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Get Better, Faster Answers by Reading What’s in Front of You

One of the things that frustrates me occasionally in the questions that I’m asked is something I’m also guilty of myself: not reading what’s right in front of my face.

Rather than only venting about it, I want to talk a little bit about why it’s so important to read and follow instructions.

Because it’s obvious that so many people do not. (And, yeah, like I said, sometimes that includes me.)

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The question that started this

This morning as I was reviewing questions in the Ask Leo! question queue, I came across this one:

How i solve this problem sir pls! I use windows 7!-

A problem has
been detected and windows has
been shut down to prevent
damage to your computer.
If this is the first time you’ve seen
this stop error screen, restart your
computer. If this screen appears
again. Follow these steps: _ _ _

That was the entire question. (I did not respond, for reasons that will become apparent.)

We’ve all seen these types of error messages at one time or another. Messages that, essentially tell you exactly what to do next.

My assistant’s proposed response was spot on: “I’d follow the steps described in the error message”.

So why didn’t the questioner do that?

And if he did, why didn’t he include that information? After all, the Ask Leo! question form does also include the following instructions:

BE COMPLETE: I require the version of all software involved (particularly Windows), the full text of any error messages, the specific make and model of computer and detailed steps to reproduce the problem you’re seeing. Without enough information you won’t get an answer. Period.

It’s more than just error messages

Like I said, that question was just the spark for today’s mini-rant. The fact is I frequently get questions Do This Next where it’s obvious that individuals have failed to read what’s on the screen in front of them.

Sometimes when someone asks “what do I do next?” it really is as glaringly obvious as not seeing the actual words on the screen that say “do this next”.

I get that there’s a lot of information on the screen. And as we’ll see in a moment, I also get that it’s not always glaringly obvious. But taking an extra five minutes to carefully read and think about what’s on the screen in front of you is significantly faster than the amount of time it takes to submit your question to me (or any Q&A site), and then possibly wait days for an answer – that might not even come.

Take a breath. Sit back. Read. Think.

Then follow the instructions that might already be in front of you.

Like the aforementioned “Follow these steps:”.

It’s not always obvious

Like I said, I totally get that information on the screen might not be presented in a way that’s as obvious as all that, and might use words that are not easily understood.

My favorite example are the ellipsis in’s menu bar:

Ellipsis in menu bar

The “ellipsis” is the three dots that appear at the end of the menu items. You don’t need to know what it’s called, but do you know what it means?’s designers think you do. As it turns out many people do not. And yet access to some functionality in the interface absolutely depends on your knowing what those three dots mean.

For the record, they mean that the menu bar is “continued” because there’s not enough space to display it all. Click on the three dots and you’ll see what else there is: Ellipsis Menu Drop-down

That’s obscure to many people, and I totally get that.

At the other end of the spectrum

Have a look at this screen shot of the Facebook login page:

Facebook Sign-in

Two questions for you:

  • Is Facebook going to start charging for access some day?
  • What should you do if you can’t log in?

The only hint I’ll give you is that the answers are clearly in front of you. You’ll see them. You’ll also be surprised at how many do not.

Just like those that didn’t see “Follow these steps:”.

My advice for better computing success

So let’s turn this little vent into some practical advice that’ll help you run into fewer frustrations as you use technology.

First, I don’t have to tell you this, but there will be problems. Expect them. Things will go wrong. (Heck, it’s why I’m such a cheerleader for backing up. :-) ).

When they do, when you find yourself in a frustrating situation, facing an unknown error message or just filling out a web form asking for help:

  • Take a moment.
  • Breathe.
  • Read carefully, the information that’s on your computer screen, or the instructions that you’ve been presented with.
  • Take the time to make sure you understand them as best you can.
  • Take your next steps accordingly.

Not everything you encounter will be something you understand – I’m not saying that at all.

But if you give it a chance, many problems will become manageable if you just take the time to think about it.

And for the rest … well, that’s one of the reasons I’m here. Just, kindly, read my instructions as well, OK?1 :-)

Do this

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Footnotes & references

1: And if they’re not clear, let me know. I do want my instructions to fall into the category of “things everyone can understand”.

12 comments on “Get Better, Faster Answers by Reading What’s in Front of You”

  1. Thank you for doing what you are doing to help others! I had signed up for your newsletter by the name I ordinarily use (Robbie) and the e-mail address we have had for years ({email address removed}). However, ever since “Outlook” has become involved with Hotmail, we have had tons of problems; namely, being locked out of our e-mail account for weeks. I’m sure you’ve heard this complaint many times. It is said that we must have a “Code” and they will send it to: (and the address they show is one we haven’t had for many years, and we can’t correct it), OR, they get our e-mail address right but it makes no sense that they say they’ll send the code to this address that we are locked out of. We have typed a new “alternate” yahoo address but we get a message such as; “We’re not ready for you yet, your account is still in the waiting period”; OR, we’ll send you a code September 28th, etc., etc. Therefore, I am offering you a “new” Yahoo e-mail address and my middle name (Nell) in hopes that we can receive your newsletters and learn from you. I am 80 and my husband 84. We have a 56 year old disabled son who lives with us, and we often get important government e-mails that need our response, so the problems we’re having with not being able to get into our Hotmail/Outlook e-mails are not only frustrating but concern us. Not being able to resolve this problem ourselves, we have paid “technicians” who can get us into our e-mail account, but we’re lucky if it lasts a day or two, then we’re locked out again.

    We are looking forward to your newsletters; also, being able to check your “archives” for information that will very likely be helpful to us. Thank you again!

      • Somewhere, I believe it was here that said NEVER use a FREE email service for important transactions. To Nell, how would Leo recover a password in an account, he does not work for Microsoft. Any Microsoft employee who tries a nonstandard way to recover your password may risk their job. Have the Government resend you the information, after you setup a second account with a valid alternate valid email address. and test the address, first. Your ISP usually provides an email address. I can have up to 9

    • to Nell Smith, ditch Outlook & yahog completely & get a gmail account.
      Pull the icon from the address bar of your new gmail email webpage & put it on your desktop.
      Click on it everytime you want to check your mail. You will go right to your emails somewhere in the google cloud.
      Too easy, no worries. :)

  2. I would love to read the article “Get better faster answers by reading whats in front of you” but all I get is a screen full of black with a few advertisements. Why do all of my openings come in a black screen? All of it is difficult to read.

  3. Oh this is so true. My sister very often rings for help and I will say … what does it say on the screen, and invariably its telling her how to fix her problem. I think it’s because some people think they are not qualified enough to fix IT problems and the moment they see an error message they panic and miss the obvious. But I must confess she has had a computer 20 years.

  4. There is an axiom from my early days of implementing online systems: adults don’t read.

    After spending large amounts of time developing error messages, we would still get phone calls. It was obvious that no one was reading the messages.

    I used to joke that only one error message was needed for data entry screens: correct the blinking fields.

  5. People don’t read… fullstop!
    They pull a few words from the first few lines, make an assumption, then leave the mess for someone else to clean up if they were wrong.

    • As a school librarian, I often hear students say “I hate to read!” These are the very people who will one day sign legal documents without reading them, and call Tech Support without reading the simple error message. I’m also the Technology Coordinator for my school, and the number one complaint I get from teachers and administrators is: “There’s something wrong with my computer.” When I ask what the problem is, I usually get, “I dunno. Something popped up on the screen. Can you come look at it.” This is VERY FRUSTRATING!!! You’re right, NO ONE READS!

  6. Many decades ago I learned these four computer rules: (1) “GIGO” = garbage in, garbage out; (2) Back up your data!!! (3) “RTBM” = read the bloody manual; (4) “RTBS” = read the bloody screen. Computers are smaller and faster, but these rules still apply.


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