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What Information Should I Provide When Asking for Help?

In a recent Ask Leo! Tip of the Day, I suggested you should Provide Enough Information When Asking for Help.

Great, but that raises the question: what’s enough?

In fact, even more than that, which information?

While there are no hard and fast answers, here are guidelines to consider when asking anyone for help with technology.

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It’s not about me

I’ll be talking about what I see, what I need, and what helps me get questions answered, but honestly, this isn’t about me. This is about anyone, anywhere, from whom you are requesting help. The concepts are the same no matter who you ask.

I just happen to be my own best example. 🙂

It depends

I readily admit that there’s no magic formula, checklist, or set of rules to follow when providing information when you ask someone for assistance.

Asking for help about a webpage’s behavior requires different information than if, say, your computer suddenly starts blue-screening.

But there’s definitely some information common to all issues: specific information you need to have on hand to share with the technology gurus in your life.

“It doesn’t work” never helps

A surprising number of questions I get just boil down to “[fill in the blank] doesn’t work.”

That’s exactly zero information. I have nothing — literally nothing — to go on. All I can do is respond with some questions of my own to try to uncover more details about what’s going on.

To be brutally honest, these are the kinds of questions I have little remorse about ignoring, especially if I’m already busy.1

More information is always better.

Just making the attempt to provide more information tells me you’re willing to work at it. Whatever you’re dealing with probably isn’t your fault, but working to get help with it is your responsibility. The more obviously willing you are to try, the more likely I or someone like me will make the time to try as well.

I’ll say it again: more is better. Too much information is better than not enough, and most certainly stands out when compared to no information at all (aka “it doesn’t work”).

The questions I ask in response to “it doesn’t work”

When I’m faced with an “it doesn’t work”-style question, I have a set of questions I pull from to try and get more information. Answering these questions as part of asking the question in the first place really stacks the deck in your favor.

How did it not work?

By this question, I mean “Tell me what happened.”

Tell me the exact error message (if there’s a way, include a screen shot). “It said something about …” isn’t particularly helpful. The more precise you can be, the better.

“Tell me exactly what went wrong”, another way of phrasing it, also leads to my next question.

What were you expecting?

It’s not always obvious what success looks like, so tell me what you were expecting to have happen. Compare what actually happened to what you were expecting.

Sometimes it’s the expectation that’s in error, and knowing what you wanted to have happen can allow me to clarify if that’s the case.

“What would success have looked like?” is another way to phrase the question.

What exact steps did you take to get the problem?

While this doesn’t always apply, detailed step-by-step instructions to reproduce the problem you’re experiencing can help me understand what’s happening. Sometimes those steps are enough to identify a solution, but more commonly they are what I would go through in my attempt to duplicate what you’re seeing.

In other words, “How would I make this happen on my machine?”

What kind of things have you tried?

This is about saving us both time and frustration. And, yes, it’s frustrating to make a suggestion only to have the response be, “Oh, I tried that. It didn’t work.”

Let me know how you tried to resolve your problem before you contacted me. And let me know how each attempt failed — differences in the way things fail can often be important clues to resolving an issue.

“What else didn’t work?” might be another way to think of this.

Has anything changed recently?

People are generally pretty good about letting me know if a change “here” seemed to have a side effect “there”.

The most common case is “I updated X and now Y doesn’t work”, where “X” is often a system update. That helps a lot.

But it’s also a fairly clear case of cause and effect. Less clear cases count too.

For example, installing some software and then having some seemingly completely unrelated failure appear later is surprisingly common. Include changes that might not even seem related. As I’ve said many times, these are incredibly complex systems, and how seemingly unrelated things can impact one another is one of the ways this complexity becomes glaringly apparent.

“What else is new?” might be another way to look at this.

Tell me about your system

This is the lack of information I understand the least. I get that sometimes the variations of “it doesn’t work” at least feel like a reasonable question, even if it’s lacking important details.

System PropertiesBut it seems to me that what kind of a system you’re working on would be fundamental information to include. Sadly, while it’s not often, I’ve definitely had to ask, “Are you even running Windows?” to some questions (and received “Oh, sorry, no, this is my Android phone” occasionally in return).

This is pretty close to a checklist of information to include.

  • Operating System (Windows? MacOS? Android?)
  • Operating System Version (10? 8.1? XP? Bonus points for including specific update level – see below.)
  • Browser (IE? Chrome? Firefox? when applicable)
  • Computer or device make and model (at least whether it’s a desktop, laptop, tablet, or phone)
  • Installed RAM and hard disk(s)
  • Additional hardware that might even be vaguely related to the issue at hand

You get the idea. And, absolutely, much of that information may not even relate to the problem at hand, but if you’re not certain, include it anyway. More information — even too much information — is better than not enough, and increases the odds of a successful resolution to your problem.

Two approaches help automate some of this for Windows. Speccy (a tool from Piriform, the makers of CCleaner) can perform an inventory of your system that you can save to a file and include with your question. Even just taking a screenshot of your system properties (right-click on “Computer”, “My Computer” or “This PC” and click on Properties) will provide the details of your Windows version, as well as useful information about your computer in general.

There are many more questions

There are many more questions that could be asked, but they quickly devolve into situation-specific questions best dealt with case-by-case. The person you’re asking for help will hopefully quickly narrow down the right set of additional things to ask.

The single best thing you can do with your question — again, regardless of who you ask — is:

  • Be as clear and complete as possible.
  • Ask yourself some of the questions above before you ask someone else.

I can’t guarantee you’ll get a response or an answer, even if you do provide all the information I’ve mentioned. But the answers may even help you resolve the problem yourself, and they’ll at least help paint a clearer picture to help people like me help you.

Podcast audio

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Footnotes

1: Spoiler: I’m always busy.

20 comments on “What Information Should I Provide When Asking for Help?”

  1. Most important is you have to realize that the tech support person can’t see you!! You would not believe how many of those “It didn’t work” complaints come from a person who doesn’t even give their name… and even writes from a different email than the one they purchased the product with. So the tech support person has no clue who you are or what you bought.

    My experience in tech support is that the people who have the most problems are those who lack attention to detail. The “It doesn’t work” question totally reflects that. Many people find that writing out a good question to tech support actually fixes their problem simply because they took the time to think through the issue.

  2. I’ve subscribed to the “The Ask Leo Newsletter” long before you offered “Staying Safe on the Internet”.
    How can I receive a copy NOW?

  3. This discussion is Leo’ism at its best. You belong to the 0.01% who can put yourself into the mind of your listener and realize that he doesn’t know everything you know except for this one detail. That is the Achilles Heel of the internet Help world. If helpers could just explain the conceptual scheme behind the difficult, problematical system they are facing – how to think about it – then the listener could answer many of his own questions and he would know how to look for a path through the problems. Instead, Help and FAQ systems only tell the confused applicant “Push button A, then click on B, and you will achieve C”. Over and over again. Not a single hint of what are the thinking and assumptions behind using that system. Many of us have penetrated the fog and slowly figured out how to conceptualize the systems we use, and then we have some power over problems, but no one will tell us or give us that power. Leo does. What bugs me is that any teacher, sitting next to you and teaching about a complex system – e.g. math, computer, chemistry – will tell you first how it works, not how to just press a button or get an answer. That is the very meaning of understanding. Why can’t the people who pretend to be explaining on the internet figure that out? The difference between teaching how to fish and handing someone a fish.

    • The problem is that not all want an education. Many just want an answer, asap, so that they can get on with whatever it is they’re attempting to do. (I try to sneak in a little education wherever possible, regardless. 🙂 )

      • What gets me, aside from this and the whole “x isn’t working” thing is when a client demands an answer immediately and then loses their temper when you tell them that it will require some investigation. It’s almost as if we have some sort of crystal ball from which the answers are gleaned.

        Do doctors and motor mechanics have to deal with this? 😉

        • I can at least answer half of your question “Do doctors and motor mechanics have to deal with this?”. I was an auto technician for many years and the “it doesn’t work” or variations of this were quite common. The only big difference is we would have the car with owner to ask. One of my favorites “it makes a noise” so yes we would deal with it a lot.

  4. I would like to know how to stop or block all ads on my computer. I searched for a car for about three weeks and bought one last week, but I am besieged with car ads all the time. I cannot see what I am trying to see or read without car ads popping up.

  5. I’ve recently read about a log which allow to memorize what’happening when something goes wrong and then be able to pass details to people who will try to help cure the trouble
    But I dont remember …yes!i’ve just find it again: it is “Step Recorder”
    What do you think about it? Could it help?
    Yours

    • Leo recommends Step Recorder in one of his Tips of the Day, available to Patrons of Ask Leo!. It can definitely help.

    • Start -> Run “PSR” – the problem steps recorder. As Mark pointed out I did just recommend it to the Tip Of The Day. I’ve not used it a lot myself, but may consider doing so.

  6. Interesting. I run a computer repair shop and have to deal with this situation often. Another question I often use is: “What is it doing that it shouldn’t be doing?” or, conversely: “What should it be doing that it’s not doing?”

    Quite often I get a statement similar to: “I just click on it and it doesn’t do it!”

    This job definitely requires quite a bit of detective work!

  7. Thank you for this! I was just in the process of thinking how I’d do this (with a new business I’m starting) and these questions are great for me to keep and refer to in the future!

    And thanks to Will for mentioning it in his newsletter 🙂

  8. Microsoft Word has just developed a simple problem but it is an irritating one: When I copy-paste a hyperlink it turns into green in my documents. This is a source of confusion as I do not write to myself and other people seem to be miffed by the green shade. Some do not see it as a hyperlink.
    I can use the Q.A. toolbar and change the color back to blue but as a paralegal, I have a lot documents, hence a lot of these “Greenies” and the reformatting is irritating and time consuming.
    More to the point WHY did that happen? I had a clean reinstall of my entire operating system last month [Pro. Tech. Support – NOT ME!] and most features were working well until about a week ago when the first “greenie” showed up.
    Have you heard of that mutation or am I a privileged guinea-pig?
    One thing that I should add although I cannot imagine why it should be connected, I have experienced some problems with keyboards typing wrong letters hence my having five of them. The first one started typing the wrong letters three to four months ago, (these are not my typos) the variation is not necessarily close to the letter I am typing; it is randomly distributed. I started buying new KBs, hard-wired or USB: NO CHANGE. I called Logitech and they blamed Microsoft. I even bought other brand-name keyboards…”same difference” as they say in UK. That is still going on and it was my reason for initiating a clean reinstall. I was hoping and praying that it would cure the problem: NO WAY! I am beginning to believe that a curse has been sent onto me.
    My set up is:
    Custom built tower by a techie from the Department of Defense using top quality parts
    Window 7 / Word 2010 / Samsung TV as a monitor.
    Norton I.S., Malewarebytes. Ccleaner, Firefox & Chrome – (NEVER use I.E.)
    Logitech keyboards (x5) plus another brand.
    Just a basic old-fashion set up…
    Your suggestion(s) will be most welcome, thank you.
    A. Harcourt
    P.S.: The afore signature showed up green, and that was not even copy-pasted!

  9. cant access my facebook I was hacked or my password saying isn’t right so I must have forgotten it. the e.mail I signed up to facebook is with it is Aim an aim is no longer an no longer have my cell phone number. how can I recover my account?

  10. Dear Leo,
    How’s things?,
    I know you will say that there’s no such thing as an antivirus both free and paid that will detect newer viruses and one just has to update their antivirus as the only way to be fully protected, when Kaspersky has shown with proof that their free antivirus to be way superior against his rivals when compared, and even made claims that W.D is still flawed in 2019 ,and the owners of W.D are not taking computer security seriously as Kaspersky has done ..I have tested every other free antiviruses one by one and found various differences with each one and the detection varies also.I can tell you that when I just used W.D as is ?,I can download so many more dangerous programs without any detection ,while at the same time by just using Kaspersky free, and then downloading so many dangerous programs again ?,many more were detected and blocked or added to the quarantine before I can even had the chance to continue on with a dangerous program..Before I go please bear in mind that W.D In 2019 doesn’t handle Trojans very well if detected, and if one had used Kaspersky free or any other free antivirus like A.V.G free and when a Trojan was detected it didn’t allow it to get into the computer and it would of locked it by letting that Trojan through..W.D needs further testing in 2019 before it can be passed in being a proper free antivirus.Kaspersky has passed all the tests and the results speak for itself..You should give Kaspersky a free go or A.V.G free 2019 and then that would of been the best thing you ever did do..bye

  11. Maybe you should have your ASK link open a form for the “asker” to fill in rather than just telling them what you want to know. This would push people in that direction.

    • I’ve toyed with it. And, indeed, my “ask a question” form (askleo.com/ask) has a couple of fields asking for a brief summary, and the version of the operating system it applies to. The problem is that almost every thing else I can think that would make sense to add to a submission of doesn’t apply to every question. (Even the OS version often doesn’t apply.) In fact, if there are too many different fields to fill out — even optionally — people get intimidated and run away.

      That and I do take questions by email, where a form is simply not an option.

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