Streamlined support tricks

Fri 12 June 2009

Ubuntu is a big project. Nobody really understands everything about Ubuntu; even authoring a Training video on Ubuntu doesn't guarantee sufficient expertise. One great thing about the Internet is that it can bring people with a common interest or problem together. If you have a problem with your car, there are dozens of outlets you can explore to diagnose and repair it. Today I'll explore some of the various ways we can diagnose and repair Ubuntu, and how to moderate the flow from these firehoses.

Official Channels

Obviously Ubuntu was founded by people with a deep understanding of the Internet, software, and collaboration. Over the past ten releases there have been a number of avenues created for people to ask questions and get answers, with varying degrees of noise and signal.

The most high profile of these is Launchpad's bug tracker, Malone (named after Bugsy Malone?). If you have a problem that only changing a program can fix, this is the place. It's modeled on BugZilla and Debian BTS, but brings a lot of new stuff to the table. One such improvement over simple email based tools is the dupe-finder. Given a description, Malone will suggest a set of bugs similar in description, before asking you for a detailed write up of the problem. This is a great way for software to help people with similar problems find each other. But a big project like Ubuntu gets a lot of bugs; setting yourself as a general bug contact is a very not smart idea. If you want to help out with bugs, pick a package or two and set yourself as a bug contact.

A more recent Launchpad addition is the Answers tool. You can ask a question, and people can ask for more information or suggest an answer. Answers manages the state of questions so you can safely ignored questions with accepted solutions. Answers is intended for things that maybe aren't exactly bugs, but simple questions about how to use a program. Like Malone, it also features a dupe checker to help consolidate activity. It's not clear from the website, but you can also set yourself as a answers contact for individual packages. contact will point you in the right direction, for a given pkg-name. I'm not aware of any RSS feeds for answers, in whole or in part, unfortunately.

We also run two support channels on Freenode, #ubuntu and #ubuntu+1. #ubuntu+1 is for development versions, so it usually focuses around testing packages and undoing damage from package updates gone wrong. #ubuntu itself is the standard support channel, but it can be very daunting. There's currently 1300 people participating in the channel, and it requires a specific etiquette to scale. Because simultaneous conversations are going on, it's best to address questions to the channel, but address all replies to a specific recipient. IRC clients will pick up when their name is used and highlight the reply above the noise of other support conversations. There's also a set of IRC bots to aid in common questions, facts, and channel logging. One neat extra is that if you mention a bug number or URL, the bots can provide the channel with the bug summary. **If you wish to selectively help people via IRC, join

ubuntu, get familiar with your client and set some hilights on packages

you're an expert on**. If you want to get really sophisticated, there are scripts out there for screen+irssi and libnotify that will generate a desktop popup when an IRC hilight comes in.

The mailing lists serve a number of purposes within Ubuntu, but today I'll focus on the support lists. Unmoderated lists can get pretty prolific; ubuntu-users seems to average about a megabyte of mail a month. This translated to 4000 individual emails for the month of May. That's 130 messages a day! Again, a good email client can help trim that down. Gmail will group messages into coherent threads, but we're still looking at perhaps 20 threads a day. Cutting down the volume further may require getting familiar with mail filters that are built into your client. I believe Gmail can store a list to a folder and then bring in an entire thread to the inbox when a message matches a keyword; but I haven't tried this. At any rate, I understand procmail-like tools are key to narrowing large volume lists to something more viable.

Finally, there is the forum. Web forums have a reputation for being very novice friendly, and very time wasting. Forums are also historically polling oriented; if you want to know what's going on currently, you visit the website and refresh the pages. I think UbuntuForums supports subscriptions, but only at the granularity of boards and threads. That's potentially a lot of traffic, so if you want something less demanding, you'll need to subscribe to an UbuntuForum board and filter it yourself in your mail client, similar to the mailing lists. There's no tracking of question status ("problem solved!"); that feature was deemed too hard on the database and disabled.

It seems like web based system have a higher potential to scale; I assume that's mostly due to being backed by a database. But it's also important to be able to customize the system for the support workflow and collaboration, and that's an important distinction between Launchpad and a generic forum. Forums are like the swiss army knife of social websites, you can use them to do lots of things... poorly. I feel custom tailored software will always have an edge over a general forum: wikis for howtos, bugtrackers for bugs, revision control for scripts and programs.

Unofficial resources

So far, we've only covered the things that people use who want to be involved and associated with Ubuntu. The internet is a much wider place than and subdomains. I'll mention a few places I've found that some people may use instead. Reasons for avoiding official avenues range from ignorance of what's available, to having a established reputations and relations at another place, to better turnaround times and wider points of view.

The first and obvious external support tool is Google websearch. It's a great tool for surveying the hundreds of bugzillas, web forums and blogs on the net. For many people, websearch is the first go-to tool when they encounter a problem; any distribution that stops Google and search engines in general from indexing their bug tracker is doing their users a disservice. Launchpad uses an interesting URL scheme to make their database indexable; I hope to see how they implemented it sometime in July.

The first actual website I'll mention is AskMetafilter. Metafilter is free to read, but requires a 5 dollar one time fee to post. As a result, they have managed to build a community of pleasantly eloquant posters. And they're full on board with web 2.0 features like tagging and RSS feeds. The volume is already quite low as a result of the 5 dollar hurdle, especially since you can only ask one question a week and have to wait a week before asking a question.

But generally, you probably don't want to pay to help other people out. An interesting new group of sites has been built with some very worthwhile design insights to motivate quality responses and questions. There are countless question and answer sites out there; Google Answers (now retired), Yahoo Answers, etc. There's also specialized sites like Experts Exchange that do some unsavory tricks and generally profit from crowdsourced labor that happens spontaneously on the web. StackOverflow is a site designed to shift the rules for programming questions on the web towards open access. But more interesting for Ubuntu is it's companion site, ServerFault, which is geared towards servers and system administration, a topic that will be more relevant to Ubuntu than programming questions typically get. They support RSS feeds, so you can subscribe to all questions tagged Ubuntu. I hope people working on LP answers observe what is and isn't working for ServerFault.

And obviously, if a specific program is having trouble, there's usually an IRC channel, mailing list, bug tracker or forum organized by upstream. If you're going upstream for help, just be careful. It can be frustrating for user after user to come in and complain about a bug in Ubuntu that is fixed in upstream's latest release. If you're looking to help people, getting involved upstream is always a good pick. If you're still reading, hopefully this lengthy post has given you some ideas on how to target specific support request topics, and save yourself some time wading through noisy communication channels. Helping out doesn't have to be an avalanche of data!

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