Being helpful when helping

When seeking for help, it helps if you ask the right questions and know how to communicate about your problem. When helping others, it is at least as important to ask the right questions, know how to communicate with people who need help and ultimately, answer the right questions. In this article, I mostly cover IRC support since that’s the method I know the best, but the following tips should be appropriate for any support method at least after some adapting.

For starters, the Ubuntu IRC channels are Ubuntu Code of Conduct -compliant. This serves as a good base along with the Ubuntu IRC channel guidelines for both those who assist and those who are assisted. In addition, there are several things that are good to acknowledge when helping. Some of these are direct implications of the guidelines, some are unwritten rules.

The knowledge level

When a user has asked a question and you’ve triaged out the issue, one of the first things to figure out is their level of knowledge. While users usually have some kind of experience with computers, they might be completely new to Linux. Another thing to keep in mind are that even if a user was familiar with Linux or computing in general, they might not be familiar with the interiors of Xubuntu, and might need or want a more thorough explanation for a detail.

To be helpful, it’s important to make sure they understand what you’re telling them to do and why – always adjust the level of detail and explanation based on the knowledge level of the user. Normally it isn’t needed to specifically ask for users’ experience level, but it never hurts to check if they have understood what you have explained so far.

The never ending debate: command line or GUI

One of the charasteristics of Linux support in general is that a high percentage of solutions are presented as series of command line commands.

Obviously, the biggest advantage of the command line method is it’s speed. “Run this, and it’s fixed.” In many cases this works well, especially if the support question is about something that needs to be only once. Other advantages are the ease of copying and providing them on the web (compared to a set of images that explain how to achieve the same goal via GUI) and the only slight possibility that the command line arguments would be different depending on application or library versions. In addition, command line often provides important output when you need to debug.

On the contrary, there are a few disadvantages and pitfalls you should remember when helping people out.

First of all, many people you are helping are not naturally comfortable with the command line. If you don’t want to understand the commands, you’re not going to learn anything. However, doing the same thing with GUI will likely create connections and visual hints which might be useful for understanding Linux and ultimately, coping with future problems.

While we power users are willing to use the command line for pretty much any task, there is no reason to force other, less technically oriented people to use the command line, especially as we have the GUI alternatives! In my opinion, this is one of the features contributing to one of the points in the Xubuntu mission statement – ease of use.

Deadlocks, deadlocks…

Sometimes there are barriers that are too big; however, with help from the Ubuntu community and developers we can surpass some of these and start working on the rest to be able to surpass them someday.

The Xubuntu channels are English only but now and then we have people joining who do not wish to or can’t speak English. Fortunately, the Ubuntu community has many active local communities. In their IRC channels they are helping people in their native language and Xubuntu support is included as well.

When you don’t know the answer or there isn’t a solution available, acknowledge the fact but also make sure the person seeking for help understands the situation as well. If you think there’s a bug involved and one isn’t filed, ask the user to file one and offer to help filing it. While the problem persists, filing a bug is the first step towards the solution.

If you don’t know the area well enough, step down (or don’t even start!). In the worst case, bad advice can only make the situation worse. Sometimes the best advice is to tell to ask elsewhere or wait for other people able to help. Also take into consideration that while you might know better than somebody else, it can be confusing and even harmful if several people suggest different ways to resolve a problem. In the majority of these cases, stepping down is the best thing you can do – at least until your colleague is out of ideas.

Be respectful

Whatever the situation, the most important thing to keep in mind is being respectful towards others. It is phrased out in various ways in the Ubuntu Code of Conduct, the Ubuntu IRC channel guidelines, in this article and in numerous of other places.

If you ever feel you’re getting frustrated for any reason, take a breath and ask yourself if you can carry on calmly enough to be helpful. If you don’t think you can, step down. When you see other people get frustrated or burnt out, remind them to take a break if they need it – be it five minutes or a week. There are always other people and support methods available.

And finally…

I hope this article can shed some more light into what giving support is and in what state of mind you should do it. It’s definitely not an easy task and while it can sometimes require quite a bunch of patience, but it’s something we need to do in order to keep up a healthy user community. Ultimately, it can help us improving our product by fixing things that weren’t obvious to us but our users.

Support is an often underrated area of contribution where too many people do not ever get nearly as much recognition for their work. Thus I want to thank everybody who is doing Xubuntu support. Thank you! Keep on doing the good work and remember to take breaks when you need it!

This article is part of the article series .

Discussion

  1. Cathryne
    June 18, 2013

    Thanks for this post and thanks for all helpers in the Linux community!

    I’m often in the situation of trying to make sense of commands being listed without explanation, or even incomplete ones. I’ve used Ubuntu for some time now, but not as my main computer (Win at home, Mac at work). I’m OK with a terminal, but trying to follow advice where command parts like sudo are omitted because maybe the writer thought it’s a no-brainer to add them automatically can be discouraging for normal users. Even for advanced users trying to switch to Linux.