WYSIWYG and Wikis

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Notes from a technical session at Wikimania on WYSIWYG.

Christoph Sauer questions if WYSIWYG is a good thing, based on his experience with a wiki within his technical university in Germany and creating WikiWizard. Leslie Lamport (helped create LaTeX) in 1987 wrote a paper called Document Production: Visual or Logical (pdf). Visual is what you see is what you get, Logical is what you see is what you mean. A Canadian study, “Are Wikis Usable?” (pdf) with 4th grade students showed the biggest issue (49%) was link creation and management (understanding hypertext).

Wiki Markup cons:

    * “This is not for me,” or people have to learn how to use it. They just know Word. There is no explorative usage.

    * “Text processing of the old days.” A “sea of monospaced letters,” losing overview in simple text editors

    * “Wiki markup mess” or no standard for markup

WYSIWYG was developed for printing a document or using the same word processor. But what about sending an email? Will people see it the same way you sent it? What if you copy and paste content between wikis, CMS, documents…what if the CSS layout changes over time and what if your article is published and is effected by a medium changes, or your audience changes (disabilities).

Frederik Brooks Prediction in 1986: We will not see advances of scale in programming until we seperate accidental tasks from essential tasks. Transferring this to web authoring: the accidental task is formatting layout, the essential task is information + basic structure (emphasis and linking). Wiki markup is part of the essence of a document — teach the public!

Wiki Markup Pros:

    * Concentrating onthe content. For the author a clean seperaation of layout and content, no typographical errors.

    * Context sensitive display: reader and designer have homogeneous design.

    * Speed. The tool for knowledge workers, e.g. bloggers don’t lose the “flow” No time for formatting.

    * Simplicity. Allows easy evolving of wikis, e.g. scripting.

He gives a demo of an editor that is like the Wikitext mode of Wikiwyg. You can use familiar tool bars to add formatting, and you see the commands to do so, so people learn Wikitext as they use. But it also formats on the fly like WYSIWYG mode. It also has a table editor and a outline view. Suggests standardizing on three image sizes for image uploads. (Someone asked about adding license info for images, I suggested looking at Greg Elin’s Fotonotes) It does a basic paste from Word function.

His core argument: we should have an alternative to both extremes (I agree). A forward looking vision would be computer literacy that involves undersanding the difference between the model and the view, and keep extending punctuation. He also wants people to work towards a WikiMarkupStandard.

I can’t really disagree with Chris’ findings. Ingy once called WYSIWYG within Wikiwyg “training wheels.” I like WikiWizard’s dynamic display, but wonder how big of a payload it is and think it needs more editing modes to be usable. Our usability interviews showed a tremendous uptake in adoption from introducing Wikiwyg and believe multiple edit modes and simplicity of the editor make a big difference.


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Ross Mayfield is CEO and co-founder of Socialtext, an emerging provider of Enterprise Social Software that dramatically increases group productivity and develops a group memory.

He also writes Ross Mayfield’s Weblog which focuses on markets, technology and musings.

WYSIWYG and Wikis
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