modX Admin UI Thoughts

Jay Gilmore just asked me on Twitter what changes I’d make to the modX user interface and my mind exploded with ideas. Usually when I complain about WordPress’ issues, people hum and haw about my comments, but no one ever throws it back in my face and asks me what I’d do better.

Here are my thoughts on changes that could potentially make ModX easier to use.

Content Aware Site Tree

I find the current site tree to be very annoying, especially on sites where we have more than one hundred pages. This is especially true for situations where we have almost sections of a site like the Blog, Photo Galleries, and other features that really, in most ways, aren’t part of the general page structure, but are more like mini-sites themselves. I am aware we can collapse these items, but management of sections should be focused on sections themselves. Like how most systems separate posts and pages, ModX could easily separate out any top level page/container from the sub-pages below it.

Maybe making it easy to have a section called Blog with its own “site tree”. This could then allow me to add users to see only that site tree in an easy to manage way. That way I could have an option to manage Blog or manage Gallery or manage any specific section and not have to see the rest of the site tree.

Going hand in hand with this, I would like to be able to drag and drop pages to re-assign parents. This would be much easier than the current system.

Here’s a video of my current site tree:

Stop Using Images for Important Functions

When I want to teach someone how to create a page, do you think they really understand what picture they need to click on? What do the following images mean to you?

Do any of them really look like an icon for a new page?

It might work better if there was just a new page option at the top. Purge, new link, expand, contract and sort could go somewhere else (maybe at the bottom of the site tree area). So then at the top we would only have New Page and New Container.

Extra Items Create Confusion

Why is there a Preview link? I agree a link to the active site is important, but should it be called preview? Is it so important that it needs to be a main navigational item?

If we added the new page and new container options within the site tree, we could then remove the “duplicate” items in the navigation. New resource is also not very helpful in that people don’t understand what that means. What does a resource do? Not very user friendly.

Or what about all the “extra” fields you get when you create a new resource or link. The average user is confused by things like having both Title and Long title or Description and Summary. It would be nice if, like WordPress, I could easily enable or disable these fields/sections from my view.

This is what happens when you give “too many” fields to users:

All navigational items and fields on pages in the admin panel should be looked over and it should be decided if an average user could understand them. Extra attention should be paid to where the links are placed, their wording, and if they are truly needed at all.

WordPress Does Link Management Right

New Weblink doesn’t really inspire me with confidence. It doesn’t help with understanding the structure of the data, or how it can effectively be used. WordPress’ management of links is, in my mind, ideal.

The ability to categorize links, assign various details to them, and easily display them makes more sense than the way ModX manages these items.

Extending ModX

While ModX has made great strides in the ease of extending the platform with Revolution, I still think there is much that can be done to make it ideal. Looking at Habari for instance with how their plugins page functions would be a good start for the ModX team.

I can easily active or deactivate plugins, as well as change configuration details, easily and quickly. Same with WordPress. They have gone a step farther and made installing and updating plugins an art form.

One of the ideals that I think needs to come forward in ModX more is “how can we keep people from not needing to leave the admin panel to extend the platform?”

Media Management

I feel like I am using Windows 3.1 when I am dealing with media in ModX. There are so many better ways to manage media, and it really doesn’t feel like this aspect of ModX was given much time or attention.

A great example, in my mind, of what can be done with media management features is what Habari has done with theirs.

It was also made to be extended and use third party services as though they were local. This seamless use of flickr within Habari makes for a great user experience.

Reloading to Remove Editor?

Why should I have to reload the whole page when I just want to turn off the TinyMCE editor for a second? WordPress has made it reasonably easy to change between WYSIWYG editing and raw text editing, why can’t ModX?

Don’t get me started on the issues I’ve had with WYSIWYG editors!


In the end, I am sure there are many other small tweaks that could be made to not only make ModX seem more modern as a CMS, but also to lower the barrier to entry in helping users understand how to use the system without removing the power features.

Usually, all it takes is just giving people options to remove features and fields so that they don’t get confused, distracted or otherwise have issues.

ModX was built for programmers, and it shows. It is a shame though as they’ve built something that’s powerful but is nearly unusable for most of the end-users I deal with.

16 responses to “modX Admin UI Thoughts”

  1. That’s some great points.

    However they’re some points that can be adressed and others that i really don’t want to see in MODx since it’s what makes it so great to use.

    1 – Content aware site tree

    This is the so called point that i don’t want to see changed so much or at least not to work like worpress and the others.
    The MODx tree give a clear view of the structure of the website. That is not the case with WP for example.
    With WP, you have section, categories and fields everywhere but you can’t see your site structure at one glimpse.
    That’s pretty much the case with almost all CMS’s and i believe that it’s the main reason why you want to go back to this kind of behaviour.
    However, the tree can be improved. Content like blog entry don’t need to be seen in the tree (and don’t need to be resources per se).

    But my mistake, the MODx team are working on a way to extend the base class to allow specific UI for content that could be managed differently (in Revolution).

    I would like MODx to “allow” a similar approach to wordpress if making a blog (or a store, or a forum, etc – and only if needed, not as a core behaviour) but the tree should stay as the structural view of the website.

    2 – Stop Using Images for Important Functions

    I cannot agree more on that point, full text link are more useful than icons for managing content.

    3 – Extra Items Create Confusion

    Actually this is adressable by using ManagerManager
    The terms are not user friendly, but by using MODx, you quickly understand why they need to be so verbose.
    However, for your end client, you can propose subtitute name for the fields, hide some (fields and menus) and much more with the help of ManagerManager.

    4 – WordPress Does Link Management Right

    I kinda agree on this point to. From a beginner pow.

    5 – Extending ModX

    This is already here with MODx Revolution and the package management which allow you to download/install/update/uninstall extras directly from the manager.

    Actually i think that the update and download process is better in MODx Revolution than WP actually.
    Worpress just pause things on me whenever i try to update a plugin without any useful informations.

    6 – Media Management

    Again, can’t agree more.
    It’s not the same in Revo though, and i find it better than the default one supplied with MODx Evo (which is the default one supplied by tinyMCE btw)

    7 – Reloading to Remove Editor?

    I’m sot sure that you have to reload in MODx Revolution.

    To conclude, MODx is more geared toward programmers… for now!

    I believe that MODx will never be as easy as WP or Habari. They are point & click system, MODx will never be one.

    But that’s not really a problem, Habari and WP are blogging system that can be “hacked” to provide something different.

    MODx is an all purpose CMF, the learning curve is harder than those 2 system mentionned above, but in the end, building websites other than Blogs is easier with MODx.

    I’m confident that MODx Revolution will grow into to something really spectacular.

    • You see the issues with those two things though right? It requires the user to upload them via ftp, understand how to make them work, and then configure them. Better options for average users should be available out of the box. Plugin developers should be extending features… not trying to scale them back.

      I really appreciate the comment and the links though. 🙂

      • well, a lot of non tech-savey clients actually find it easier to navigate (and comprehend the relation backend/frontend of their site) with a site tree
        …but i do agree, that it’s not ideal if you have to handle many resources. therefore an option to organize those parts of a site with the solution posted above, would be a great.

        btw. the ManagerManager plugin is shipped with the standard Evolution 1.0.4 installation and also got an predefined set of rules (in a chunk).

        good post! 🙂 j

  2. Great post. A lot of “small” things that should do MODx better. I’ve said so many times the same than you, MODx is so focused to programmers, but not to users. There are a lot of features and “small things” that could be improved. Not only programmers must trust MODx, users have to love MODx too! Definetely, they are the people who is going to deal with our CMS most of the time! We “only” code 🙂

    • I can’t wait till MODx focuses on user experience more. I think that’s been the real success of WordPress (lowering the barrier to entry).

      I don’t think the MODx community has to go as far as WP has, but some tweaks could increase the uptake of the software thus making it more valuable to developers and designers.

      Why does WordPress have so many themes and plugins? Because there are so many WordPress users. It can be a bit of a chicken and egg problem, but the software is already powerful and expendable. Just needs some UI love. 🙂

  3. I also want to note that my co-worker, who is a big fan of MODx, is always surprised when it isn’t mentioned in the top CMS blog posts. I keep reminding him that the average blogger hasn’t heard of MODx yet. It is hard to push aside the old guard like Drupal (despite how horrible it is).

  4. As far as a content aware site tree, this is pretty easy to do with content that is displayed in date order using Ditto or getResources (like a blog). In the snippet call set hideFolders (hideContainers in getResources) to 1. This makes it so all folders are hidden in the output results, but can be used in the manager interface for categorizing documents. My clients love this feature when I tell them that they can categorize documents however they want without messing up the website output at all.

    Some of the items you mention are available in MODx Revolution: drag and drop menu ordering and new plugin (package) installation process. I agree plugin management doesn’t get much easier than wordpress, but modx’s package system is more powerful and they’re working on the ease of use issues.

    You said “If we added the new page and new container options within the site tree, we could then remove the “duplicate” items in the navigation.” New container and new document actions are available in the site tree via the context menu. Perhaps I’m misunderstanding what you mean. Also, I don’t think that weblinks in MODx relate directly to Links in WordPress and you can add as many details about weblinks as you want via template variables.

    I agree with your comments about Media Management, as do most users of MODx I think. But I’m pretty sure this is being worked on in Revolution and I’ve been working on a different solution for Evolution. The reason why it hasn’t been done yet in Evolution is because the FCK manager is stuck into the core code pretty tightly and to add a new media manager you have to hack some core files. If that issue was resolved then many external resource browsers could be added.

    After working with MODx for 3 years I can say that comparing MODx to WordPress isn’t really fair because they do different things. WordPress is trying to be the best blogging platform there is. MODx is trying to be the best content management framework. WordPress has specific workflows and processes that it has defined over time to become great blogging software. MODx has left much of the content workflow up the the developer because it’s not trying to be anything more than the great web framework that it is. I don’t really even see WordPress as being in the same class as MODx anymore, but that’s just my opinion.

    Thanks for your post though, because as much as MODx continues to suck, I continue to love it more and more every day 🙂 And it’s posts like these that stir the pot and keep it getting better.

    • I definitely don’t want MODx to become the next WordPress. I just want more focus spent on lowering the barrier for entry for non-technical users. My mom could install WordPress and use it every day. She could change themes, add plugins, link to her friends, and respond to comments. Through the plugins extending WordPress, she could easily create a contact form, an image gallery, and filter out spam comments.

      I want MODx to keep its wide array of powerful features, but also to wrap its admin in such a way that it feels approachable to everyone.

      I really hate the Content Management Framework idea. As soon as something is a framework, it means you have to build on top of it before really being able to use it. That immediately puts people off, and pushes MODx more towards the CodeIgniter crowd than the Drupal/Joomla crowd.

      Either MODx needs to become a full blown CMS or scale back and become a Framework. They serve two very different core audiences and could be one of the reasons MODx isn’t more successful in the public eye.

      From what I am hearing here and on Twitter, I definitely need to give the final version of Revolution a try, and I will do that, but having just finished a site on Evolution, I doubt we will upgrade it to Revolution any time soon, due to the limited code demos I’ve seen thus far surrounding Revolution. If you go to Extras on the MODx site, you’ll see what I mean. Do some searches for Revolution add-ons versus Evolution. The support isn’t really there yet.

      I am really excited about what MODx could offer, but disappointed when I realize that I have to build everything myself. It is like seeing your dream home or your dream car, and then being told to build it. People don’t want to build their dreams from scratch. Customize, sure… but build, not so much.

      If we here at Bruce County now switch to Revolution, what code from our Evolution site will still work? What changes will have to be made? How much time will it take for the site admins to learn the new process and procedures? I guess, we will have to wait and see.

      As I mentioned on Twitter, our next site will most likely be using Revolution.

      Side note: I’ve only been using MODx for one year as of two weeks ago.

  5. IMO, I don’t want MODx to be as known as the big three. I think the big three are toys focused to users who want to build dynamic sites in a few mouse clicks. MODx is much more than that. I think we could call it ECM sooner ( when workflow, revert changes and other things came ). MODx offer devels a solid, flexible and easy to use plattform to work with. It also offer users an easy interface to publish content. It is fully customizable. What I should want from MODx that the big three have? More addons, and addons wich development won’t be stopped with time ( like happened with webloginpe, smf bridge, etc). But it is our work, the community, to do that. While writing this, an idea came to me…. What do you think if manager would have two layouts? One “complex” for admins and advanced editors ( the actual theme ) and other simple and easy to see and use for users or dummy-editors? Only with the basic options, something like wordpress…

    • We were going to build out a dummy editor for the users of ExploretheBruce to make their lives easier, but we quickly realized it would add on to our development time, and we’d rather build cool features than build an admin panel for a system that already had one. 🙂

  6. David,

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts and ideas. Some of the features you talk about are either in the works or already solved in MODx Revolution.

    MODx is not a php or rapid development framework that is aimed at application developers as are RoR, CI or CakePHP. MODx is a Content Management Framework and what that means is that it is designed to allow designers and developers to build out custom solutions for their end users without having to build an entire CM UI from scratch or roll their own.

    This means that the site design, extended scripts and integrations are based on the client need. This client need also dictates that the developer be responsible to customize some of the UX/UI for the specific client. This can be accomplished in a variety of ways such as through use of Roles and Permissions, Groups and configuration of ManagerManager to make a bespoke management experience for the end user. I am not saying MODx is perfect and the UX/UI is perfect—it is not. I am saying that part of the responsibility of the developer is tailoring management to the specific content.

    WordPress doesn’t have this issue, as it until recently had 1 single type of content. Blog posts with all the same meta information and was designed to allow people push that single type of content out to a view. So due to the fact it handles a single type of content you can make a one size fits all UI; this is a challenge in MODx.

    In MODx you can Manage all sorts of data and resource types. Users can manage XML driven flash sites in MODx just by filling in fields in the resources, or manage staff bios or store locations and hours using TVs and custom field labels. As a developer I have to implement the manager so that my users don’t have to think. They can log into the site and go to the bio section and fill out fields for the Employee Name, Title, Location and bio and it shows up on the site.

    I’ve personally deployed dozens of sites to companies small and large where the computing experience ranged from being able to turn on the computer to professional blogger and I have had only positive feedback on how easy it was to manage the site content.

    UI/UX improvements are certainly on the agenda for MODx Revolution. I started a discussion thread on making Revo better.

    Thanks again for your post.

    • One of the most informative/nicest responses I’ve received from someone “important” to an open source project. (quotes are only there because other people that have been tied to projects have have responded to me haven’t really been important, but they thought they were… not saying you fit that description, but I am not completely sure the hierarchy of MODx.)

      I hate to say it though, but in many ways, in my mind, MODx is closer to CI or CakePHP in that a developer needs to have a hand in creating the final project compared to something like Joomla, WordPress, and Movable Type, and I see that, in a small way, as a limitation. At the end of the day, MODx will be used by a site administrator (hopefully) and this shouldn’t always have to be a developer. MODx shouldn’t expect to become a major player in the continued content management world if they want to continue to cater primarily to a heavily developer audience.

      Extendability and the ability to manipulate the core software is the goal of all CMS’s that are out there. Even when WordPress only had one true type of content, that didn’t stop developers from using custom fields, plugins, and other ways of extending the platform to make it fit their own needs. WordPress has always been very flexible and continues to expand that flexibility while also making sure to cater to a wider audience. Having the wider audience gives reasons for developers and designers to take time out of their schedules to release plugins and themes, and even to build whole businesses around such pursuits.

      What I am trying to say is that MODx shouldn’t worry about creating a UI for every type of content. It should focus on the ones most important to the majority of the people. Simple pages, chronological content (status updates / blog posts), and then multimedia (images, video and audio). Beyond those simple needs, developers can continue to expand the system, creating custom content publishing panels and screens, just like the WordPress community is now doing.

      At the end of the day, when a client comes to me and wants a site with a dozen pages and a simple company news section, I shouldn’t have to dive into any plugins, template variables or the like unless they decide they want to add custom fields associated with the publishing of such material. They also should have an easy understanding of how to move around their site, edit content, and add new pages without feeling like they are going to break something or miss something.

      I guess, if nothing else, I’d like to see a MODx demographic/target audience chosen, and if it is strictly for developers, then UI probably doesn’t matter, and the platform will just serve its niche. If the idea is to build a powerful community, grow the platform, and make people more interested in not only developing for MODx but also writing about it, then making it more approachable through an admin UI update could go a long way.

      I’m definitely going to get Revolution running and see if I can help lend a critical eye to it and post my thoughts on the forum. 🙂

  7. David,

    Thanks. I appreciate the compliment.

    Even more, I appreciate your lucid description of your desired core feature-set. You may see that we have something up our sleeve in that respect. We also know how important wide adoption of the software is and this year will change the CMS skyline.

    I’d love to discuss this ad nauseam with you. Keep sharing your thoughts and ideas.


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