The Athena Project: being bold: You should think of Athena as a kick in the head" – because that's exactly what it's supposed to be: a radical and bold re-examination of some of our sacred cows when it comes to the interface.
Brandon Harris is the senior designer at the Wikimedia Foundation. The views expressed are those of the author only; responses and critical commentary are invited in the comments section.
The Signpost welcomes proposals for op-eds at our opinion desk.
As Senior Designer of the Wikimedia Foundation, it's part of my job to stimulate conversation about the future of Wikimedia's user experiences. This op-ed is first and foremost intended to do so, although it's not an exact roadmap with deliverables and deadlines. If you'd like to see our goals for the year, please take a look at the 2012–13 goals.
At this year's Wikimania, I gave a talk entitled The Athena Project: Wikipedia in 2015 (slides). The talk broadly outlined several ideas the foundation is exploring for planned features, user interface changes, and workflow improvements. We expect that many of these changes will be welcomed, while others will be controversial.
During the question-and-answer period, I was asked whether people should think of Athena as a skin, a project, or something else. I responded, "You should think of Athena as a kick in the head" – because that's exactly what it's supposed to be: a radical and bold re-examination of some of our sacred cows when it comes to the interface.
Why we need a change
I'm certain many people are asking, "Why do we need a change? Why is this important?" Simply put: the software is a barrier and it is dragging you down.
There's no need to throw up graphs about editor decline or toss around numbers about participation and gender imbalance here – you've either seen them and agree that something needs to be done, or you've dismissed them. Let's skip those arguments and talk about why these changes will benefit the editor community at large and not just a hypothetical group of newbies.
More editors means less work
If we can attract and retain new contributors we'll reduce the overall workload for everyone. How quickly will backlogs disappear if we add even 5,000 new editors who can easily get into the mix?
Better workflows mean less work
I've spent the past year studying the many workflows used on Wikipedia, speaking with hundreds of Wikipedians. I've watched screencasts of editors doing page patrol that filled me with a sense of agony and sympathy for those doing the work. I've watched so many people – people who could be productive, good Wikipedians – quit in frustration simply because using Wikipedia is too hard.
What's the takeaway from all of this? The software (or lack of it) is a barrier. It doesn't do the right things, it makes simple things difficult, and it hides features and information that should be front and center. Did you know that no two page patrollers do the work the same way? That's because the software is so bad that everyone has to make up their own way to work around it and get things done.
We need to revisit these workflows. We need to make it easier to read, contribute, and curate. With better tools come streamlined processes and thus less work.
More bodies means better articles
Increasing the size of our community will naturally adjust the voice of the community. I don't think anyone believes we should be writing only from one or two points of view – featured articles are so good precisely because they are edited by so many. Bringing on more skilled editors will create a more accurate encyclopedia. It means that the voice of Wikipedia is more powerful by virtue of being diverse. The sum of our parts becomes greater than the whole.
Changes you should expect to see
Let's face it: our interface would feel right at home in the year 2002. However, we find ourselves rapidly moving towards 2013. Our editors and readers deserve a modern interface with modern tools. The Visual Editor is one project to help make this a reality. Here are several others:
A project to create a singular design language for all foundation projects going forward. This is needed because the design team has grown significantly and we all have our own styles. Agora is about a common color palette, a common icon set, and common design patterns, so we can speak with one voice. We hope the greater community will want to adopt this voice as well.
Let's bring modern, real-time notifications to the projects. Echo is designed to drive interactions across all wikis in all languages. If someone leaves you a message on your talk page on Commons, you'll be notified on the English Wikipedia (or wherever you are currently working). You can see a working prototype of Echo on mediawiki.org now.
This is a replacement for user talk-pages. Our research has shown that user-to-user communication is one of the biggest hurdles for the participation for new editors. Flow will solve handfuls of problems, such as common questions: when someone posts to my talk, do I respond on my talk page or on theirs? How do they get notified that it happened?
The skin focuses on letting people to do what they're trying to do. It emphasizes content – what most of our users want to see – and supports the concept of different "modes" of interaction. Athena will be the end result of several iterations of user-focused design. I should point out that the various mockup screens you may find are intended not as the final product, but to spark imagination and conversation. We want this to be a vibrant process.
Our mobile experience is becoming much better for readers. In fact, it was by examining how we could go about adding contribution features to the mobile site that many of our design problems moved directly into the light. Mobile forces us to focus on reducing complexity, something we desperately need.
Structured information about you, your skills, and your contributions will elevate your interest graph. This includes things like tracking and sharing your skills and talents as well as memberships in groups and wiki projects. It focuses on your contributions and how you are bound to the projects.
If we step back, it becomes obvious that people interact with Wikipedia in one of three "modes" of operation: reading, editing/contributing, and curating/patrolling. We're going to make these modes more obvious and focused. You can see the beginning of this with the introduction of our new Page Curation feature, which focuses on the activity of new-page patrolling at first, but will eventually grow into a larger suite of tools.
Wikipedia is not and will not be Facebook
The fear that Wikipedia will turn into a social networking site is one I hear fairly often. However, I don't see that as a real threat: there's a distinction between becoming a social network and having modern software to support the building of an encyclopedia.
Wikis are collaborative software engines, which makes them social software – and social networks – by definition. What makes us different from other social networks is our purpose. Sites like Facebook and Twitter are motivated by making connections between people, but we are motivated by producing something: the greatest encyclopedia ever to exist. To do that, we have to connect people with tasks they are interested in.
For us, features like Echo, Flow, and Global Profile will be used to make collaboration easier and faster. They'll do this by tying interest graphs together. Imagine a day when the software will detect a "Needs sources" tag on World War II, and members of WikiProject Military History can be automatically notified in real time if they want, without having to go check their watchlist?
How this serves the Mission
Imagine a world in which every single human being can freely share in the sum of all knowledge.
What a powerful idea that is. The Mission (and I always capitalize it) is what's important here. We are here to educate, to open minds, to make the world a better place. I believe in this so much that I had it tattooed on my arm.
Indirectly, our work will do magnificent things. By educating the people of the world, we are sparking the growth of a new era in thinking. We speak to genius-level intellects who have no access to formal education. Maybe one of them will cure cancer, or discover ways for faster-than-light travel, or develop new ways of philosophical thinking that change the world? We can change the course of history. Right here. Today.
We do this by showcasing our content. By emphasising it, by curating it, by editing it. By being proud of it.
To do this, we must make the software easier to use. We must make it easier to collaborate, to read, to contribute, to curate.
Which means we have to change. Sadly, change is difficult and often painful. The good news is that after a time of chrysalis, we'll emerge as something better.