GrokDoc Goes Live

by Pamela Jones

June 14 2004

I am happy to tell you that GrokDoc, the web site for our community usability study of GNU/Linux newbies -- applying free and open source ideals to documentation -- has been set up. It's here [ ], and it's a wiki format, because that is what most of you said you thought would work the best. We've got it set up to begin, and now it's ready for you to do your part, the actual study.

Our goal is to find out what newbies need to make the switch to GNU/Linux and then to create a useful manual on basic tasks that new users will find simple and clear and easy to follow, using what we learn from our study. There has never been such a community usability study on this scale for GNU/Linux systems, so far as I have been able to determine, and we are approaching it in a new way. We are not trying to duplicate effort. We are trying something brand new. Instead of experts telling newbies how to do things, we will let newbies show and tell us what they need.

We are requesting that you sit down with a friend or family member who has little (or ideally no) experience with GNU/Linux, and let them try. If you have no experience, please sit yourself down and try, and then record what you have trouble with.

Don't show them anything. Just watch and record. What do they have problems with? How did they try to resolve the problem? What happened? Did it fix it? Watch them try and record the results. What works? What doesn't? Have them try to do a minimum of four things: email, a simple letter, including printing it, surfing the web, and setting up a firewall. What do they spontaneously say they like and what do they say upsets them? Is the menu clear? Where do they get lost? Record what you observe in addition to what they tell you. Where do they pause? If you can only get their cooperation for one of the four, go ahead and report on just that one task. You may not want them to try to set up a firewall on your machine, for example, if you already have one set up and it's too awful to contemplate having to wipe it out and start fresh. That's fine. Do the rest. We're all volunteers.

They can try any GNU/Linux distro, including Knoppix. They can use the manuals that come with the distro and they can use Google or any other search engine to try to find help if they need it. You can tell them such resources exist, but don't show them how to find them. Just let them try on their own, as if you were not even there, as if you were just a fly on the wall. An observant fly on the wall. If they want to go home and study the matter for a few days on their own, and solve the problem after they have time to read and surf to try to find the answer, that is fine too, as long as you mention it in your report, along with what resource it was that helped them finally to suceed, if they do. If they hit a point where they utterly give up, then step in and help, but don't leap in until they are at that point. I don't want your mom or friend to hate GNU/Linux. But let them really try to solve it themselves without input from you. Of course, I hope that such a moment never happens, but if it does, it's valuable to know exactly why and when. Don't hesitate to provide partial results, because the large scale of this community project means that even if your study subject only tries one task, the results are still valuable.

You can do several sessions, or just one. If your study subject feels like inputting their own reactions, that would be wonderful, in addition to your observations. What would they like? What would have made it easier? We aren't necessarily limited to a traditional book format only, although I know from experience that online help isn't of any use if you can't get online, so a manual that people can read on paper is important. We could have video. We could have audio instructions. Let's find out what is needed and then we'll brainstorm to see how best to meet the need.

If they wish to try to install, by all means let them, but no one should have to do that to participate. They can use your computer. Note for us the hardware used and the distro and the application. We've set up the Grokdoc site so that it is easy for you to input your results in the right slot, so it will then be easy for us to collect it later, and for everyone to find what interests them on the site. The manual can be translated eventually into any language.

When you input your experience into Grokdoc, please write down what solved the issues and what didn't and what you think (or they indicated) would have helped. Clear suggestions would be appreciated and very valuable. Would a screenshot have helped? More words in a manual or online resource? Fewer words? Better organization? Less technical? In other words, evaluate yourself what you think is needed, and please be very specific and as detailed as you can.

The research results will be collected, and after we have collected enough for it to be meaningful, we will then write up the manual explaining how to do the basic tasks we have studied. You can also help us write a manual from what we learn. Your friends and relatives who participated in the study can help, too. I've had several offers of help from scientists who have prior experience in usability studies, who have been helpful already in helping me to think through how to plan. The site can grow over time to be whatever we find out it should be. It's a community project, so it will no doubt have a life of its own, but the original study has to be structured to be of real use.

I think it'll be fun. If we all pitch in -- and anyone in the world can participate -- it won't represent a major burden on any of us, and yet the aggregate value of our observations will be enormous. I think we can make a real difference in enabling new users to make the switch painlessly. We may also be able to be useful to programmers who wish to know how to design to make their applications user-friendly but can't afford to do usability studies the way large companies like Microsoft and Apple can.

I also hope this study will help GNU/Linux use to reach critical mass and such popularity that the dark side can't kill it off. So, come and help, won't you? Ideas and creativity are welcome. Don't let the wiki intimidate you. If you can't figure out where to put something, just open a new page and we'll figure out where to put it later. And you don't have to be a technical god to participate. This is just a lot of people getting together, just ordinary folks, trying GNU/Linux so we can see what happens and how to help each other. It's a simple way we can all contribute something back to the community, to say thank you to all those who made this software possible by unselfishly writing it and giving it to the world.

I am very grateful to everyone for the input and help in getting set up, particularly to Jeremy, admin of for volunteering to be Grokdoc's webmaster. He's been so helpful already, getting things preorganized so that it would be ready even for those of us, including me, who may not have much prior wiki experience, and to Nick Richards, who is a technical writer by profession, for writing clear instructions for us, which you will find on the home page. And, as always, to the indefatigable John Crowley, for making things prettier. Finally, I wish to express my gratitude to ibiblio, for hosting Grokdoc and making this usability study possible.

03:19 AM EDT

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