[nSLUG] The 'desktop user' and system maintenance

Ben Armstrong synrg at sanctuary.nslug.ns.ca
Wed Apr 21 13:44:55 ADT 2004


On Wed, Apr 21, 2004 at 12:14:12PM -0300, Donald Teed wrote:
> I would argue that this user's problem was not one of Windows
> itself, but of a crappy application.

Please note that I didn't rail against Windows in particular, but merely
reminded that the typical desktop user experience involves some wrestling
with their system, regardless of the exact problem.  In my opinion, Debian
is doing a pretty good job at crafting a user-friendly system from the
ground up, and certainly doesn't deserve to be branded "not for desktop
users".  Debian may require that you at least take a bit of interest in
doing things differently than what you're used to, and be willing to ask the
community for help when you get stuck, but I don't believe it requires you
to be overly concerned with sys admin tasks -- no worse than any other Free
OS, anyway.

> I'm not saying they shouldn't have to run an update utility,
> but that it should be something that requires little technical
> knowledge to use and will not destroy the system settings.

Nobody takes greater pains at not destroying system settings than Debian. 
An aside from the "there are too many packages" complaint of aptitude, I
find it fairly reasonable to deal with[0].  I think Debian passes on both
these criteria.

I want to avoid getting into an application by application review of
Debian (or any other distro, Debian derivative or otherwise) usability. 
Everywhere you will find users who can tell you horror stories about
wrecking their system, whether they run Linux, *BSD, Windows, MacOS,
whatever.  To be sure, some of these do better in some areas and some in 
others, but all have their "typical desktop users" among them.

But I stick faithfully by Debian out of all of these choices for one big
reason: community.  This is both the biggest strength for Debian and also
its biggest weakness.  The Debian developer and user communities are now so
huge that a desktop user has an overabundance of help.  The challenge is to
weed out the unhelpful advice to get to the genuine help.  As a technophile,
I have a head start over the "typical desktop user", but it should be
possible for some subset of non-technophile desktop users to use Debian
quite happily.  I have anecdotal evidence that supports that, as I quite
successfully, and without much effort, help provide support for several
Debian users with varying degrees of technical background.

The big problem with getting the right kind of help to people is first off,
on a big, open support site such as at Debian Planet, anyone can answer. 
And "anyone" is often a geek, steeped in the technology and probably
therefore a bit ignorant of the needs of the "typical desktop user". Second,
users often don't announce (in so many words) "I am a typical desktop user,
please confine your answers to desktop-centric solutions, and if you can't
provide an answer, just say so, instead of throwing something at me that is
likely beyond my ability to absorb".  So there is a communication problem on
both sides.  Users don't know how to phrase questions in a way that will get
helpful answers, and support people are throwing too many off-the-cuff
answers back at users without first figuring out what they really need.

Thus the issue for the Debian desktop user that doesn't want to be
overwhelmed with "sys admin stuff" is not primarily technical, but rather
social.  Such users need to be adept at filtering through all of the "junk
help" available for Debian and get to the good stuff.  They need to hook up
with people who understand where they are coming from, and have a talk with
them about their problems.

So what I'm doing to help solve this problem with Debian Jr. is constraining
the parameters a bit: I look at children and their needs.  I don't assume
they are steeped in technology (although I do assume, for the time being, a
technically adept admin helping, though that will change over time,) and I
try to see things from their point of view and figure out what pleases them
and works for them.  I am encouraged to see that my approach[1] has now been
copied several times (debian-edu, debian-desktop, debian-med, debian-lex,
etc.) and is now coalescing into a formal entity called the Custom Debian
Distribution[2].  By zeroing in on a specific problem set, each of our
projects can now clearly speak to the needs of a particular bunch of users.

In summary, I want to help shape a social and technical model for Free OS
development that treats groups of users with similar needs as a whole,
crafting solutions that draw from the bewilderingly huge array of available
Free software and talented people into custom distributions[3] tailored to
meet their needs.  Since regardless of the population of users each of our
projects address, many of the core issues are similar, we are discussing
them in a common forum and are working on a common infrastructure to be
shared among all CDDs.  In spite of the age of Debian Jr., and thus of the
ideas that ultimately grew into the CDD concept, it is only in the past
month that things have really taken off.  Things started moving from a
private email discussion between CDD project leaders, gathered momentum as
we finally got our own mailing list, debian-custom at lists.debian.org[4], and
started to really take off as we started collaborating on the infrastructure
on our project site[5].  So don't be looking for huge improvements yet in
sarge, but certainly by sarge + 1, I hope we will have made a measurable
impact on how both development and user support are carried out in Debian.

Ben

[0] IANADU, so YMMV (I am not a desktop user, so your mileage may vary :)

[1] Not that I claim to have originated the idea.  Other people were
thinking along the same lines when I founded Debian Jr.  I just modelled my
Debian Jr. project that way first, and participated with others in early
discussions of that idea.

[2] http://wiki.debian.net/?CustomDebian

[3] Please read the definitions of these terms in the wiki cited above.
I do not mean a Debian-based distribution, but rather Debian itself
configured in a fashion that works well for an intended kind of use.

[4] http://lists.debian.org/debian-custom

[5] http://cdd.alioth.debian.org/

--
 ,-.  nSLUG    http://www.nslug.ns.ca   synrg at sanctuary.nslug.ns.ca
 \`'  Debian   http://www.debian.org    synrg at debian.org
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