The following post was written by my friend, former colleague and fellow Wikipedia editor Jeff Taylor (Jeff Bedford). His opinions are his own, but they are also good ones.
Sullivan made a few honest mistakes in the way he approached the Wikipedia community. Instead of easing his way into the community and learning its culture and norms, Sullivan moved quickly – perhaps a bit too quickly. Yes, Wikipedia encouraged him to be WP:BOLD; however his approach at times came across as accusatory and unfriendly. He inadvertently began treating other editors as if they had done great wrongs, expecting everyone to drop what they were doing to answer his requests.
Though not his (nor Wikipedia’s) intention, Sullivan’s experience with the Wikipedia community resembled that of dialing in to a tech support call center, with Wikipedia’s volunteer editors relegated to the unwanted role of customer service representative. Sullivan even alludes to this call center vibe in his blog post, with section headings such as “At The Tone (If You Can Find It), Please Leave A Detailed Message” and “To Contact an Editor, Please Contact An Editor.” Much like a call center, he got the run-around, and this is not his fault. It is the product of Wikipedia’s user interface and overall structure, which is truly showing its age in late 2011.
The Wikimedia Foundation has a very academic/university-like mindset, which has its benefits, but has also stifled change — including design updates — when change is absolutely necessary. To be fair, the foundation is quite self-aware, as evident in their product whitepaper:
- “Wikimedia’s editing environment, which fundamentally is based on 1995 technology, represents a highly complex and intimidating way for users to engage with content online. In usability studies, users themselves call out the editing environment as unusual, and ask why a rich-text editing environment as used in tools like Blogger or Google Docs is not present.”
The current discussion system is detached from the norms of the rest of the web, hindering the ability of otherwise intelligent users to collaborate productively:
- “Usability issues mean that especially for new users, the interaction with advanced users is seriously impaired by their lack of a mental model of the discussion system. Paradigms that the user may be familiar with (forums, inboxes, social media feeds) do not apply. Indeed, it is challenging to find any discussion system that is willfully designed to resemble Wikimedia’s.”
The web is moving forward and Wikipedia is not moving forward at the same pace:
- “User expectations have changed drastically as a result of the innovations that became mainstream during 2005-2007 and continue today. The studies conducted during the Usability Initiative provide evidence that the editing interface is confusing and does not match user expectations.”
A redesigned user interface will be critical for Wikipedia to pivot from call center back to productive and thriving community, and while the public at large may not be aware, a new design is already under construction. If done right and deployed swiftly, this change – along with an update to the discussion interface – will ensure that users like Danny Sullivan encounter a community, not a call center, when shifting from reader to potential long-term contributor.
According to the Wikimedia Foundation’s annual plan, a target has been set for the “first opt-in user-facing production (to be in) usage by December 2011.” Today is December 1. To the development team that is clearly hard at work, I ask, will we see a sneak preview, a screenshot, or an option to test this out before December 31st? After all, this may be the catalyst to reversing Wikipedia’s editor decline.