Alex Hudson

Thoughts on Technology, Product, & Strategy

Month: May 2011

Developing a “Fedora Welcome SIG”

This is a follow-up post to my previous one.

I was really pleased with the feedback on my idea for Fedora Greeters, from both established Fedora community members and not. Equally, I got feedback offline as well – and I should make it clear right now that I’m more than happy to receive such communication; the amount of trepidation shown by some I think just highlights some of the problems.

One thing which is really interesting is that much of the feedback wasn’t of the form, “Yeah, I agree, [this thing] sucks and really needs to be improved”. People decided to give me, instead, their own story – you can see a couple of them in the comments of my blog. Of course, these are just anecdotes and must be treated carefully, but I thought it was extremely interesting that people approached the issue in a manner more like, “Well, this was my experience..”

This has convinced me that a SIG in this area is, at the very least, worth of some investigation and work. So, I’ve started a wiki page properly for this, and set up an IRC channel at #fedora-welcome. I need to migrate the previous stuff I wrote, but I’ll get on that today. What I would love is for those who expressed interest in this work to contribute their ideas and experiences.

I think what’s particularly important is to work on actual problems first: what are the things which new users find tough? Seasoned members of the Fedora community, which I kind of count myself in, are probably those that would find this the most difficult to comprehend, simply because we’re furthest away from the experience of the problem.

Some of these problems are undoubtedly technical: I’ve seen a number of people totally fail to setup dual-boot systems (either with Windows or just another distro) a number of times, and it’s one of those things that is actually tough for a new user to fix once it has gone wrong. Sadly, though, it’s going to be really tough to talk about some of these things with any kind of data, though: at least initially, I suspect the SIG is going to have to work anecdotally because we really don’t have the information about what goes wrong for people (either technically, socially, or otherwise).

Part of me also wonders if part of being a welcoming community is having the ability and the resources to say goodbye to people: or, at least, see you soon. What data the community has right now – via smolt, package updates, that kind of thing – is about how people use Fedora right now. We have very little information about why people don’t use Fedora after trying it – what made them leave? What went wrong? This information is all key to a Welcome SIG, though, because really there are two classes of users we need to address:

  1. those who came into the community, struggled, but stayed with it;
  2. those who came into the community, struggled, and left.

I actually think those distinctions are as important, if not more important, than whether or not someone was a power-user on another O/S or a complete IT newcomer. While the Welcome SIG absolutely needs to address the needs of those in category 1), I think for it to be truly successful we have to address the group in category 2) – either bringing them back, or helping prevent them leaving in the first place.

One last thought. A couple of people asked about whether we were trying to help people who might be users, or those who might also contribute. But one commenter on my previous post, Dave S, said: “Any tool that eases the trip through the learning curve nightmare helps transform a newb into an evangelist”. I think that actually spells out the motivation in one simple, powerful statement: this SIG isn’t about getting people into Fedora and making it easier for them to use. It’s about turning that first impression into a positive experience, and have the people who come into contact with Fedora take away nothing but enthusiasm and good vibes. Even if Fedora isn’t for them, let’s make them feel positive enough that they can still recommend it to friends. And I think that’s quite a high bar to set.


Fedora Greeters

I’ve been watching the Ubuntu “power users” group set up with enormous interest. Although Ubuntu has aimed squarely at being easy to use, I’ve never seen it as being particularly unfriendly toward power users, and the idea of needing a specific area in which people can talk about power user issues seems somewhat odd. However – judging from the activity, it seems to have hit a real nerve. Whether or not it is a good idea in the long term remains to be seen: I’m firmly of the opinion that splitting communities into factions is a bad idea, so how they will overcome that in time will be a challenge, but clearly it’s meeting a real need.

Fedora, on the other hand, hasn’t really ever had much of an issue catering to “power users”. While the standard Fedora install is incredibly easy to use, for the most part people using it have a reasonable idea of what they’re doing. But it got me to thinking, is there a gap in the Fedora community, in the same way as there apparently was one in the Ubuntu?

Let me ask a simple question. If you are a new user to Fedora, are the resources helpful and is the community a welcoming place? (by “new user”, I refer only to experience of Fedora, not computing experience more generally). Allow me to chuck out a few selectively-chosen “facts” (yes, this is biased, etc.):

  • the Fedora FAQ, while being high-quality, doesn’t have many metrics on frequency. It’s the number one resource listed on the “Get Help”page, and is undoubtedly a useful resource, but covers a range of different use cases and user types. I don’t think one of the frequent questions a new user “getting help” would have would be “When is the next release?”, which apparently makes the top 5.
  • the link to the Docs project is also a link to high-quality information. But you get a lot of information all in one go, and the navigation isn’t amazing – for Fedora 14, the “Power Management guide” and “Musicians guide” have equal billing with the install and user guides.
  • the links to online resources are numerous. Hit the Forums button, you’re given a choice of three different fora to start with, none of them “official”, and one labelled “Fedora” is really tough to navigate (and I say this as a supporter of online forums). We’re also offered IRC, which starts with a warning that you might be banned if your identd isn’t setup right (wtf) and you can’t get in until you learn IRC and register, and then a list of some probably 50 different IRC rooms. Most would pick the first on the list, #fedora – my experience there yesterday was one of name-calling and abuse as much as help. And then you have mailing lists. Again registration, again the Heinz 57 varieties.
  • No knowledge base, troubleshooter or other self-help mechanism people might be used to.

I offer the above not as criticism of the various resources: everything can be improved. But, as they say, you only get to make your first impression once. Many of the resources are truly excellent, but excel mostly for existing/experienced users. So, I would make the claim that for someone who is new to Fedora, the situation isn’t great – in fact, I suspect for many, it is entirely off-putting and unreliable.

I think Fedora, as a community, needs to do something in this regard, and currently I don’t see anything. We have some great SIGs – marketing and ambassadors in particular – who do wonderful work promoting and explaining Fedora to the wider world. But there is no group currently working toward a cohesive, designed experience for new users coming to Fedora.

I’d like to suggest, then, that a Fedora Greeters SIG be set up. Please take this blog post as a request for comments: I’d like to know whether or not other people think this is needed, and if so, whether or not they’d be willing to help contribute – as part of their role in an existing SIG or specifically for this.

The over-arching goal would be to make Fedora a more welcoming community for those arriving, whether from Windows, other distros, or new to IT in general, but more specifically to present the wider Fedora project and community in a manageable and more easily understood fashion. Specific goals, though, could include:

  • developing “conversion” guides for people knowledgeable about other systems, allowing them to transfer their knowledge into Fedora and understand our system. Other systems have their own jargon, and Fedora certainly has plenty of its own too – sometimes just knowing what the words mean is a barrier in itself.
  • creating new support resources, or working with existing SIGs on their resources, to specifically address the needs of new users and their support requirements.
  • providing more interactive “signpost help” – Fedora has many great resources that simply go unused because people don’t know they’re there.

The great thing about this is that honestly, there’s not an awful lot to do in many areas: a lot of the resources needed are already there! But there’s no co-ordination in many respects. I also think this is going to become increasingly important over the next few months and years: Fedora now has a track record of some extremely stable releases, and with other notable distributions deciding to develop a vision of the desktop which is on a trajectory away from the GNOME community the need for Fedora to be open and welcoming is more important now than ever.

Update: I’ve started a wiki page about this, to develop the ideas more fully in a more appropriate place than my blog 🙂