[Mediawiki-l] ramblings on MediaWiki interface design

David Gerard dgerard at gmail.com
Thu Jan 25 23:17:52 UTC 2007

Today I had an interesting experience: talking a fairly elderly
journalist (now mostly an occasional columnist) through creating a
Wikipedia account and creating an article.

Apart from en:wp's Byzantine policy considerations, it was an
interesting experience in finding out in real time just how horrible
the MediaWiki interface is in some ways. Trying to explain where to
find the thing that was on my screen and I *knew* was on his screen,
that sort of thing.

This is the sort of person it would be nice to create something for:
someone who knows a *lot*, can't work a computer and loves Wikipedia
as a reader.

A major part of excellence in technology design is to create something
that lets geeks go wild *and* is entirely usable by people who
basically can't work computers. MediaWiki is pretty good at this
already, I think - en:wp has quite a lot of contributors who can't
work computers but are excellent writers, researchers, editors and
even admins. But there's a long way to go.

Do we have any friendly organisations who can set up interface testing
labs with normal people in them? That relative whose computer you
really, really hate cleaning up for them.

Phil Sandifer posted about this to wikien-l today with regards to
en:wp's grossly newbie-hostile policy thicket:


The text is:

Susan is a hypothetical Wikipedian, selected because she behaves in a
manner basically consistent with most of our editors.

Susan is a 40-year-old stay-at-home mother. She majored in English
many years ago, and still has a fondness for Jane Austen. She is idly
browsing the Internet, and happens by Pride and Prejudice. In five
minutes, her son gets off the school bus. She finds an error on the

Wikipedia policy and process should be designed so that Susan can make
this change and have it not get reverted.

In fact, there ought not be any small task on Wikipedia that cannot be
completed by Susan.

This requires some things.

   1. There must not be any policies or processes that are
sufficiently complex that Susan would have to look them up before
doing anything. Everything should be both memorizable and of
sufficient simplicity that the remembered version will be trustworthy.
That is to say that Susan should be able to get by with the nutshell
versions of our policies.
   2. There must not be a bunch of code or formatting for what she
wants to do. If Susan has to go "Wait, what's the template for this?"
then she will have to get up and go meet her son instead of fixing the
   3. We must not require anything that Susan does not have fast
access to. No research projects, no scavenger hunts. Not even a Google
search or pulling a book off of a shelf. Susan should be able to
improve Wikipedia on her own.
   4. There must be a culture of good faith so that Susan's
contribution (which will probably come in as an IP contribution) will
not instantly be met with suspicion. Remember - if Susan goes back the
next day and her change has been reverted without explanation, she is
unlikely to edit again.

Think carefully about these issues when designing something for
Wikipedia. Susan is intelligent, well-meaning, and a valuable
resource. She will improve Wikipedia if we let her. And there are
thousands of Susans out there. Susan, or someone with Susan's
circumstances, is our average and most common editor.

Design for Susan.

- d.

More information about the MediaWiki-l mailing list