An analysis of Wikipedia's latest design changes
What's it like to redesign one of the world's most visited websites, after all these years? Here's Alex Hollander's perspective, from the design team that handled this project
2019 marked the beginning of a series of updates to Wikipedia's web version, released on January 2023. Although there'd been some changes to the editing interface in 2010 and 2015, the overall design and article reading experience hadn't received any major changes since 2004.
This means that, even though in these 15 years technology, screens and computers underwent significant development, Wikipedia, which has been one of the world's most visited websites for decades, remained mostly the same until the Chief Product Officer gave Readers Web team the assignment of delivering significant upgrades - a task as complex as it was exciting.
This decision came as a result of different factors, that can be summed up by saying the design and reading experience had been neglected for a very long time, and they were confident in what the end result could be like.
Meanwhile, during those same 15 years, volunteers had been making changes to their localized versions, but given how Wikipedia is run a change for one localization didn't reflect on the rest. While there's details or features that can be necessary for one language but not others, this has meant that even though there's been some good suggestions for improving the reading experience they've stayed in one localization only.
The big challenge for this 12-person team was identifying and analyzing these small changes throughout more than 300 different versions, recommending a considerable amount of centralized changes, and since Wikipedia is run by its users, convincing volunteer editors for these more than 300 communities to vote for carrying them out. All this while still taking into account the needs and expectations of the thousands of people who access Wikipedia everyday but since they don't have a user they don't get to vote.
They began by setting a series of goals:
- Making the site feel familiar and friendlier, particularly for those visiting for the first time
- Improving the reading experience and navigation between articles, especially when they're long
- Meeting the needs of different roles (reader vs editor)
- Making the interface sustainable and flexible for possible future changes
Decisions about Wikipedia's interface had been increasingly focused on editor's needs, without whom Wikipedia would not be possible, but 99% of users do not edit. The goal here was to reach a better balance, where readers who're curious about editing aren't limited, and bringing forward improvements to usability and user experience that don't clash with the different languages' specific needs.
The order in which this process happened was as follows:
- Limiting text line length, making the sidebar collapsible and reformatting the logo and header area
- Moving and improving the searchbar
- Moving the language selector
- Reformatting personal tools (like Your account)
- Incorporating a fixed header (logged-in users only, for now)
- Moving and improving the table of contents
- Moving the page tools menu
- Reformatting the global navigation menu
In order to facilitate discussion and feedback, they created a prototype version that included buttons to apply or roll back these changes. As far as aesthetic is concerned, since Wikipedia has always been content-first (blue links, grey content boxes) the emphasis was on functionality and giving the different components separation through size, location and space between them. An example of these decisions is making the table of contents a fixed sidebar, and organizing it so you can only see the main sections at first, with subsections being a sort of submenu, to make it easier to read through long articles.
A key part of the process was getting the different communities involved: Some were invited to be early adapters of these changes to get feedback from real users in real situations, and some were given the option to turn the changes on or off. Over 2000 volunteers went through the testing process, which concluded with a tight vote from the English community in favour of keeping the changes. Nonetheless, the design team's concern about whether those voting are representative enough of the billions of people who use the site was always present.
The data so far shows the changes are positive:
- The new table of contents encourages deeper exploration of the articles. A/B tests show there's 53% more clicks for users who have logged in, and 45.5% more for those who haven't
- The new search bar got 28.9% more searches
- After 9 months, 87% of active logged-in users have chosen to keep the changes
- The fixed header bar makes it easier for editors to access the tools they frequently use, and scrolling to the top of the page is down 15%
- There's no decrease in views, editing or account creation. There's observational evidence of more visits and new accounts across the different communities