Think beyond with Acquia Labs

Acquia labs space

For most of the history of the web, the website has been the primary means of consuming content. These days, however, with the introduction of new channels each day, the website is increasingly the bare minimum. Digital experiences can mean anything from connected Internet of Things (IoT) devices, smartphones, chatbots, augmented and virtual reality headsets, and even so-called zero user interfaces which lack the traditional interaction patterns we're used to. More and more, brands are trying to reach customers through browserless experiences and push-, not pull-based, content — often by not accessing the website at all.

Last year, we launched a new initiative called Acquia Labs, our research and innovation lab, part of the Office of the CTO. Acquia Labs aims to link together the new realities in our market, our customers' needs in coming years, and the goals of Acquia's products and open-source efforts in the long term. In this blog post, I'll update you on what we're working on at the moment, what motivates our lab, and how to work with us.

Acquia labs space timelapse

Alexa, ask GeorgiaGov

One of the Acquia Labs' most exciting projects is our ongoing collaboration with GeorgiaGov Interactive. Through an Amazon Echo integration with the Georgia.gov Drupal website, citizens can ask their government questions. Georgia residents will be able to find out how to apply for a fishing license, transfer an out-of-state driver's license, and register to vote just by consulting Alexa, which will also respond with sample follow-up questions to help the user move forward. It's a good example of how conversational interfaces can change civic engagement. Our belief is that conversational content and commerce will come to define many of the interactions we have with brands.

The state of Georgia has always been on the forefront of web accessibility. For example, from 2002 until 2006, Georgia piloted a time-limited text-to-speech telephony service which would allow website information and popular services like driver's license renewal to be offered to citizens. Today, it publishes accessibility standards and works hard to make all of its websites accessible for users of assistive devices. This Alexa integration for Georgia will continue that legacy by making important information about working with state government easy for anyone to access.

And as a testament to the benefits of innovation in open source and our commitment to open-source software, Acquia Labs backported the Drupal 8 module for Amazon Echo to Drupal 7.

Here's a demo video showing an initial prototype of the Alexa integration:

Shopping with chatbots

In addition to physical devices like the Amazon Echo, Acquia Labs has also been thinking about what is ahead for chatbots, another important component of the conversational web. Unlike in-home devices, chatbots are versatile because they can be used across multiple channels, whether on a native mobile application or a desktop website.

The Acquia Labs team built a chatbot demonstrating an integration with the inventory system and recipe collection available on the Drupal website of an imaginary grocery store. In this example, a shopper can interact with a branded chatbot named "Freshbot" to accomplish two common tasks when planning an upcoming barbecue.

First, the user can use the chatbot to choose the best recipes from a list of recommendations with consideration for number of attendees, dietary restrictions, and other criteria. Second, the chatbot can present a shopping list with correct quantities of the ingredients she'll need for the barbecue. The ability to interact with a chatbot assistant rather than having to research and plan everything on your own can make hosting a barbecue a much easier and more efficient experience.

Check out our demo video, "Shopping with chatbots", below:

Collaborating with our customers

Many innovation labs are able to work without outside influence or revenue targets by relying on funding from within the organization. But this can potentially create too much distance between the innovation lab and the needs of the organization's customers. Instead, Acquia Labs explores new ideas by working on jointly funded projects for our clients.

I think this model for innovation is a good approach for the next generation of labs. This vision allows us to help our customers stake ground in new territory while also moving our own internal progress forward. For more about our approach, check out this video from a panel discussion with our Acquia Labs lead Preston So, who introduced some of these ideas at SXSW 2017.

If you're looking at possibilities beyond what our current offerings are capable of today, if you're seeking guidance and help to execute on your own innovation priorities, or if you have a potential project that interests you but is too forward-looking right now, Acquia Labs can help.

Special thanks to Preston So for contributions to this blog post and to Nikhil Deshpande (GeorgiaGov Interactive) and ASH Heath for feedback during the writing process.

7-Eleven using Drupal

7-Eleven is the largest convenience store chain in the world with 60,000 locations around the globe. That is more than any other retailer or food service provider. In conjunction with the release of its updated 7-Rewards program, 7-Eleven also relaunched its website and mobile application using Drupal 8! Check it out at https://www.7-eleven.com, and grab a Slurpee while you're at it!

7 eleven

State of Drupal presentation (April 2017)

Drupal community

Last week, 3,271 people gathered at DrupalCon Baltimore to share ideas, to connect with friends and colleagues, and to collaborate on both code and community. It was a great event. One of my biggest takeaways from DrupalCon Baltimore is that Drupal 8's momentum is picking up more and more steam. There are now about 15,000 Drupal 8 sites launching every month.

I want to continue the tradition of sharing my State of Drupal presentations. You can watch a recording of my keynote (starting at 24:00) or download a copy of my slides here (108 MB).



The first half of my presentation provided an overview of Drupal 8 updates. I discussed why Drupal is for ambitious digital experiences, how we will make Drupal upgrades easier and why we added four new Drupal 8 committers recently.

The second half of my keynote highlighted the newest improvements to Drupal 8.3, which was released less than a month ago. I showcased how an organization like The Louvre could use Drupal 8 to take advantage of new or improved site builder (layouts video, workflow video), content author (authoring video) and end user (BigPipe video, chatbot video) features.

I also shared that the power of Drupal lies in its ability to support the spectrum of both traditional websites and decoupled applications. Drupal continues to move beyond the page, and is equipped to support new user experiences and distribution platforms, such as conversational user interfaces. The ability to support any user experience is driving the community's emphasis on making Drupal API-first, not API-only.

Finally, it was really rewarding to spotlight several Drupalists that have made an incredible impact on Drupal. If you are interested in viewing each spotlight, they are now available on my YouTube channel.

Thanks to all who made DrupalCon Baltimore a truly amazing event. Every year, DrupalCon allows the Drupal community to come together to re-energize, collaborate and celebrate. Discussions on evolving Drupal's Code of Conduct and community governance were held and will continue to take place virtually after DrupalCon. If you have not yet had the chance, I encourage you to participate.

Drupal is API-first, not API-only

More and more developers are choosing content-as-a-service solutions known as headless CMSes — content repositories which offer no-frills editorial interfaces and expose content APIs for consumption by an expanding array of applications. Headless CMSes share a few common traits: they lack end-user front ends, provide few to no editorial tools for display and layout, and as such leave presentational concerns almost entirely up to the front-end developer. Headless CMSes have gained popularity because:

  • A desire to separate concerns of structure and presentation so that front-end teams and back-end teams can work independently from each other.
  • Editors and marketers are looking for solutions that can serve content to a growing list of channels, including websites, back-end systems, single-page applications, native applications, and even emerging devices such as wearables, conversational interfaces, and IoT devices.

Due to this trend among developers, many are rightfully asking whether headless CMSes are challenging the market for traditional CMSes. I'm not convinced that headless CMSes as they stand today are where the CMS world in general is headed. In fact, I believe a nuanced view is needed.

In this blog post, I'll explain why Drupal has one crucial advantage that propels it beyond the emerging headless competitors: it can be an exceptional CMS for editors who need control over the presentation of their content and a rich headless CMS for developers building out large content ecosystems in a single package.

As Drupal continues to power the websites that have long been its bread and butter, it is also used more and more to serve content to other back-end systems, single-page applications, native applications, and even conversational interfaces — all at the same time.

Headless CMSes are leaving editors behind

Drupal is api first coupled drupal vs headless cms
This diagram illustrates the differences between a traditional Drupal website and a headless CMS with various front ends receiving content.

Some claim that headless CMSes will replace traditional CMSes like Drupal and WordPress when it comes to content editors and marketers. I'm not so sure.

Where headless CMSes fall flat is in the areas of in-context administration and in-place editing of content. Our outside-in efforts, in contrast, aim to allow an editor to administer content and page structure in an interface alongside a live preview rather than in an interface that is completely separate from the end user experience. Some examples of this paradigm include dragging blocks directly into regions or reordering menu items and then seeing both of these changes apply live.

By their nature, headless CMSes lack full-fledged editorial experience integrated into the front ends to which they serve content. Unless they expose a content editing interface tied to each front end, in-context administration and in-place editing are impossible. In other words, to provide an editorial experience on the front end, that front end must be aware of that content editing interface — hence the necessity of coupling.

Display and layout manipulation is another area that is key to making marketers successful. One of Drupal's key features is the ability to control where content appears in a layout structure. Headless CMSes are unopinionated about display and layout settings. But just like in-place editing and in-context administration, editorial tools that enable this need to be integrated into the front end that faces the end user in order to be useful.

In addition, editors and marketers are particularly concerned about how content will look once it's published. Access to an easy end-to-end preview system, especially for unpublished content, is essential to many editors' workflows. In the headless CMS paradigm, developers have to jump through fairly significant hoops to enable seamless preview, including setting up a new API endpoint or staging environment and deploying a separate version of their application that issues requests against new paths. As a result, I believe seamless preview — without having to tap on a developer's shoulder — is still necessary.

Features like in-place editing, in-context administration, layout manipulation, and seamless but faithful preview are essential building blocks for an optimal editorial experience for content creators and marketers. For some use cases, these drawbacks are totally manageable, especially where an application needs little editorial interaction and is more developer-focused. But for content editors, headless CMSes simply don't offer the toolkits they have come to expect; they fall short where Drupal shines.

Drupal empowers both editors and application developers

Drupal is api first api first drupal vs headless cms
This diagram illustrates the differences between a coupled — but headless-enabled — Drupal website and a headless CMS with various front ends receiving content.

All of this isn't to say that headless isn't important. Headless is important, but supporting both headless and traditional approaches is one of the biggest advantages of Drupal. After all, content management systems need to serve content beyond editor-focused websites to single-page applications, native applications, and even emerging devices such as wearables, conversational interfaces, and IoT devices.

Fortunately, the ongoing API-first initiative is actively working to advance existing and new web services efforts that make using Drupal as a content service much easier and more optimal for developers. We're working on making developers of these applications more productive, whether through web services that provide a great developer experience like JSON API and GraphQL or through tooling that accelerates headless application development like the Waterwheel ecosystem.

For me, the key takeaway of this discussion is: Drupal is great for both editors and developers. But there are some caveats. For web experiences that need significant focus on the editor or assembler experience, you should use a coupled Drupal front end which gives you the ability to edit and manipulate the front end without involving a developer. For web experiences where you don't need editors to be involved, Drupal is still ideal. In an API-first approach, Drupal provides for other digital experiences that it can't explicitly support (those that aren't web-based). This keeps both options open to you.

Drupal for your site, headless Drupal for your apps

Drupal is api first drupal site and content service
This diagram illustrates the ideal architecture for Drupal, which should be leveraged as both a front end in and of itself as well as a content service for other front ends.

In this day and age, having all channels served by a single source of truth for content is important. But what architecture is optimal for this approach? While reading this you might have also experienced some déjà-vu from a blog post I wrote last year about how you should decouple Drupal, which is still solid advice nearly a year after I first posted it.

Ultimately, I recommend an architecture where Drupal is simultaneously coupled and decoupled; in short, Drupal shines when it's positioned both for editors and for application developers, because Drupal is great at both roles. In other words, your content repository should also be your public-facing website — a contiguous site with full editorial capabilities. At the same time, it should be the centerpiece for your collection of applications, which don't necessitate editorial tools but do offer your developers the experience they want. Keeping Drupal as a coupled website, while concurrently adding decoupled applications, isn't a limitation; it's an enhancement.

Conclusion

Today's goal isn't to make Drupal API-only, but rather API-first. It doesn't limit you to a coupled approach like CMSes without APIs, and it doesn't limit you to an API-only approach like Contentful and other headless CMSes. To me, that is the most important conclusion to draw from this: Drupal supports an entire spectrum of possibilities. This allows you to make the proper trade-off between optimizing for your editors and marketers, or for your developers, and to shift elsewhere on that spectrum as your needs change.

It's a spectrum that encompasses both extremes of the scenarios that a coupled approach and headless approach represent. You can use Drupal to power a single website as we have for many years. At the same time, you can use Drupal to power a long list of applications beyond a traditional website. In doing so, Drupal can be adjusted up and down along this spectrum according to the requirements of your developers and editors.

In other words, Drupal is API-first, not API-only, and rather than leave editors and marketers behind in favor of developers, it gives everyone what they need in one single package.

Special thanks to Preston So for contributions to this blog post and to Wim Leers, Ted Bowman, Chris Hamper and Matt Grill for their feedback during the writing process.

Thoughts as we head to DrupalCon Baltimore

The past weeks have been difficult. I'm well aware that the community is struggling, and it really pains me. I respect the various opinions expressed, including opinions different from my own. I want you to know that I'm listening and that I'm carefully considering the different aspects of this situation. I'm doing my best to progress through the issues and support the work that needs to happen to evolve our governance model. For those that are attending DrupalCon Baltimore and want to help, we just added a community discussions track.

There is a lot to figure out, and I know that it's difficult when there are unresolved questions. Leading up to DrupalCon Baltimore next week, it may be helpful for people to know that Larry Garfield and I are talking. As members of the Community Working Group reported this week, Larry remains a member of the community. While we figure out Larry's future roles, Larry is attending DrupalCon as a regular community member with the opportunity to participate in sessions, code sprints and issue queues.

As we are about to kick off DrupalCon Baltimore, please know that my wish for this conference is for it to be everything you've made it over the years; a time for bringing out the best in each other, for learning and sharing our knowledge, and for great minds to work together to move the project forward. We owe it to the 3,000 people who will be in attendance to make DrupalCon about Drupal. To that end, I ask for your patience towards me, so I can do my part in helping to achieve these goals. It can only happen with your help, support, patience and understanding. Please join me in making DrupalCon Baltimore an amazing time to connect, collaborate and learn, like the many DrupalCons before it.

(I have received a lot of comments and at this time I just want to respond with an update. I decided to close the comments on this post.)