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How to Help New Linux Users

If It's Not Obvious to Them, It's Not Obvious

  • November 20, 2008
  • By Michael Hall

This wonderful LinuxPlanet Classic was originally published July 26, 2001, and it is just as timely today--ed.

And that brings me to something I unearthed once again while thinking a bit on the Sun GNOME study, and also considering last week's editor's note (The Support Call HOWNOTTO) For a few years now I've subscribed to the Red Rock Eater News Service, a one-way mailing list run by Phil Agre, an associate professor of information studies at UCLA. Mr. Agre's list is a can't-miss for me, and many useful things have come from it.

For instance, for a while I worked as a database administrator at a high school. It wasn't fun work, and it had the distinct disadvantage of being a fairly stable environment. After a while, there's only so much you can bear of walking around muttering and looking inscrutable (even if that schtick does spell job security.) Having too much time on my hands, I agreed to take over some support work from the techs who handled the end users (over 125 teachers, staff, and administrators) and promptly found my temper and emotional reserves pushed to their limit. End users are a frustrating crowd, bringing an insane mix of enough-rope-to-dangle-experience and simple foolishness to their computing behavior. The document I'm including below (with Mr. Agre's kind permission) offered me some insights to grab hold of and use. I printed a couple of them out in 72 point type and taped them to my wall.

I include them here for two reasons:

One, they serve to underscore something the Sun study pointed out: end users have their own agenda and perception when it comes to the computer in front of them. Though it's a simple enough statement, "If it's not obvious to them, it's not obvious" seems to elude those of us who think everything about a computer is obvious, right down to "globe icon with drill next to it means 'connect to my ISP'".

Two, support is something the entire Linux user community provides its newer members. It's not uncommon of late to hear more and more complaints about a general sense of crossness creeping into the interactions of the initiated with new users. Now that the "pioneer" stage is over and just anybody can ride the train into town courtesy of near-universal ease of installation and more "install-n-use" books than the publishing market could bear (honest... talk to a few acquisitions editors), it's easy to be irritated with greenhorns who get hung up on the "simplest" things. Yes... menu configured PPP connections are a snap compared to writing your own chat scripts after debugging your non-auto-detected-modem with minicom, but sometimes even those menus aren't the simplest things to figure out for reasons beyond even a deficiency of the menu design itself.

Mr. Agre's wisdom in this area speaks for itself:

 

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