Israeli app’s Wikipedia beautification makes info more accessible

Wikiwand upgrades text-heavy encyclopedia pages, winning a Webby award for best user experience

Wikiwand's version of a Wikipedia page about the Tesla coil (Wikiwand)
Wikiwand's version of a Wikipedia page about the Tesla coil (Wikiwand)

Wikipedia may be the 21st century’s digital encyclopedia, but its aesthetics are strictly analog. Written in a linear, functional style, text-based Wikipedia reminds one more of a traditional book than a dynamic website.

There’s a reason for that – Wikipedia wants to be an information source, not another pretty site – but Lior Grossman believes you can have both useful information and an aesthetic interface.

That’s the idea behind Wikiwand, the Wikipedia interface he invented with two partners that has taken the Wiki-world by storm, with millions of installs and numerous awards – the latest of which was the Webby Awards, considered the most prestigious prize for online apps.

“You can call it a ‘modernization’ of Wikipedia,” said Grossman.

Despite the fact that the user-edited site is constantly updated by a wide network of editors, the stodgy look of many pages, especially those dealing with serious scientific and other subjects, can be intimidating to users. “Our system makes Wikipedia articles more readable, with the side benefit of making articles look prettier.”

Wikiwand basically takes a Wiki page’s content and redraws it in a more aesthetically pleasing format, with extra elements – like a table of contents, maps, drawings, etc. “It’s not an overlay, but an actual reorganization of the page. We’ve done with just about all pages in all languages – about 30 million articles,” said Grossman, who started the project two years ago with Ilan Levine (CTO) and Tomer Lerner (UX director).

Although they can be updated, most Wikipedia pages are static, so Wikiwand can cache its redesigned pages for quick loading. Grossman and his partners are working on a version of the technology that will work on other sites, like news and map sites where loading will have to be more dynamic.

“It’s definitely a challenge to develop a system like this for on-the-fly page redesign,” Grossman said.

(L to R) Wikiwand founders Lior Grossman, Tomer Lerner, and Ilan Lewin (Wikiwand)
(L to R) Wikiwand founders Lior Grossman, Tomer Lerner, and Ilan Lewin (Wikiwand)

Currently there are Wikiwand versions for browsers Chrome, Firefox, and Safari, as well as for iOS (an Android version is on the way).

The app has received many accolades in the computer press (in two years, it’s been the subject of some 150 articles), and was Israel’s only entry this year in the Webbys – an event that in the past has been won by top apps like Tumblr and Hulu.

Wikipedia is free to use (using the site is not dependent on responding to the incessant appeals to donate), so as an app to enhance a free site, there’s probably not much Wikiwand can do to monetize its Wikipedia activities. But like with many other technologies, Wikipedia is just a staging area for Wikiwand. Eventually, said Grossman, the company will be able to monetize it by, for example, recommending content and redesigning it in a manner that will most appeal to specific readers.

“We aren’t yet ready for monetization, but we have some good ideas on directions to take this technology,” said Grossman. “Wikipedia is the fifth-largest site in the world, so we are getting a lot of insights on how people search for information, and offering associated content is just one idea. Meanwhile, we are pleased and excited to have received a Webby for the best user experience. As the only Israeli representatives at the ceremony, it is important for us to show the world that even a small company from Tel Aviv can make a significant impact in the Internet world.”

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