Is Debian listening to its users?

For some time ago I’ve been pondering about this question. As long as GSoC 2009 is about to start and people are looking for project ideas, I’m posting here a very preliminar draft of my findings and an idea for a posible software project. It’s pretty written on-the-fly while I’ve managed to have some minutes between work and uni. Rigurous wording isn’t P1.

Debian’s social contract 4th item states:

Our priorities are our users and free software We will be guided by the needs of our users and the free software community. We will place their interests first in our priorities.

When we make decisions, either technical, legal and others regarding the operating system we deliver, this is one of the most referred argument. Altough that’s seen as high priority often we don’t have ways to properly know what our users want. While working on translations on the Spanish team we’ve faced this situation. Do our users find them useful? they are able to understand them? they find that a much familiar wording would be bette than high technical details? We didn’t know. Then, the question still exists.

Altough Debian has ways for users to provide feedback (BTS, mailing lists, IRC,  popcon, etc) none of them is designed to offer a way for the user to provide feedback on features, development roadmap and other non-bug aspects that developers and the project can tally and use for prioritize on releases. It’s rather amusing to note that one of the most valuable assets free software community has is user involvement and contribution.

But before we enter in details let’s start on the basics. For using this information we first need to know who our users are? do we? From my findings and interaction with the community I’ve identified two kinds of Debian users who can be clearly named.

1) The derivatives or pure blends, who use the Debian base and framework to build niche distributions.

2) The lead users (using E. Von Hippel’s definition), who are the developers, contributors and a group of users. Debian is, if not the only, one of the projects who is best for fostering lead users. Most of them at some point involve themselves in the development process and some, later become developers.

There is a more diverse group who are end-users but it’s unclear to me how we can group them. Despite that they probably represent the biggest part of the pie.

So, how we do please everyone? can we? In my opinion we can, at some degree. By implementing tools for first: gather user feedback, make statistical data, tally, we later can take informed decisions. In Debian decisions are voted and the set of people who votes are only developers with their own constraints.

I think this would ease the constant that release-decisions-regarding-foo-tech-legal-issue represented on each release iteration, saving time, health and bits.  It could be useful for knowing more about who are the ones we develop things for. I’m thinking of some sort of Dell’s for software.

What do you think? I’m willing to co-mentor this if someone finds that is an interesting project for GSoC. Let me know!.

  • Rudy, it´s a great idea, but we´d first have to solve an issue: to get statistic data and poll our users we should first think of the questions were going to ask them. But the questions we´re asking are not necessarily the questions they would like to answer.

    Extracting the unspoken desires of our userbase would require a great deal of interpretation from a lot of spontaneous comments and expressed opinions on what would make debian better for them. I see no way of automating that, without a great risk of missing the target entirely, by creating “questionaires”.

    And there´s always the inevitable clash against user opinions and the DFSG . I´d like the firmware of my server's network card included in the debian installer, for my own convenience, but as a Debian project member, I can see what the point in the DFSG is, and respect that :)

    I like this subject, and I´m currently in the mood of dealing with that kind of stuff, If you need help to brainstorm, just tell me :)

  • We just need a feedback similar to the one “proposed” by M$ ;)

  • davide

    I think this is an interesting issue. And in my opinion ubuntu has already tried to solve this with ubuntu brainstorm:
    I believe this is an interesting way of collecting new feature request while keeping it simple to vote or contribute ideas even for lazy people as I'am (voting is anonymous and very simple).

  • Ste

    You need to overhaul a lot of things if you want to appeal to new users.
    From the superficial like a better looking homepage to the fundamental like engineering an official forum
    and community that is both friendly and moderated. The horrifically septic forums that are linked from
    the Debian site do not paint a good picture and do not help Debian's image.

    Newer people to the web do not like to use mailing lists or newsgroups.
    They prefer blogs and forums. I totally understand why developers prefer the former but users do not.

    Debian needs to drop the attitude that many people experience when trying to get started with this system.
    As long as this attitude of 'keep the noobs out' 'let em use Ubuntu because it sucks' continues Debian will
    plod along like it always has.

    Nurturing the egos of the nerds but ignoring ordinary people who want a good operating system will not foster progress.
    If progress is what Debian wants.

  • Ideas like this are best left to the ether because it's not often that the vocal majority can put forth a common argument that is beneficial to a society at large.

    What if coca-cola (to name a universally recognized entity) were to ask its “users” how best to create its tonic? It would be madness but I'd take a ringside seat!

  • Marco

    No, Debian does not listening to its users…
    Two examples that come to mind:
    1) In Lenny, Debian has ceased support for AMD K7. Now, linux-image-k7 is a transitional (dummy) package who install linux-image-686. Several users have complained of major slowdown or even PCs and servers who fail to start with the 686 kernel! The result? Nobody was listening, Debian no longer continue to support the K7 and it cost many time and money to companies, administrators and users. Now that only the AMD 64 processor is supported, I begin to wonder if the Debian kernel maintainers are working on the balance of Intel…

    2) A bug repport was made in June or July 2008 asking to remove the gconf dependency on wxgtk for Lenny since it's an unnecessary dependency. The result? Nobody was listening, all applications that depend on wxgtk 2.8 (as Poedit, I use every day to do translations) require the installation of gconf (GNOME configuration system). What will happen when Xfce 4.6 and its new configuration system (Xfconf) come in Debian? Are there other similar cases which require users to install unneeded dependencies on their old computers with little memory and small hard drives or even with all the new notebook and ultraportable with their small flash drive/SD card ?

  • catnap

    If you want to hear more opinions from Debian users, you could post a poll at the Debian User Forums.

    They have a section called “Debian Development”. I seem to recall Ben Hutchings devising a poll there about how he should rename Ion3. (I don't know if the feedback from users actually helped him. :) )

  • Ste

    Is one of the reasons people avoid Debian.

  • I see Debian alot like Gentoo, a developer community. Basically to get things done you have to have a basic knowledge of programming or at least how linux works. I think Debian is designed to protect it's developers from generic bug-reports and thoughts. Take a look at lauchpad and what the developers have to sort through there on a day to day basis, so it's not always a bad thing. Perhaps with the advent of Ubuntu Debian developers have got what they wanted: the ability to be able to populate Debian to the masses without the cruft. IMHO the face of Debian and Gentoo are etched. ;)

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  • Hi Eduardo, I wasn't thinking about questionaries, but community-driven user-voice. So the community itself states what they value most in Debian.

  • I'm not sure about the attitude, but despite that, we need to know what our users (not necesarily end-users) would want or value most. There are plenty Debian derivatives and we don't have ways to measure how the Debian releases are making their life easier when building blends. The same for another group of users.

    Mailing lists, IRC and other forms of classic communication have the problem that you cannot extract valuable information, store it and mine it later.

  • Yes, you have a point. I think Debian first needs to know who are they direct users and then learn what they do value most of it. Then focus on it. Derivatives have their own processes and yes, they can deal with users. So, if Debian can be somehow blend's technology provider I guess things could be much more nicer for everyone.

  • I think Debian Developers are listening to another developers and sysadmins users, and not to the end-users.

    Some people don't wanna use derivates distros, just wanna use debian and have all the benefits of other's distros with the stability of our distro.

  • I think Debian Developers are listening to another developers and sysadmins users, and not to the end-users.

    Some people don't wanna use derivates distros, just wanna use debian and have all the benefits of other's distros with the stability of our distro.