Turning the Tide on Ugly Wikis

Wikis are the buzz. Like Amy Gahran (Learning with (and from) Wiki), I have been quietly ‘intrigued” by wikis, while trying to get past the mind-bending thought of creating a web site that anyone, anywhere can change on you. And I agree completely with Amy’s issue:

In my opinion , the biggest stumbling block with wikis is that most of them have absolutely terrible user interfaces. They expose the user to far too much of the software’s inner workings. (For example, see this wiki’s category list.) They’re not very intuitive or usable. And they’re almost exclusively text-based, not very visual. Yes, you can get used to them without too much difficulty, but most non-geeks would have to push past considerable initial revulsion and awkwardness to get to that point. That’s a tall order.

Yup, wikis work great, but they are generally U-G-L-Y and outside of us geeks, hard to navigate (raise your hand if you know what “diff” means). It is no great mystery- the software is generally written to be as small as possible, usually in obfuscated perl, and by folks like actually enjoying curling up to read a good Unix manual.

read on…

But wikis work, and I was convinced last Juky when Brian Lamb, D’Arcy Norman, and I collaborated form 3 different locations on our What’s the Fuss About RSS wiki which many others have chimed in with conttributions. Brian has pretty much focussed his online publishing for workshops and web resources from his UBC wiki and over the last few weeks has been doing nicely with creating a decent CSS to make it more “presentable”.

This is also the home of our “Small Technologies Loosely Joined” wiki (shameless plug).

I’d played a bit last year with OddMuse wiki (a derivative of the more well known, and what Brian uses, UseMod wiki), and did a bit of styling for the test Jade Wiki but not really creating any worth content. Then I got distracted with other projects.

Lately, I do I have a need to create 4 wikis for a new project (working groups that will have their own blog, wiki, and bulleting boards “loosely joined”). Sorting through the various wiki software gives you a headache (as almost every programmer seems to write a new one after they are done with Hello World). based on how well UseMod runs for UBC, I decided to make a go of it.

Setting up a wiki is not that hard, download, ftp to server, change a few configurations (there are about 100 of them and quite a few are still obscure to me). Working with the style sheets was another ball of wax. UseMod applies CSS classes to a number of elements, but quite a few of the page types generate stuff in the middle that just “has no class”. I worked with as much as I could, but I was wanting to try and tie the design to the associated blogs, and to add a top level navigation bar that was common.

So rolling up the shirt sleeves, dissecting the source, I was able to make some minor edits to the wikil.pl scripts to add the necessary output options, and to make sure that there is a class defined to manage all the content in the main area. It is not as well structured as I would like, but it will do.

A big problem is that the wiki script does a bunch of substituting from the text typed in the editing screen, so you end up with a lot of strange or missing placements of <p> tags (of course blogs have this issue as well, if you ever saw how MovableType mangles a typed <ul> list, sigh).

I am not ready to unwrap this site, as I have 3 more wikis and boards to build, plus I have to write some instructions for the folks that will be using it, but here is a peek at one of our new prettier wikis:


It is not just about pretty designs, it is about making these things usable by humans. There is still a lot of work to help people understand the editing language, the wiki linking methods, etc.

I am considering doing some screen shots and setting up a Breeze narrated tour to help folks do things the wiki way…

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Profile Picture for Alan Levine aka CogDog
An early 90s builder of the web and blogging Alan Levine barks at CogDogBlog.com on web storytelling (#ds106 #4life), photography, bending WordPress, and serendipity in the infinite internet river. He thinks it's weird to write about himself in the third person.


  1. I think the Breeze narrated tour is a great idea. The points you are highlighting in the posting, along with the fact that people are just really busy, may explain why the participation in the NMC wikis has been minimal.

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