Experience Express in Utrecht: Conversational Design and Modern Front-end Approaches at Frontend United

With a uniquely diverse community of designers, developers, and everyone in between, Frontend United is one of the conferences I find I enjoy more and more each time I attend. My previous time at this wonderful Drupal-adjacent conference was in Ghent, where I gave a session about the promise (and perils) of decoupled Drupal.

This time, in Utrecht, a wide range of designer- and developer-oriented content greeted attendees both within and well outside the Drupal universe. This time on the Experience Express, we call briefly in Utrecht to discover some new best practices in conversational design, tinker around with browser-based debugging tools, and listen in on Drupal's project lead Dries Buytaert and his plans for JavaScript in Drupal core.

A little more conversation … and design

On Friday at Frontend United, I had the opportunity and privilege of presenting a session about conversational interfaces entitled "Talk over text: Conversational design and usability". In this session, I delved into some of the most important considerations when designing for the most human of all interfaces that exist among digital experiences, based on the foundations of Erika Hall's seminal work in this area, particularly the "key moments" in conversational interactions.

The two most important components of any instance of conversational design, I argued, were the language itself — necessitating good writing and thoughtful consideration for Grice's conversational maxims — and flows — the ways in which users can navigate the interface and are presented with decisions, whether dichotomously or not.

To finish things off, I presented a case study on Acquia Labs' work on Ask GeorgiaGov, the first Amazon Alexa skill for citizens of the state of Georgia, which follows Hall's "key moments" and also provides well-designed language and interaction flows that point the user to favorable outcomes — in this case, getting their questions about Georgia answered. For more information about the Ask GeorgiaGov project, check out our Acquia Engage panel or the launch announcement.

Nifty debugging features in the browser

Mike Herchel (Senior Front-End Developer at Lullabot) offered a humorous and insightful look at some of the debugging and profiling features that we can find in browser features like Chrome Developer Tools. Quickly winning the minds and hearts of the audience with reminiscences about Firebug, which brought out quite a bit of nostalgia in me, Mike discussed some of the new features of Chrome Developer Tools available in Canary builds of Google Chrome.

Throughout his talk, Mike pointed out several nifty features that I had never known about, despite having used Chrome Developer Tools for years during the course of my day-to-day coding. For instance, on the "Sources" tab in Chrome Developer Tools, you can store certain variables that are in local scope as global in order to access them freely from the console, in addition to using Cmd+P to open a quick and handy file search. In addition, the "Performance" tab not only displays the ever-useful time to first paint but also the time to paint of the last hero image, which may be useful for other performance tracking.

Other features that Mike highlighted can shave seconds or even minutes off a developer's workday thanks to their convenience. As an example, in the "Elements" tab, after highlighting an element, you can adjust values in CSS by using the up and down keys, holding Alt to increment or decrement by tenths and Shift to do so by tens. While the many features Mike discussed are far beyond the scope of this blog post, I highly encourage you to check out his session video for more.

A keynote from Dries about the future of Drupal

"Drupal needs to provide a cutting-edge experience for its own users, the content creators and site builders." —Dries Buytaert

Drupal project lead and Acquia chairman and co-founder Dries Buytaert presented a well-attended visionary keynote at Frontend United detailing the future of Drupal's front end and how JavaScript is making its presence known in Drupal core. Starting with a brief overview of Drupal's history, most of which relied on a conception of the web that no longer holds true, Dries set the stage for a discussion of the Drupal community's API-first initiative.

According to Dries, anecdotally, about 20% of new sites that are built on Drupal are decoupled, and many existing Drupal sites have opted to pursue such architectures as well, such as Chupachups, YHA, New Balance, and others. To mirror this trend on the administrative front end, the JavaScript modernization initiative in Drupal has been hard at work on refined interfaces with the help of React as a framework for experimentation.

Finally, Dries highlighted six required steps for a React-powered user interface to successfully drive Drupal's administrative personas. First, we need to stabilize the JSON API module (see my blog post on the subject), which is the most stable of the web services modules currently in the Drupal contributed landscape. Secondly, we need to improve our JavaScript testing infrastructure, which has begun thanks to the incorporation of Nightwatch.js into Drupal core. Finally, more ambitiously, we need to allow contributed modules to opt between React or Twig, implement any missing web services APIs, and finally, make React interfaces just as flexible and extensible as Drupal's own.


All in all, Frontend United was an enthralling experience thanks to the high-caliber content that participants have come to expect from such a well-considered conference. I encourage everyone, even those who may not consider themselves interested in design or front-end development, to consider having a second look at Frontend United, as it is more than worth the trek across the pond.

Soon to come on the Experience Express, we forge new ground at Drupal Developer Days in Lisbon by asking several key questions about Drupal's future. Among the quandaries considered: Does Drupal's most promising future lie with developers who expect the flexibility of decoupled Drupal or with site builders and content editors who prefer a seamless experience, even if it isn't necessarily monolithic? This and much more coming from your correspondent in Lisbon. Até logo!

Special thanks to Mike Herchel for his feedback during the writing process.