The Art of Wiki Design

JotSpotThis morning I spent some time fooling around with JotSpot, a hosted wiki-engine that allows anybody to create a new wiki and share it with authorized collaborators instantly. It’s a pretty cool piece of work with a lot of smart user information architecture behind it. The JotSpot team has put some laudable effort into making this tool a solid user experience — no installation or server configuration is necessary, and I got a pilot wiki up and running in under ten minutes. But there’s not much new to be found in terms of design, unfortunately; in spite of its competence, the application doesn’t look or feel particularly slick. In fact, JotSpot got me thinking that the rendering of wikis, by and large, has been quite lacking to date.

What You Wiki Is What You Get

There is a certain necessity to maintaining a core architectural model that’s faithful to the basic wiki tool set, to be sure. But, by and large, wikis are executionally identical to one another when taken on the merits of design (that is, they all look like Wikipedia), and their particular methods of articulating interface widgets might best be labeled as “slavish.”

There’s a lot of room for design innovation in this space, especially as enterprises begin using wikis as collaborative tools more and more, which means that they will start turning to design studios (hopefully ones like ours) for implementation help — golden opportunities for scrappy designers to produce some truly innovative productivity solutions. At the risk of inflating the Ajax hype balloon a bit further: a wiki tool that combines the power of the format’s native interaction model with the fluid and transparent responsiveness of remote scripting will be a huge hit.

So I was feeling proud of myself for coming to this clever design revelation and all on my own, too, until I read, over at 37signals’ Signal vs. Noise weblog, a very clear intimation that their next product release is going to be a wiki. And then I felt behind the curve all over again.

  1. Not bad, certainly an improvement over standard wiki user interfaces. It looks like it would be polished up easily enough with some CSS editing.

  2. I definetely agree that “The Wiki” will explode into corporate mainstream more than it already has, thus giving more opportunity to us “scrappy” designers. We [our company] are currently using Confluence within our dev department and it seems to be meeting the Sarbanes Oxley standards that all us in-housers love to hear about so much. Anyways, as much as I would love to think that a need for design will come about from wiki’s, I don’t see [non-design] companies alloting a budget for wiki design anywhere in the near future. As sad as it is, most corporations could care less about how their internal tools “look”.

  3. I agree. A lot of these great tools, that have spread like wildfire, were initially created and built by coders. Which is great because they get the ball rolling and bring innovation. But I think it’s time designers of all sorts, like interaction designers and visual designers, get involved and turn these things into something for the rest of us.

  4. Touhey: it may be true that “most corporations could care less about how their internal tools ‘look,’” but I think there are at least a few exceptions.

    One is an instance in which an internal group is looking to use a wiki to build momentum behind a new initiative; in this case it would be a benefit to them to see some good design applied to the wiki.

    Two is when a division of a company is looking to reach out to partners and clients and want to make a good impression when doing so.

    Three is when a company wants to build documentation or user-driven product support around a product using a wiki — a customer-facing situation in which it’s important to look sharp. There’s probably more situations than those, even.

  5. Khoi:
    No doubt in these instances design is anything less than a major factor. I suppose I did not make my post clear as I was speaking primarily of “internal tools” as those used to communicate between internal teams such as our marketing department and the development team; an interface that is never seen by any association to the company or consumer. :0
    You brought up some great instances of much needed design influence that some of us may not have considered. Thanks!

  6. Hi Khoi,

    Thanks for the kind words about JotSpot. We definitely agree that our interface is currently a bit lacking in the style and slickness department. We’ve spent much more time focusing on functionality, features, stability, etc., than we have on appearance… and it shows. That said, rest assured that we are actively working on it. Stay tuned!