March 23, 2017

Why Reading and Learning in Wikipedia is More Productive with Wikiview


When it comes to digesting information, one of the basic human tendencies is the utilization of abstractions. We learn it very early. It’s how, for instance, we’re able to identify the creature standing in front of us as a dog, when we’ve never even seen a Boxer before.


That is to say that abstraction is a way of making the world around us more understandable. After all, there is a kind of structure and order in everything, not just billions of unrelated facts. Abstractions create structure in a sea of knowledge fragments:

  • The emperor Augustus has a place in: History - The Classical Ages - The Roman Era - The Roman Empire

  • The word girls has a place in: Language - Grammar - Noun - Plural

  • Brown Algae has a place in: Biology - Plant - Spore Plant - Algae

  • The capital city Stockholm has a place in: Geography - Europe - Nordic Countries - Sweden

  • The violin has a place in: Art - Music - Musical instrument - String instrument


A structure like this serves as a skeleton upon which new fragments of knowledge can be hung. With every fragment you place within the structure, you are instantly rewarded with more facts related to that fragment and, as a result, a greater understanding of the topic. This practice of contextualization also makes it easier to assimilate the knowledge you’ve collected.


Wikipedia is a prime example of the human need to categorize and structure the information we collect. In fact, it must be one of the most successful collaborative human projects ever launched, with knowledge being collected and shared by millions of people around the world. It’s wonderful!


However, something I’ve learned in my 37 years of building tools for structuring information is that the reading process is the most important part—and this is an area where Wikipedia, with its 10,000 word articles, could use some improvement. 


With a flat, page-oriented approach to structuring information, Wikipedia doesn’t provide an optimal environment for reading and assimilation. As readers scroll down the page or click on a link that takes them to a different place in the article (or a completely new page), it becomes difficult to maintain context and orientation within the greater subject. 


To us technical documentation experts, this issue is an easy fix: Just give readers access to the structure! 


The solution is so simple, we went ahead and created Wikiview, an alternative interface to Wikipedia which introduces readers to a more structured, hierarchical way of navigating information. 


Wikiview presents knowledge in an expandable structure, as opposed to the flat presentation in Wikipedia. This expand-compress functionality is the same as what we use in our documentation system Skribenta, and it makes for really efficient navigation:

  • Expand to see the details, compress to get the overview

  • Wiki links work the same way, simply click to expand—and you won’t lose context

  • Several things can be expanded at the same time, just scroll up and down to compare them


Wikiview doesn’t have the structure to the left, and the actual content to the right, which is the normal way for exploring stuff (e.g., File Explorer). Instead, the structure and the contents share the same area, recognizing the fact that anything can have details.


For example, if you are reading about Sweden in Wikiview you can expand the following sequence:

  • Sweden - History - Swedish Empire - Charles XII - Great Northern War - Russian resurgence - Poltava - Battle


While at the same time expanding this sequence:

  • Sweden - History- Swedish Empire - Gustav II Adolf - Death - The battle of Lützen


Thus enabling easy comparison between the two battles. A static structure to the left would not have offered this flexibility. In these examples, the Poltava and Lützen battles are “details” hidden somewhere deep inside the Sweden “structure,” normally only accessible via Wiki links which send you to additional Wikipedia pages. With Wikiview, you can expand the details contained in these links you want to explore while staying on the same page.


The benefit of Wikiview expands beyond the simplicity of navigation. The very process of navigating up and down in a structure gives you better, more empowered access to Wikipedia’s growing stockpile of knowledge, and makes it easier to remember what you have learned. A real asset in this information-packed age. 


If you’d like to give Wikiview a try, follow this link and enter a term in the search box as usual:


About the author

JC Herlitz

Excosoft’s founding mastermind, JC, has a long history in technical documentation, and a perpetual zeal for making it as simple as possible.

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