It’s a fair question.
I wish I could.
Honestly, I truly wish I could give everyone a simple, step-by-step, here’s-how-to-fix-your-problem answer. When possible, I try. Unfortunately, it’s rarely possible to be that specific.
There’s a reason my most common answer is “It depends.”
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The information I get
I don’t want to sound like I’m trying to shift the blame, but the reality of the situation is that I rarely get enough information to determine the exact cause of a specific problem. I’m often not told of the symptoms at all beyond the ever-popular “it doesn’t work.”
Without detailed information about the problem, there’s little hope for getting detailed information about an answer.
I get that it’s not always possible to know what information to provide. That’s why I wrote an article on the topic: What Information Should I Provide When Asking for Help? It’s a great place to start.
Step-by-step answers often require step-by-step instructions to reproduce whatever problem is at hand. And while not all problems are of the “step by step” variety, I can say this for sure: it’s better to provide too much information than too little.
When you experience a computer problem, you see symptoms. A symptom might include an error message, unexpected behavior, or a lack of expected behavior.
The symptoms are not the problem; symptoms are clues to the problem.
What does it mean if your leg hurts? Most commonly, it’s a simple muscle strain, but it might also be an insect bite, an infection, a blood clot, cancer, or a variety of other things I can’t begin to think of. We need more information. As TV doctors might say, “We need to do more tests.”
The same is true of computer problems. When you report symptoms, you’re reporting clues I use to diagnose the cause of the problem. Sometimes, the clues are enough. More often, though, they are not. The same symptom might have hundreds, if not thousands, of different causes.
Since I can’t sit at your computer and diagnose your specific problem, I can’t “run more tests”.
Like a doctor, I might ask you more questions about the symptoms you’re experiencing in the hope of clarifying what is happening.
I might also give you suggestions to further diagnose or repair the problem yourself.
Much like that leg pain, resolving your computer’s problem often involves understanding more about what was happening prior to the symptoms appearing. Sometimes a lot of people experience similar symptoms, while at other times, there might be a situation I’ve never encountered before.
In understanding more about what’s happening, I’ll probably have suggestions of things to try or look at.
No two computers are alike
Computers, like people, are incredibly complex. No two are exactly alike, no matter how you configure them.
Different hardware, operating systems (and versions thereof), applications, customizations, ways of connecting to the internet, and methods of using the computer make each individual computer as unique as the individual user.
As a result, blanket cookbook solutions to specific problems are rare. Obviously, I try to find them when I can, but quite often what works for one machine will not for another, and certainly not for all.
What to try and how to go about further diagnosing the problem yourself, however, does work, as evidenced by the many people who take that guidance and resolve their issues.
Unfortunately, computers are not yet like toasters: they don’t “just work”. That means at some point, each of us will be faced with the responsibility of some diagnostic detective work.
There are lots of folks like me available to help, but ultimately, it’ll take someone at your keyboard to collect the information we need to perform the final diagnosis and repair…
…and that someone is you.