Foundation 360: On newcomers and ancestors. Interview with Carol Dunn and Margeigh Novotny, Product Department

The Foundation 360 series profiles important work happening at the Wikimedia Foundation, and the people behind it.

Modern Architecture in Toronto II / ThomasLendt / CC BY-SA 4.0

Simply put: being a newcomer is tough. I meant to ping a user, how did I end up transcluding their entire userpage? Why did my article about newly-discovered fungi species get deleted? What is ~~~~ anyway? 

Vice President of Product Management, Carol Dunn, and Senior Director of Product Design and Strategy, Margeigh Novotny, know this as well as anyone.  “As someone who has loved consuming information on Wikipedia for the 20 years it’s been around, becoming a contributor was more daunting than I expected!” Carol told us when we talked to her for this series. 

Having her own difficulties at the start helped Carol see the urgency of supporting newcomers. “If you imagine a world in which every single human being can freely share in the sum of all knowledge, and then compare that to what we have today, you will see that not all people feel welcomed right now. Opening the door to newcomers is essential for us to live into our mission and to ensure the future of the Wikimedia projects.” 

We sat down with Carol and Margeigh to hear about the ways that the Product Department is partnering with communities to welcome newcomers to the movement.*

Q: Carol and Margeigh, what inspired you to join the Wikimedia Foundation?

CD: I want to be a good ancestor–what that means to me is leaving the world a better place than I found it.  As one of the most-visited websites in the world, Wikipedia has a huge impact on people’s lives. It is the world’s most important platform for promoting free knowledge.  To me, knowledge is the foundation of everything–the decisions that people make on a day to day basis, their beliefs, their economic opportunities.  I’ve benefited in my own life from Wikipedia and want to ensure that it’s here for future generations.

MN: I had been building my understanding of where we stand with regard to Climate Change, and educating myself on what opportunities exist to make a positive impact as a designer. I was looking at the systems we rely upon in our everyday lives: transportation and distribution, food and water systems, or rule of law and security. When I saw the role description for head of user experience at the Foundation it was a kind of epiphany: I realized our collective knowledge is a foundational piece of cultural infrastructure that must be protected so that it can remain a resource for everyone. I’m here at the Wikimedia Foundation to make sure we’re focused on how to protect this precious resource while at the same time ensuring it can grow and evolve over time.

Q: Let’s talk about the work that the Product Department does. Imagine someone asks you at a party to describe it. What’s your elevator pitch?

MN: We deliver tangible value to billions of users across the globe every month. But the really remarkable thing is that we’re able to do this with a team that is a small fraction of the size of other top 10 global web properties, by working closely with contributor communities and as a result of the donations from people who use and appreciate Wikimedia products. Day to day, we make sure we’re focused on the features and refinements that will provide the highest value to the greatest number of contributors and readers. We work directly with members of our communities to identify needs and opportunities, and then iterate with them to develop and refine user experiences.  

Q: Newcomers have been a big focus of Product’s work in the past years, but this year was especially important. Carol, what were you most proud to have worked on?

CD: The Newcomer experience is one of the most exciting, impactful things we worked on this year.  It is made up of three interconnected features that were developed by the Growth team through rounds of consultations with different communities: the Newcomer homepage, Newcomer tasks, and the Help panel. 

The Newcomer homepage gives each newcomer support around the most important steps they should be taking during their first days on the wiki as well as, at most wikis where activated, direct contact with an experienced Wikimedian ready to help them. Newcomer tasks is the module on the Newcomer homepage that suggests easy edits that align to the newcomer’s interests, and then guides newcomers through those edits. While newcomers are editing, the Help panel functions like a mini-homepage, giving guidance and resources in the editing context so that newcomers don’t have to leave their edit to get help. 

Q: What has the impact of these features been so far, in terms of both the day-to-day editing experience and strategic goals?  

CD: The three features were shown to increase the retention of newcomers and the volume and quality of their contributions on the four pilot wikis that partnered with us for this work  — Arabic, Czech, Korean and Vietnamese Wikipedias. In our initial launch, we found that newcomers with these features are 11.6% more likely to make a first edit to an article, 26.7% more likely to make a first unreverted edit. During their first two weeks on the projects, newcomers with these features make, on average, 22% more edits than those without. As of May 2021, over 120,000 article edits had been made through the features and over 33,000 questions had been asked to mentors. 

The four current pilot communities — Arabic, Bengali, Czech and Vietnamese Wikipedias — as well as other Wikipedias that volunteered to get the features, have given feedback that has been decisive for continuing this work. We are now working on a Mentor dashboard, which will give mentors a better view into their assigned mentees’ experiences and enable more effective support. The concepts behind the Newcomer experience have proven to be an important vector of growth for underrepresented communities, and it is great to see this collaboration continuing to evolve. 

I’m proud to be working toward the first goal of the Thriving Movement priority of the Foundation’s Medium-term plan, which is about welcoming and supporting newcomers.  The focus is on newcomers and their needs: how can we direct them to what needs to be done on Wikipedia? How do we help them understand the norms and policies for editing? How can we find them mentors? Creating welcoming newcomer experiences that teach the norms and values of Wikipedia editing is critical to the future of the movement.

Q: Margeigh, you have also been focused on retaining and supporting newcomers. Can you tell us about that?

The talk page improvements work we did with communities over the last year has had a positive impact across multiple projects, especially for new editors. A big part of this work was the development of the new Reply tool, which helped to bring editor-to-editor collaboration on talk pages much closer to parity with other modern messaging platforms. The idea for this tool came directly from community consultations with approximately 20 wikis, and was then developed through extensive collaboration with five partner Wikipedias — Arabic, Czech, French, Dutch and Hungarian — who did a huge amount of testing and provided critical feedback on the tool over many months. 

The Reply tool makes it so that you don’t have to know the ins and outs of editing to leave a complete talk page reply. It automatically adds a reply link next to signed comments on a talk page which, when clicked, opens into a box for users to type their reply. The tool automatically signs and indents replies, and makes pinging other users straightforward. 

Q: Why should the Reply tool and other talk page improvements matter to editors?

MN: The idea behind this work is that, if we make sure that the talk page interface promotes more productive, positive and easy-to-follow conversations among editors, less experienced contributors will be more likely to visit and participate in talk page dialog. This, then, means more conversations will be happening on Wikipedia, which increases the overall amount of coordination and collaboration between new and experienced editors. This type of information exchange between new and experienced contributors then promotes more successful edits by less experienced contributors, thus improving their experience on the projects. 

We have already seen evidence for this hypothesis. A/B testing we ran in February and March showed a 79.5% decrease in revert rate when junior editors used the reply tool to comment. Junior contributors were also 160% more likely to complete a talk page comment using the reply tool than without it. 

This is an important example of lowering the barrier to entry for new editors and making it easier for them to contribute in a more meaningful way, sooner. It answers the Movement Strategy recommendation to Improve User Experience, which calls for interfaces that don’t privilege those in the know and disadvantage others. I feel proud to be part of a project, and part of a department, that works toward leveling the field in this important way.

Have questions for the Product Department? Comment below!

*This interview has been edited for clarity and length.