Today, Wikipedia is launching a redesign across more than 32 million pages in hundreds of languages. That’s staggering in scope, but the changes are pretty conservative, equating mostly to a new font for the section headers.
There was another Wikipedia that could have been*, parent organization Wikimedia’s designers told us last week. It was a bolder redesign, a Wikipedia optimized for a cross-platform experience on tablets, phones, and desktops. If featured thin columns, big images, and lots of white space. But “this was met with confounding failure,” says Wikimedia's Director of User Experience Jared Zimmerman. “[The community thought that] we were doing too much to determine how Wikipedia was displayed.”
You know Wikipedia. It fills your browser with a wall of end-to-end text that consumes everything, edging itself up against ever-tiny images that, for whatever reason, have been framed in a weak outline.
The update changed quite a bit. It removed the superfluous frames around images—adding white space instead—and it made those images bigger by default, too. And maybe more importantly, its article text was squeezed into skinnier 715-pixel-wide columns—the same approach you might see used at the New York Times for its longform stories—rather than stretching the body copy infinitely wide. (Evidence suggests that wide text makes reading comprehension more difficult).
You’d think that the design-starved Wikipedia community would have been elated for the changes. But instead? Moments of the discussion read like a pitchfork-laden pile-on. One critic rued that the columns were "ludicrously narrow," for instance. Another called an image wrapped by white space "a really bad idea...[a] hardly readable mixture of main text and captions." These criticisms feel like kneejerks, stinking with the discomfort of the new or different. To be fair, often the hive mind offered valid criticism—like this technical discussion about the effect of gray text on the eye. But other seemingly good points, like that the skinnier columns were breaking existing tables that are so popular on Wikipedia, would have been spotted by the designers on their own anyway.
Too many cooks are apt to spoil the soup, and Wikipedia is the ultimate ruled-by-committee entity. Every word typed within the network can be scrutinized or edited by anyone—literally 500 million monthly users worldwide. That check-and-balance system is the very premise on which Wikipedia can operate as a gargantuan, objective source of the world's information, and yet, as the design team shared its creative process behind a more beautiful Wikipedia, right down to some of the earliest pencil sketches, the response ultimately manifested into a mob mentality that’s keeping Wikipedia’s design in the 1990s.
“Working with the community as closely as we do has its ups and downs. It means that when we reach consensus, which is our goal, that change management is easier, but it also means that it can take longer to make changes,” Zimmerman says. “Also with areas that are more subjective, you'll never please everyone and that can be a point of stress. Overall our process is always interesting and the challenges are part of what makes the foundation what it is.”
But the final result shows how difficult it is to approach design with fiercely democratic ideals. It’s relatively easy for Wikipedia to train great fact checkers (facts are objective—they’re facts after all!). It's a lot harder to train a great designer. Good visual design is a mix of rules, risk, and taste. There is no one right answer that a community can agree on.
Even still, Wikipedia's designers are optimistic about the democratic process. In fact, they argue that if more of Wikipedia's 500-million-person readership shared opinions on the site's design, progressive tastes would win out.
"We usually hear from the same group of people or a 'committee' over and over again," Senior Designer Vibha Bamba writes. "If we heard from more readers, the voice in favor of change would be much stronger."
* It's worth noting that many of these unreleased design features could still find their way into a future iteration of Wikipedia, assuming a greater community consensus is reached.