Wikis – Some thoughts on usability

This is an article review I wrote for our Information Technology class. This article is drawn from Ariadne, which is a great online magazine: http://www.ariadne.ac.uk/issue55/. It’s a UK magazine which is nice – I find everything I read from the library world is North American, so it’s good to get off the continent once in awhile. The language is a bit technical, but not too much; certain articles will push you out of your comfort zone, but since the content is entirely focused on technology in libraries and information centres, it’s never too far from home.

I can’t remember what the original assignment told us to do, but I basically turned it into a literature review of how people interact with wikis (a sparse topic, to be sure). This is a topic that is near and dear to me – people always get excited about implementing new technologies, but of course you have to win over people’s hearts and minds if you ever want that technology to be used. I’m facing this challenge in my work at the Library of Parliament this summer. I am creating a large e-resource that will be used by all the parliamentary librarians, and hopefully by the public as well. I’m acutely aware however, that I must conscientiously ensure that the technology is usable, but also that I show people how to use it and why they should use it. I’ll have to draw on information literacy principles to ensure that my work doesn’t go to waste simply because I ignored the most important part of it: The people using it!!

Guy, M. (2006). Wiki or won’t he? A tale of public sector wikis. [Electronic version]. Ariadne, October (49). Retrieved October 17 2007, from http://www.ariadne.ac.uk/issue49/guy/

In the article, “Wiki or Won’t He? A Tale of Public Sector Wikis”, author Marieke Guy discusses wiki technology and its applicability in the public sector. As a member of the Interoperability Focus team at UKOLN, a centre for digital information management, Guy has written many articles concerning issues of web services in the library environment for online periodicals such as Adriane and d-lib. The aim of this article is to assess wiki use in the public sector, and suggest the means to extend and improve its application.

Guy assesses the existence of wikis in the public sector – voluntary and government wikis, library wikis, and higher and further education wikis – and argues that few exhibit high levels of activity or collaboration. Despite the media hype surrounding web 2.0 applications, there is still a lack of successful usage of wikis in these professions. An article by Steven Andrew Mathieson in the Guardian Unlimited discusses increased usage of wikis in many UK state-sector organizations; however Guy’s own research suggested that in fact, most have yet to develop into significant communities of collaboration. (Mathieson 2006, Guy 2006) Despite this, she explains how wikis can be successful, warns against technical and cultural barriers, and explores two case examples of successful wikis in the public sector. Guy ends with a look to the future of wikis in libraries and e-learning.

This article’s strength lies in Guy’s discussion of possible applications for wikis in the public sector, particularly libraries. A weakness however, is the lack of greater attention to the full spectrum of challenges in implementing wiki use among non-technical users. This weakness is further exhibited by Guy’s choice of case examples which exemplify successful collaborative use among technological support departments within public institutions. For wikis to garner more support among information professionals, they must be embraced by technical and non-technical users alike. I will discuss these strengths and weaknesses, and will include further examples of implementation barriers drawn from literature regarding wiki use in public institutions.

A strong element of this article is Guy’s work regarding wikis’ varying applications. As an article featured in Ariadne, a publication aimed at information professionals, it is beneficial to have a clearer picture of wiki functions and potentiality in a library setting. (Waller, 2007) Many are used for staff development, while others function as a collaborative webpage for staff to communicate with library users. Discussion regarding the potential for wikis in information centres is also helpful for professionals seeking creative ways to utilize emerging “web 2.0” technologies; book reviews, a suggestion box and catalogue annotations are possible applications for wikis in the library environment, and Guy’s exploration of these options is important for those wanting to keep abreast of technological developments in the field.

However the study of wikis in the public sector is not complete without more discussion around the technical proficiency of public sector employees. Guy approaches this technical barrier in saying, “…there remains the fact that many people are not completely technically savvy and are still daunted by the prospect of using a tool that they are not even sure if they are pronouncing correctly”. (Guy 2006) She builds on the work of Emma Tonkin, whose article, “Making the case for a Wiki” gives a technical explanation for the various uses of wikis, the contending wiki implementations, their features and deployment issues. (Guy 2006, Tonkin 2005) However more work on the inaccessibility of technical processes and language might shed greater light on the challenges of implementing wiki technologies in the public sector. Issues around the training of employees in the functions and benefits of wikis need greater attention if they are to become an important part of collaborative tool in any professional setting.

Other work regarding the study of wiki implementation in the workplace – including publications by Da Lio, Fraboni and Leo, Davies, Fichter, and Wiebrands to name a few – discusses technical and social barriers in depth, and presents a more comprehensive picture of the dynamics that effect wiki use. A common challenge Guy fails to acknowledge is a user’s ability to learn the interface and syntax of a wiki. (Wiebrands 2006) There is a need for better aesthetic and usability with the wiki interface, and there still exists a difficulty on the part of users to understand the markup and to feel comfortable using it effectively. (Davies 2006) People are generally resistant to learning the fundamentals of this (and other) emerging technology, and will often fall back onto external programs they already use. (Da Lio, Fraboni and Leo 2005) This issue is further provoked by the fact that, to share or present information outside the wiki context, users must convert their work from the wiki syntax to a more traditional format, creating another boundary for use. (Wiebrands 2006)

Where content creation and maintenance are concerned, Guy skims some issues, but does not effectively explore the barriers users face when they are trying to write or read wiki content. There is a need, according to the body of literature, for a wiki “gardener” who will maintain and clean-up the wiki content. Without this, the wiki becomes a “confusing mess of information and ideas”. (Wiebrands 2006) However beyond content maintenance, users are hesitant to edit wiki content for fear of offending the original authors and conversely, criticism from others regarding their own work. Users have expressed frustration when what they perceived to be undesirable changes are made to their work and reluctance to write anonymously, particularly in a professional setting where credit for work can affect your professional reputation and ability to ascend a corporate hierarchy. (Da Lio, Fraboni and Leo, 2005) Guy touches on these issues by arguing that the notion of ownership runs deep in our society, and many find it difficult to change the work of others. However to ensure wikis’ success in the public sphere, the gamut of social, cultural and technical barriers must first be addressed in their entirety.

Guy’s wiki case studies are an even further testament to the need for an investigation into the technical proficiency of public sector workers. The former example uses UKOLN’s Interoperability Focus Community wiki and the later is the WebDevWiki at Bath University’s Computing Services. Both cases are drawn from technical services departments, so those involved with the wiki already benefit from a high level of technological proficiency. Those without professional experience in using these types of online tools have yet to embrace the benefits of wiki technology as fully as their tech-savvy counterparts. Guy acknowledges that, “non-technical users who want to take the initiative on creation of a wiki will usually need to do so through their systems team. Sometimes pursuing a new technology that has yet to demonstrate its worth conclusively can be difficult.” (Guy 2006) Perhaps more difficult than convincing the systems team of the benefits of wiki use, however, is the challenge of convincing other non-technical users of these benefits.

The study of wiki implementation is still in its formative stages, and research regarding the social and cultural barriers of collaborative technologies remains largely anecdotal. While Guy’s work does little to advance discussions around usability among non-technical users in the public sector, content that discusses current and potential use of wiki technologies is beneficial to an information professional seeking to implement this emerging technology in the library setting.

References

Da Lio, L., Fraboni, E., Leo T. (2005, October 18). TWiki-based facilitation in a newly formed academic community of practice. Paper presented at the Proceedings of the 2005 International Symposium on Wikis, San Diego, California. Retrieved October 16 2007, from http://portal.acm.org.myaccess.library.utoronto.ca/citation.cfm?id=1104982

Davies, J. (2006). Wiki brainstorming and problems with wiki based collaboration. Unpublished master’s thesis, University of York, York, England. Retrieved from http://stu.hyes.tyc.edu.tw/plog/get/1/wiki_collaboration_and_brainstorming.pdf

Fichter, D. (2005). Intranets, wikis, blikis, and collaborative working [Electronic version]. Online, 29(5), 47-50.

Guy, M. (2006). Wiki or won’t he? A tale of public sector wikis. [Electronic version]. Ariadne, October (49). Retrieved October 17 2007, from http://www.ariadne.ac.uk/issue49/guy/

Mathieson, S. A. (2006, 22 February 2006). Public sector catches wikimania. [Electronic version]. Guardian Unlimited, Retrieved October 17 2007, from http://society.guardian.co.uk/e-public/story/0,,1714618,00.html

Tonkin, E. (2005). Making the case for a wiki. Ariadne, January (42) Retrieved October 18 2007, from http://www.ariadne.ac.uk/issue42/tonkin/

Waller, R. (2007). Ariadne: A web magazine on internet issues for librarians and information specialists. Retrieved October 18, 2007, from http://www.ariadne.ac.uk/information/#about

Wiebrands, C. (2006). Collaboration and communication via wiki: The experience of curtin university library and information service. Paper presented at the Proceedings Australian Library and Information Association 2006 Biennial Conference, Perth, Australia. Retrieved October 16 2007, from http://eprints.rclis.org/archive/00007481/

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2 responses to “Wikis – Some thoughts on usability

  1. Meghan
    I had this very articulate and structured comment for you, and then accidentally hit my “back” button and deleted it, and now I’m so frustrated, and sure that I’m going to leave you with a largely incoherent note. Ah!
    I think maybe this is a stunning example of the frustrations encountered with new technologies?
    Anyway, I think your article sounds like a pretty decent one. (Oh! speaking of decent: I wanted to mention, while I was thinking of a way I could create a comment that you could respond to, I scrolled down and read the bit about the dead woman’s late fees. Genius! What was that line? “His response: that’ll be 50 p.” God, can you imagine?! I wonder if that was one of those articles that’ll get emailed around at work, with a subject like: “look, dave f**ked up so much, it was in AP!” I’d FOR sure email it. Poor guy.)
    But, back to the review– I was listening to this podcast the other day, this interview with a woman who had implemented a wiki in her business. She was saying that they were trying to use the wiki to communicate with their customers, and believes that the wiki will be a cost-effective alternative to their existing customer-communications tools. So, as she sees it, people can post on their 2.0 site instead of having to call in a complaint on a 1-800 no.. She made the point that the people they’re targeting aren’t so much techie people, as people that “care” to comment. (She did mention this user-friendly thing, but I think that there’s more pressure for that at product-driven, publicly-traded companies.) Which made me wonder, are non-tech-savvy people just not savvy because they don’t care to be? And won’t this division fade with time, as the technology becomes more used? Isn’t the only risk of people being left behind, of non-techie people, isn’t there really only a risk when a technology is fully implemented at the total expense of another? Like if there are only wikis, and no address to which one can write a letter?
    (Also, it made me attempt to think of a time that I’ve cared enough to file a complaint.)
    And, as a little aside, do you get the feeling that in FIS we’re getting trained to be wiki “gardeners”?

  2. Julia Brewster

    Great review Meghan. I myself am not a user of wikis myself, although I’ve looked at a few and I find them confusing. Also, in terms of use within the public sector I am wondering if looking to wikis for communication among employees would take away from a community atmosphere at work. Things that could now be discussed on wikis were once discussed in meetings where people were able to interact with each other. I would be interested to see a study looking at how people felt about their work place comparing a case where wikis are prominent and one where there are no wikis.