What do thoughtful, well-designed, engaging community help systems look like for Wikipedia? What do our help systems have in common with other open source projects, and how do they differ?
In June the Wikimedia Foundation sent a team of four Wikimedians to the Open Help Conference in Cincinnati, Ohio to find out. Ocaasi, the wub, Valeriej, and Seeeko spent a week speaking and listening to helpers from open source projects like Mozilla, Ubuntu, GNOME, WordPress, Drupal and RedHat.
Over two days of talks and three days of work sprints, attendees explored and improved a wide set of systems for helping contributors and growing communities of users and helpers. The WordPress team embarked on a large project to decouple their help pages for developers from their help pages for users. Jorge Castro of Ubuntu considered the ways that different kinds of communication tools support different kinds of conversations online: forums facilitating water-cooler discussion, Q&A boards that promote sharing answers efficiently, mailing lists with their ongoing arguments about top-vs-bottom posting. The Gnome crew grappled with the decision of whether improving an ever-growing number of existing pages was better than just starting fresh with new pages. Mozilla’s Janet Swisher shared how she gathers contributors together in “doc sprints” (edit-a-thons for documentation) to collaboratively write help documentation and build community connections. Michael Verdi spoke about Mozilla’s “Army of Awesome,” which helps hundreds of Firefox users per day on Twitter.
Team Wikimedia was excited to learn about the challenges that these other open source projects also face. As Wikipedians, we have coordinated edit-a-thons, organized help documentation to better support different types of users, set up a Q&A forum with wikimarkup, and answered many OTRS emails; we also appreciate the work that goes into well-orchestrated help systems. The results of these explorations at Open Help for Wikimedia projects include the development of a few new documents to support the thoughtful design and growth of Wikipedia and MediaWiki’s help systems.
The wub and Ocaasi focused on the Help Project, the WikiProject that creates and organizes thousands of help pages on English Wikipedia. Starting with a talk titled “Wikipedia:Too much documentation,” the wub addressed Wikipedia’s ballooning number of help pages and the lack of consistency between them. As a 2012 Wikimedia Community Fellow, the wub had already spent time redesigning the most-used pages in the help system, but his learnings from that effort had not yet been distilled into a clear statement of design principles to help guide future volunteers.
During the Open Help sprint days, the team updated the Help Project’s pages to better engage helpers. Ocaasi and the wub crafted a best practices guideline for improving Wikipedia’s help pages. In clear and simple language, the guidelines set goals like “focus on users and use case,” “keep pages simple,” and “make navigation clear and apparent.” The wub also developed quality and importance scales and templates for assessing help pages mapped to the guidelines. In the coming weeks, the Help Project will start a regular collaboration drive to increase participation, beginning with assessing all help pages according to the criteria developed in the sprints.
Another area the team focused on was the Teahouse, Wikipedia’s many-to-many support space for new editors. In their talk, “Can Help Be Fun? Wikipedia Experiments with social help,” Seeeko and Ocaasi introduced a collection of techniques for creating supportive spaces that build community in playful ways. They emphasized playful design, surfacing people, the power of invitation, a welcoming tone, social mobility, and acknowledgement as important elements for a “Fun is serious business” approach that has worked well for the Teahouse. They also noted that this approach has influenced the Grants:IdeaLab and an upcoming grant-funded game The Wikipedia Adventure.
Seeeko and Ocaasi applied many of these principles to a new Teahouse document that sets out design guidelines for contributors aiming to make improvements to the Teahouse. The guidelines distill goals and practices that have made the Teahouse successful from the start, like “build for new editors” and “show recent activity,” and encourage volunteers to make data-driven decisions to grow the project and keep with its spirit. Valeriej and Seeko also paired up to improve the workflow for requesting and creating new features in the Teahouse. Playing with the theme of a wishing well that users might find in the Teahouse garden, they defined attributes and workflows for “wishing” and “granting wishes” (requesting and developing features), they created a build plan, and they worked on a module to make identifying key information easier. The Teahouse’s new Wishing Well is the initial result of that work.
Valeriej also devoted time to considering improvements to help contributors who are new to MediaWiki. Focusing on a Starter Kit, she decided to begin with a survey of MediaWiki contributors to determine the effectiveness of the project’s current help documentation. She plans to use the results of the survey to refine and focus the documents used to orient new contributors to MediaWiki over the coming months.
The team was inspired by learning from other open source communities and it hopes that gathering together to improve the design of our own community’s help systems will encourage more efforts like it. Travel for three of the team members was funded by the Participation Support Program. Wikimedians looking to share wiki-learning by participating at conferences or other convenings like this one are encouraged to apply.
(Many thanks to WordPress attendee Siobhan McKeown for blogging her amazing notes from the talks!)