Providing Good Ubuntu Support
Very few Ubuntu users, at least outside of the enterprise, pay for support. Instead, they turn to various free resources, ranging from IRC channels to the documentation wiki to the official Ubuntu Forums, when they run into trouble. While free support in the Ubuntu world is often quite good, it could be improved if those providing it paid more attention to a few key guidelines.
I’ve spent many hours doing my best to support people new to Ubuntu (because it’s a great way to procrastinate on real work), especially in the forums. A lot of users give positive feedback on the clarity, courtesy and competence available in Ubuntu’s community-based support channels, where no one is paid and problems are solved by volunteers. But I also see a lot of forum threads or wiki pages that are, in my view, confusing and inadequate. With those in mind, here are some brief thoughts on how to provide better support, based on my own humble experiences:
- Reduce as much as possible to bash commands. While new Ubuntu users may not feel comfortable working in the terminal on their own, most are perfectly willing to copy-and-paste commands, and giving them specific lines to type in is usually more efficient and easier than providing vague instructions that involve a GUI. Instead of saying, “Install the Adobe flash plugin from Synaptic,” for example, write, “Type this command to install flash: sudo apt-get install flashplugin-nonfree.”
- Don’t say “become root.” It may be perfectly obvious to you what “become root” means, but most new Ubuntu users have no idea, and people who have used other Linux distributions may not understand the differences between Ubuntu’s sudo and the su command common in other Linux flavors. Instead of telling users to do things like “log in as root,” give them the specific command that they need to type.
- Use clear, concise English. Good grammar and punctuation can go a long way in making instructions easier to follow, especially for non-native speakers of English who aren’t used to colloquial language. This doesn’t mean you have to have a Ph.D. to post on the forums, but at least make an effort to do your best; the fact that it’s a community-supported site isn’t a license to forget to capitalize or ignore Firefox’s built-in spellchecker.
- Instead of simply linking to another thread or website in order to tell a user how to solve a problem, explain specifically where he or she should look on the page. Or, better, translate the third-party instructions into bash commands and give them to the user yourself, if possible.
- Do as much work as possible for the user, within reason. When helping someone get ndiswrapper working, for example, don’t give vague instructions like “find the Windows driver for your card and load the .inf into ndiswrapper.” Instead, figure out what the PCI ID of the user’s card is and look up the appropriate Windows driver yourself, then provide a link and specific instructions for extracting the .inf and installing it into ndiswrapper. This involves a few extra minutes of work for you, but could save an Ubunu neophyte from hours of mucking around Google looking for something that she only vaguely understands.
- If you’re out of ideas for solving a particular problem, admit it. Don’t abandon the thread without an explanation, and don’t tell users to do things that you know won’t work just to keep them busy. When you can’t help any more, politely inform the user, recommend other resources if possible, and leave the thread.
Every support situation is unique, and it’s obviously not always possible to adhere to these guidelines. Moreover, these represent merely my personal conception of providing good support; I have no doubt that others have very different ideas.
But the fact that most Ubuntu support is given for free doesn’t mean that those seeking it don’t deserve professional service. You don’t call Microsoft with a problem only to be given a link to vague, poorly written instructions that assume a high level of technical skill on the part of the user (on the other hand, you have to go through the hassle of proving that you didn’t steal your copy of Windows before Microsoft will help you, but that’s another issue). Ubuntu should be no different.