Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The Read/Write Web and the Everlasting Quest for Usability

Since last November, I have been heavily involved with wikis. To support our Sakai implementation at University of Delaware, I wrote a full report on Wikis in Higher Education, since it is a new tool to most professors at UD, and that we believed that it could provide some major instructional benefits. I have also been involved with the Teaching and Learning group of the Sakai community, using Confluence every week to support our confence calls.

A lot of people, when exposed for the very first time to a wiki, have the same reaction. They kind of question why they are so ugly, or why they can't find anything... I can't blame them. Most wikis are not that good looking, and most of them are a total mess in terms of information architecture.

When I was thinking of a reason why wikis are the way they are, something struck me: web usability and good design were hard to enforce with web 1.0, when only a few Internet-savvy people had access to push pages to the world. It was kind of a lost cause then, but now that everyone can publish to the Internet, it's even worse.

The biggest difference between wikis and other tools is the fact that wikis are unstructured by nature. You almost always start with a blank page, and you must create the content, the format, and the navigational patterns at the same time. Not an easy task for a web designer, so imagine for a common mortal! (Not that I am assuming that web designers are superior or anything, of course... They just spent more time on a computer, and less time in the great outdoors.) Blogs and widgets are highly structured, and you can change their look and feel afterwards, but not wikis.

Which is why I think it is time to educate wiki users to basic concepts of web usability.
  • Define a navigational structure: How will users navigate between pages in your site?
  • Define information architecture: How will your content will be organized, and do you need to explain it to your users (if you have to, it's usually a case of poor design)?
  • Keep your site shallow: Do not create a site that has sub-sub-sub-sub-sub-pages. It becomes a nightmare to navigate, and it is usually a sign that the information is not structured in a comprehensive way.
  • Divide your information in chunks: Use headings to serve as visual dividers, so that the information is visually scannable.
  • Use meaningful link aliases: Click Here! doesn't mean anything. Links will stand out by themselves because they are usually blue and underlined, you don't always have to isolate them.
I have more tips and tricks available in my report and on its page. I just finished a document explaining how to gain full advantage of the wiki tool in Sakai. Have a look at these resources, and give me your comments.

Open Question:

Do you have tricks, methods, references, or links to promote usability to non-designers, instructors, or students, wiki-related or not?

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The ideas and opinions expressed on this blog are mine, and do not necessarely reflect my employer's point of view.

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This work by Mathieu Plourde is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License.