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March 15th, 2016

Linux Forums Through the Eyes of a New User

The Heart of Linux

Ken Starks throws down the gauntlet and puts a hundred bucks on the line in an attempt to see if civility can be brought to the forums and a particular change made to LibreOffice.

It was last Wednesday that I dropped into one of the forums where I lurk on occasion and even on fewer occasions might post. One of our newer Reglue kids had emailed me with a question about something I’ve been teaching our kids for a while now, but even though I had explained this to her just a month ago, I had to ‘splain it to her again.

"Save Document" LibreOffice Linux

I had to remind her how to change the format in Writer before she sent her document off to a Windows user.

Go ahead and roll your eyes, you who are all-knowing. It’s an easy thing for us, but I want those of you who care to see things through the eyes of a new Linux user.

In the dropdown menu in the save dialog, new users are glossing over the button that says “format.” A lot of new users are just not seeing it. They have no cue telling them that the word “format” is a mouse trigger for a drop down menu. Would it be so hard to place “click here to choose your document format”?

I have no idea who would actually be able to make that change. I’ve mentioned this on a few occasions in various forums over the years. I even talked about it when I keynoted at Texas Linux Fest in 2011, but apparently I either placed it in the wrong forum, didn’t talk to the right people, or the people I did talk to mentally told me to go PUAR. All three have equal chances of being right.

I’ve all but given up on starting forum discussions outside of Google+ and the occasional Faceplant post. The fact of the matter is, I do not encourage Reglue kids to post in many of the forums. Some of you may remember that in 2007 I almost went to jail for calling someone out on a forum and maybe crossing the the line between civil discourse and threatening to drag him out to the street and whip his…uh, backside. The jerk had brought a 14-year-old girl to tears, calling her an inbred moron and suggesting she ought to wander up to her daddy’s still and have a slash with her brother.

Having thought about that incident often, it’s made me wonder if this sort of behavior isn’t the reason we’ve fairly well devolved into tribes within the Linuxsphere. To be honest, I don’t really know the conditions and the temperament in many of the forums to which I used to belong. Given some of the comments I see elsewhere, I am guessing it hasn’t gotten much better. So with that in mind, I am careful about sending younger kids into forums.

Some of you have suggested that maybe Reglue could set up a forum just for Reglue kids. On the face of it, that would be an excellent idea, if we could find someone to reliably administer it and people to contribute time on a daily basis to help answer questions. When we tried launching a forum in 2012, lots of folks offered to help, but after 70-some questions were posted with absolutely no one else but myself manning the forum, I closed it down and won’t consider it again. That experiment failed spectacularly. Moving on…

I’m not saying that jerks in forums are responsible for the lack of Linux uptake in the world of Everyday Computer Users, but should you be one of the aforementioned jerks, your asshattery is certainly responsible for running new users off. I often tell people that most folks will only switch operating systems when their pain threshold has reached the redline. On the other side of that, I am guessing new users hit that redline immediately when forum responses are as brutal as telling a young lady to go get drunk and do incestuous things. And yeah, I understand that’s an extreme and not the norm.

Maybe the forums are not as bad as they were five to seven years ago. Whaddaya say we test that out? Let’s see just how much people pay attention when a good idea is presented and what it takes to get that idea implemented.

There is now a $100 bounty for the person who can get the save dialog in LibreOffice to clarify the format options in the dropdown menu. So gird your loins for whatever flak you might take. Let’s see the responses for implementing this idea.

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Ken Starks writes and publishes The Blog of Helios, a finalist in our Best FOSS or Linux Blog competition. In addition, he's the person behind the Reglue project, which refurbishes older computers and gives them to disadvantaged school kids in the Austin, Texas area. Follow him on Twitter @Reglue

11 comments to Linux Forums Through the Eyes of a New User

  • Uncle Ed

    Thinking about that one change, I think of the people who worked–very hard, I’m sure–to make The GIMP look like PS. Those of us who have been around [a long time] have a place to start translating from the words we see in the menus of about anything to the concepts we’re looking for. Having spent a lot of years in front of a classroom full of computers, I’ll say this isn’t an easy group of things to teach.

    What might be desirable is a training wheels overlay for some of the important software. I’d bet we’d find that a lot of us would see something we’ve never realized was there and wonder how we missed it all the years we’ve been using it.

  • Duncan

    Forums work best if users are doing most of the replies, even if there are others around too. In your forums experiment, did you suggest that some of your reglue kids who had been at it a year or so might be interested in, and able to, help newer users who had some of the same questions and struggles they might have had, at first?

    If so and none of them took an interest, that’s a crying shame. =:^( Teaching is one of the best ways to learn something, as you’ll be asked questions you never thought of yourself, and it really is a shame that none of the kids could be persuaded to try helping, as once you get your first thanks, it’s easy to get addicted to them! =:^)

    If not, then I’d say you really never tried forums, because they simply don’t have the same dynamic if they’re not user to user, and getting non-users to do it, or /stay/ doing it once they’ve started, is /hard/, because it’s a chore not the joy of self discovery it can be when it’s user to user. Yes, you might need a moderator, but ideally that moderator needs only a light touch now and again to nudge things in the right direction, and answers can mostly be left to other users.

    As for the format button, while I don’t use LibreOffice myself (a plain text editor works fine for pretty much everything, and I really don’t see a need for more), the photo that I saw on an earlier “related” story reminded me of my time on MS…

    What I think might not be clear is that the format button serves both as a format/filetype/extension filter for the dialog’s directory view, and as a format/filetype/extension selector for the file to be saved. It seems intuitive to me that it’s a view filter, and I remember it working that way on all sorts of MS platform programs back in the day, but it’s much less clear that it’s a format selector for the saver, as well, and indeed, to my memory much less common that it actually worked that way in addition to its filtering functionality.

    It seems to me that if I were a new user faced with that dialog, I’d see the format button with its “all formats” label and immediately see it as a filter to limit the existing files shown. Since I’d presumably be concentrating on saving the file to a new name, not looking at existing names, I’d likely immediately reject it as inappropriate to the task at hand, very possibly at such an unconscious level that I couldn’t even be sure it was there afterward, as it wasn’t what I was looking for.

    If that’s the case, then yes they see it, subconsciously anyway, and are aware it’s a button, but immediately reject it as noise and filter it out /themselves/. After that, they’re no longer consciously aware of it, just as people quickly become not consciously aware of all sorts of things that are “noise” in the context of their task at hand, to the point that it may be difficult to actually get them to see it again, over the phone or the like where you can’t simply point at it.

    If that’s the case, then a further label may be appropriate, but the one you had added in that picture didn’t match and wasn’t a good presentation, and if you’re arguing that people can’t see the button, it’s likely that the people who could put the label there too, reject the argument because the label will be even less contrast and harder to see than the button. But perhaps that’s the wrong argument — they see it, but quickly filter it out as inappropriate to their task at hand and thus noise. And in that case, a label, or icon, or some other UI hint if it can be imagined to be more appropriate, that hinted at the dual functionality of the button as /both/ a view filter /and/ a save-format selector, would /not/ be as likely to be “unseen”, because it would then be appropriate to the task at hand and thus /not/ filtered out as “noise”.

    If any of that makes sense. It does to me. =:^)

  • Maybe I’m missing something here, but that Format dropdown is really optional in what you have described.

    If the user names a document “foo.doc”, then Libre Office auto-detects the file extension and uses the appropriate format.

    So the format menu is only for cases when a user doesn’t know the extension, or else wants a choice of extensions.

    I would think that teaching users about no dropdown menu would be easier than reminding them to use the menu. Just tell your users to name the file with a .doc extension.

    Or am I missing the point here? I’m not an Office (MS, Open, Libre, or otherwise) user so possibly I am misunderstanding the issue.

  • mrdata

    I fear the author beats a horse that has been dead for quite a while on all but the most notorious fanboy forums (like PCLOS). If you spend time on LQ or Ubuntu Forums, you’ll find that if a new poster identifies her/himself as new to Linux and asks a question politely the answer will almost always be equally polite, though it will likely contain the advice to learn more before asking.

  • That particular menu is one of the most frustrating I know of in software. To the best of my knowledge, it does not save in “all formats”, which is what I thought the first time I read it. Also, maybe age related, but I can not remember the proper extensions to save files in the formats allowed.

  • @charlie-tca Nobody can. With just about every new release of Office, MS seems to change the extension and alter the format just enough so that previous versions of Office can’t open it. I’ll leave you to your own devices to figure out why they would do such a thing. 🙂

  • Uncle Ed

    @charlie-tca and @Christine, being much older, I’ve had more time to learn to be sneaky.

    I don’t bother with the more recent (last ten years?) formats. The LO on my wife’s computer automatically saves in the MS 97-03 format. When she needs a document for her school, that’s how they get it. We have NEVER had a complaint of anyone’s being unable to deal with one of her documents. My first guess is if the recipient were to have a problem, the assumption would be that computer had the incompatibility. Hey, it’s the old format. How could there possibly be a problem?

    Mess with me at your own peril.

    Well, there is the possibility that saving in the older format means it doesn’t contain the most modern inconveniences, er, features, so compatibility is easier to accomplish.

  • tracyanne

    Actually Ken they do have a cue that tells them it’s a drop down list… that’s what the little up and down arrow thingys, on the right hand side of the button, are there for.

    What they don’t have is a visual clue that tells them they need to click on it to select a document format other than the default .ODT format. the Button says “All Formats”, that’s not a valid clue.

    A button with “All Formats” doesn’t even tell me (a button with “Select Document Format” probably would) that, that’s how you change formats. The only reason I know that it is, is because once a long time ago when I started using OpenOffice/LibreOffice, I clicked on the drop down list to find out what it does. Most people won’t do that, in part because they don’t know that the little up and down arrow thingys mean it’s a drop down list.

    The second thing that is confusing is that once you have selected the document format you want, it displays another prompt asking if you want to save the document as ODT or as the chosen MS Office format, when you’ve already chosen the document format you want.

  • amenditman

    You can always just go into the settings and change the default save behavior to be .doc.
    Until such time as the MS world learns the error of their ways.

  • tracyanne

    @amenditman, yes you can, but I think that rather misses the point.

  • OVVYYYXXXX

    Well, as it is, it is!

    For more experienced users it is boring to explain all new stuff, and new users are afraid to write about things they don’t know.

    So, a lot basic stuff is not covered, and people still live in misinformed state of mind.

    That is how you get manipulated as well.
    Old technique, also well know as divide and …
    This are just variations on same thing, guess how Microsoft has become so popular among pc users….