Should we decouple Drupal with a client-side framework?
As user experiences evolve from static pages to application-like experiences, end users' expectations of websites have become increasingly demanding. The Facebook newsfeed, the Gmail inbox, and the Twitter live stream are all compelling examples that form a baseline for the application-like experiences users now take for granted.
Many of Drupal's administrative interfaces and Drupal sites could benefit from a similarly seamless, instantaneous user experience. Drupal's user interfaces for content modeling (Field UI), layout management (Panels), and block management would benefit from no page refreshes, instant previews, and interface previews. These traits could also enrich the experience of site visitors; Drupal's commenting functionality could similarly gain from these characteristics and resemble an experience more like the commenting experience found in Facebook.
As Drupal's project lead, I ask myself: how can our community feel enabled and encouraged to start building rich user experiences?
In recent years, the emergence of decoupled architectures with client-side frameworks and libraries have helped our industry build these experiences. Does that mean we have to decouple Drupal's front-facing site experience (for site visitors or end users) and/or the administration experience (for content editors and site builders)? If so, should Drupal decouple the administration layer differently from the front-facing site experience? By extension, should a client-side framework guide this change?
Here is my current thinking: in the short term, Drupal should work toward a next-generation user experience under progressive decoupling for both the administration layer and the end user experience. At the same time, we should enable fully decoupled end-user and administrative experiences to be built on Drupal too. In my view, the best way to achieve this is to formally standardize on a full-featured MV* framework (e.g. Angular, Ember, Backbone, and Knockout) or a component-based view library (e.g. React, Vue, and Riot). In this blog post, I want to kick off the discussion and walk you through my current position in some more detail.
Should we decouple Drupal itself?
There is no doubt that Drupal's administration layer is very application-like and would benefit from an experience that is more interactive. For the end-user experience, a decoupled implementation is not always the best option. Some sites may not need or want the application-like interactivity that a client-side framework would provide, since not every site needs interaction. For instance, news sites or blogs do not need much interactivity, custom applications need a great deal, while e-commerce sites lie somewhere in the middle. It's not clear-cut, so let's look at our options in more detail.
|Approach||User experience||Developer experience||Ease of implementation|
No immediate feedback
Theme layer preserved
Modules in mostly PHP
Ad-hoc client-side code
No server-side change
No client-side change
No page refreshes
Theme layer preserved
Unified client-side code
Some server-side change
Some client-side change
No page refreshes
Theme layer replaced
Unified client-side code
Much server-side change
Much client-side change
How should Drupal decouple its user experience?
Drupal's administration layer (content editor and site builder experience) is effectively an application. Fully decoupling may be the appropriate call to achieve the best possible user experience for creating, managing and presenting content. However, rewriting the administration layer from the ground up is a monumental task, especially since its modules provide powerful interfaces that allow site builders to build robust, complex sites without a line of code.
The same expectations for application-like interactivity often hold for the end-user experience: users expect shopping carts, comments, notifications, and searches to be updated instantaneously, without having to wait for a page to load.
For both the administration layer and the end-user experience, I believe the Drupal front end should not be fully decoupled out of the box. We should advance from our traditional paradigm and default to progressive decoupling. It allows us to achieve the user experience we want without significant downsides, since not every use case would benefit from fully decoupling. Through progressive decoupling, Drupal could potentially reach the ideals of the assembled web more quickly by preserving a tight link between Drupal modules and their front-end components.
Nonetheless, we should empower people building fully decoupled sites and applications. Depending on the use case, Drupal 8 is a good match for decoupled applications but we should improve and extend Drupal's REST API, enhance contributed modules such as Services, and shore up new features such as GraphQL (demo video) so more functionality can be decoupled. Front-end developers can then use any framework of their choice — whether it is Angular, Ember, React, or something else — to build a fully decoupled administrative application.
Should Drupal standardize on a single framework?
All things considered, I do believe Drupal should standardize on a single client-side framework, but it should only make such an explicit recommendation for progressively decoupled Drupal, not fully decoupled architectures. It would result in a more seamless user experience, better compatibility across interactive components in modules, maximum code reuse, a more consistent front-end developer experience, more maintainable code, and better performance as we don't have to load multiple frameworks.
Despite the potential benefits, there are also good reasons not to embrace a single client-side framework. New front-end frameworks are being created at what feels like an unsustainable pace; every nine months there is a new kid on the block. It's hard for a project as large as Drupal to embrace a single technology when there is no guarantee of its longevity.
For instance, Backbone, with its underlying library Underscore, currently powers interactions in the toolbar and in-place editing in Drupal 8. Though Drupal could expand the scope of Backbone in core and encourage front-end developers to build with it, it means buying even further into a framework that is quite old among its peers.
To deal with the fast-evolving nature of the front-end landscape, we need to be thoughtful about which framework we choose, to reassess our choice from time to time, and to make sure we can migrate fairly easily if we so decide.
What client-side framework should Drupal standardize on?
Assuming we agree that embracing a single client-side framework makes sense for Drupal, there are actually three additional questions: what framework to standardize on, how to do it, and when to decide.
I'm the first to admit I'm not the best person to answer the first question. As I'm not a front-end developer, I'm looking at you, the Drupal community, to help answer this question. I'd hope that the chosen framework aligns well with both our architecture (modular, flexible) and community (collaborative, community-driven).
The second question — how to standardize on a framework — I can help answer. On the one extreme, Drupal could be opinionated and ship a client-side framework with Drupal core, meaning that every installation of Drupal ships with the chosen framework. This would be much like the adoptions of jQuery and Backbone.js. On the other end of the spectrum, Drupal could recommend a specific framework but not ship with it. Finally, somewhere in between, Drupal could provide a default standard framework in core but make it easy to replace with it a framework of a developer's choice, though the likelihood of this is quite small. This is akin to Drupal core shipping with a template engine (i.e. PHPTemplate) that could be (but was rarely) replaced with another. Ultimately, I think we get the best result if Drupal ships with a specific framework—much like the adoption of jQuery in Drupal 5.
The last question, when to standardize on a framework, is important too. I would recommend we experiment with possible directions as soon as possible in order to decide on a final vision sooner rather than later.
I believe that, for now, it makes more sense to progressively decouple Drupal sites and their administration layer by first building our pages with Drupal. Once the page is loaded, we can let a unified client-side framework take over as much of the page as needed to foster a next-generation user experience without reinventing the wheel or alienating developers.
That is not all! We will need module developers to bring rich interactions to their user interfaces with the help of the framework we choose. We will need designers to guide module developers in building a graceful user interface. We will need front-end developers to demonstrate how they want to develop the user experiences that will define Drupal for years to come. We will need users to test and validate all of our work. It will be tough going, but together, we can ensure Drupal stays ahead of the curve well into the future.