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Wikipedia readies for first major UI overhaul

A Web site that goes nearly a decade without a major redesign is practically prehistoric. Thus it is that the Wikimedia Foundation is on the cusp of big changes to the hit user-created encyclopedia.

Since its earliest days in 2001, Wikipedia's fundamental user experience has gone through a series of small, iterative changes, but the site has never had a significant overhaul. That's about to change.

Now the Wikimedia Foundation, the nonprofit that operates Wikipedia, announced that it would soon be pushing through some major changes to the look and feel of the popular user-created encyclopedia, the first time that it has proactively done such a thing.

Wikimedia Foundation

"We are changing our default look to a new theme we call 'Vector' which makes essential functions easier to find," the Wikimedia Foundation wrote on its blog Thursday night. "All users will...see that the site layout has changed noticeably. We've simplified the site navigation, relocated the search box to satisfy user expectations and to follow other Web standards, reduced some of the clutter and made sure that the new features work with different resolutions, browser formats and window sizings."

There will also be a new, slightly modified version of the classic Wikipedia logo, one that Wikimedia Foundation spokesperson Jay Walsh said will reflect fixes to small mistakes in the current logo such as someone having added a character that might have been oriented the wrong way. Generally, though, the new logo will maintain the look that people have come to know.

existing Wikipedia site
A view of the existing Wikipedia site, for the edit page of an article. Wikimedia Foundation

A view of the beta version of the forthcoming revision of Wikipedia, looking at the same edit page of an article. Wikimedia Foundation

According to Walsh, the goal of the full slate of changes is to broaden the scope of user participation. "The look and feel has not changed dramatically from its early days," Walsh said. "This is really about the first time we've addressed basic usability."

About half a million beta users have been testing the changes for several months, and the Wikimedia Foundation expects to start rolling out those changes to the public on Wikimedia Commons, Wikipedia's media repository, on April 5. Assuming that all goes well with that experiment, the public at large will see the changes applied to the general Wikipedia in late April.

Those Wikipedia users who have an account and who are logged in will have the option to return to the site's classic look and feel with a single click, the blog post said.

But the post also suggested that the vast majority of the beta testers have adopted the new version. That likely reflects what Walsh admitted is a "long overdue" renovation of the venerable Wikipedia site. In Internet years, after all, a site without a major redesign since 2001 is practically prehistoric. Craigslist may be the rare Web site that somehow manages to look current without being brought up-to-date.

The Wikipedia redesign project, Walsh said, began about eight months ago with a grant from the Stanton Foundation.