilities)

The forest for the trees… Sometimes people are particularly passionate about a certain feature or widget and can get so overly invested in one little piece of the project that they can’t see the whole picture very well anymore. Make sure you always have a good bird-eye view of the entire project, and are making decisions with the 80/20 rule in mind - meaning that 80% of the value of the website will come from just 20% of the features. (If you don't believe me just open Microsoft Word and explore ALL the other options besides, fonts size, BOLD and italics…

Listen to Feedback (to a point… )

Day one about half a day in a lady marching at  me from the opposite direction calls out, “You’re gonna regret not using trekking poles!” Well I did have poles and I did try to use them for several hours at a time, but they weren’t for me. So there.

I think it's tres cool when people are really passionate about the ideas they want to contribute, but know that you will not be able to please everyone. Furthermore, if you don't introduce a structured way for stakeholder groups to provide feedback from the very beginning, you might endanger the project in the later stages.

The best way to finish effectively, avoiding what Seth Godin calls “late thrashing” is to systematically consult fewer and fewer people as the project draws to a close… It’s a tricky one, but you’re in the home stretch now and you really don’t want to have to go back and re-work stuff…

Don’t Fear Commitment or try to Reinvent the Wheel

A website is more like a garden than a house. Things are in flux, content grows and develops over time, certain areas of the site might serve users better than others and may need to be expanded on, while others may need to be pruned back. If you’re having trouble deciding or committing to particular features or functionality, don’t think of it as a life-long commitment, but rather as a minimum viable product… what is the simplest approach that is going to work for the next few months while you learn more about what works best for your users.

Unfortunately, your site is probably not a special snowflake. Others have grappled with the same problems, and many have already taken a crack at various solutions. Sometimes the most cost-effective solution is to modify your expectations rather than doing complex custom work to get something exactly as you’d envisioned it.

Yay, you did it…

Celebrate your success!

Hey, you just hiked 45 miles and/or built a new website, that’s pretty cool! I really admire how young children get excited about ordinary things, and in my opinion we’d be a lot happier if we let ourselves do more of that.

You just read (skimmed?) this whole blog - awesome! Go pour yourself a nice cold/hot/sweet/strong drink/bath.  :)


~ Vanessa Turke is Director of User Experience and a Senior Project Manager at Drupal Connect

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