Linux users' expectations of online help
During the course of a discussion (in September 2003) on Linux-based help authoring tools (summarised at http://www.jeanweber.com/howto/linux-help.htm), someone said:
"To expect to get a help application comparable to the output of Windows HATs is unrealistic at this point, mainly because Linux caters to a different audience than Windows does. Most Linux users are perfectly happy reading man pages or looking at Web-based help manuals, so the open source movement has not felt the need to created Window-like HATs."
This got me thinking about several things. First and most important, although the audience for open source apps has traditionally been Linux users, and Linux users are traditionally more "geeky" than Windows users, I think this is changing rapidly. Some open source apps (such as OpenOffice.org) are targeting Windows users (and those who purchase Windows-based apps), encouraging them to change to open source and Linux. Some big organisations are already making the change.
To me this means that thousands of former Windows users will be bringing their expectations to Linux-based apps. I would assume that at least some of the open-source developers (and those who are developing commercial apps for Linux) will eventually recognise, if they haven't already, that they need to provide task-oriented online help as well as the function- oriented help I often see -- and that they need to provide good indexes, tutorials, and other features that Windows users are more accustomed to.
Eric Ray responded,
"True...and Linux is far less geeky than it used to be. Many Linux distributions (and customized distributions, like one from Sun) are quite user friendly, and really not for the geek community at all...
"I think that there hasn't been a compelling need for a HAT, but I see that changing rapidly. We need to separate the issues of a useful online help system and a useful online help authoring tool, though. A couple of the former exist (JavaHelp & Yelp, for example), and one of the latter (Helen)."
Sean Wheller added,
"This may be a generalization, but I have found that Help in Linux assumes a greater degree of computing knowledge from users. This means that much is assumed. To those less advanced users, the Linux help can be confusing and frustrating.
"I think that most Linux users are more knowledgeable about the technical side of computing and therefore have a reduced information requirement.
"This presents a very real problem to Linux. If Windows users are to migrate to Linux, they will need to feel comfortable. While I feel great about Linux, most of the users I know are totally lost when they first encounter Linux. Even if it has a desktop.
"... when talking Help on Linux, I would say that if the users are... Windows users, then the current help will fail dismally.
"Will Windows users move to Linux? They are and will continue to do so. Why? I have no idea.
"The question is 'Do most stay with Linux?' If they do, then the help system needs improvement. If they don't, then it still needs improvement so that more Windows migrants will settle on Linux. I just wish more technical authors would contribute to Linux projects."
I am working from the assumption that the majority of people making the switch from Windows to Linux are doing so because their employer decided to change. These employers include some big government organisations as well as businesses of all sizes. Most of those users will be using Linux and its applications as tool to enable them to do their jobs, and their jobs will not involve technical matters regarding the operating system or applications.
I am also assuming that in addition to the open source projects, there will be an increasing number of in-house and commercial applications, both small and large, being developed for Linux, to cater for this growing commercial use.
There was a lot more to this discussion that I've summarised here. If you want to read the whole thread, go to http://www.raycomm.com/techwhirl/ and search the archives for the subject line "Linux users' expectations of online help".