8 tips to help non-techies move to Linux

Help your friends dump their proprietary operating systems and make the move to open source.
177 readers like this.
A quick and easy way to make your first open source contribution


Back in 2016, I took down the shingle for my technology coaching business. Permanently. Or so I thought.

Over the last 10 months, a handful of friends and acquaintances have pulled me back into that realm. How? With their desire to dump That Other Operating System™ and move to Linux.

This has been an interesting experience, in no small part because most of the people aren't at all technical. They know how to use a computer to do what they need to do. Beyond that, they're not interested in delving deeper. That said, they were (and are) attracted to Linux for a number of reasons—probably because I constantly prattle on about it.

While bringing them to the Linux side of the computing world, I learned a few things about helping non-techies move to Linux. If someone asks you to help them make the jump to Linux, these eight tips can help you.

1. Be honest about Linux.

Linux is great. It's not perfect, though. It can be perplexing and sometimes frustrating for new users. It's best to prepare the person you're helping with a short pep talk.

What should you talk about? Briefly explain what Linux is and how it differs from other operating systems. Explain what you can and can't do with it. Let them know some of the pain points they might encounter when using Linux daily.

If you take a bit of time to ease them into Linux and open source, the switch won't be as jarring.

2. It's not about you.

It's easy to fall into what I call the power user fallacy: the idea that everyone uses technology the same way you do. That's rarely, if ever, the case.

This isn't about you. It's not about your needs or how you use a computer. It's about the person you're helping's needs and intentions. Their needs, especially if they're not particularly technical, will be different from yours.

It doesn't matter if Ubuntu or Elementary or Manjaro aren't your distros of choice. It doesn't matter if you turn your nose up at window managers like GNOME, KDE, or Pantheon in favor of i3 or Ratpoison. The person you're helping might think otherwise.

Put your needs and prejudices aside and help them find the right Linux distribution for them. Find out what they use their computer for and tailor your recommendations for a distribution or three based on that.

3. Not everyone's a techie.

And not everyone wants to be. Everyone I've helped move to Linux in the last 10 months has no interest in compiling kernels or code nor in editing and tweaking configuration files. Most of them will never crack open a terminal window. I don't expect them to be interested in doing any of that in the future, either.

Guess what? There's nothing wrong with that. Maybe they won't get the most out of Linux (whatever that means) by not embracing their inner geeks. Not everyone will want to take on challenges of, say, installing and configuring Slackware or Arch. They need something that will work out of the box.

4. Take stock of their hardware.

In an ideal world, we'd all have tricked-out, high-powered laptops or desktops with everything maxed out. Sadly, that world doesn't exist.

That probably includes the person you're helping move to Linux. They may have slightly (maybe more than slightly) older hardware that they're comfortable with and that works for them. Hardware that they might not be able to afford to upgrade or replace.

Also, remember that not everyone needs a system for heavy-duty development or gaming or audio and video production. They just need a computer for browsing the web, editing photos, running personal productivity software, and the like.

One person I recently helped adopt Linux had an Acer Aspire 1 laptop with 4GB of RAM and a 64GB SSD. That helped inform my recommendations, which revolved around a few lightweight Linux distributions.

5. Help them test-drive some distros.

The DistroWatch database contains close to 900 Linux distributions. You should be able to find three to five Linux distributions to recommend. Make a short list of the distributions you think would be a good fit for them. Also, point them to reviews so they can get other perspectives on those distributions.

When it comes time to take those Linux distributions for a spin, don't just hand someone a bunch of flash drives and walk away. You might be surprised to learn that most people have never run a live Linux distribution or installed an operating system. Any operating system. Beyond plugging the flash drives in, they probably won't know what to do.

Instead, show them how to create bootable flash drives and set up their computer's BIOS to start from those drives. Then, let them spend some time running the distros off the flash drives. That will give them a rudimentary feel for the distros and their window managers' quirks.

6. Walk them through an installation.

Running a live session with a flash drive tells someone only so much. They need to work with a Linux distribution for a couple or three weeks to really form an opinion of it and to understand its quirks and strengths.

There's a myth that Linux is difficult to install. That might have been true back in the mid-1990s, but today most Linux distributions are easy to install. You follow a few graphical prompts and let the software do the rest.

For someone who's never installed any operating system, installing Linux can be a bit daunting. They might not know what to choose when, say, they're asked which filesystem to use or whether or not to encrypt their hard disk.

Guide them through at least one installation. While you should let them do most of the work, be there to answer questions.

7. Be prepared to do a couple of installs.

As I mentioned a paragraph or two ago, using a Linux distribution for two weeks gives someone ample time to regularly interact with it and see if it can be their daily driver. It often works out. Sometimes, though, it doesn't.

Remember the person with the Acer Aspire 1 laptop? She thought Xubuntu was the right distribution for her. After a few weeks of working with it, that wasn't the case. There wasn't a technical reason—Xubuntu ran smoothly on her laptop. It was just a matter of feel. Instead, she switched back to the first distro she test drove: MX Linux. She's been happily using MX ever since.

8. Teach them to fish.

You can't always be there to be the guiding hand. Or to be the mechanic or plumber who can fix any problems the person encounters. You have a life, too.

Once they've settled on a Linux distribution, explain that you'll offer a helping hand for two or three weeks. After that, they're on their own. Don't completely abandon them. Be around to help with big problems, but let them know they'll have to learn to do things for themselves.

Introduce them to websites that can help them solve their problems. Point them to useful articles and books. Doing that will help make them more confident and competent users of Linux—and of computers and technology in general.

Final thoughts

Helping someone move to Linux from another, more familiar operating system can be a challenge—a challenge for them and for you. If you take it slowly and follow the advice in this article, you can make the process smoother.

Do you have other tips for helping a non-techie switch to Linux? Feel free to share them by leaving a comment.

That idiot Scott Nesbitt ...
I'm a long-time user of free/open source software, and write various things for both fun and profit. I don't take myself all that seriously and I do all of my own stunts.


There is also the involuntary switch. Some years ago I switched my wife's computer to Linux. Overall, there was barely a ripple of discontent, and I think this is because from a non-techie point of view Linux is no more or less confusing that what they are used to. An advantage is that Linux is less of a black box; I most likely can figure out some issue and either fix it or work around it. I was surprised when my wife complained when Fedora switched from the running display of commands when it boots to the "dumb" and uninformative graphical boot. It's not that she understood any of it, but seeing that something was actually happening seems to make the boot a more comforting experience.

I had a similar situation a few years ago. The hard drive on my wife's laptop, which was running The Operating System I Shall Not Name, died. She didn't have the license key, and didn't want to shell out for a new version of said operating system. I bought a new hard drive, installed Linux Mint on it, and despite a few hiccups with printers (devices that my wife never gets along with) it's been a smooth ride.

In reply to by Greg P

This also reminds me of a friend of mine who works in marketing and is not really an IT expert.

One day this lady sent me a message which was like "You know what? I was getting fed up with Windows. I formatted my computer and now I am running Ubuntu."

Well, it wasn't that hard. :D

In reply to by ScottNesbitt

Same old song. My wife was using a laptop (yes, that other OS) for her email, web surfing, a few games, etc., and began complaining that it would lock up once in a while. I was about to go on a trip, so I put a folding table beside her computer desk and put a fairly nice Linux Mint computer I was setting up for myself so she could use it while I was gone. Showed her a game or two and that was about it. It wasn't that other OS and she had no experience with Linux, so I knew I had better fix her computer when I got home.

A week later, I was back and was ready to see the problem with her computer. Before I got to it, she asked, "When are you going to get that old computer off my desk so you can put MY NEW COMPUTER on it?" If you are male and have been married more than about six weeks, you already know how this ends.

In reply to by ScottNesbitt

There's one thing I also talk about, always first, because it's quite important to quite some people: money. I tell them that Linux distros were free of cost, are free of cost, and will remain free of cost. (RHEL excluded, but that's no OS for 'the comman [wo]man'.). Nine times out of ten, they're impressed.

I normally include pieces of information on property rights they do not have with "That Other Operating System™" (beautiful paraphrase!), and tell them that any Linux distro really is their own and what this implies. They're always deeply impressed.

As to the rest, I do just the same as you do, and I KNOW that we do it the right way.

While Linux is free of cost that argument has not worked on anyone I know as most people think their OS already is free as "it came with the computer".

In reply to by Amélie (not verified)

Good point. With the people I helped out this year, cost wasn't the biggest issue. It is the freedom that Linux gives them. That starts off with the no-cost (financially speaking) software, and then often extends into how Linux and FOSS free them from various proprietary encumbrances.

In reply to by jimmysjolund

I made a spanish translation about this article in my little blog:
* https://victorhckinthefreeworld.com/2018/12/18/consejos-para-ayudar-a-t…

GNU operative system with Linux is free and libre. The most important it's not the price, but the freedom that a libre operating system give to the people (even if they are not IT or geek people!)

Happy hacking!

1 - (works for 90% ppl)
Help your friends to use opensource software in windows/mac .
People dont use "linux"or "windows" , they use apps to do things
if you get your friends used to work with opensource software like libreoffice, vlc player, rawtherapee, firefox, gimp, blender , darktable etc , then the change to linux will be no change because they"ll use the same same software.
Of course for some soft there isnot a good alternative but there is for the most common apps

Great article with great insights and I love reading the comments too. I think most people appreciate some mentoring. I've helped some people particularly senior citizens who had grown tired of the malware and browser hijacks on that other OS. Most of the folks I suggest Linux to have never heard of it and have no idea there is another option.

And it's always great to watch someone learn or discover something new and interesting if they do make the switch. No matter what their age.

In reply to by Don Watkins

Overall a very good article. For those thinking of introducing others to Linux though, just be aware that 'not everyone wants to be a techie' is somewhat at odds with 'teach them to fish' in as much as a lot of users don't want to learn to fish. They want the fish, prepared and plated by you.... every time a fish is required. In other words, if you're introducing people to Linux beware they might just come to see you as their free, lifetime technical support. That's why I keep it to family these days.

That's not true of everyone. The people I've helped move to Linux have gotten their hands dirty. Well, a little dirtier than most Windows or Mac users. None of them have become shell scripters, nor have they waded into the scary waters that are the files in the /etc directory. But they've learned enough to get themselves out of certain situations. And mostly without cracking open a terminal window.

In reply to by Nomen luni (not verified)

I am getting more and more friends and family on Linux all the time and I am amazed at how little they contact me for help. I install Mint for most people because its the simplest for most average media consumer types. I leave them with a little 2-page printout that explains how to get updates and how to install printers and software. I get them going on any apps they need to use. I have a sister-in-law using Moneydance as a Quicken replacement and is very happy, for example. Then, I practically never hear from them again! Linux is so stable and reliable anymore, they just don't need me!

Interesting article and useful recommendations. Seen as today a lot of apps are developed for web browsers, maybe the familiarity with web browser could help in the transition. I'm a techie profile but I think I need to experiment with other non-techie profiles. :)

Believe it or not, it's possible to put a Linux distribution on an old computer if someone wants to get a bit more life out of an old system. I did it for my mother, who was in her mid-eighties at the time, and I did it for a neighbor across the street, who was 1-2 years younger than me.

Neither of them had any familiarity with "operating systems" or something named this or that. I didn't bother them with specifics. I told them that I had a freely available operating system that I often used on old computers, and if they let me put it on their system for them, I could help their old computer work for a few more years. The old systems still "worked", but were extremely slow. I asked, and saved anything they thought they'd need, then I did the job, and carefully set things up such that the system would come right up when powered on. I was even able (for those who wanted it) to have the system automatically login and show only icons for whatever things they liked to use - a Web Browser, an Email client, a file browser, or whatever - most of the things the few people I've set up computers for had pretty simple needs. I asked in advance and set up exactly what they asked for (and backed up everything they previously had, just in case something was "forgotten").

A VERY SHORT intro and a couple of notes was all that I needed to provide. I doubt any of them had any idea it was Linux or Debian, or MEPIS, or whatever it may have been. If I set up a different background, prompt, or anything else, I could make it look almost identical to what they used before, except it was more nimble, lightly configured to do only what they needed it to do, and therefore it was very simple. Worked well in multiple cases.

I even make a few systems like this for myself on occasion in order to have something that boots up quickly on old equipment and typically runs only a light browser, command prompt, file manager and possibly an email client.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International License.