If the rocky reception of KDE 4 has done anything, it has forced the KDE project to realize it needs to listen to users more closely. One of the first results of this realization is the new Community Working Group (CWG). Announced at Akademy, the recently concluded annual KDE conference, the CWG was described as designed "to act as a central point of contact by being available to communicate user needs and concerns to developers, and developer intentions and plans to users." The CWG is still being organized; to find out more about its plans, we contacted Anne Wilson and Juan Carlos Torres, two of the group's five initial members.
Wilson is best-known for answering questions about KDE on a variety of forums. She says that KDE has realized the need to improve communication with users for some time. "Everyone, users and developers alike, had known and admitted that the current system of documentation was not good enough. That is not to belittle current documentation, but it is necessarily written before the general public have used the application and fed back their problems and worries.
"The KDE 4 situation this spring was, in a sense, the last straw. We had been aware for a long time that there was a lack of user-centric resources, but since KDE 3 had been around for so long there were always people who could pick up the issues and help out. KDE 4 opened up a whole new ball-game.
"When I first saw KDE 4, I felt completely lost, and realized that this was gong to be a frightening experience for many people. At the same time, some of the messages on mailing lists were not just critical, but downright rude and callous."
Wilson says "the information users had got, prior to seeing KDE 4.0, was from media reviews of new features, and comments from eager early adopters, where enthusiasm for what was to come gave an over-optimistic impression of what would be delivered."
However, the situation was no better on the developers' side. "The developers were shocked," Wilson says. "They had believed that it had been made clear that 4.0 was a development release, but the message had not got through to the users."
"This [situation]," she says, "exposed something else that we had been gradually realizing for some time: there was an almost total lack of communication between developers and users." The CWG is intended "to help bridge the gap."
Plans for the CWG
The CWG is so new that it does not have a home page yet, but development has already started on a Userbase wiki similar to KDE's existing Techbase site for developers. Just as the KDE Techbase provides a starting point for developers who want to contribute to the project, so the Userbase will provide an entry point for those who plan to use KDE as their desktop environment.
"Basically, we're trying to gather up and collate KDE user resources, to really give our users a home in the KDE ecosystem," says Torres, who is a fixture on the #kde channel. "Hopefully, this will help spark collaboration in different areas, such as documentation, localization, advocacy, and marketing."
According to Wilson, the intent is not to duplicate the detailed information found in existing technical tutorials and articles, but to develop material to answer recurring concerns from lists and forums. "At the same time," she says, "we hope to be able to assist the marketing people by ensuring that essential information reaches user lists, to avoid the sort of misunderstandings we have seen."
The CWG also hopes to provide services for developers. "The KDE 4 project has brought in many new developers," she says, "but also caused burnout in some old, established, highly valued developers. There is also, inevitably in a community of this size and diversity, the rare occasion when communication totally breaks down, and mediation may be needed. The CWG is available to help in any such situation, if requested by the parties involved."
Exactly how the CWG will operate, Wilson says, "is deliberately loosely defined. We will be proactive where we see something that users have problems with, but for many things we will simply be waiting and watching for requests for help. We aim to pick up the problems, worries, and fears of users, and provide some easy way for the most common ones to be resolved. The whole point is to make it easier for users to find information without adding to the burden on developers. Developers don't need the hassle of the same questions over and over."
Perhaps the biggest role of the CWG, Torres suggests, will be to help to manage KDE's growth. "KDE is getting bigger than ever and is reaching out to more and more people as it explores new areas, such as mobile Internet devices. And, of course, the community will get bigger and more diverse. It is the CWG's hope that it can help KDE through these times by making sure that no one in the community gets left behind."
Wilson expect that the CWG will take some time to become an accepted part of the KDE community, since none of its activities will be "anything earth-shattering." But, over time, she hopes the new group will come to benefit everyone.
"Hopefully, developers will come to view us as a useful resource," she says. "Users will probably be totally unaware of us, but find the work we do beneficial."
Torres is equally low-key about the future of the group. "I don't have a crystal ball to predict the future of the CWG, if it will become an accepted part of KDE. When that will happen is of lesser consequence. The KDE Community Working Group will keep on doing what it's meant to do: taking care of the community."