Drupal is a CMS. One might even say that Drupal is a good CMS and they would be right about that, in my not-so-humble opinion. At its core, Drupal is able to define content really well. Sure, it needs to do better at making the content editor’s experience pleasant, apart from other things. But defining content structures that are malleable to multiple surfaces has always been Drupal’s strengths. This makes Drupal an excellent choice for building a Digital Experience Platform (DXP).
The concept of a DXP has been popular for a few years but it has peaked, not surprisingly, in the last year with organizations now forced to prioritize their digital presence above all else. Companies have now realized that, with the amount of information being thrown at each of us, they have to make sure their presence is felt through all media. Building a coherent content framework that can be used for all of this media is no easy task. Information architects need powerful tools to flexibly define how they would store their content. Drupal has been able to provide such tools for a long time.
Digital Experience is a strategy
You might have realized by now that DXP is not a product, but a collection of tools that can help you execute your strategy. With the proliferation of media, it is important that you convey a consistent message regardless of how someone consumes it. To be able to do that, you have to identify the various ways you would talk to your customers and build a strategy. This is highly subjective and customized for your needs, and I won’t go into much depth here but the output we want is a coherent content architecture. An architecture which can represent your messaging to your customers.
Once you’re able to formulate this strategy, that is when you begin implementing it within your DXP. The content architecture you have identified goes in the CMS within the DXP and it needs to be flexible enough. Drupal is a very capable CMS for such requirements. It supports complex content models with relationships among pieces of content, rich (semantic) fields, and multilingual capabilities. You can also build advanced workflows for content moderation. This enables Drupal to be the single source of truth for all content in an enterprise. This, too, should be important in your content strategy and Drupal makes it easy to implement.
A lot of this may sound like a lot of theory and not enough practice. In a way, that’s true. Think of this as a discovery stage for the problem you’re solving. It’s important you spend enough time here so that you identify the problem clearly. Solving a wrong problem may not be very expensive from a technical point of view but frustrating to your content team. Involve various stakeholders within the DXP to determine if the content model you are building will break their systems. For example, your long text field may be good for web and email, but is unusable for a text message. But if you break up your content into a lot of granular pieces, you have to figure out how to piece it together to build a landing page.
You also have to determine how your content can be served to more diverse channels (e.g., voice assistants or appliances). Depending on your domain, you have to make trade-offs and build a model that is workable for a variety of consumers. But that’s only one side of the story. You also have to make sure that the content is easily discoverable (both internally and externally), easily modifiable, auditable (revisions), trackable (workflows), and reliably stored (security and integrity of the data). Typically, there are an ecosystem of tools to help you achieve this.
Drupal already handles some of these things and it can integrate well with other systems in your infrastructure. Drupal 8 began a decoupling movement which became a hype and is now being rationalized. I wrote about it in a separate post. To be clear, decoupling was always possible but Drupal 8 introduced web services in the core that accelerated the pace. Today, you only need to enable the JSON:API module to make all your content immediately discoverable and consumable by a variety of consumers.
Apart from being the content server, Drupal also handles being the consumer very well. As of Drupal 8, developers can easily use any PHP package, library, or SDK to communicate with different systems. Again, this was possible before but Drupal 8 made it very easy by adopting modern PHP programming practices. Even if a library or SDK is not available, most systems expose some sort of API. From Drupal’s point of view, use the in-built Guzzle or another HTTP client of your choice and invoke the API.
Where does Drupal fit in
Drupal is now a very suitable choice for beginning to build your DXP. However, that is not the complete story. All systems evolve, requirements change, and strategies shift. It should be easy for Drupal to shift along with it.
For example, Drupal’s current editing experience was excellent when it came out but that was several years ago. Today, building an intuitive editorial experience with Drupal is the most pressing challenge we face. There are a lot of improvements in this space and there will be more with newer versions of Drupal. It helps that community has picked up a reliable release schedule and that has built the user’s trust in Drupal. Because of the regular release schedule and focused development, we see editorial features such as layout builder and a modern theme as a part of Drupal.
It may seem that this is not important, or at least not as important as “strategy” and “infrastructure”. That’s a dangerous notion to have. Ultimately, your system will only be as effective as your team makes it. An unintuitive UI makes for mistakes and a frustrating experience. And if it is hard to maintain the content, it will not be maintained anymore. If there is anything more dangerous than missing content, it is outdated content.
Apart from the editorial experience, a flexible system is important for an effective DXP. If the content store cannot keep up with the changes required for new consumers or even existing ones, it will become a bottleneck. In organizations, such problems are solved by hacking on another system within the DXP or running a parallel system. Both of these approaches mark the beginning of demise of your DXP.
That is why it is important for you to be able to easily customize Drupal. Yes, I’m talking about low-code solutions. Drupal has figured out how to modify the content structure with minimum developer involvement, if any. It needs to make this easier for other functionality as well. Various features of Drupal should be able to interact with each other more flexibly and intuitively. For example, it is possible to place a view within a layout but it is not intuitive to do so. We have to identify such common problems and build solutions for site-builders to use. Again, I am not going to go in depth into this.
Building a digital experience platform for your organization is a massive undertaking and I cannot hope to do justice to all the nuances within a single blog post written over a couple of hours. But I hope that this post gave some insights into why Drupal is relevant to this space and how it fits into the picture.