Technology in terms you understand. Sign up for the Confident Computing newsletter for weekly solutions to make your life easier. Click here and get The Ask Leo! Guide to Staying Safe on the Internet — FREE Edition as my thank you for subscribing!

My Favorite Question

It’s the question that makes my life easier.

My favorite question? You'll never guess. Hint: it makes my job super easy, and you don't want that.

I want to share my absolute favorite question with you.

It’s a question I get in one form or another all the time. Not a day goes by that I don’t.

It’s simple, and it’s easy for me to deal with.

Become a Patron of Ask Leo! and go ad-free!


My favorite question?

Variations of “It doesn’t work” are frustratingly common, and easy for me to deal with: I can’t, so I don’t. Regardless of whom you’re asking, it’s critical to provide them with enough information to be able to help. If you don’t, they can’t.

It doesn’t work

My favorite question of all time is: “It doesn’t work.”

I’m sure that’s not what you expected. I mean, it’s not really even a question, is it?

Why is it my favorite?

Because there’s nothing I can do. There’s nothing for me to answer. And since there’s nothing I can do, I can move on — quickly.

“It doesn’t work” means “Leo doesn’t answer.” Nor will many other people.

Variations on the theme

Now, you’re probably thinking, “Leo, no one asks that question.”

Do I get those exact words? No. But I get questions that boil down to that question in spirit all the time.

Some examples:

  • My printer doesn’t work.
  • I can’t print.
  • Attachments won’t open.
  • I can’t log in.

I get variations on this theme all the time. Seriously.

There’s no question. No information. No . . . nothing. Just a statement that something doesn’t work, without any information to help me understand more.

I’m only half joking

I use the word “favorite” facetiously. In reality, questions like this often frustrate me because either of two things has to happen:

  • I have to embark on what is usually a frustrating game of 20 questions to get the information I need to be able to help.


  • Whoever asked just isn’t going to get an answer. They’re not going to hear back from me at all, as a matter of fact. And this frustrates me because I really do want to help.

Since going back and forth trying to tease out more information is frustrating for both of us, and since I’m usually short on time and long on other questions, you can guess which of those two options is more likely to happen.

I click next and move on.

Even though it saves me a lot of time, I guess it’s not really my favorite question at all. I’d rather be able to get you an answer.

Getting an answer

So, how do we tip the odds in favor of getting you the answer you need?

There’s a long list of things I could say, but I’ll prioritize three things: three things that, if at least thought about for every question, would greatly increase the chances of my being able to answer. (And this applies to asking a tech question of just about anyone you can think of.)

First: Tell me what software you’re running. What version of Windows? What program are you running that’s giving you difficulty? Is it a program on your PC, or something you’re accessing online via your web browser? And if so, which browser are you using?

Second: Include the exact text of any error message you get. If you tell me, “It said something like …” that’s not good enough. Computers are darned picky, and the devil is in those details. “Something like” could mean hundreds of different errors or problems. The exact text of the exact error is a huge shortcut to understanding a lot of issues.

Third: Tell me what you were doing when you had this problem. More than just running your computer … exactly what actions, what keystrokes, what specifically were you doing when whatever it was didn’t work? Step by step, if at all possible.

Sometimes one or more of those things won’t apply to your question, and that’s OK. But at least think about each one in turn, and include the information if it makes sense to you.

I could go on, of course.

  • I know terminology is difficult, but it could be worth the time to learn the right words for things to avoid being misunderstood.
  • I know the world is becoming seamless, but it could be worthwhile to understand the difference between a program running on your computer and visiting a website.
  • I know Microsoft makes this frustratingly difficult, but it could help to understand the difference between Outlook and — they are not the same at all — and then use the right name for each.

As I said, I could go on.

Focus on the top three — the software you’re running, the error messages you get, what you were doing — and you’ll be miles ahead of a lot of questioners.

And I can promise you, anyone who’s attempting to answer your questions will appreciate that you took a little extra time to provide the information we need.

Let’s face it … anything is better than “It doesn’t work.”

Do this

Subscribe to Confident Computing! Less frustration and more confidence, solutions, answers, and tips in your inbox every week.

I'll see you there!

Podcast audio


41 comments on “My Favorite Question”

  1. After seeing your video, I wondered if people, when they submit their question, should be forced to give more information when they fill out the form, like what the topic of the question is (having to choose between software and hardware, if it’s software, what type of software, etc, etc.) Or would that making asking the question too complex?

    • My thinking is that it gets too complex. Not all those fields apply to every question, for example. If I *require* answers, then people can’t fill them in for some questions. If I don’t require answers, many people ignore them. I have thought about it though.

      • Leo, the form idea would work if you required mandatory answers such as (a) what operating system, (b) provide the exact error message, if any, (c) what steps have you taken to correct the problem, and/or whatever else you deem necessary. The rest could be optional. Why not try a form to see how it works for both you and “the gang?” No doubt, you would receive good feedback.

        • Consider the common question “How do I find someone by their IP address?” “Exact error text” and Operating system don’t apply, and there are no “steps”. You see what I’m getting at? There are so many different types of common questions that it’s nearly impossible for me to require components that apply in all cases … or even most cases.

          • You’re absolutely right, Leo. If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s having to fill out a restrictive online form that demands answers to questions that don’t apply and forces me to categorize an issue that doesn’t fit into any of their pre-made categories. Arrgh!

            I think the better approach is to keep on doing it as you are. Allow your readers broad freedom to posit their questions freely, without the annoying restrictions that forms impose. If their communication skills aren’t up to the job, that’s THEIR problem.

    • Speaking of online forms that demand answers to questions that don’t apply, I actually encountered a webite once that required one to specify one’s occupation… from (get this!) a drop-down list of perhaps a ten enteries, none of which were my occupation (or even remotely close to it), and no “Other” or “Not Listed” entry in sight!

      Now, what is one supposed to do about THAT, I should like to know?!?

  2. The opposite holds true too. If a user supplies too much info, that is not helpful. I don’t want a 15 minute explanation. I don’t care what you ate for breakfast. I don’t care what shoes you have on. It is a waste of my time and theirs. Leo – Do you receive emails that supply sentence after sentence that don’t apply to the issue, but the end user thinks it is helpful?

    • This is very common in my tech support world – but it’s usually because people don’t have the faintest idea what is causing the problem. If they think it’s their shoes, they are going to mention that in great detail. People will explain in great detail how frustrated they are, how much of their valuable time they have wasted, and fail to mention that they are trying to do some complicated computing on an old Android phone.

      • It surprises me that few people use their favorite search engine to find an answer – that’s generally what I do when presented with a new problem – I usually start with their exact words and work from there.

        • The entire job test for the job as Ask Leo! was a test of our search skills. Knowing how to use a search engine is one of the most important skills in today’s world. If you have good search skills, you have almost the entire compendium of the world’s knowledge. As they said in many college courses, “You can use the textbook in an exam. When you get out, you’ll always have the books. The important thing is how to use the books.” Effectively used, the Internet is the textbook for almost everything we want to learn.

    • I have to disagree Jon. It is much easier to filter out the details that don’t apply, than it is to play 20 questions to get the details you need. I had a case once where it took 2 days to figure out that static electricity zapped the handset microphone on a users VoIP phone, when the ticket was simply people cannot hear me when I call them. Thankfully a vendor gave me a tip after it took them 3 months and 6 phones to figure out a warehouse worker was building up too much static electricity and zapping their phone on a regular basis. Once I narrowed down the problem, I said, I imagine you ran to the phone in your fluffy slippers and got shocked. The user was surprised that I guessed what happened and that the phone shocked her on the chin. Had original details included, I ran to the phone in my pink fluffy slippers and got zapped when I picket it up, now people can’t hear me, it would have saved both of us a lot of time.

      • I think it is a balance. Too little is frustrating, like Leo states. Too much can be a waste. Connie’s statement is a good example. I think my issue is where the user supplies TOO MUCH info on what THEY think is important and then they supply TOO LITTLE on what actually happened.

  3. Nothing to do with Microsoft.. Am using Firefox for browser, and Thunderbird as mail handler. I loaded a new update 31.6.0. Now when on incoming msg screen, have lost inbox, sent file, archive, spam ect. These where down the left side of screen before. Any idea how to get these back.?? Have tried to contact Mozella but they are harder to contact than a bunny rabbit on roller skates.. Worked on this problem all day yesterday… Thanks for any help you can suggest..

  4. I enjoyed the video and can understand your frustration at your “favorite question.” The video got me thinking and wondering what other information would also be helpful to those who are trying to help us less than tech savy people.
    Have you entertained the idea of making a post of your Top Ten helpful info bits? A lot along the lines of David Letterman’s Top Ten, without the snarkiness. Just a thought.

    P.S. Thank you for all you do.

    • Actually the related article “why won’t you answer my question” discusses that a bit, but what you suggest would be helpful.

  5. Very well done video. I have seen many times in various discusion forums on subjects other than computers, just what you are saying. It makes you shake your head and start asking questions. In your case, you just do not have the time to do that and must move on.

  6. Hi. No questions. I’m an old . an retired , computer Tec. from the ” Main frame days. I read your e-mails and Ask Bob mostly to attempt to keep up with the world of computers as best I can. In ” My day” the thing was is it a ” Hardware ” or “Software” problem. Every system’s software was Written for that system.
    Today its all software? Not always so, but mostly. Hard for an 81 year old to keep up. Even my younger computer friends have problems. Glad to have someone
    to read to help. Enjoy your articles. Keep up the good work. ELS X-CDC tech. ( Control Data Corp. )

  7. Very relevant post Leo, thank you. Your video kept reminding me of when I hear the dreaded “they said” or “they told me”. I always feel like an owl. Who? Who? Who are “they”? I have to give credit to anyone who works in technical support. It is inconceivable to most how a seemingly simple problem can be incredibly complex in nature.

  8. As mentioned, many of us are not absolutely clear as to terminology…..because we’re not totally sure what to call “it”. Whole new language for many. Synonyms might be confusing. Glossary of top 100 terms likely on google.

  9. Hi Leo!
    Having spent most of the last 30 years or so building, configuring, supporting and troubleshooting PCs, I know exactly what you mean “It’s not working!”
    Most of the problems come to me in a vague sentence that requires more troubleshooting than the actual issue.
    Another thing is users trying to make themselves sound smarter than they really are. Only if they would keep it simple.
    Thanks Leo!, for all that you do! It’s a lot of work, and It’s priceless! It’s entertaining AND helps keep us up to date on things.

    PS. The thingy that was on my computer before isn’t. What do I do? :)

  10. Hi Leo,
    Thanks for being a great resource (I also bought all your books). While you deal with the “printed word”, I work mostly on the phone with the added dimension of hearing the irate (or panicked customer). Here’s a scenario many of your readers will identify with:
    Customer: (Panicked) “NOTHING WORKS!”
    Me: (Calmly) “OK lets take it one thing at a time: Do you see anything on the monitor?”
    Customer: “Why, of course. What do you want me to tell you?”
    Me: “OK, well at least we know the Monitor works, Now how about the Mouse: can you see the cursor move when you move the Mouse?”
    The smart one catch on pretty quick and get down to describing the problem, and I rarely have to ask another STUPID question to get them to focus.

  11. This is not a new favorite question. I used to get it all the time, even from “computer professionals.”

    People expect computer geeks to just wave a magic wand and fix it. (I actually used to keep a magic wand at my desk for just that purpose. It was a toy; black plastic with white tips. But it made my point.)

    These same people would not call their car mechanic and say “My car won’t run. What’s wrong with it?” But that doesn’t mean they won’t expect miracles from you and me.

    I feel for ya, Leo.

  12. “It Just doesn’t Work!” – What: Clicking on the header link in your “Best of Ask Leo!” newsletter emails. How: Received email in the Outlook 2010 client under Windows 7 or the web interface with Firefox. Outlook 2010 Error: Nothing happens. What should happen: Default Browser should open and display that page on Verizon error: “The address isn’t valid. The URL is not valid and cannot be loaded.”
    What’s really wrong: The link is *incorrect*, it is pointing at: “<; (sic) Note the first character of the link is "<" which apparently breaks it.
    Your usual newsletters are ok (like this one), it's just the 'Best of' series that has the error – I suspect something is wrong your your template.

  13. I can relate to this. I regularly help users on a few Reddit threads, and the Reddit clientele is… well… varied. Many requests for help are one or two-liners, completely missing relevant context, error messages, etc.

    The worst thing is, when I ask questions to get what’s missing, some people just won’t answer. They will just add extra questions and pointless complaints on the line of “I cannot login”. Even saying “please answer my questions” won’t work.

    There’s also the type who will act offended and insult you when the answer is not to his liking. The Reddit machine is not providing what I expected (instant gratification of my desires), so I kick the Reddit machine.

    Finally, a growing number of users ask questions on a phone, the tiny screens and keyboards of which encourage people to stick to a few bursts of words.

  14. Thank you Leo. I am admin on a printer support group, and I get this every day. Even when I ask questions, they generally give some kind of answer but fail to give the information I requested. . Sometimes I think they’re just there to see how much of my time they can waste.

    If it’s OK by you, I might reply to woefully incomplete questions with a link to this article…

  15. Giving someone such as you the exact error message may be an exercise in frustration. When I get an odd error message, my instinct is to copy it into Google and see what turns up, but our friends at Microsoft have somehow made the worst error messages uncopiable. Click it? Nothoing. Right click? Nothing. Try to highlight the text and copy it with control C? Nothing. So I have to copy a string of gibberish numbers onto paper. No thank you. That paper won’t paste into an inquiry. And you can’t google a screenshot, can you?

    Any solution to the uncopiable error message would be appreciated.

    • Many screen capture utilities (I use SnagIt, myself) have OCR capabilities that will allow you to grab or capture the text. Even just uploading a screencap to Google Docs may also do it. Ultimately, though, OCR really is the only action in a case like that. Or laboriously typing it.

    • Leo’s response is certainly a solution, but if you’re complaining about writing an error code on paper and typing it in Google then you’re going to get more frustrated with any OCR application. That’ll take you off on another tangent with its own glitches. How this relates to Leo’s article is that in order to solve a technical problem it takes an awful lot of patience and perseverance dealing with details. So, writing down an error code and typing it is not the problem, nor the solution.

      As for Microsoft not making text selectable, yes that’s a pain.

  16. The people I support just want their computer to work so they can do their job. They don’t know much about them, and what they do know is often wrong. What version of Windows? “I think it’s pretty recent.” What program? “Microsoft.” And that’s okay, they know their jobs, and I know mine. I walk them through screens to get the info I need, or better yet, ask them to click the little Windows icon in the lower left corner and type “quick” to open Quick Assist.

  17. Hi Leo – thanks for all your great work. I don’t think I’m the dumbest user, but am pretty close. One point about the error messages; don’t just copy them, READ them – sometimes (rarely) the answer is there. (Not counting such useful info such as “Could not connect” or “Unknown error” of course.)


Leave a reply:

Before commenting please:

  • Read the article.
  • Comment on the article.
  • No personal information.
  • No spam.

Comments violating those rules will be removed. Comments that don't add value will be removed, including off-topic or content-free comments, or comments that look even a little bit like spam. All comments containing links and certain keywords will be moderated before publication.

I want comments to be valuable for everyone, including those who come later and take the time to read.