Drupal Commons brightens up with new themes and user experience changes in release 1.6
by Jay Batson
This morning is an exciting moment: Drupal Commons version 1.6 is released! This release brings some really exciting new advancements:
- Two new themes. (Yay!)
- Usability improvements
- A collection of smaller, yet important feature advances
Let me start off talking about the two new themes. Having these two themes, and bundling them into the default distribution, is HUGE. A key advantage of Drupal Commons is that it is built on Drupal - a platform that enables organizations to fully reflect their brand on their community site. But this was an abstract idea to most people who were kicking the Drupal Commons tires. All they saw was how Commons looked OOTB, and it was hard to imagine a different look & feel.
As of this release, though, having 3 themes built into the distribution now lets people who are sizing up Commons switch between themes with the click of a button, and easily see how a different theme can completely change the feel of Commons. This helps them understand what a Drupal Theme is, and should enable people to see that a custom theme can be built for them that fully reflects their organization's branding.
The two new themes were done by Drupal community members (and Acquia Partners!) BrightLemon and VML. This is really important, too. This ability of community members to add value to & improve Commons illustrates how open source poses a huge challenges to proprietary software vendors, who will forever be the gatekeeper to product improvements.
Our three gorgeous theme choices:
- The original Acquia Commons theme - now renamed Commons Origins, designed by Acquia and implemented by Acquia partner TopNotchThemes - is a neutral, soft experience with the occasional pop of Commons' distinctive orange color.
- The new Commons Connect theme from BrightLemon is a fresh new design that gives homage to Facebook, drupal.org, and other popular community sites.
- And the new Commons Environs theme from VML is a fun, brightly-colored design that provides iconography reminiscent of the primary activities of a Commons site - discussions, information sharing and interacting with others in groups.
In the process of creating these three, we also ended up creating a new theme called Commons Roots — an intermediate (sub-)theme that standardizes the CSS & template elements that are constant across all themes. This is important because it reduces the amount of work needed to implement a custom theme. So an organization that wants a theme that reflects its brand will have reduced theming costs. All three built-in themes use Commons Roots; but building Roots only just happened at the end of the 1.6 development process, and there's much more that can go in Roots in future releases. This is a fertile area for community contribution as more themes emerge!
The second major area of work is in the user experience (UX); the page layouts, and functions available on each page. I was also really happy to work closely with Bright Lemon to re-examine, and redesign various pages & functions to help users focus on the information that's important & useful to them. BrightLemon does nothing but build community sites in Drupal for their customers, and that team brought great insight into optimizing the Commons UX.
For example, the new user profile pages are much nicer now — and are less a simple blob of text information about a user. We also cut down on the number of links in the group menu on group home pages by bundling all the "Create __" (content type) links into a single dropdown with an accompanying "Create" button. Such a simple change, but it reduced the clutter on the group home pages nicely, and I think represents a big increase in usability over other social business solutions.
Not only are these changes useful for users, they demonstrate's the ability of Drupal to rapidly adapt to changes in user desires & behavior. As new innovations come along, Drupal doesn't put up boundaries that prevent you from keeping up.
Finally, version 1.6 pulls in a variety of other improvements. A key one is called Group Features. This really powerful new capability lets individual group administrators enable, or disable, various Commons features at the level of an individual group. For instance, if a group doesn't want blog posts or need to pull in news from an external RSS feed, the group admin can turn those features off for his or her group. I love this feature; it alone will really help the adaptability of Drupal Commons to our customers' business requirements. Not only is this just good stuff, it lowers overall cost of using Commons by turning what was formerly a coding task into a simple configuration control.
We also switched from using Admin Menu to using the Admin Module. Yeah, this does sound a bit obscure, but it's important to mention. In this release, we make use of Drupal's Context module for page layout. But using Context requires us to provide a nice GUI for setting up what blocks are showing on a page, in which order. The Admin Module provides this. It also eliminates a slightly annoying problem with Admin Menu: Admin Menu provided site administrators with familiar drop-down menus to get at all Drupal's administrative tasks. But because the menus are at the top of the page, and drop down liberally, some folks feel the constant dropping down can become annoying. For administrators, the new Admin Module places a cute little wrench in the upper left corner of the page that reveals a beautiful, simple but effective admin interface.
We also added a way to help public web communities grow more virally. There's now a block available where existing community users can initiate an email to invite their friends to come join the site.
Commons just keeps getting better as we and the global community of Drupal developers keep making Drupal better and better - which I hope this release of Drupal Commons reflects, too. I'm really happy, and proud to see how a community can come together to provide so much value to you!
All this is describing Drupal Commons - the free & open source software. If you're interested in using Commons, Acquia has a variety of products & services available to make your deployment successful, from a full Platform-as-a-Service offering, including hosting, support, and remote administration – meaning you need only worry about your community - not operating your Commons site. Or, get individual elements of the PaaS service as you wish. And we have a professional services team that can both help you think about how to build a community as well as successfully deploy your Commons site. Learn more at our Drupal Commons product & service area on this site.. Or, simply contact sales to receive a complete overview.
If you don't have it already, download the new release of Drupal Commons and give it a spin. And Come discuss what you like, don't like, and maybe even want to contribute to, at the Drupal Commons community site.