[Foundation-l] hiding interlanguage links by default is a Bad Idea, part 2

Gregory Maxwell gmaxwell at gmail.com
Sat Jun 5 20:00:34 UTC 2010

On Sat, Jun 5, 2010 at 2:03 PM,  <susanpgardner at gmail.com> wrote:
> Sorry for top-posting.
> Austin, think about who "everyone" is.  The folks here on foundation-l are not representative of readers.  The job of the user experience team is to try to balance all readers' needs, which is not easy, and will sometimes involve making decisions that not everyone agrees with. People here have given some useful input, but I think it's far from obvious that the user experience team has made a "mistake.". (I'm not really intending to weigh in on this particular issue -- I'm speaking generally.)

Sue, you appear to be making the assumption that the folks here are
writing from a position of their personal preferences while the
usability team is working on the behalf of the best interests of the

I don't believe this comparison to be accurate.

The interlanguage links can be easily unhidden by anyone who knows
about them. The site remembers that you clicked to expand them.  That
memory is short, but it wouldn't take any real effort to override with
personal settings... or people can disable Vector (which is what I've
done, because Vector is slow, even though I like it a lot overall).
In short, there is little reason for a sophisticated user to complain
about this for their own benefit.

I think the people here are speaking up for the sake of the readers,
and for the sake of preserving the best of the existing design
principles used on the site.  I know I am.

Non-agreement on personal preferences is an entirely different matter
than non-agreement about how to best help our readers and how to best
express the values and principles behind the operation of our sites.

I was alarmed when I heard the click rates: 1%.  That's an enormous
number of clicks, considerably higher than I expected with the large
number of things available for folks to click on.  To hear that it
went down considerably with Vector—well, if nothing else, it is a
possible objective indication that the change has reduced the
usability of the site. It is absolutely clear evidence that this
change has made a material impact on how we express ourselves to the
world.  I think it's clear from my earlier messages, before I knew the
actual number, that I would have regarded figures like this as
evidence of a clear mistake.

There is a clear attitude from the foundation staff that I, and
others, are perceiving in these discussions.  The notion that the
community of contributors is a particularly whiny batch of customers
who must be 'managed', that they express demands unconnected from the
needs of the readers... and that it is more meaningful when a couple
of office staff retreat to some meeting room and say "we reached a
decision".  Sadly, this attitude appears to be the worst from the
former volunteers on the staff—they are not afraid to speak up in
community discussion, and feel a need to distinguish themselves from
all the volunteers.

This needs to stop and a point needs to be made clear:

This community is who made the sites. I don't just mean the articles.
I mean the user interfaces, the PR statements, the fundraiser
material, _everything_. The success rates for companies trying to
build large and popular websites is miserable. Every successful one is
a fluke, and all the successful ones have a staff and budget orders of
magnitude larger than yours.

We have an existence proof that the community is able to manage the
operation of the sites at a world class level. Certainly there are
many things which could have been done better, more uniformly, more
completely, or with better planning... but the community has a proven
competence in virtually every area that the foundation is now
attempting to be directly involved in.  Not every member of the
community, of course, but the aggregate.

Wikimedia's ability to do these things is an unknown, but the (lack
of) successes of other closed companies running websites—even ones
staffed by brilliant people—suggests that it is most likely that you
will also be unsuccessful. I don't mean this as a comment on the
competence of anyone involved (as I know many of them to be rather
fantastic people), it's just the most likely outcome.

Imagine a resume for the community as a unit:
* Expertise in every imaginable subject.
* Simultaneous background in almost every human culture.
* Speaks hundreds of languages.
* Wrote the world's largest encyclopedia.
* Built one of the world's most popular websites, from the ground up.
* Managed to make an encyclopedia somehow interesting enough to be a
popular website.
* Managed the fundraising campaigns to support the entire operating
cost of the above mentioned Top-N website on charitable contributions
for many years.
* On and on, etc.

(Like all resumes, this does not highlight the negatives--just
proclaims what it's been able to accomplish in spite of them.)

Somehow, the community knows how to take the ragtag assembly of its
members: the whining, the warped personal preferences, the inspired
motivations of individuals and small groups, the collective voice of
the uninformed, and a smattering of contributions from world class
experts the likes of which we'd never be able to hire and retain, the
good and the bad—and fuse it into something which can build output
with broad appeal and generally consistent, if somewhat strange,

I've personally been quick to dismiss people who wax philosophic about
"the wisdom of crowds"... all of the great community work I've seen is
mostly an effort from dedicated individuals and small groups, not some
'crowd'. And yet there clearly is something there, because the
community delivers results superior to that of most other small groups
and individuals.  I guess the real power comes from that fact that
every issue can be attacked by a custom small group from a nearly
infinite set, plus a little crowd input.  Whatever it is, it clearly

If Wikimedia itself can't learn how to either develop the same
coalition-building skills, participate within the existing community
process, or stand out of the way—we'll lose something great.

I think it's unfortunate that the foundation has an apparent
difficulty in _contributing_ without _commanding_.  There are areas
where the community's coverage is inadequate or inconsistent, and I
think that dedicated staff acting as gap-fillers could greatly improve
the results. But not if the price of those contributions is to exclude
or pigeonhole the great work done by the broad community, either
directly by "we reached a decision"-type edicts, or indirectly by
removing the personal pride and responsibility that people feel for
the complete site.

In this discussion we don't merely have personal preferences, we're
arguing principles of design and hypothesizing benefit for the
readers. And, excluding the foundation staff, we appear to have a
broad, if not complete, consensus that the inter-language links should
come back.  In the community-operated model this would already be done
by now.

I'm also left confused and wondering about one point I consider very important.

If the challenge is to "balance all readers' needs" why is the
usability staff currently spending time arguing with the community
about some silly sidebar links while the site is still _unviewable_ by
a non-trivial portion of our readers (BlackBerry) as a result of the
latest usability improvements?    In the past the community resolvent
these kinds of issues very rapidly, though sometimes by undoing the

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