The Ubuntu architect: why it's important to attract all users

How to get non-technical users to contribute

The Ubuntu architect

Allison Randal is such a brilliant speaker that she could keep us interested in anything, for hours.

Fortunately, when our sister title Linux Format met her she was talking about the best ways to engage the next wave of Ubuntu users to join in and become good citizens.

As technical architect of Ubuntu, it's her job to, as she puts it: "champion the community's vision for Ubuntu; to facilitate conversations as we integrate multiple perspectives and balance multiple needs; to ask good questions that help us find better solutions."

Who better to ask about Unity, the HUD and wanting to punch people?

Linux Format: Let's start with the work you're doing with Ubuntu. It's had really good forums for ages, and the Ubuntu community is one of the best things about it. How important is that in attracting non-techies?

Allison Randal: Ubuntu has focused on non-technical consumer users from the very beginning. So you may not be a developer, but you get recognition for your contributions to the project - Ubuntu membership recognises helping out at a booth, or answering questions at a forum.

Even though I'd say that, as that non-technical userbase gets bigger - there are 29 million users to 200 developers and 700 members - you can definitely feel the tension. For example, right now I'd say the bug queues are totally flooded with bugs that you can't really act on. It's not really a bug report that you can say "OK great, let's dive in, we'll fix this". It's a strain on the project that there are so many users who really don't get it.

So we've been doing a lot of thinking about how to help non-technical users. And I don't necessarily have the immediate answer; it's not a magic solution, it's just something that we're facing, and I know a lot of other projects are going to be dealing with soon.

LXF: I guess they don't have that kind of problem with Fedora or Gentoo. Every user's a developer, right?

AR: Not much with Debian either. Red Hat probably more so, but they're dealing with a lot of business users. That is one answer to the problem: that non-technical users get support, and then you have big support channels for them; business users do that quite a bit.

But I think that there's a big section of non-technical users who aren't going to pay for a support contract. They still have those very low-level questions that they need answered.

LXF: Do you think there's anything you could take from the Red Hat model of paid support? Because it's in their interests to make it easy for customers to contribute.

AR: Canonical does paid support as well, for business users. We'll give you a support contract for your entire company, or just the occasional one-off support contact.

So that's part of the answer: helping non-technical users see that the software is free, and there are people willing to help you, but we may not have the resources for volunteers to give you what you need.

LXF: You mentioned non-actionable bug queues. What kind of bug reports do you get from nontechnical users?

AR: We get a lot of them, unfortunately, and it's often things like: "Thunderbird crashed: fix it," or "I can't find my application anymore now that you rearranged the menus". It's kind of on that level.

The forums tend to get the more productive questions, you know, like "how do I make a presentation?" or "how do I connect my camera?" whereas bug reports are often not helpful. And, unfortunately, you have to keep going back to a standard answer, such as: "thank you for your bug. Could you give us a little more detail about when this happened, or what you were doing at the time?"