Let me introduce myself first. I’m Dev, one of the selected Google Summer of Code 2011 participants for Wikimedia Foundation. I’m will be working on Semantic MediaWiki, and my project involves trying to make Special:Ask more intuitive for the general user. I’m writing this email so that you can share your views, comments and insights regarding what we are hoping to build.
Currently, Special:Ask is targeted towards the power-user to build complex queries and to get the results in a preferred format, such as RSS feeds or JSON. Which is brilliant, _if_ you know what you are doing.
For others, who are trying to find a quick answer to a question (“How many cities are there in Bolivia?”), Special:Ask is tricky to figure out. Queries which are malformed will give you all results, and the interface allows you to output data into conflicting formats (try getting a BIBTEX export of all places in Germany, and SMW will oblige).
These features make the power user happy, while the newbie and dare I say the average user will be left poring through documentation to figure out how to get results. The first 5 minutes of their life with Special:Ask is not pleasant. My intention is to make things easier for them.
One of the ways many others have attacked the problem is by building extensions for SMW which make it easier to find data or build queries, such as Halo, Drilldown and Exhibit. These products do a great job, but they have common aspects (which people at the dev-list were kind to point out) that could be abstracted out. In short, if we could separate (i) a powerful result printer and (ii)a clean usable interface, from Special:Ask, then in the future one could build an awesome query builder/a new result printer/a data-explorer by writing less code.
My hope is to be able to:
(i) separate these two use cases, and
(ii) bring in more usability to the Special:Ask interface such as a
(a) better auto-complete (which scales with large number of properties, and helps in writing the query)
(b) more helpful hints for the new user.
Please email me your thoughts about this project. Some of you already know me a bit (thanks Jeroen, Markus and Neill for your encouraging emails!), and I look forward to meeting more of you guys.