Last modified on 14 December 2008, at 12:00

Stanton Grant Q&A

Wikimedia Foundation announces usability improvements
December 2008

Questions and Answers

When will this project begin, and when will it finish?

The project will begin in January 2009. It will wrap up April 2010.

What is its overall scope?

The project scope will include the following:

  • user testing designed to identify the most common barriers to entry for first-time writers, and
  • a series of improvements to the MediaWiki interface, including improvements to issues identified through user testing and a focus on hiding complex elements of the user interface from people who don't use them.
What is MediaWiki and how was it developed?

MediaWiki is open source software, managed and maintained by the Wikimedia Foundation, and used by people around the world to write and edit Wikipedia and the other Wikimedia projects. MediaWiki is also used by many thousands of other wiki sites world-wide, including ones run by Novell, Intel, Gartner, nVidia, Linden Lab, and many others.

MediaWiki was first developed, by volunteers, in 2002. As of June 2008, 150 volunteers have access to the 'code base,' meaning they can make modifications and provide code improvements to the software. There are several hundred MediaWiki extensions available, and it is continually being improved by both Wikimedia staff and volunteer coders.

What does the Wikimedia Foundation consider to be wrong with the editing interface right now?

When it was first developed, MediaWiki was considered reasonably user-friendly. At that time, software wasn't as flexible and user-focussed as it is today. It's logical that by today's standards, MediaWiki may not seem to be as streamlined or user-friendly as other software.

We have never systematically examined the editing interface to examine what kinds of challenges new contributors face, but we do know of certain common problems. For example, many people have difficulty creating new articles, uploading images, and editing templates, footnotes, and tables. We hope to make improvements in those areas.

Who are the new contributors you are hoping to attract?

We are hoping to attract new contributors who are just as smart and knowledgeable as the people who have always written for Wikipedia and its sister projects, but who -to date- have been unable or reluctant to participate because of the barriers posed by the interface. There are countless individuals who read Wikipedia and would be great writers/editors, but are daunted by complex wiki syntax. They may not even realize that they can edit Wikipedia. They are the people we are targeting with this project.

How will an increase in participation affect the existing contributors?

The core Wikimedia contributor community is made up of people who are very smart and well-versed in the technical aspects of the web. That will probably never change, and we don't want it to change. However, we do want to expand that community to include people who are less tech-centric, as well as demographic groups which are currently underrepresented, such as women and older people.

What is the nature of the interface improvements that will be made in this project?

In phase 1 (until late summer 2009), we will focus on reducing or eliminating common, simple barriers to entry. A possible example would be, "making the edit button more visible." These will be identified through systematic user testing, but also by surveying existing research. In phase 2 (until early 2010), we will shift our attention to identifying complex pieces of "wiki code" (the formatting language used to write Wikipedia articles) and making them less visible to first-time contributors and/or helping them achieve the respective functionality (such as adding tables) more easily.

When can we expect to see the first changes to the Wikipedia interface?

We hope to demonstrate a first series of improvements by mid-2009, with production deployment following shortly thereafter.

How can the Wikimedia volunteer community be involved in this project?

The project will be open and participatory throughout. Every major report will be publicly shared, and all code will be developed through our existing, public version control system. Volunteer developers and testers will be encouraged to contribute throughout the process.

Are the positions created for this project just temporary?

We will allocate at least two existing, budgeted developer positions to this project, and additional hires will be employed for the duration of the grant.

Why don't these funds count towards your overall fundraising goals?

The majority of the funding for this project will go towards costs not included in our 2008-09 budget. While we anticipate that the project will offset some of our operating costs, we also want to retain flexibility to reallocate funding inside the project budget as required.

Are you going to localize these changes in all the languages of Wikipedia and the other projects?

All code will be ready for localisation.

Are you going to be looking at the entire editing/contribution process or just the software?

This project focuses on technical solutions, but the user testing will aim to capture problems experienced throughout the editing process.