Yesterday was the deadline to submit a redesign of Wikipedia’s search page to the search design contest organized by Greplin. While the contest isn’t officially endorsed by Wikipedia, we found the challenge too much fun to turn down.
The Status Quo
Most people use Google to search Wikipedia. What’s broken about Wikipedia’s search?
1. Search gets second-class treatment on Wikipedia
Can you even remember what Wikipedia’s search page looks like? Despite having a search box at the top right of every page, Wikipedia only shows search results as a last resort. They first try to send users directly to other Wikipedia pages. Type in “London riots” and you’re redirected straight to List of Riots in London. Or type “US” and you get the US Disambiguation page. Only when no page exists, such as for ”egypt pyramid”, does Wikipedia show search results. Even then, the search results are treated as en error state, with a message saying “Sorry, this page doesn’t exist.”
2. Unnecessary clutter pushes results too low on the page
Even excusing the Wikimedia notice, there are a number of unnecessary elements on the page which cause less than three results to appear above the fold. The “Search Results” heading isn’t needed, a link to the search help page is mentioned not once, but twice, and there’s that long error message complaining that the page doesn’t exist. None of these are needed.
3. Lack of helpful filtering options
A look at Wikipedia’s contents pages reveals a robust, top-down categorization of knowledge into structured categories. Unfortunately, none of this encyclopaedic categorization makes its way to the search page. If searching for “beatles”, for instance, it would be nice to filter by either “Nature” or “Culture”.
4. Uninformative search results
A short title, a 20-word description — that’s all the user has to go on. Titles could be augmented with disambiguation information, the category of the article could be listed, descriptions could be longer, images could be displayed. There’s a wealth of useful information Wikipedia could pull from to improve the display of search results.
But enough complaining. What would a useful, usable Wikipedia search look like?
1. Results with strong information scent
Users quickly scan the page looking for trigger words and visual concepts meaningful to their search. By using images, longer descriptions, and providing greater context through categories and related articles, our redesign would helps users find what they’re looking for more quickly and more reliably.
2. Emphasize the best match
Rather than skip the search results page altogether by taking users directly to an article, we would instead use the result list to emphasize the most relevant article. We would us a visual container, a larger image, and links to sub-sections to highlight the top article.
3. Meaningful faceted navigation
There are at least two dimensions to Wikipedia’s content: aboutness and format. Aboutness is captured at a high level by Wikipedia’s portals: arts, biography, geography, history, mathematics, science, society, and technology. We chose to place these as tabs at the top of the page, allowing users to filter their search to any one high-level subject. Format, on the other hand, is represented by Wikipedia’s content types: article, list, picture, portal, sound, and topic. We thought these best-suited for the sidebar, where we also added a category facet to help users narrow in on lower-level sub-topics. To complete the faceted navigation, we also added a breadbox to keep track of any filters users apply.
The Last Word
There are doubtless many other approaches which could improve Wikipedia’s search. Our goal was to design a search interface in keeping with Wikipedia’s style and ethos, which they could conceivable implement in the real-world with a modest amount of effort. In fact, only the search results themselves were mocked-up in Photoshop; the layout, tabs, searchbox, faceted navigation, and surrounding elements shown in the redesign were all built using the TwigKit toolkit and are already functional in the browser. We are of course happy to donate these design ideas to Wikipedia should they come across this post.
Read more about the Wikipedia search design competition on TechCrunch.