The following guide has been created to help experienced users on Wikimedia wikis on how to interact with new users, especially on help desks or on Question-and-Answer (Q&A) pages. It is also relevant for user-to-user interactions, like during a mentorship.
This document gathers best practices from various websites (Wikimedia wikis, other Q&A websites...) and thoughts from Wikimedia experienced users who interact with newcomers. You can learn more about those findings on Phabricator.
How to have successful interactions
- Always be friendly, polite, and patient even if the newcomer forgets about that.
- Start your reply by saying "Hello and welcome!"
- Be sure that you understand the question asked. Don't try to guess what the problem is. Asking for clarifications may be appropriate; they may help you provide a more accurate answer. "What do you try to do?" is an excellent question to ask if you don't understand a question.
- Check which editor the newcomer uses (2010 wikitext, visual, mobile, 2017 wikitext, etc.), and provide a reply for that editor. Asking the user to use an editor they don't know will be a burden for them.
- Know your limits: sometimes you won't know how to reply, especially in technical areas or out of your favorite topics. Feel free to ask for help from other users who are more experienced in certain areas. If the message is posted on your user talk page and you need time to write a reply, add a short message to see that you will reply later.
- Be honest: if the request is not realistic or doable on your wiki, or generally off-topic, say so and explain why. For example, it may not be productive for the newcomer to work on the content that may be deleted in only a few days. However, explaining why the content can be deleted can help the newcomer to avoid future problems. Invite the newcomer to work on something else instead.
- Newcomers may be angry or frustrated at your wiki because of a variety of reasons. Their complaints are most likely not against you. Keep calm and try to understand their situation.
- If it becomes clear that the discussion is going nowhere, close it politely.
- Have fun! Don't approach helping newcomers as a burden. If you don't have time to follow through with a request or aren't in the mood, then let another helper handle the request instead.
- Watch other mentors' talk pages. Notify other mentors if you plan to be offline so that they can take care of your page while you are away from the wikis.
How to build good replies
- Don't point to documentation first, explain the process instead. An answer is better than linking to the answer, even if it is only one sentence followed by a link. Quote important information from other pages you link. It avoids forcing people to read many long pages.
- Example: "To add an image, you'll need to upload it to a different website called Wikimedia Commons. Then you can place it in your article. It's a little confusing, so read this link carefully."
- Give the next steps
- Leave replies that tell the person what to do next. Don't just answer the specific question.
- Do not answer with general phrases, ask clarifying questions. Each user may have their own problem, which is different from similar ones. Provide examples.
- Keep things simple
- Avoid jargon and acronyms. You can introduce them progressively by linking them. Avoid overloading the newcomer with information not related to their question.
- Be a guide
- For instance, if someone asks how to add an image on a new article, but the action that person should take first is to add sources, tell them to add sources first (and how to). Also, promise that you will explain how to add an image later.
- Create a conversation
- Ask the newcomer a question to try to engage them in conversation.
- For instance, if they ask, "Is it possible for me to write a new article on Wikipedia?", you can say, "Yes, you can create a new article. However, that's one of the hardest kinds of edits to do on Wikipedia. What do you want to write your article about? Maybe there are some easier tasks you can try related to your interests, and then you'll learn the skills you need to write the article."
- Make sure the newcomer is aware of the reply, by any method. For instance, on wikitext talk pages, mention the user when you reply.
- At the moment, due to the technical implementation of talk pages, newcomers do not see when somebody answered their question. You also can switch on failed and successful mention notifications to check if you mention has been correctly sent.
- Explain how to reply
- Many newcomers don't understand how to use talk pages. Therefore, you can include something like: 'To reply to my message, click "edit source", then write your message below mine. Then publish the page.' They don't need to understand indentation or signatures yet. You can teach them that in your next reply, maybe by using a template.
- If possible, follow up on the request by checking back later: the newcomer may ask about something else or need further clarification. Newcomers may reply in an unexpected way: they may not understand how to respond, how to add their signature, or how to ping a user.
- When you explain something, ask the newcomer if your answer has helped them. The newcomer will feel more welcomed, and you will get some information to improve your experience. If the conversation ends, remind to the newcomer that you're still available if needed.
- Write your reply
- Say hello!
- If possible, respond in a reasonable time. Newcomers may not log in often or may not have email notifications enabled. They may not be accustomed to a community like Wikimedia, where discussions can sometimes involve users from many time zones. Check back in the forum occasionally for any questions that have gone unanswered for 24 hours.
- Pay attention to how you reply; check your spelling.
Explain, or do the change myself?
One of the goals is to help newcomers who struggle with the interface or markup. It may sometimes be easier to make very complicated edits yourself instead of explaining how to do so. That's the case for multi-step processes and complex wiki-syntax. Be honest and tell the newcomer that it is a complicated edit "even for an experienced user". But explain the steps you've been through so they can learn and reproduce them afterward.
Make your choice based on your own experience and your discussions with other helpers. But it is often more rewarding for a newcomer to understand what to do and apply it themselves, rather than having it done for them. Teaching is less efficient in the short term but increases editor-retention in the long term.
Rely on other community members
Operating a dedicated help forum is a collective project. It depends on a wide range of helpers. All have individual strengths and weaknesses, as well as a finite amount of available time and energy.
Coordinate with other helpers to share your experience and best practices. Be open to advise from other helpers when they offer it.
Take care of the other people who reply to you. Thank and guide people who try to help. Thank people who help a lot.
Don't forget to keep the community informed of your efforts; it will help to recruit new helpers.
Here are some hypothetical examples based on common replies found on several Wikipedias.
How can I add an image I have on my computer to an article?
- Check on the help page where you will be guided.
- Hello! Anyone can reuse Wikipedia. Wikipedia respects copyright laws, so it can't accept every image on Wikipedia. It depends on the topic, and also on who has created that image. Which article do you want to illustrate? Are you the author of the image you want to use? If not, does someone else have the copyright to that image?
My article has been deleted and that's scandalous!
- That's your fault: you should have read the help pages first. Now you know that you can't do everything you want on Wikipedia, especially trying to promote the topic you've chosen.
- Hello and sorry for the bad experience you had. Based on the information available, it seems that your article didn't include any sources. Wikipedia articles are based on published sources so that readers can verify the information. That's the most important issue with your article. I've searched for published sources about your topic, but I haven't found any. Do you have sources than can be used? If there are no such sources available, then it may be too soon for Wikipedia to have an article on this subject.