December 21, 2010

Day 21 - Wikis and Documentation


This article is part one of a two part series and is a collaboration between Brandon Burton and Philip J. Hollenback where they explore the problems with Wikis, the challenges of writing good documentation with today's tools, improvements to Mediawiki that Brandon has implemented, and ideas for further improvements.

Part one focuses on the problems and challenges.

The problem(s) with Wikis is...

It's a wiki! Wikis are a slightly less-worse alternative to all other documentation and publishing mechanisms. What's the worst thing about wikis? Well...

Here it is, 2010, and guess what? Every wiki works pretty much exactly the same as they did back in 2001 (or, for that matter, back in 1995 when WikiWiki was invented). Why has absolutely no real development happened in the world of wikis? I realize that there may be amazing commercial wikis out there like Microsoft Sharepoint or Confluence, but who uses them? Instead we all blindly set up our own Mediawiki installations over and over again, with all the same annoyances and problems. We are all unquestioning worshippers at the altar of the wiki.

Let's get down to business: here are some of the numerous things wrong with wikis, in no particular order:


This seemed amazing back in 2001 because it allowed you to create your own web pages on the fly. Amazing! However, the really cool thing was the autocreation of web pages, not the mechanism of CamelCase. Camel case was just an easy way to tell early wiki syntax parsers to create a link to a new page. Nine years later, camel case is faintly embarrassing. It's like those pictures from the early 80s where guys all had perms - seemed a good idea at the time. Every single time you try to explain wikis to someone, you have to apologize for how camel case works.

Markup Languages

Wiki markup languages must be amazing and precious, because we have dozens of them to choose from. Seriously? I have to remember whether to write






based on which wiki I'm using? That's awesome.


If you ask 99% of office workers how to create a table, the answer is fire up Excel. Wikis actually manage to make that worse due to the pain of creating tables. The canonical table representation in wikis is vertical bars and spaces, and you better not accidentally add an additional column unless you want to spend 15 minutes tracking down that one extra vertical bar somewhere.

| *this* | *is an* | *awesome table* |
| there | are | many like it | but this one | is mine |

Attaching Images and Documents

Looking for a standard way to drop images into a document? Good luck with that. If you are lucky you can attach an image to a page, assuming you don't accidentally exceed the web server file upload size. Wait, did you also say you want to flow the text around your image? You just made milk come out of my nose. Next you will be asking for the ability to right-justify your image on the page! What is this, QuarkXpress?

Attaching documents to a wiki is just as bad, because most wiki software uses the same horrible upload mechanism. As a bonus, any Excel spreadsheet you attach to a page becomes an inert lump of no-displayable, non-searchable data.

Organizational Structure

We all love really shallow document hierarchies, right? Must be true because that's how every wiki works. Oh sure we all pretend there is a tree structure in wikis but nobody ever uses it. We all end up creating zillions of top-level documents. Which then brings us to the issue of wiki search, which is also essentially nonexistent. Most people cheat and use a domain-specific google search instead, but then you surrender your site to the whims of the almighty google. That means your search mechanism doesn't have any domain-specific optimizations.

The problem with documentation is...

The problem with documentation is that it's a lot of effort to write clear, correct, and usable documentation. It takes time, not just any time, but concentrated, distraction free time. The sort of time that there is never enough of. Further, it takes a plan - a design for serving your intended audience reasonably. It does not help that most of the common tools that are chosen as the repository of the documentation are not very good. Bad tools drain your time. Sadly, this includes the most popular tool (in my experience), wikis, particularly my favorite tool for keeping documentation, Mediawiki.

Documentation + Mediawiki == Maybe better

Having said all that, wikis are still the best widely available documentation solution out there.

Of all the available wikis, Mediawiki is the wiki most commonly chosen, and this is the one that Brandon has had the opportunity to make a number of improvements to.

Since Mediawiki is open source software and just PHP + MySQL + Text + CSS, it is relatively easy to improve how it can be used to keep more effective documentation. I've had the opportunity to make a number of changes to the Mediawiki installation at my day job and I'm going to take part two of this article to share those with you. Additionally, I have some other ideas on how Mediawiki could be improved even further, a number of which have come from reading the Mediawiki book

In part two, we'll explore some improvements that Brandon Burton has implemented at his work and some ideas Brandon and Philip have for further improvements.


asq said...

nice teaser. now, seriously, give us part two.

derobert said...

"…Instead we all blindly set up our own Mediawiki installations over and over again…" and then the first complaint is CamelCase.

I dare say the reason that we all install Mediawiki is that it doesn't have a lot of the problems you mention. It doesn't use CamelCase, it has GUI tools for formatting, tables, and images so you don't have to remember the syntax, tables use || so its much harder to accidentally get a single | screwing them up, etc.

Brandon Bowman said...

Mediawiki will happily use CamelCase if you stick it in [[CamelCase]], and in a lot of places, people still use it, because they got used to it on Twiki, MoinMoin, and co.

The GUI tools are somewhat useful, sadly the image embedding tool is still crap, you end up with attachments to a specific page, with no good naming, no organization, and no way to upload a new version.

And you can still use single | for tables, I typically use the following for tables, as I think it's more sane

{| border="1"
! '''Title 1''' !! '''Title 2'''
| Item 1
| Item 2
| Item A
| Item B

Thanks for the feedback, I think you'll enjoy part 2!

Rusty said...

You might want to checkout the WikiEditor extension for MediaWiki 1.17. It is really nice.

It is available on and as part of WikiFYD.

One of my main goals for WikiFYD is to include all of the usability improvements that normally go unnoticed, unconfigured, and unused.

Ryan Miller said...

As a confluence user, I can say that the search (including into Office docs) and attachment upload is nice, and the wysiwyg formatting is passable, but the table support is bollocks. It is definitely not the solution to all wiki woes. And Sharepoint? Seriously?

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