Wednesday, 2 May 2007

Newbies aren't mind readers

Internet message boards are ripe with people who are willing to help with technical problems but don't explain ideas fully. This is especially true of Linux helpers. Linux jocks are really proud of using Linux, and are really smart. They are very encouraging of new users "discovering" Linux. Unfortunately, many of these types are horrible at explaining to users how to fix their problem, despite all good intentions.

So what you see is speedy willingness to answer a question, and then an intimidating response that only frustrates the user further.

"Oh great, someone answered me! But I still don't have any idea how to fix my problem. And now everyone thinks my problem is solved, therefore I'll get ignored."

(I added the last post three years after the fact because I had the same problem and figured it out... and would like others to use this knowledge if needed. This post came up #1 on Google when I searched for the problem.)

What smart people fail to realize is newbies aren't mind readers. In Linux, many users are coming from Windows systems where the very concepts of how to solve a problem are different.
  • I have to use a command line? What is a console?
  • It looks like I click and download stuff, why isn't it there already? What do you mean, add a repository? How?
  • What do you mean, I have to compile it? Can't I just install it? What do you mean, I have to get the right one? It says it's for Linux!
When helping a newbie, you have to tell them
1) where to type any commands or look for options
2) exactly what to type, if it's command line

To newbies, it's not so obvious where to look. Did you even tell them what program you are talking about? Or if it's in their computer/system menu? They likely don't know every UNIX command out there.

Be direct and concise. You don't have to hold their hand for them, but don't take "the obvious" for granted. If you don't want to write too much, do a little legwork and find a couple URLs where the problem is already concisely spelled out.

This actually isn't so much a "newbie" problem as a "new to Linux or a piece of its software" problem.

Furthermore, if you really want to encourage newbies, you need to check back to a message you responded to to make sure you didn't confuse them any further.

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