What Windows Users Don't Know

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Aug 09, 2016 GMT
Bruce Byfield

When I wrote manuals and on-line help, I prided myself on being able to get inside user's heads. So when my cousin recently asked if I could help her friend install Ubuntu, I was surprised at how little I anticipated about a Windows user's basic knowledge.

I replied to my cousin's friend with instructions to download a Ubuntu image and burn it to CD, turn off any secure boot features, and set the machine to boot from the DVD drive. Once the installation program started, I added, it should be mostly self-explanatory, but https://help.ubuntu.com/community/Installation would provide help.

The next day, the reply came: "I don't have the technical acumen to do that. I have that link, and while I appreciate you pointing it out to me, the instructions providing are beyond my ability to follow."

Despite my best efforts, I had completely failed to write to the level of an apparently average Windows users.

Part of the problem may have been the technical cringe that afflicts most Windows users, paralyzing them when called on to do anything for themselves, as if pressing the wrong key might cause their computer to explode. By contrast, as a more or less typical Linux user, my first impulse is to research a problem and start experimenting. For all my attempts to empathize, I had assumed that someone interested in installing Ubuntu would have a similar attitude to mine.

However, the more I thought, the more I realized that the problem ran deeper than any technical cringe. In fact, the technical cringe was probably my condescending explanation for something far simpler: a comprehensive lack of knowledge. I might do seventy or eighty installations a year, whether to a hard drive or a virtual machine, but the person I was trying to help was unlikely to have done any in their lives. Most likely, they had bought their computer with Windows pre-installed, and the closest they had ever come to an installation was starting an update that required no more than a single click to start.

The Installation Ordeal

To say the least, this lack of knowledge is going to cause problems. Imagine, for example, that you are an average Windows user downloading and burning a CD image -- something that is as routine to you or me as moving a file from one directory to another. If you go to http://www.ubuntu.com, you can soon find the download tab, but, once you are there, what do you choose? Ubuntu Kylin? Alternative downloads? Ubuntu flavours? If you are a would-be user, half the menu items are meaningless to you. Eventually, you might reason that you need to select the Overview, but while that gives you some basic definitions, you may still need a moment to figure that you need to click Ubuntu Desktop. Then you are taken to another screen, with a listing of system requirements that you probably know nothing about. At this point, you haven't even started the download, and already you are probably feeling lost.

Having downloaded the image, you then have to figure out what to do with it. Do you simply copy it to a DVD, the way you would a bunch of files you wanted to backup? (that is assuming you ever backup, of course). You may never have looked at the bootloader, so you may have no idea how to disable secure boot or to change the boot order. For that matter, you may never have heard of an installer or a Live image, so you are unsure of why you have to do these things.

Assuming that you persist, your uncertainty continues. You might understand why you want updates to be added as you go, but why should you worry about installing third party software or not? What is encryption and LVM, and why do you want them? Perhaps, too, the installation kit is the first time you realize that you will lose all your Windows files unless you have backed them up. Nor do you have the least idea what partitions are, or how to set them up manually if you venture into that selection.

And so it continues. If you do manage to complete an installation, the chances are you only do so by accepting defaults and hoping for the best. It certainly isn't from any definite knowledge. The installer has no help, and a list of resources for learning more only appears at the end of the installation -- and, even then, you might miss the fact that the list has links.

If Windows discourages users from do-it-yourself, then Linux discourages them by assuming a high level of expertise and asking for choices about matters that many users have not even realized were a matter of choice. Linux makes new users feel stupid, and no one wants to feel like that.

Audience Expectations
Here, I have focused on the default Ubuntu installer. Yet it is not the only one that causes problems. In fact, it is widely considered one of the simplest. An almost identical critique could be made of the Fedora installer, and other installers are even worse for the newcomer.

As for the Debian Installer, aka the Ubuntu advanced installer, with all its options, it would be ten time times worse. How, for example, can Windows users be expected to choose from half a dozen desktop when they are unaware that having alternatives is even possible?

All of them are a problem because of the inability of Linux developers and users to get into the heads of Windows users.

Linux installers have come a long way in the last fifteen years. Yet, despite their improvements, all of them repeatedly fail to take the newcomer part of their audience into account. They assume a knowledge and a willingness to tinker that refugees from Windows, through no fault greater than their choice of operating systems, generally lack.

Consequently, when Windows users do try Linux, they rarely receive the education they need to succeed. Most of them, I imagine, retreat back to Windows, where, despite the invasions of privacy and all the other problems, the situation is at least familiar.

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