How To Not Get Answers To Technical Questions

I read a long time ago a column by an auto mechanic who said the hardest customers to deal with were ones who tried to guess what the car’s problem was rather than describe the symptoms, e.g. someone saying, “I think the hydrowidget is sheared off” rather than, “I hear a harsh squealing noise when I make left turns”. What I got out of this that its important to describe the symptoms of a problem, the situations where it occurs when you are asking for help.

The same goes when people have technology issues. I get piles of these for various projects or web sites. While I know a good portion of these are very likely things that are my fault or problems created by our stuff, I cannot even come close to helping when messages come in like, “it does not work” or “HELP!!!!! The link is bad” (and no URL provided where the link came from). Any cry for help that cryptic, lacking in detail, will most likely not get any help. Not that I do not want to, but I cannot even do much except send some sympathy and mutter expletives as I delete the email.

Or today, someone who I think is trying to do something with our Feed To JavaScript service:

i can not get the builder to work, i am confuised do i need to do somehting with rss and if so what is that and how do i do it?

Even if I was clairvoyant, what is there to work with? So here are some starting tips that would help someone like me who would really like to help you (sigh, falling into Jerry Maquire quoteland):

(1) Be very clear about where a problem occurs, whether it is providing a URL for a web site, or a description of a screen in some multimedia content. I literally maintain more than 30,000 static web document plus more permutations of ones generate dynamically, and saying something like “there is a typo on your tutorial web page” is just not very specific to get me started.

(2) Describe what you were doing or trying to do. Give a series of steps, like, “I started at your home page, and used the drop down menu to go to the Honors program. But when I clicked the link to register, all I saw was gibberish”. Just saying, “It does not work”, “I cannot get in”, or “It’s broken” is not descriptive at all.

(3) Describe what you expected to occur and maybe what did not, or what error messages you received. Think again of providing observational information, not guesses at the problem.

(4) If possible, share some technical details if you know on what kind of computer you are using, operating system, web browser/version. Especially for web content, it can help us sort out if it is a browser issue. I try and work that into our web feedback forms (these are linked from all of our web sites to a form which sends it the URL where the link was clicked), where the script also sends the browser agent information reported by the environmental variables (e.g. it guesses which browser/version/OS is reported back, e.g. “Mozilla/4.0 (compatible; MSIE 6.0; Windows NT 5.1; YPC 3.0.1; SV1)” or “Mozilla/5.0 (Windows; U; Windows NT 5.1; en-US; rv:1.7.12) Gecko/20050915”

Okay, it takes more work to type out all these details, but if you write me and just say, “It does not work!!!” there is almost nothing I can do.

Help me help you. Gaaaaaaack.

Profile Picture for Alan Levine aka CogDog
An early 90s builder of the web and blogging Alan Levine barks at CogDogBlog.com on web storytelling (#ds106 #4life), photography, bending WordPress, and serendipity in the infinite internet river. He thinks it's weird to write about himself in the third person.


  1. Alan,
    Love you! And yes, those of us who do torment you about such things do need the “gentle” reminders. LOL!

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