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The quest for the usable wiki

Submitted by Jakob on 6 May, 2006 - 15:28.My Blog | Human-Computer Interaction | Usability

A wiki is a wonderful idea, in essence it's a website that anyone can edit and view. I've used wikis in several projects related to my studies in order to have a common site for storing documents and notes related to our work, and that has worked well and our teachers have appreciated it. So far I've used, tried and looked at four or five wikis, and despite the simple idea behind the wiki, none of them is easy to install, use or customize. Why does it have to be so complicated? I don't know, but I have some ideas on how to make a more usable wiki.

I believe the most important aspect of the wiki is that anyone can edit anything at any time. Or as the Wikipedia* entry for wiki says :

The term wiki is a shortened form of wiki wiki (weekie, weekie) which is from the native language of Hawaii (Hawaiian), where it is commonly used as an adjective to denote something "quick" or "fast" (Hawaiian dictionary). In English, it is an adverb meaning "quickly" or "fast".

Here a wiki (IPA: [] or [] [1]) is a type of website that allows users to easily add, remove, or otherwise edit all content, very quickly and easily, sometimes without the need for registration. This ease of interaction and operation makes a wiki an effective tool for collaborative writing. The term Wiki can also refer to the collaborative software itself (wiki engine) that facilitates the operation of such a website (see wiki software).

This feature is what distinguishes the wiki from other ways of publishing and maintaining content online and is the main reason why people want a wiki in the first place! So why are all of the wikis I know of so complicated in and takes so much away from the basic simple principle of the wiki? All of them suffer from headache inducing installation instructions that usually expect people to first of all run their own Linux server, understand *nix style command lines and conceptions such as file permissions and permission groups not to mention creating a database and running SQL queries. Once you got it all working, you see a screen like this (click to enlarge):

Inviting, eh?


It's obvious here the developers haven't spent a single second considering what the users might want to do! From the top of my head comes things such as:

  • Get some to-the-point instructions on what to do next
  • Change the content of that page (yeah, there's a link in the footer but is that obvious enough?)
  • Create a new page
  • For non-English speakers, change language
  • What is diff? (ok, so some of us know what ut is but lots of people don't)
  • Changing design/skin/template because that design there is ugly as sin
  • Getting rid of all the junk in the page footer, it may seem like essential information to the people who made phpWiki, but to the average user it's usually better to add information as you need it rather than having to remove it at first

And this is one of the better wiki front pages, you should see dokuWiki and TikiWiki for a comparison!

No, as I see it a Wiki should be a blank slate, and it should present itself as something you can just fill with your stuff. Like an unwritten sheet of paper.

A wiki should just be a page, and it should work right away. Just click on the page and there you go, type away! The system should offer hints, and have clear links to help files as there are some wiki conventions that one needs to know, for example that for creating new pages you type out a word like this: MyNewPage and it becomes a link you can use to create that new page.

But apart from that, apart from the formatting and everything else, it should be simple! I propose that AJAX is to be used to save content as you type, the idea of saving documents is inherently flawed anyway so why not get rid of it once and for using the wiki to lead the revolution!

There should be an easy way to find help, why not let people search help files while typing? For example typing ???skin should cause a window with the help file content related to that term to appear. There should also be a simple way to get an idea of the structure of the site, and get an overview of all the pages.

These are just some of the ideas I've had, and while creating a usable wiki will require a well thought-out user interface as well as research and testing, it is needed as the wikis of today are everything but weekie to learn and use.

* Yes, you guessed right, Wikipedia is a wiki, a wiki-based encyclopedia, quite ingenious if you ask me.

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