Linux

10 ways to help users transition to Linux

There's no reason why switching to Linux should be traumatic for your users (or stressful for you). As Jack Wallen explains, you can set them up to succeed if you approach things the right way.

There's no reason why switching to Linux should be traumatic for your users (or stressful for you). As Jack Wallen explains, you can set them up to succeed if you approach things the right way.


Sheer economics are driving the increasingly widespread usage of the Linux operating system. It's free, it's reliable, it's safe, and (did I mention?) it's free! But when adopting a new operating system, there is always a learning curve for the user base. Not only that, many users think Linux is hard to use. This, of course, is not necessarily so. But it's your job to overcome their reluctance and to train them to use Linux so that it becomes second-nature to them, as Windows is. Without sending your users to some sort of boot camp, this may seem like a rather daunting task. But there are ways to ease the pain of learning Linux. Let's examine some of them.

Note: This information is also available as a PDF download.

1: Standardize on a Windows-like desktop

Home is where the heart is, and this applies to the computer desktop as well. There are plenty of Linux desktops to choose from, and the one you select can make or break your users' Linux learning experience. If your users are PC un-savvy and have used only Windows, make sure you stick with KDE or Xfce. You could even use a modified GNOME to look and act exactly like the Windows desktop. Take this even further by modifying the default start menu of either GNOME or KDE to parallel the Windows Start menu. Now when your users sit down to their Linux desktop, they won't feel as if they are working in a foreign environment.

2: Get users familiar with applications before you switch

Before you migrate your users from Windows to Linux, get them familiar with applications. Because some of the most often used applications are cross platform, you can start them on the applications while working in their familiar environment. For example, you can start them on OpenOffice and Firefox while they're using Windows. Because they will be doing the majority of their work in these two applications, by the time they get to Linux they will already have some level of familiarity. There is also a port of Evolution (the Linux version of Outlook) for Windows. If your users use Outlook for e-mail/calendaring, this could be a positive step toward Linux education.

3: Choose the right distribution

Why would you choose Slackware as the distribution for new users? You wouldn't. Slackware is not a distribution aimed at ease of use. But plenty of distributions are available for the new user. Ubuntu tops the class for ease of use. But Ubuntu is not alone in this category. PCLinuxOS, Mepis, Linux Mint, and Mandriva are all outstanding distributions for the new user. This issue, of course, is heatedly debated. Everyone seems to want their distribution to be the distro-of-choice for new users. Suffice it to say there are plenty of Linux flavors for the new user.

4: Have a machine up and running for your users to play around with

Instead of pulling the rug out from under your users, have a machine available for them to experiment with. Set up this machine exactly as their desktops will look so they can see, first hand, that their future PC will be as easy, if not easier, than what they are currently using. You can take this one step further and install a virtual machine on their Windows PC to allow them to play with Linux while at their desktop. This has the added benefit that if they fubar the install (chances are slim to none, of course), it's no problem to get it back because it's being run in a VM. Even better, but much more time consuming, is to set their machine up to dual boot. With a dual-boot setup, they can go back and forth until they are comfortable with Linux.

5: Remove administrative menu entries

For the new user, seeing Samba, Network, SELinux, User administration, and other related administration tools in the menu can only serve to confuse them. Sure, a control panel is fine (such as the Gnome Control Panel). But having high-level menu entries will serve no purpose outside of tempting fate. Limit the menu entries to user-specific tasks. When you're training a new user, you do not want to have to spend the extra time to teach them how to configure SELinux or use gparted (or constantly tell them they don't need to bother learning that particular tool).

6: Adopt adept

Adept, and other simple update and installation tools, are key to keeping users happily computing. One of the biggest problems with new users and Linux occurs when they're confronted with installing applications. You don't want to have to teach a new user the ins and outs of apt-get or rpm, as these are tools best suited for users who know what they're doing. Having a user-friendly graphical front end for application installation is far easier to learn. This is much simpler to do on a Ubuntu-like distribution. Because Ubuntu uses sudo, you don't have to worry about teaching users what the root user is. Instead, you can just explain that they will have to enter their "user password." This is more in line with using OS X than Windows, but it is much easier to teach than having to go through root privileges. Besides, your users don't need to have access to the root user anyway.

7: Offer printed materials

Before I go into this, a word of warning: Do not ever tell your new users to RTFM. That will not get you very far in educating users on Linux. But you do need to have printed material for users to keep with them. This material should not be generic Linux information but information specific to what they're using. If your users have KDE 3.5 on their desktops, do not give them handouts that refer to KDE 3.4, KDE 4.1, or even KDE 3.x. On top of that, make sure your information includes specific references to the menu entries they see in front of them. This may require you create your own documentation or edit documentation already available. But never give your new users a printout of a man page. For old hat Linux users, a man page says a lot. For new users, you might as well hand them a printout in Martian, because they'll get nothing out of it. Along those same lines, make sure the documentation has plenty of pictures, with solid examples of what they're looking for.

8: Take screen casts of more difficult tasks

I can think of one specific task where a screen cast will help more than any printed image. When your new Linux users have to open a file, they're going to be presented with their home directory. You can't tell new users to navigate to their ~/Documents directory. And telling them to navigate to /home/USERNAME/Documents goes back to the Martian reference. Instead, capture a screen cast of you navigating to the ~/Documents directory to show them exactly what they need to do. Of course, you will have to tell them that they won't be looking for /home/jlwallen/Documents unless their username happens to be jlwallen. Make sure they know what their username is, so they know where to go. Showing new users how to navigate around their ~/ directory will go a long way toward increasing their competence and will keep you from constantly having to remind them where they have saved their documents.

9: Encourage the use of Linux-based forums and mailing lists

There will be times when you aren't available for help or training. When this happens, and your users have problems, it will be helpful if they know how to turn to a KDE user list, a GNOME user list, or a new Linux user list for support. If you do suggest this to them, make sure they're informed of the etiquette for these lists. Nothing is more discouraging than getting flamed by a troll on a list. If your new users find themselves caught in the cross hairs of a forum or list troll, make sure they know the best way to handle the situation (which is not to reply at all.) Here are three good mailing lists for your users:

10: Have an installfest

Work with me on this one. Offer to your braver users your services in installing Linux on their home PCs. Make sure they know the benefits of using Linux at home (security, reliability, free software, etc.). When your users have the same setup at home, they're going to become familiar with Linux much faster. Granted, this isn't going to be as easy in a large-scale setting. But for those of you in a smaller business setting, this could be a valid option to help your users gain familiarity with the operating system.

Painless transition

This list leaves out the professional training centers or online training in lieu of keeping all training in-house. And of course, every company handles training differently. But if you implement some these ideas, your new Linux users will be able to make the transition without having a nervous breakdown.

About

Jack Wallen is an award-winning writer for TechRepublic and Linux.com. He’s an avid promoter of open source and the voice of The Android Expert. For more news about Jack Wallen, visit his website getjackd.net.

28 comments
TobeyLlop
TobeyLlop

I was hoping for instructions. Oh well...

jck
jck

Query your users on what they most use their Windows PC/MS Office for, and create and offer up a cheatsheet of "how-to"s for the top 25 most mentioned things workers do at your organization. Then, install OpenOffice.org and have them start working in it using your cheatsheet. Once workers get familiar with how to do things in OpenOffice.org that they used to do in Office, it becomes just point and click to login and logout of a Linux interface. Desktop icons and toolbars can be setup to make their Linux just as easy to use. I'm going to try to get my organization to move to Linux where possible (some departments use software that is Windows only).

Jaqui
Jaqui

I installed PCLinuxOS on a system, installed the games the person wanted, gave them the root password. only ever got one question, and that was because he tried to install windows software, without having wine installed.

Jaqui
Jaqui

it doesn't promote learning linux, it just allows them to ignore the linux install. put linux on their system, then use a vm for windows, with very limited software installed, and they don't have admin privs on the windows system

RobCorro
RobCorro

A good transition doesn't just depend on supporting people through the problems they'll face, although of course that is important. Encourage the use of applications that really get the job done, or are just generally great. If users can learn to master a few excellent programmes it'll make them much more inclined to persevere. In that regard, inter-op apps like OO, Firefox, Thunderbird et al will obviously help.

ireaneus
ireaneus

Jack please help me understand why all linux apps have to look like they were written in Windows 3.1 or OS/2 Warp? I setup a discussion thread http://techrepublic.com.com/5208-7343-0.html?forumID=102&threadID=300709&messageID=3005978 talking about my experience with Linux and it all comes down to User Experience. How can I sell something that looks a feels like windows 3.1? Don't get me wrong the KDE 4.1 desktop rocks with 3d graphics, the nice themes we can run but the apps really don't do Linux justice. Please steer me to a way to enhance the look and feel of the apps.

d.thiedeke
d.thiedeke

The porting of the KDE desktop to windows may help bridge the gap, but the multitude of fanboys for each distro and desktop environment will make it hard. Everyone thinks their particular distro of choice is the best, but for the sheer amount of support and adoption, newcomers can not go past Ubuntu.

chris
chris

I tutorial kind of thing. good idea.

chris
chris

does it come all setup with Flash in the browser? that's one thing I hated about Mandriva is that I couldn't do anything flash out of the box. I have to jump through the hoops (which I am willing to do, but no normal human is). If that distro is more "pre-configured" in that regard, I'd be interested in talking with a couple of people.

jdclyde
jdclyde

Gave ThingTwo a desktop that had Mint (felica) loaded. Asked him to try it, using pidgon, FF and OO. After a day of using it, I got a "Wow Dad, this is a lot faster". He was using a P4 2.4 with a gig of ram running XPsp3. He is now on a P4 1.4 with 512M ram. (and it is faster) The only problem so far, if you have multiple windows up, youtube and imeem will stop working. For now, he is using the xp system next to his linux system for the music/videos, and the linux for everything else.

chris
chris

It may be the security blanket necessary to get started. that's how I started. I was too feeble to just go for it, but being able to dual boot gave me the courage I needed. then I just wiped my machine and installed Mandriva. haven't looked back except where needed (dual boot lappy for office stuff and some convenience in areas I haven't bothered to conquer)

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

Dual booting only encourages users to continue using Windows and allows them to delay their introduction to Linux. Given an option, they'll take the path of least resistance every time.

chris
chris

Yeah, what I have found is that at home, people hate linux because it doesn't "just work" like their winders did. website flash, active x, peripherals, etc. But, if everything was setup and ready to go for them, educating on malware and the like, you could probably get them to stick with it (especially if they had malware/virus problems). At the office, the difficulty/inability to install every like piece of crap applet/toolbar/etc is a good thing. Just get them configured for their job and there you go. Just hope you don't interact with companies that require IE apps. (yes, not web apps mind you, IE specific apps. Its just as bad as required MS winders be installed if you require IE be used).

chris
chris

a lot of it is on the guys doing the dev work. smaller projects normally suffer in that area because programmers want functionality or quality and eye candy aint it. Bigger projects have people who add that extra flair (Open office, Firefox, Amarok to name a few). Everyone says this..."you could learn to program and improve the interfaces". it's not practical, but it is true... try that with windows. You're stuck with their API

FXEF
FXEF

It's not what an app looks like, it's how it preforms. 3d graphics may look nice but a rock solid desktop environment and applications will win in the end over eye candy. GNOME is much easier to use than KDE. Trust me, I've used both.

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

Enlightenment isn't usually mistaken for win3.11 or os2 either. GNOME's applications may be closest to what you mean and that's due to using the GTK framework as a base similar to how Windows uses IE as a framework base. I started with Afterstep later switched to Enlightenment which both look very little like win3.11 or os2. These days, I tend to use KDE3 which doesn't really look like win3.11 or os2 either. It greatly depends on the chosen window manager. Luckily, if one doesn't like the window manager appearance then they can change it with themes or change to a completely different window manager.

chris
chris

and Gnome?? Come on. KDE is much better (and more winders like for people who don't know). I know I could get the kde version of Gnome, but Mandriva is just better. sorry. PS see the point?

Peconet Tietokoneet
Peconet Tietokoneet

The one big project to get people to use Linux is to educate them on the Linux software otherwise they are lost. Some people do not want to read books on Linux let alone get them to use Linux in the first place. So in my list, Number one would be "education", otherwise you will have lost the battle before it has begun. Xandros is my number one for Linux. much easier than Ubuntu, though it does cost, but i prefer to buy software than to have "free". I do not believe in "free". Basically nothing is free. Educate people on Linux and you will have more people using it, but until then they will continue to use Windows. Some people do not like anything they do not understand , that is where the education comes into play. If they can only use Linux, and not Windows, slowly but surely they will become used to it.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

but if I was recomending a distro for a windows to nix switch, for bog standard users, it would have to be in there. That's it's purpose. Power users, well that could be a different story, but they are the hardest switch of all. In fact I'd do a fair bit to leave them on windows.

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

If it's something I need to see and it's Flash based, I still have to go to the laptop or VM for it. I'm told that Player 10 for linux works great with FF 3.0.5 64bit but it's not showing me the love. I can accept that it's just me or the distro I use rather than one of the four distros it's prepackaged for. I'm going to give the tarball a fight later today or tomorrow when time permits.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

But in the workplace, most computer users are more interested in getting their job done with the least amount of trouble than learning a new way to do the same task. Remember, you were doing it because you wanted to, not because some corporate IT geek said you had to.

ireaneus
ireaneus

I've used enlightment in the past, currently running KDE4.1 Not saying the window manager isn't any good. The window manager looks like Aero in 3d, its just the apps we run on top of the window manager, can they adopt the window manager theme or the 3d graphics? Thats all I am saying.

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

Mandriva 2008.1 64bit. the rpm apeared to go in clean but no plugin detected. I tried the setup.sh but no luck either. I'll try manually dropping the .o in my plugin directory though.

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

Go to FF plugins, select Flash.. hit download and your done just like any other plugin. Heck, they do with with the Flash ActiveX plugin; click on the link, tell IE to allow the download, click install done. Adobe has smart developers.. the could do it I'm sure. Since they don't want to open the source it's up to them to go it alone.

chris
chris

Mandriva, both 32 and 64. not directions for your distro? what about copying the needed bit (flash-player.so) to your ff plugins directory?

FXEF
FXEF

Yep, same here Flash and Firefox on Linux does not play well together. Not sure what causes the crash but some Flash sites instantly kills Firefox, usually a restart of Firefox then Flash plays. Any ideas as to why this occurs?

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

There are definately some application front ends that are not pretty or obvious. (I'm thinking of a WIFI manager which is all but broken as far as I and hours of mucking about can see). GTK based stuff like GNOME and GIMP are generally going to look GTK'ish since that's where the graphic widgets come from. KDE and other QT based stuff benefits from that widget set. Eterm is still a standard of my own installs though it's using E's libraries. I'd stick to specific applications though since GIMPshop and GIMP intentionally don't look alike and things like FF and Thunderbird can very easily be themed. It does depend a great deal on the application and widget set it was built with. My only point aside from offering the information was that "why does all X software look like os2 or win3.11" is a gross generalization of a purely subjective topic (some like the 3.11 and os2 look though I'm not really one of them any longer).

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