Six reasons why your wiki isn’t working

Wikis are a great way to create and publish documentation online, but there are many wikis that haven’t worked. They comprise just a few pages of incomplete, out of date information.

Why is that? Why do some wikis work and others just fail?

Here are six key reasons why:

1. The wiki isn’t managed

A wiki should be treated in many ways like a teenage party. If all you do is provide a space for people to entertain themselves and you then leave them to it, you shouldn’t be surprised to find that, when you come back, the place is in a terrible mess or everyone’s left.

Someone needs to edit, moderate and even lead. In other words, the content needs to be managed.

2. Readers struggle to find the information they need

Wikis are designed to have a flat information structure. The intention is you’ll find the information you need in just a few clicks. Wikis rely mostly on people finding information by using the Search function.

Unfortunately, it just isn’t always possible to do this successfully, particularly if you’ve got lots of information. Complex information does need, sometimes, a long navigation trail down a path. What’s more, the Search Engines supplied with many wikis just aren’t up to the job.

So you may need to use an alternative Search Engine, and one option is to use Google’s chargeable service, where you use their software to provide the search results. You may also need to create a series of pages that act as “menu” or “landing” pages – collections of links to relevant pages.

3. You’ve picked the wrong software

Just because Wikipedia chose the MediaWiki software platform doesn’t mean it’s the right software for you. There are other free wiki platforms, such as TWiki, which have better capabilities (such as marking “official” content from other forms of information and printing content to paper).

4. You don’t have enough people actively participating

Many people start a wiki with the belief, “build it and they will come”. Unfortunately, that’s unlikely to happen. Studies of wikis have indicated a 90:9:1 rule: 90% of people will be readers, 9% will be editors and 1% will be writers. Unless you have a huge audience, you’ll need to ensure someone is responsible for writing content.

5. You actually wanted people to discuss and converse

Although wikis do include a discussion tab, it’s often buried away and seldom used. It might be that a wiki isn’t actually what you need. You might be better off with a Blog, Google Wave or even a Web authoring tool that has the capability for users to append comments to the bottom of a page.

6. You’ve created an island of information, and it’s hard to re-use the wiki content anywhere else

Wikis can end up containing some great content, but it can be really hard to re-use that content elsewhere – for example, moving content from an internal wiki to a paper user guide, your Web site or a Help file.

The result is having to maintain two versions of the same content, which can lead to inconsistencies, errors and extra time and cost. Organisations are developing tools to manage wiki content, (looking at issues such as how do you exchange content stored in structured XML formats and wiki syntax), which are well worth investigating.

Choose your solution wisely, if you want to export your wiki content to somewhere else.

Summary

Wikis are great when you want people to see a work-in-progress or if you want people to collaborate and contribute to a document. However, it’s easy to get things wrong or expect too much from a wiki.

Make sure you know what problem you want to solve, which capabilities you want your solution to have and then you should choose your platform on that basis.

Finally, you may find you need someone to oversee the information – a professional technical author, copywriter or an editor might be a useful resource in this situation.

4 Comments

Wikis: best practices draft, Part 2 « The Liner Notes

[…] Ellis at the Cherryleaf Technical Authors Blog summed this point up nicely: “A wiki should be treated in many ways like a teenage party. If all you do is provide a space for people to entertain themselves and you then leave them to it, you shouldn’t be surprised to find that, when you come back, the place is in a terrible mess or everyone’s left.” Every wiki needs at least one chaperone. […]

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