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Interview With Ubuntu Manual Project Leader

The Ubuntu Manual Project has stirred up veritable carnival of publicity over the last few months, signifying a huge appetite for such a document within the community.

I decided to find out more on the project and its origins by interviewing the manual project leader (dare i say creator?) Benjamin Humphrey ” also known as HumphreyBC.

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Let’s go back to the start: Where did the idea of creating a “beginners manual” come from?
It all started halfway through last year. I had been helping users troubleshoot their problems on the Ubuntu Forums, and I also had a fair few of my own problems with Ubuntu when I started using it for the first time. I quickly learnt to resolve these, and, as time went by, I helped others too. I wrote a bit of Community Documentation, but felt the need to pass my knowledge on to more new users – so I started my blog with that intention. The blog articles then began to be exported into a PDF, which started to take shape as a manual. The project didn’t become open for collaboration until late last year when I realized it would be more beneficial to have many people working on it as a team – that way we could cover more stuff and make a better document overall.

Who is the manual aimed at?
Our target audience is new computer users, and users coming from Windows/Mac, who otherwise wouldn’t know much about Ubuntu or GNU/Linux in general.

What differentiates the Ubuntu Manual Project from the official documentation, official books, etc that already exist for newcomers?
Content wise, we go into less detail than the documentation and wiki. We aren’t supposed to be an all-encompassing Ubuntu bible, like the Official Ubuntu Book. The manual is a free PDF download, it will hopefully be included in Ubuntu 10.04 LTS as well. It will be translated in over 30 languages, possibly available for purchase in print, and also will feature many localized screenshots.

It’s more organized than the wiki documentation and easier to access than the forums. It will also be kept up to date with revisions every six months to coincide with the Ubuntu release cycle. We will be pointing readers in the direction of the in-built help, or the wiki help, or the forums if they need more detail on a specific topic.

coversComing to a coffee table near you?;

Some of the proposed cover designs. The final cover has yet to be decided

What areas will the ‘manual’ be covering?
The manual follows a linear learning curve – it starts with the basics (like an introduction about Ubuntu’s philosophy and history), then moves to explaining the desktop, default applications, getting online, installing software and so forth. It’s split into two sections, the first half and the second half – we don’t even mention the command line until the second half, the “advanced” section. The full table of contents can be found here.

What won’t the manual be going into?
A lot of stuff. As I said above, this isn’t an Ubuntu bible – we’re not going to have a guide for installing Nvidia drivers on a GeForce 7600GT graphics card, for example. It won’t be that specific – we will give you a general idea on how to do something, show you the basics, and then point you in the right direction for more information.

So the big question is ” will it be included in Ubuntu 10.04 Lucid Lynx?
At the moment, we’re not sure. I know many people would love to see it on the CD – our research proves that, and my talks with Ubuntu members/key contributors also shows there is a great deal of interest in the project. If everything goes to plan, I think it would be silly to not include a version in Lucid and make it available for download at www.ubuntu.com.

What’s working against us is file size. With more than 50 pages, and a whole heap of images, we’ll be hard pressed to get it down to a small enough size to squeeze onto the CD. Remember a CD can only hold 700mb – the Ubuntu devs have to fit a whole operating system and several applications onto that. I think we can get it down to a small enough size for it to be included as example content at least, but it’s really too early to tell as we haven’t even started inserting images yet. If we can’t get it into Lucid, I will try to get it included it for 10.10. It will be much easier to convince the desktop team/docs team once we have something to show.

If it does make it into Lucid, where can users expect to find access to the manual? Desktop icon? Menu Entry, etc?
This hasn’t been decided yet. While we would love to see it as an icon on the desktop, this just won’t happen – the desktop team have a strict no icons on the desktop policy as a “design decision.” It will most likely appear in the main application menu, or as an icon on the panel. It will hopefully also be available for download right next to the main download link for Ubuntu on the website.

And just to hedge my bets – How will users be able to ‘find’ the manual if it ISN’T included in Lucid?
If it isn’t included in Lucid, we will try to get it on the main Ubuntu website and most definitely in the main repository. We will probably also set up our own website with a download link, and of course it will be available on our Launchpad page as well.

defaultapps An example page from the Beginners Manual. Formatting/colours/font are yet to be finalised

Name change?

Let’s talk name – Is the current name sticking? The word ‘manual’ isn’t the most… stimulating of words.
No, this is just a working title. It may or may not stay the same, we really don’t know yet. We’re open to suggestions for titles :)

What kind of name would you like it to have?
I would like to include the words “Beginner” or “Quick Start” somewhere, just to reiterate the point that this manual is for brand new users, and this is what they should be reading.

Have you already received feedback from (so-called) “newbies” on the contents of the ‘manual’?
We have conducted some research by running a Questionnaire on the Ubuntu Forums, and a Survey using QuestionPro. You can see the results of these on our wiki page.

I think it is crucial that we get feedback from our target audience. We need to know what they want to see in the manual. I believe we have most of it covered already, but there could always be something that we’ve overlooked.

How can new users report feedback on the manual (post lucid)?
For both the development release (at the moment) and also the full release after Lucid, feedback can be reported as a bug on our Launchpad project page. This makes it easy to track, comment and assign people to any new suggestions.

Eek! So will bug reporting be explained in the manual? Cos it can be very confusing for newcomers…
At present, I think the only mention of bug reporting will be in the last chapter, which will just talk about how the reader can contribute, and other distributions etc. Our focus will be on teaching the reader how to use their new system. We don’t want to overload them by talking about contributing straight away, it might scare them off!

Will there be a printed version available? (i.e. through print on demand services?)
There will be two versions available, one that is optimized for home printing, and one that is for on screen reading. We are also planning to release customized paper sizes for each locale – ie, the US English version will come as US Letter, the Japanese version will be A4. Our research suggests that about 1/3 of people would be interested in printing. We’ve been looking into online printing services, such as Lulu.com, and this may be a possibility down the track. At the moment the focus is on getting the content in place and the PDF version ready.

Will it be produced in different formats?
Yes. Because we use LaTeX, it makes it easy to export to HTML5, PDF, docbook etc etc. In the very near future you will probably only see a PDF version, but once Lucid is out and about, we will have a lot more spare time to focus our attention on producing different outputs – like an online HTML version with embedded videos etc. Very useful if your system becomes unbootable.

manuallogo

Leaving the manual aside for now, what do see as being the biggest “issue” for newcomers to Ubuntu/Linux in general? Lack of help?
I think the biggest issue for newcomers is accessing the help – Ubuntu has help in place: in the forums, on ubuntu.com and in the operating system, but for some reason they’re not utilized as well as they should be. People just don’t click “Help and Support” before they try Googling their problem. All throughout the “Absolute Beginners” forum on Ubuntu Forums you can see questions that would have easily been answered by the in-built help. That’s why I think it’s important to have something available for new users that is obvious, that explains what Ubuntu is about, gives them the information to start using their computer and then educates them about further reading they can do if they would like to learn more or need help with something specific.

You were once a “newbie” on Linux/Ubuntu yourself. Did your experiences help you in writing/managing/conceiving the project?
I started using Ubuntu not that long ago, at the end of 2008. I think that I was a typical new Ubuntu user – I had used Windows for most of my life, having never known about the alternatives, and when I moved to Ubuntu I was confused and poorly educated. In fact, when I first tried Ubuntu using Wubi, I un-installed it after a week. I didn’t understand this new fangled package management system, or what this panel was about (I didn’t realize you could add applets to it for weeks!).

I ended up downloading Keir Thomas’ Ubuntu Pocket Guide which definitely helped me a lot, I read it cover to cover. I think that my experiences with Ubuntu might help me a little bit with the project, but overall I think it is that passion for open source software and the fact that we need to educate the masses about this simply better operating system that makes me a motivated project leader.

What are your hopes for Lucid in general, from the perspective of helping newbies?
To be honest, I don’t think Lucid will bring much more to the table for helping new users. The manual should help with educating new users, for those who choose to read it. I think that Lucid will improve the Ubuntu experience just that much more – It’ll boot faster, it’ll be more stable and it will support more hardware. Therefore, it’ll be easier to adopt.

What more, in your opinion, could be done to help newbies adjust to Ubuntu?
I think the community help and the in-built help needs a re-work. Fortunately, I believe the docs team are looking at converting the in-built help to Mallard, which is a step in the right direction. (We covered that a few days ago, read about it here)

Regarding the wiki documentation – a lot of it is outdated and badly written or not relevant anymore. This isn’t necessarily anyone’s fault, the nature of maintaining documentation is that it gets boring fairly quickly, and the docs team suffer from a lack of manpower. They need a better system to organize the online help – what that would be, I don’t know.

To follow the progress of the manual, follow the team on Twitter or join their Facebook page.