The content of the Wikipedia is amazing. What's more amazing is that this content was created despite many obvious flaws in the design of the site. Here are the main ones I've seen.
There are two ways to use a large information site like the Wikipedia. Browsing and Searching. Wikipedia does both fairly poorly. The site is difficult to browse since there is little primary navigation and it's difficult to search because the search results are presented poorly. While the content of the site grows by leaps and bounds the interface and design of the Wikipedia has seen seemingly little change.
- Search belongs near the top of the page. This is now a general convention across sites and this is where users are likely to look.
- The top level navigation belongs at location number 2. Instead of top level navigation we have tools for editing the content and viewing history. A typical user will consume content and only 1-2% will create content. Having the editing features front and center gives a bias to the editing and makes the navigation harder to use.
- The main navigation doesn't help users find content. An appropriate top level navigation will encourage browsing and may include high level headings for an encyclopedia. Things like Glossaries, Global Timelines, People, Countries, Animals, etc. All this stuff does exist but it's not organized in the navigation or in a well structured way. Instead the navigation encourages users to go to a random page.
- The Wikipedia is overly-hyperlinked. In other words since it's easy to edit. Lots of people don't contribute content but instead add brackets. This creates a link. While creating some links is useful the absurd amount of linking actually makes the content more difficult to understand. Instead of consolidating articles things seem to sprawl and branch off into their own articles. Why is the word speedometer hyperlinked in the User Interface article? Maybe I should have fixed that? It's bad information architecture and bad design. There's no easy way to find related articles or know if you are reading the main article or a branch.
- When editing a page the toolbar is inappropriate:
We start off ok with bold and italic and underline. Then we go off the deep end. The icons are non standard and the commands are awkward. I'm not sure why this wheel was re-invented and why it was done so poorly. WordPad and TextEdit have had this worked out for 10 years.
- It's 2007 can we have a WYSIWYG editor for content? Every other site has figured out how to do this. You can't see what you're doing and the markup is a bastardized version of HTML. This creates an unnecessarily high hurdle for people who want to add or edit content. Doing something simple like adding an image is unnecessarily complex for a site that encourages end-user participation.
- Search results should show a basic synopsis, last edit date and hit highlighting so you can tell if the search hit is appropriate. The lack of information about a particular search result makes it difficult to pick a match. it's also difficult to tell if an article is fresh or stale and how stable a particular article is. Without exploring the history of an article you can't tell if it's undergoing a lot of change or if it's been solid for years.
Because the content of the Wiki is editable by anyone it's important to convey how stale the information is. This is true in search and on the page iteself. Providing some metric of article age & volatility in search results and on pages will help users find more accurate and appropriate results.
- Search pageination belongs at the bottom of the page, not the top. Why would you want to page if you haven't even seen the first page of results?
- It's customary to provide a way to perform an advanced search to help you find the right topic. For example show me results for 'Apple' that match the fruit not the computer company. Search works for exact matches but not for concept matches.
- This one is a bonus tip for Google. Don't list wiki articles in the main section of results. The same way that dictionary listings aren't shown in the main area of results. A dictionary and encyclopedia are special and should both be presented differently from natural search results.