Content management systems (CMSs) are the engine that drive content creation on the web today. They form the foundation that we build on for publishing and sharing information, creating digital experiences and conducting online retail. WordPress and Drupal are staples in the CMS world and they have both been around a long time. WordPress is known for its intuitive and easy-to-use interface. Drupal is known for its flexibility and complexity. While both have their strengths and weaknesses, the usability gap between WordPress and Drupal is changing. This article will show you the current state of Drupal’s admin user experience in a side-by-side comparison with WordPress, the most widely used CMS. If you’re familiar with one CMS but not the other, this comparison is also a good introduction to the other.
TL;DR: The primary goal of this article is to dispel the perception that Drupal is widely different and harder for administrators to use than WordPress. If you don’t care about the background behind this perception, just skip down to the direct comparison.
WordPress is easy, Drupal is hard… why does this perception exist
But first, a little background. The dominant CMS in terms of number of sites running on it is WordPress. It’s estimated to power about 62% of all websites that use a CMS, meaning multiple millions of websites are using it. Why is WordPress so popular? WordPress started as a blogging engine with a focus on being easy-to-use. This proved to be incredibly important because it meant that nearly anyone could get a WordPress site up and running fast and be able to use it with little-to-no training. The idea caught fire with both individuals and local businesses who just wanted a simple, low-cost website that others could find online. Web developers and agencies also finally had a framework that allowed their clients to make simple content edits within an admin environment that was friendly. Of course, WordPress today can be used for much more than a simple website, but it is still ideal for simple websites. Another key takeaway here is this perception of WordPress as being easy-to-use. This reputation holds true just as much today as it ever did in the past.
This article isn’t actually meant to praise and promote WordPress. Instead, much of this article will focus on another popular CMS, Drupal. Drupal is a fantastic CMS and is incredibly powerful when used correctly. In many web development circles, Drupal is the go-to solution for providing a robust solution for today’s CMS driven website development. It’s thriving both in usage and as a community of enthusiasts, but while WordPress sits in #1 spot with 62% of the market share, Drupal holds steady at #3 with about 3%. It still means there are many hundreds of thousands of websites powered by Drupal, but the number of websites using it pales in comparison to WordPress.
Why isn’t Drupal more popular? Well, anyone who knows Drupal (and even many who don’t) will tell you that Drupal is best suited for large websites with high traffic and complex requirements. Universities, government, nonprofits and online retailers are a sample of who uses Drupal. Drupal out-of-the-box isn’t as ready to use as WordPress, so it’s unlikely a suitable fit for simple websites. For individuals, configuring Drupal is a steep learning curve. For local web agencies, it takes more time to setup which means they must charge more. These reasons alone largely take Drupal out of the running for many websites, so for Drupal it’s more about use case than mass adoption.
With that said, Drupal’s ability to be configured and developed on literally means it can handle nearly any situation required of it, whether that means selling products for enterprise businesses or being the integration layer between multiple platforms. While this inherent flexibility is great for software developers, Drupal’s perception of complexity combined with a historically underwhelming admin experience has cemented a reputation that Drupal is unintuitive and difficult to use for the end user, the people who will be using it every day. While in my opinion this isn’t true of today’s Drupal, like WordPress it’s reputation precedes it. In Drupal’s case, however, this reputation isn’t as flattering and it’s something that our sales and outreach teams battle with often.
For Drupal, it’s time for change
Like WordPress, Drupal is open source software. It’s free to use and anyone has full access to the underlying code to modify and build upon. Both platforms have a core team for advancing key initiatives and a massive community of individuals and organizations that support the initiatives while also adding additional functionality through plugins (WordPress lingo) or modules (Drupal lingo).
While usability has always been important to WordPress (since it started as a blogging platform), Drupal was historically more focused on being open and flexible. It’s user experience has continuously improved with each version release, but late in 2018 marked the beginning of a big push towards modernizing the Drupal admin user interface (UI). Drupal is really amazing software and it’s time that the admin experience catches up.
Introducing Claro, Drupal’s new admin UI
Claro interface design mockup courtesy of Drupal.org
Claro is the new admin theme being built as part of the Admin UI Modernization initiative. It’s included with every Drupal 8 site, new and old, and can be enabled right now if you so choose. Just be aware that it is currently considered “experimental” while progress continues to be made. It’s not yet in its finished state, but you can view the development roadmap here to see what is still left to do.
Side-by-side: WordPress & Drupal Admin UI Comparison
On to the comparison!
For WordPress, I’m using version 5.3.2 (released Dec. 18, 2019) which comes with its own Twenty Twenty default theme and content.
For Drupal, I’m using version 8.8.1 (also released Dec. 19, 2019. How about that!) and the new, but experimental, Claro admin theme. If you’re looking at this at a later date, some aspects may be different (for the better!) as development of the theme continues. I’ve also installed Drupal using the official Umami demo install profile so that I have a theme and some content to work with.
In each of the 10 comparison categories below, I’ll give my opinion on which CMS has the edge out-of-the-box and why I think this. I’ve used both platforms and do have some bias towards Drupal, but I’ll do my best to keep that in check.
- Admin toolbar
- Login dashboard
- Managing media
- Creating pages
- Editing pages
- Managing widgets and blocks
- Managing menus
- Managing users, roles and permissions
- Site status report
- Plugins and modules
- WordPress & Drupal comparison summary
1. Admin toolbar
The admin toolbar is always present on the page of both WordPress and Drupal.
In WordPress, a single toolbar is used as a jump-off point for common admin pages, but you can also start the content creation process and access your account profile and information.
Drupal has a similar admin toolbar except you have access to everything including creating new content. Every admin page that your user role has permission to view is available through this menu. While it’s more to look at initially, experienced users enjoy fewer clicks to get where they want to go.
While the learning curve to know where everything is might be a bit steeper, experienced Drupal users enjoy being able to access everything in one familiar way. With that said, new users may find this larger menu intimidating.
2. Login dashboard
After logging in, the login dashboard is the first page you see. WordPress and Drupal both take a different approach to their login dashboard.
WordPress has a robust dashboard right out of the gate. This dashboard takes admins away from the site frontend and into an interface that only they can see. The left side has a larger menu for accessing the rest of the admin interface. The main content area mix of useful information about your site and information specific to WordPress as a whole, such as training resources and upcoming WordPress events. The panes on this page can be toggled on and off and plugins can add new panes.
This is the first area where Drupal takes a different approach. Instead of a robust dashboard, you don’t actually get much of anything. The admin toolbar already gives you access to the entire site, so Drupal keeps you on the website frontend and instead shows you your “user page”. This page is entirely customizable although you will most likely need third-party or IT support to do so. It’s an open canvas to do with as you like. For ecommerce, you might show a customer their information, recently viewed products and their last order placed. For content creators, you might show a custom dashboard with quick links to their common tasks. What you do here is entirely up to you.
Although it’s not entirely useful, WordPress actually has a dashboard which is a nice touch for new users. Drupal's clean slate offers a lot of exciting potential for admins and visitors alike, but any potential must first be realized before this page is useful.
3. Managing media
Images, videos, documents and more are uploaded and organized within a media manager. Both WordPress and Drupal offer a convenient content editor plugin which makes selecting and adding media into content easy.
WordPress really defined the way media can be managed within a CMS. Their interface for managing media contains a handy drag-to-upload feature and each piece of media is shown in a grid format by default. Media can be filtered by date, type and name.
Drupal admittedly isn’t as clean as WordPress in this interface yet but it’s functionality is essentially the same and solid for most users. The visual interface will improve as the development of Claro progresses. By default, Drupal displays media in a list, but you can toggle between list and grid. There are also similar filtering options. Like all other aspects of Drupal, advanced users can customize media types beyond what you see here and entirely new media types can be created. This advanced functionality is unique to Drupal and isn’t as easily done in WordPress.
WordPress does a great job of making media easy to manage. Drupal will continue to see improvements in the near future, but right now it still feels clunky.
4. Creating pages
Creating new pages, such as general content pages and blog posts, is a common interaction that most admin users will need to do.
As of version 5.0, WordPress includes their much anticipated Gutenberg editor experience. This editing format is sleek, modern, and very intuitive. You start with a title and then continue piecing together chunks of content by selecting various types of “blocks” to build the page with. Blocks are a single, reusable type of content such as a heading or paragraph of text, an image or gallery, a list, a quote, etc. Custom blocks can be created and plugins may also add additional blocks that content creators can use. Along the right side of the page is a settings pane. This pane provides various page specific settings and customizations such as page visibility, featured image, an option to allow comments, etc. Additional settings for the currently selected content block also appears here.
Out-of-the-box, creating a new piece of content looks like the screenshot above. Content in Drupal could potentially be something wildly different than just a basic page, so Drupal defaults to a standard “field based” editing interface where the different fields that are configured to make up the content are laid out on the page. All editors need to do is fill in the blanks. Field types can be text (with an optional WYSIWYG editor), and image, a file upload, a date, and anything else you can imagine. This again is where Drupal’s flexibility is both an advantage and a curse. The advantage is that a type of content can be anything you can imagine, but the downside is that someone has to configure that content type first. The field based editing experience is provided by default to ensure the editing experience is consistent across different content types.
Here’s the important thing to know about Drupal. Drupal doesn’t like to make assumptions as to what your editing experience should be. As an example, a used car dealership, a national newspaper, and an online retailer will all have entirely different content editing requirements. Drupal doesn’t want to get in your way and it doesn’t try to. What it does do is give you a solid foundation to create YOUR ideal editing experience. This might not be ideal for organizations and businesses with simple website requirements, but for those with complex workflows and unique requirements, Drupal is ideal.
One last important note to make on this topic is that Drupal does also have a Gutenberg editing experience, it just doesn’t come packaged with Drupal out-of-the-box. This module and other editing interface modules and initiatives can be installed in Drupal to make the default editing experience more capable and modular.
When based solely on out-of-the-box functionality, WordPress pre-packaged Gutenberg editing experience is modern and intuitive for new and experienced users. However, it’s important to note that Drupal modules exist that greatly improve Drupal’s default experience. You can even add the same Gutenberg experience.
5. Editing pages
Once a page has been created, sometimes you still need to go back and edit it once in a while. This is a different experience from creating new content, so let’s now look at how it works with each CMS.
Pretty standard, as a logged in administrator you have access to editing content by viewing the page on the website frontend and using one of the various “edit” buttons. You’re then brought to the same Gutenberg interface that you see when creating content.
I would say Drupal has the upper hand for editing existing content. Similar to WordPress, as a logged in administrator you have access to page edit links when viewing the content which brings you back to the same interface as when the content was created. However, in Drupal you also have additional links to view content revisions as well as the view and edit page translations for multi-language sites.
The current version of Drupal, Drupal 8, also includes an additional edit icon that contains a new “quick edit” option. Depending on the content, the quick edit allows on-page inline editing (shown above) instead of taking you to a separate page! This makes simple edits quick and easy. Furthermore, the edit icon also appears when administrators hover over menus and other configurable page elements too, giving you a quick way to access their configuration.
While WordPress has the edge when creating new content, Drupal’s on-page inline editing feature makes editing existing content quick and easy by keeping content editors on the website frontend.
6. Managing widgets and blocks
Widgets (WordPress lingo) and blocks (Drupal lingo) are two words for essentially the same thing. While not limited to these locations, the header, footer and often left and right columns beside the main content area contain defined regions where certain elements can be placed. I’m talking about slogans, menus, a search bar, your copyright, recent posts, social feeds, etc. WordPress and Drupal have similar but different ways to manage these elements.
WordPress includes a backend and frontend methods for editing page widgets, both of which are quite basic and lack a lot of real capability.
The backend method (shown above) is accessed through the backend Appearance menu. This page gives you a nice list of available widgets on the left side and another list of active widgets within the available regions on the right. A simple drag and drop interface lets you move elements around and opening each widget allows for basic configuration.
The frontend method is through a "Live Preview" mode (shown above) where a version of the site theme is presented and widgets are managed through the left column. Settings for existing widgets can also be quickly opened by clicking its blue edit icon, as you can see in the image above.
Out-of-the-box, it’s difficult to understand exactly where a widget will appear throughout the site because you don’t have the ability to see or control which pages accept the widget. Some third-party plugins are available to give you this functionality, but they must be added. New widgets are also a bit more difficult to add as they must be created by a developer or added though a plugin.
Like WordPress, Drupal has the ability to manage blocks from both the backend and frontend of the website, although Drupal handles both situations better.
The backend method (shown above) is accessed through the admin toolbar’s Structure menu. Here you can view all available regions and the blocks contained within each. Regions are a big part of Drupal theme creation, so you will often see 10+ available regions to choose from. If you’re not sure of your themes regions, the “Demonstrate block regions” link above the list of regions will give you a preview. Each region has a “Place block” button for adding new pre-configured blocks. Existing blocks can be moved dragged between regions and each block can be configured independently. Block configuration in Drupal is very robust, including but not limited to control over what pages the block is visible on and what account roles can view it. Like content, blocks can be translated and even have revisions.
Custom blocks can also be created by more advanced Drupal users in a similar way that new media and content types are created. In the screenshot above there is a link to the “Custom block library,” which is where new blocks can be created. Like WordPress, modules can also be installed which will add new blocks.
Drupal’s frontend method for managing blocks takes on the same familiar editing experience that we discussed for editing content. When logged in and viewing the website frontend, navigating to a page and hovering your cursor over an element will reveal an edit icon if that element is a configurable block. Options for the block are then given. The block in the screenshot above contains a menu, so we see options to configure the block and edit the menu. In this case, clicking one of these options will take you to the backend page for performing these actions. If the block contained text, we would also be given an option to edit the text directly on the page, just like we can with content.
Simply put, Drupal’s block management is robust yet not too difficult. Being able to manage existing blocks directly from the website frontend is both user friendly and familiar given that existing pages can also be managed in the same way.
7. Managing menus
Menus connect the pages within a website. Commonly you’ll find a primary navigation and some sort of footer menu, but menus are used in many other places as well.
The menu system in WordPress is a bit strange at first, but overall it’s pretty simple. You create a menu (or select an existing one using the menu selection dropdown), then add links by selecting pages, categories, or by creating custom links (add menu items in image above), then use a drag and drop interface for moving and nesting the menu items (menu structure in image above). Each menu item within the menu structure can be opened for a bit of customization.
The menu settings area controls where the menu is displayed within predefined template locations. Just check the box and the menu will appear once saved. Any menu created here can also be assigned to region as a widget or through the template live preview screen.
One odd thing I’ve found with WordPress is that, when editing a page, you’re not able to add it into a menu. I’m sure there are plugins that allow this, but out-of-the-box you have to add the page through the menu system or check a setting within the menu that all new pages get added… but then you might have to remove some.
Drupal’s approach to menus is what I would consider more standard. You navigate the “menus” page which lists all of the menus that have been created, then you create a new menu or edit an existing menu. The screenshot above is what you see when editing a menu. Here you manage this menu’s links by either adding a new one or manipulating the existing ones. When adding a new link you can easily search for content that the link will link to or specify a custom link.
Pages can also be added to a menu when the page is being created or edited. Within the page settings, all you do is select the menu and specify a link title.
Like WordPress, once you create a menu you can then add it into a region of the site as a block. However, within the menu itself you don’t have the ability to put the menu anywhere.
A more standard approach makes managing menus clearer and more user friendly. Also being able to choose if a page should be included in a menu while creating the page is a nice feature. That said, I appreciate being able to manage a menu in its entirety on a single page like you do in WordPress.
8. Managing users, roles and permissions
Managing users is common for both controlling who can edit the website and who can login for other reasons, such as non-admin accounts for an online store or community.
WordPress has six predefined user roles: Super Admin, Administrator, Editor, Author, Contributor, and Subscriber. Each has varying degrees of what they can do, but it’s pretty clear for the most part and goes back to when WordPress was mainly a blogging platform. Users can be created and managed through a “users” page (shown above), which is laid out in a straightforward manner displaying
But WordPress has some major drawbacks here. First, WordPress doesn’t have any frontend user self-management, meaning users can’t view or edit their own profiles. Second, the predefined roles and their associated permissions don’t work for everyone and actually complicate user management when you don’t need it. Third, there is nowhere to really manage role permissions in a granular way. These drawbacks can be fixed through custom development and/or various plugins, but many consider this to be a general weak point of WordPress.
User management is another area where Drupal shines. In contrast to WordPress, Drupal only starts with three default roles: Anonymous, Authenticated and Administrator. Anonymous is a user who is not logged in, authenticated is a user who has an account but isn’t someone who typically isn’t managing content and site configuration, and administrator is a user with full site and admin access. These three roles are minimal, clear and cover all of the basic needs of most sites. If and when another role with different permissions are created, this is easy to do right out-of-the-box.
The image above shows Drupal’s version of the current list of users. It follows a similar look and style to the rest of the admin pages, giving administrators a place to add and manage user accounts, including assigning users to specific roles. Anonymous and authenticated users can also create or manage their own account through the website frontend (although this functionality can be turned off if desired).
Drupal’s strength in user management comes in the form of roles and permissions. When a role is created, a column of permission checkboxes for the role is added to the Permissions page (shown above). Almost every piece of functionality within Drupal has an associated permission. Simply checking the boxes determines what each role can and can’t do. It’s powerful and easy.
A simple yet powerful user management system combined with frontend self-service functionality gives Drupal a clear edge over WordPress.
9. Site status report
Both WordPress and Drupal include a site status page that gives you information about the website and server configuration as well as an overall health report that outlines any issues. These automated health checks help keep your CMS up-to-date and secure.
The “Site health” page (shown above) gives you an overall health status and list of any issues. This status page is clean and each item can be expanded for more information, but there is no visual urgency that makes the “2 critical issues” stand out. In my opinion, critical issues should be resolved and so highlighting these issues in some way is a necessary UX improvement.
An info tab at the top of the page can be opened which gives more information about your installation of WordPress, the server, the PHP version, and the database.
Drupal contains both site information and site health in one “Status report” page (shown above). Like WordPress, this page gives you everything you need to know at a glance about your Drupal installation and the other components that make it run. Here we can also clearly see what errors and warnings have been found and some information on how they can be resolved.
While both WordPress and Drupal have similar pages that show similar information, Drupal’s status report does a better job at laying out the information and visually capturing the severity of any issues.
10. Plugins and modules
Plugins (WordPress lingo) and modules (Drupal lingo) extend core CMS functionality and add new features. Extensions are usually created by third-party developers and released to the platform communities for anyone else to use. Whether it’s to increase performance, enhance SEO capabilities or create an online store, extensions are a powerful way to improve and adapt the CMS platform.
Visiting the “Plugins” page (shown above) is a quick way to see what additional plugins are currently packaged with your WordPress installation and can be activated if desired. Plugins shown here all provide some sort of new functionality or feature that is not part of the core WordPress software.
When you need new functionality, WordPress provides an excellent and convenient plugin library browser (shown above) accessible within the website backend. Here you can search for, view, and install plugins easily with the click of a button.
Drupal’s module list is where you can see all current extensions, activated or not, for your Drupal installation. The big difference here between WordPress and Drupal is that for Drupal you are able to see all modules installed, even those that are part of the core software. Modules are also nicely grouped which nicely organizes the large list.
Installing new modules isn’t nearly as easy in Drupal. Unlike WordPress, Drupal doesn’t include a module library browser within the backend interface. Instead, users must search for modules within a web browser and manually install them. Finding modules can be difficult if you’re not familiar with the process.
While both platforms have a massive library of extensions, WordPress offers users a much friendlier and intuitive way of finding and installing extensions that users of any skill level can appreciate. This may or may not be an issue for you if you have a capable IT team or development partner, but for small teams WordPress has the clear edge.
WordPress & Drupal comparison summary
I hope after going through this comparison you now have a good understanding of the differences and similarities between WordPress and Drupal. As you can see, both platforms out-of-the-box have different strengths and weaknesses, but it’s important to know that all of the weaknesses can be overcome through platform extensions and experience. In extreme cases, both platforms support custom development to overcome unique problems.
For convenience, here is a quick summary showing which CMS has the edge in the 10 categories compared. However, I would recommend that you go back and read the edge summary for each category, if you haven’t done so already.
|Managing widgets and blocks||✓|
|Managing users, roles and permissions||✓|
|Site status report||✓|
|Plugins and modules||✓|
A final word of advice
In my opinion, you shouldn’t be turned off from one platform or the other simply because you’ve heard that one is better or easier to use. Both platforms are mature and constantly improving, user experience is top of mind, and usability gaps have become less of an issue in recent years.
My advice, select the platform you use based on your requirements. WordPress is a great authoring tool and is good for small and medium sized organizations. Drupal is fantastic for medium and large sized organizations or anyone who has complex workflows, products, and/or a need to integrate with other platforms. That’s a pretty general summary, but if you’re considering either of these platforms, first know what your requirements of the platform are and then start talking to the experts for each.
Acro Media is an ecommerce consultation and development agency who can help you in this regard. We specialize in open source ecommerce and a large part of our work is based around Drupal. Drupal typically works better for our clients but we know WordPress, too. If you’re researching your requirements or evaluating your options, hit us up for a quick chat, we would love to help. Otherwise, check out some of these related resources.
- Services: Open Source Ecommerce Development at Acro Media
- Blog: Why You Shouldn’t Choose an Ecommerce Platform Based on Features
- Blog: What to Know When Comparing Ecommerce Platform Capabilities
- Ebook: Understanding the Three Approaches to Digital Commerce Architecture
- Video: How to Plan for an Open Source Commerce Architecture