Wiki Usability — 1

I was asked to help update a private wiki knowledge base. The owner was using MediaWiki.

A common complaint by the users — a common complaint around the web, is the lack of a What You See Is What You Get (WYSIWYG) or What You See Is What You Mean (WYSIWYM) editor and interface.

Wikis are an interesting concept. Originally designed to help with the collaborative collection of information and knowledge. All wikis fall horribly short in terms of usability because the underlying syntax is a wiki markup language. Just about all of the wikis use their own unique markup syntax. Unlike programming languages, there is no single standard for wiki markup languages.

When wikis were introduced at the turn of the century, most of the people involved on the web were tech savvy computer users. A significant number of the world’s population were not yet on the web. Part of the original design was to provide a simple method of writing content without dealing directly with HTML. Thus the focus was from a geek perspective, not that of the non technical user.

Yet HTML is the final product. The information is displayed in a web browser. Something underneath, the wiki engine, has to parse and convert markup to HTML for rendering in web browser.

Is writing in wiki markup easier than writing in HTML? That is subjective. In the end, wiki markup is syntax just like HTML markup.

Then the big world wide web explosion occurred. Mostly because of the way Windows XP was preinstalled on computers. Non technical users quickly became part of the web.

Along with this new movement were tools to help non technical users create web sites, such as Microsoft FrontPage. Extensions and templates were developed to enable word processors to produce HTML output. Sadly, the desired results contained significant cruft and produced HTML that often failed to validate against standards.

Technical users revolted against this garbage production process. Wikis then became an alleged savior. Using wiki markup was seen as a savior to avoid sloppy HTML.

This is a classic example of geek thinking. Invent something new to solve a problem that never existed.

All along the solution was horribly simple. Create robust HTML WYSIWYG/WYSIWYM interfaces.

No, the geeks would have none of that. Geek creds are more important. Hack away in wiki markup or get out of the way.

Geeks are a minority. The majority of people just want to write and contribute. Even the MediaWiki folks admit the problem of not helping non technical users. They are trying to create a WYSIWYG/WYSIWYM editor, but I suspect the effort is too little too late.

Most folks just want to use a word processor or word processor like interface.

Yes, even a word processor uses some kind of markup underneath the pretty WYSIWYG interface. Long time word processor users remember the Reveal Codes feature of WordPerfect for DOS. Even MS Word supported Rich Text Format, which is nothing but another form of markup.

How a word processor or HTML editor works underneath is irrelevant to most users. Few people want to deal with wiki markup. Any markup at all. They just want to write and create content. They want to contribute.

Many people have confessed that while wikis sound like a great idea, once implemented the number of contributors fade fast after they realize they need to learn markup syntax. Many a company wiki has stagnated because of the user-hostile interface for creating content.

Wiki developers all need to focus on making wikis easy to use for non technical users. They are not going to deal with the underlying markup. Computers are tools. Nothing more, nothing less.

Posted: Category: Usability Tagged: General

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