Tuesday July 28, 2009

How to Chase Away Help

I'm currently looking at a wiki page for an (unnamed) Open Source project. The page has a number of minor errors; I'd be happy to help the developer(s) clean it up. Except...

Today's Saga

This isn't an open wiki; I need to create an account and then log in. There isn't any "create account" link, so I click the "Log in" link. I'm taken to a page entitled "Log in / create account". Cool. Except that there doesn't appear to be any way to create an account.

I try giving the page a new Username and Password combination, in case that is its way of creating accounts. This results in an unhelpful nastygram: "Login error: There is no user by the name "Rich_Morin". Check your spelling."

I happen to click a link entitled "talk for this ip". It takes me to a page which had a "create an account" link. However, clicking this link leads me to another nastygram: "You do not have permission to create new user accounts, for the following reason: The action you have requested is limited to users in the group Sysops."

Riiiight... Going back to the wiki page, I find this instruction: "Please, send any comment to the project's mailing list". Clicking the link, I get a Firefox nastygram: "This Connection is Untrusted". Apparently, the mailing list sign-up page is set up to use HTTPS, but isn't providing trusted identification. After battling past some other dialogs, I confirm the "Security Exception", got to the subscription page, and sign up for the mailing list.

As promised, I receive a confirmation email, which I return. After receiving the list's welcome email, I'm finally in a position to ask about getting write access to the wiki. Gosh; that was easy! (NOT).

And Worse...

Amazingly, this isn't the worst experience I've had in trying to offer help. On a couple of occasions, I've emailed errata and received vituperative responses rejecting my help: "Maybe you have time to worry about this sort of thing, but I don't...".

More commonly, I find myself staring at the man page (or equivalent) for an Open Source package. The page has an error which I'd like to report, but I know that it will take me at least a half-hour to do so.

If there is an online bug-tracking system, I get to register, make a desultory search for the issue, pick the nearest category, and post my "bug report". Otherwise, I may find myself groveling through the package's source code to find the right file, editing the file, and creating a diff (in whatever format the project requires).

Depending on my level of motivation, I may also download and install the documentation tool chain used by the project, so that I can ensure that my fix actually formats properly. Finally, I submit my patch and (possibly) defend it in the ensuing discussion.

Do I really care?

When I visit a project's web site for the first time, I'm not really very committed. Frankly, I'm not even sure that this package will do what I need. If I have to jump through a bunch of hoops to simply ask a question, I may well go elsewhere.

Nor are most readers as compulsive as I am about reporting errors. If it's really easy to report an error, they may take the time to do so. Otherwise, they are more likely to shrug their shoulders and get on with their lives. So, make it easy for them.

Alan Cooper says: "Where there is output, let there be input." He's mostly referring to interactivity in user interfaces, but the principle applies here, as well. Set up your documentation, web pages, and other content so that the user can easily make comments, ask questions, etc. By treating users as if you want their help, you may actually get some...

How to Chase Away Help in Computers , Technology - posted at Tue, 28 Jul, 13:59 Pacific | «e» | TrackBack

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