Who is Joe User?

Blog post by darkwyrm on Mon, 2007-07-09 12:45

A couple of articles I just read (here and its rebuttal) are written by Linux users about why Linux is the best and how to get a regular person (hereafter referred to as Joe User) to start using Linux. To save you the time of reading the two articles, the first is entitled “Understanding the Common User: Everything should be as simple as it is, " by Keyto. The article is partly about how a Common User thinks, but primarily that quite a lot of the problem with Linux is the current users – geeks who have trouble relating to Joe at Joe’s level of expertise instead of the geek’s level. The rebuttal “Get Real or How NOT To Convert Your Grandma to Linux,” by Karol Trojanowski, advises that Linux users shouldn’t try to “convert” everyone and why. A quote from the article describes Linux perfectly: “A wand does magic in a wizard’s hand. Otherwise, it’s just a stick.” All too true. Many of the problems that Linux advocates face are the same ones that BeOS proponents struggle with. The first step to effective persuasion is understanding the audience, so who exactly is Joe User, anyway?

Before I detail what kind of person Joe User is, allow me to add some information about myself for context. I am a BeOS user since the release of R5 Personal Edition in March of 2000 and an active developer of BeOS programs (and Haiku) since November of the same year. Most of my computer expertise initially came from tinkering, reading, and then formal training as a Level 1 helpdesk monkey for the college that I attended. Since those 2 1/2 years of helping college students, I have been helping many, many friends, family, and acquaintances with the perils and problems of Windows. I currently am the resident computer geek for a sizable multi-campus private school in Ohio, mostly maintaining a network of about 20 machines and teaching computer classes to the students. I know more than a couple non-geeks, needless to say, and I have experience in serving their needs. When it comes to Linux itself, I am a novice, but not clueless. Over the years, I have worked with Debian, Fedora, Gentoo, Linspire, and Ubuntu. I understand where Joe User comes from concerning Linux because I've wanted to use it without learning all the internal workings even though I am easily geek enough to do so.

Most of the problems with OS advocacy stems from conflicting viewpoints on computers: one viewpoint loves technology and is ever finding new uses for it. The other viewpoint looks at technology as a means to an end, e.g. a tool and nothing more. For the sake of reference, I will refer to these two camps as the technologists and the utilitarians. They are worlds apart in their thinking. Here is my attempt to explain a utilitarian world to a group of technologists.

Bill Geek, Meet Joe User

While I have met many different Joes in my life so far, most of them think the same way about computers. Allow me to introduce you to one of them, named Dave. Computers, for Dave, are a necessary evil. They are expensive to buy and maintain. He can’t seem to figure out how the spyware can get on his computer. He once opened an attachment from a relative and it ruined his machine. He lost all of his documents and spent $300 to have the Geek Squad fix the damage. It’s upsetting, too, because one of the documents was a proposal he’d been working on for six months and he had to start all over. Thankfully, that’s over and done with now. It seems to Dave like computers are a series of problems as he’s trying to get his work done. Good thing his brother Jack is an expert at computers and helps him out whenever Dave has a problem.

Conversational Soundbits

These are bits of conversations that Dave has had with his brother Jack. Any of them sound familiar?

Jack: What version of Windows are you using?
Dave: Word 2003
Jack: *shudders* That would be Office.
Dave: What do you mean?

Dave: Jack, my Internet's broken.
Jack: What do you mean?
Dave: My e-mail program gave me a message about a server, but I can't remember exactly what it said.

Dave: I want to get Vista
Jack: You'll need to get a new computer
Dave: Why?
Jack: Because your computer is too old.
Dave: But I just bought this one four years ago! That isn't old! Why should I pony up another $500?

Some of you are probably nodding your heads about some of these. They illustrate the vast differences between technologists and utilitarians. You probably could think of quite a few more -- tales of broken cupholders, spyware-infested boxes, 2005 OpenGL games bought from Wal-Mart for a Windows 95 machine, and other shiver-inspiring stories.

Fast Facts About Joe

Here are some more useful things to know about Joe User:

  • Joe does not know or care what an operating system is. Telling him about the wonders of BeOS' massively multithreaded goodness and how it makes everything faster is like trying to explain why the Wankel rotary engine in Mazda RX-7s is better than the standard four-stroke engine of, say, a Miata. All Joe can see is that they're both nice-looking cars but that no one except a dealership will fix the RX-7.
  • Joe does not understand computerese. Computer geeks are the opposite of most doctors: they will explain everything using computer language and Joe doesn't have the slightest clue what any of it means. Virtualization is still a mystery to him.
  • Joe is not, contrary to geek opinion, stupid. His priorities and expertise are elsewhere. Some Joes have PHDs in Education, History, or Sociology.
  • Joe is busy. Too busy to bother with trying to navigate a poorly-written help manual for a badly-designed program that he has to use.
  • Joe doesn't like to change. Learning a new program (let alone another OS) takes a lot of time and is stressful for Joe, so he uses what he knows.
  • Joe is confused, frustrated, or upset when the computer does something he doesn't understand. Which, unfortunately, is quite often.


Technologists should treat utilitarians with compassion and patience. They can be taught, but typically not in a classroom or even a tutor type of environment. Over the years that we have been married, my utilitarian wife does quite well with computers and knows more than many of the other teachers at the school we work for. She does have her struggles, though. What she knows has been learned on-the-fly and used in the work that she does. Recognizing the differences between Bill Geek and Joe User is the first step to true OS advocacy. How do we technologists put all of this information to use? That is an article for another time, dear reader. :)