OpenUsability has published an interesting report on the usability of the German Wikipedia and, implicitly, the underlying MediaWiki software. They confronted 7 “newbies” with Wikipedia and gave them navigation-oriented tasks.

The problem analysis is reasonable; the recommended solutions are often a bit off the mark. It’s important to note that newbies, regulars and experts all work with essentially the same interface in Wikipedia. Suddenly removing elements from the interface can obviously cause large problems with the latter two groups. Ignoring this shared dependency and focusing on just one user group when proposing solutions is inherently flawed.

I find this to be the most glaring in the suggestion to make the German Wikipedia Main Page less “information heavy” because newbies were a bit disoriented at first. This may be so, but I think keeping the “daily visit” value of the Main Page high is of at least equal importance. I do agree that the editability of Wikipedia should be made clearer; I like this help page from the German Wikipedia, which is sadly no longer linked from the Main Page. An eye-catching image like this one might also be good as a permanent fixture on the Main Page. And, oh yes, image description pages suck. The concept has always sucked and is utterly counter-intuitive.

Another problem they point out are the confusing search button labels. Ever since I added the “Go” button to MediaWiki, Wikipedia has had two buttons to find articles, “Go” and “Search”. “Go” looks for a page with the exact title given (as well as some minor variations in case), and only displays it if a match can be found. Otherwise it runs a full-text search. “Search” immediately runs the full-text search, ignoring any direct title matches. This is, of course, not immediately intuitive, and the participants in the study even found it difficult to distinguish the two after trying them. The authors recommend abandoning the “Search” button. Instead, they suggest that there should be a link on every page that performs a full-text search with the title as a phrase.

While I agree with the assessment of the problem, I find the solution even more awkward than the current implementation. Not only does it remove some functionality (namely, running the full-text search on arbitrary search terms in one click), it moves search functionality into a separate, highly atypical link with a confusing title. What is the right solution? I believe that perhaps Everything2’s implementaiton is ideal: an “ignore exact” checkbox next to the search box. (To be more intuitive, it should perhaps be “ignore exact match”.)

Whether or not an exact match should be shown is a parameter to the search, and parameters are frequently displayed as checkboxes in search interfaces. So this strikes me as the most natural implementation.

The authors also suggest to make the “visited link” color more obvious. With a link heavy site like Wikipedia, anything that is very obvious easily gets very annoying. But I do agree that some tweaking might be in order.

There are, of course, many improvements that could be made beyond the ones suggested by the authors. Autocompletion for search (in the style of Wikiwax) has been frequently proposed. An AJAX-based dynamic category browser and a link mapper (anyone remember The Brain?) would also be valuable tools. The largest usability deficits, however, will be found when the actual process of editing is examined: messy HTML/wiki syntax mixtures, complicated templates, difficult to understand conflict resolution, and so forth. Due to its ties to huge projects and huge communities, MediaWiki development has lost some of its initial agility, and it will be interesting to see what solutions the smaller wiki engines come up with to deal with the same problem sets.