The GNOME Community: End Users

GNOME is not just software, but also a community. But what is a community? Vincent Untz takes a closer look, starting with end users in this issue.

There are many visions of GNOME: the GNOME Desktop probably is what most people see, while some think of GNOME as a more general project which also delivers a developer platform and other software. Few people would answer that GNOME is a community when asked the “What is GNOME?” question. It’s the community creating the project, improving it and promoting it, but also the community using the project. The user community lives inside the broader GNOME community. This is too often forgotten.

Nevertheless, the user community forms a central piece in the GNOME world, as it probably does for every project: without any users, the work done within the GNOME project would be considered useless by many if not all contributors. In the GNOME case, there are at least three types of users:

  • end users using our software, sometimes without even knowing what GNOME is
  • distributors integrating our software into larger offerings
  • developers using our platform to create software

In this article, we will focus on the end users, and future articles might discuss the other types of users, and take a look at our contributors.

Why the user is important

It could be argued that spending time to figure out what end users think is costly and it is simply easier to not do this. After all, end users don’t even know what they’re expecting and how things should work, do they?

You may not be able to imagine how wrong this is from a community point of view. Users are the basis of every community, if only for a simple reason: all contributors were users before starting to contribute. Moreover, nobody should forget that a user loving GNOME will, one way or another, directly or indirectly, contribute to the project. Also, assuming the user is stupid cannot be a good answer: if something does not work for one user, there is a good chance that it does not work for others.

While evident to many, the availability of some volunteer support is important to users since it brings confidence that solutions will be found for the small issues everyone faces. We can all easily help here, since it is most often only a matter of answering questions. The benefits of this support are much greater than they appear, since it also helps extend our community. Someone who sees their problems resolved might then try to help other users, creating a virtuous circle. More and more users will contribute, improving the support. This helps to show potential users that GNOME is not only great but also well-supported, and that maybe they should give it a try.

The satisfied user is also a good advocate. He (or she) will promote GNOME when it makes sense, explaining why it works well for them and why it would work equally well for others. We should encourage everyone to advocate GNOME, and to want to advocate GNOME. Imagine someone who is well-known and respected, or is highly visible by many many people. Imagine this person trying GNOME, and reporting how great it is. Imagine all the people learning about GNOME this way. Such promotion is worth a lot. This is how trends are created, this is one way to make GNOME even more successful. Think about it: fixing a bug that is low priority for GNOME contributors, but which is deeply annoying for some users, can provide a real boost to GNOME. A satisfied user is our best advocate.

The user can do some support, can advocate and can do many other tasks such as reporting bugs or proposing features. The user is a contributor, but he (or she) does not know that. If one day he (or she) discovers it, then they will contribute even more and become an even more active contributor. That is how all contributors started.

Ms. Contributor, please meet Mr. User

It is worth noting that people working on GNOME have fewer contacts with end users than we might expect. While a contributor presenting GNOME on a booth would expect to answer some general questions about the organization of the project, its future and some interesting features, users coming to the booth often ask about specific issues they have with GNOME, or they just want to learn what GNOME is. The user is interested in what is available now, or what will be available soon, but the contributor generally looks at the future.

Why is there so few contact? How can this be explained? Comments on many news sites will make you believe that this is happening because contributors are ignoring users; however this explanation sounds totally unfair to most contributors. One more realistic explanation can be found in the communication channels used by users and contributors. A usual GNOME contributor will use mailing lists, IRC and bugzilla to discuss how to improve GNOME; but a normal user will not use IRC, subscribe to mailing lists or find bugzilla very usable. Although contributors are quite happy to listen to users, they do not communicate by the same means and so do not hear much of each other.

Another explanation can be linked to what most users are really using: they are using an operating system. When they look for help, they search for Fedora, Ubuntu, SUSE, OpenSolaris or whatever operating system they are using. If you are not convinced about this, just take a look at the GNOME user forums and at the Ubuntu user forums and see the difference in scale.

This leads to the question of where to find end users. The quick answer is “wherever they are”. This answer might sound stupid, but it is true. It is not possible to make end users change their communication habits just to discuss things with contributors. Contributors have to take the first step, have to show they are willing to listen to the end users. The online user forums are one place where users are meeting, and this is a place that contributors should be watching for feedback. This is a place where you can see how one small bug is really annoying lots of end users. This is a place where ideas are being proposed by users. But there are other places where contributors can find users: if you go to some events or conferences, you will meet users; even if you only look around you, in your family or maybe at work, you will find some other users. Finding users is not difficult, but taking the time to listen to them is.

Let me ask you a favour

Whether you are a GNOME contributor or a GNOME user, try to do this: use ten or twenty minutes per day to help a user, to answer questions on the user forums, to write a blog entry about what you love in GNOME or what should be improved, or to promote GNOME in any other way. Do this for a month. And then look back at the results: you will be amazed to see the user community growing. If you are a contributor, try to help fix an issue that was directly pointed out by a user. Such an issue is not necessarily a software bug; it might be something as simple as an error on a web page. If you are “only” a user, just be aware that the contributors do not ignore you. And stay with GNOME.

Showing the users that they are loved will help them love GNOME even more. Love creates more love.

Discuss this story with other readers on the GNOME forums.

Posted on June 15, 2006, in June 2006. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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