Crafting Positive New User Experiences on Wikipedia

Logo of the Teahouse by Heather Walls. Wikimedia Commons.

Jonathan T. Morgan, University of Washington
Siko Bouterse, Wikimedia Foundation
Sarah Stierch, Wikimedia Foundation
Heather Walls, Wikimedia Foundation

Imagine this: you have just been hired by a major global company, and you can’t wait to get to work. During orientation, you are told that the first assignment you turn in will be dumped in the trash in front of your eyes, and that your first interactions with your new co-workers will come in the form of a series of terse and increasingly strident emails telling you that you’re doing things wrong, and hinting that further violations may result in your immediate termination.

How excited are you, now?

The scenario above reflects a typical new editor experience on Wikipedia, minus the orientation part. To address these issues, we designed a peer support space on Wikipedia called the Teahouse. The Teahouse helps onboard new editors by introducing them to the community in a positive and engaging way, teaches them the ropes of editing and gives them the help they need to become productive contributors.

Screenshot of the main page of WP:Teahouse
The Teahouse: a peer support space for new Wikipedians

For newcomers on Wikipedia, figuring out what to edit, how to edit and learning the rules of editing can be daunting. Unfortunately, there are few good resources available to teach new editors the ropes, and many new editors quickly run afoul of community rules that they did not even know existed.

The broken new user experience of Wikipedia stems from both the usability issues and community norms. It’s a complex problem with no quick fix and serious consequences: the active editor base has been declining since 2007, and Wikipedia continues to have trouble recruiting and retaining new editors from under-represented demographics, particularly women. According to the best available estimates, only 16% of newcomers and 8.5% of active editors (‘Wikipedians’) are female.

The Teahouse is an attempt to improve the new editor experience of Wikipedia by addressing the specific challenges that newcomers face, with a special focus on female newcomers. It is designed to provide newcomers with immediate assistance and with engaging, positive experiences to encourage them to continue participating. The Teahouse also reflects a gradualist approach to organizational change within Wikipedia: an attempt to shift the culture and demographics of the editing community and reversing the editor decline.

At the Teahouse, new editors (called guests) have the opportunity to introduce themselves and have their questions answered by patient, friendly Wikipedians, called hosts. A welcoming atmosphere and simple, user-friendly tools reduce newcomers feelings of intimidation and isolation, and an active volunteer base assures long-term sustainability.

A Teahouse guest profile
A Teahouse guest profile
A Teahouse host profile
A Teahouse host profile

The Teahouse space is built around two primary activities. On the Guests page, new editors can introduce themselves by creating a simple profile, and also browse profiles created by other new editors and by Teahouse hosts. On the Q&A board, guest can ask, read, and answer questions.

The Teahouse Q&A board
The Teahouse Q&A board

The technical mechanisms for creating a profile or asking a question in the Teahouse are designed to reduce barriers to entry, encouraging new editors to jump in and participate. However, since the Teahouse is intended to provide opportunities for learning, most interactions do require users to edit a wiki page. We attempt to simplify tasks that involve editing through clear, contextual prompts and structured workflows. Simple host guidelines help establish local norms for host/guest interactions, making participation less intimidating and more engaging for newcomers.

Teahouse host guidelines
Teahouse host guidelines

Between February 27th and October 11th, 2012 1,098 new editors participated in the Teahouse, at an average rate of 34 per week. Guests asked 1,381 questions and created 420 profiles. 77 Wikipedians participated as hosts during the pilot, and an average of 21 hosts participated each week.

Total new editors participating in Teahouse/Questions and Teahouse/Guests pages, per week. Feb27 - Oct11 2012
New editors participating per week. Feb27 – Oct11 2012

We surveyed our guests and hosts to assess the experience of participating in the Teahouse, compared the Teahouse with other support forums on Wikipedia, and tracked the editing activity of Teahouse guests over time. High level findings include:

  • 31% of Teahouse visitors are women.
  • Both newcomers and experienced Wikipedians found the experience of participating in the Teahouse enjoyable and useful.
  • The Teahouse Q&A board provides a more interactive, ‘social Q&A’ experience than other support forums on Wikipedia.
  • Teahouse visitors go on to make more edits, to more articles, and continue editing longer than non-visitors who exhibit similar early editing patterns.

 

For more, see our full paper, Tea & Sympathy: Crafting Positive New User Experiences on Wikipedia. And our project reports [overview, metrics] on wiki.

About the author

Jtmorgan

Seattle-based UX researcher, affiliated with the University of Washington. Research Strategist with the Wikimedia Foudation. Mongrel scholar, tool-user and watcher of clouds.

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2 Comments

  • This is great work! Fantastic to see that you were able to launch this within the Wikipedia community, and get sustained use. I’m still seeing activity on the site.

    Does the wiki page of questions and answers get unwieldy at any point? Can the hosts reorganize the page into categories?

    And perhaps more deeply: is the real success of this site that it can answer questions for new editors, or that it provides a supportive community for them? I’d have to imagine that if you could only keep one of those two aspects of the site, it’s the community element that’s most critical to ingratiation and the editors’ long-term success?

    • Hi Michael,

      Yep. The Teahouse might actually be busier than ever, these days, as the Teahouse meme percolates through the rest of Wikipedia.

      The Q&A page, and many of the other interactive spaces on Teahouse, are bot-maintained (User:MiszaBot_II, in the case of Q&A; User:HostBot in most of the other circumstances). We try to keep the amount of manual curation necessary to an absolute minimum, since that’s the work that no one wants to do, and MediaWiki makes it a kind of tiresome. We’ve toyed with the idea of categorizing our question archives, but unless we can automate it somehow, I don’t see that happening. I’m also a little hesitant to encourage the creation and promotion of such a resource, frankly: there are plenty of static help resources and FAQs on Wikipedia. What’s lacking is interactive, personalized help!

      To answer your deeper question: I think what makes Teahouse work is that it provides services that have clear, immediate & personal value propositions attached to them: you can ask a question, create a profile, or just browse–none of which need be social experiences. But in the performance of that service, new editors may be drawn deeper into the community. However, most of that actual community interaction is s’posed to happen out in the wilds of Wikipedia: TH is just the jumping-off point.

      We do intend to add more explicit community-building features as well–Heather Walls and I have been toying with the idea for a New Editor noticeboard, but I don’t quite see the use case for it yet (and I don’t want to add another call-to-action if no one’s going to use it). We’re also working on a simple workflow to let Teahouse guests easily sign up for SuggestBot to get task and WikiProject recommendations. Teahouse is here to stay 🙂