Six Things Not To Do When Asking for Computer Help

I often work as an unofficial technical support representative—it’s pretty much an unavoidable result of learning something about computers. Tech support is just inherently frustrating, but the way people act when they ask me for help, more than anything else, can make the difference between whether I’m happy or annoyed at the end of a call or work session. Here are six things that people ask me or do that get me frustrated really fast. Some of them are things that just plain tick me off; others are things that not everybody would necessarily know but that still get annoying when people don’t know them.

This is drawn mostly from personal experience, but most if not all of these things annoy almost everybody.

I’m not intending to offend, make fun of, or complain about anyone with this post. If you’ve done anything on this list, it’s not your fault! You almost certainly just didn’t know it was liable to annoy somebody. My purpose here is to help people know some of the things that tend to annoy their more technical friends so as to help them avoid doing it in the future.

My intent is also not to sound like I’m being constantly wronged; reading my whole article through, I realize it might sound a bit like that’s what I think. I don’t; in fact, my main purpose in writing this article was not hoping that I’ll get these questions less often as a result (I know better than to expect that) but helping people avoid annoying the people they ask for help.

6: “Is this going to harm my computer?”

Do you think that I would tell you to do it if I knew that it would? Because that’s basically what you’re asking me here.

How to Avoid It: If you want to ask clarification questions about what effect an action is going to have or why I want to do it, I’m perfectly fine with that. I always explain what I’m doing before I start actually making any changes to a computer. But I’m aware that sometimes my investigation, which does not change the computer at all, appears to be messing everything up from the eyes of a less technically proficient user. So by all means, don’t have any qualms about asking what’s going on or what I’m planning to change, just don’t ask me if it’s “going to harm the computer.”

5: “Are you sure you know what you’re doing?”
Probably.

How to Avoid It: Do you really have to ask this? This question makes me doubt whether you’ve made a good move in picking me to work on your computer. If you don’t trust me, then that’s fine, but please ask someone else to fix your computer in that case.
If you just don’t understand what’s going on, feel free to ask questions about that; see #6. But asking if I’m sure I know what I’m doing isn’t a good way to ask—it’s not specific, does not express what you’re actually feeling, and comes off to me as rude.

4: “I have a problem. My computer doesn’t work.”
I have a problem as well. My problem is that I don’t know what your problem is, but I know you want help from me. This doesn’t seem that bad on the surface, but once people start asking you for help on a regular basis, this starts to get old really fast.

How to Avoid It: If you have a problem that you want me to help you with, please start by telling me what the problem is—not saying “I have a problem” and waiting for me to say, “Okay, what is it?” A sample question would be, “Hey Soren, I’ve been having trouble printing lately. Could you help me figure it out?” (If you’re writing an email, it would be nice to include any other information you know as well, like “it started happening right after I updated Microsoft Office.” If I have the chance to respond right back to you in person or over the phone, that’s not important.)

3: “What was the error?” / “I forget.”
Hey, guess what I forgot? The solution to your problem.

How to Avoid It: If there’s ever an error on your computer, the message you get is where you want to start solving the problem. A well-written error message can make the difference between having the problem fixed in a minute and searching and fiddling around for several hours. (Oh boy, have I been there: I once even got an error message that said Error: No Error.) If you don’t have the error message, I’m going to have a really hard time figuring out what the problem is. This isn’t a problem if you can make the error happen again, but frequently people can’t reproduce the problem, and they’re wasting both their time and mine.

The simplest way to avoid this problem is to write down the error message and include it in an email or have it ready if I need it. Or just know what steps you need to take to make the error come up again. If you have to say, “Hold on, let me bring it up,” that makes me feel like you’ve been doing your homework; if you say, “I forget,” that makes me think, “Now I have to spend an extra five minutes on this.”

2: “Okay, now what happened?” / “Nothing.”
This scene, or something like it, happens to me on a regular basis:
Me: “Type ‘nohup anki’ and press Enter.”
User: “Okay.”
Me: “What happened?”
User: “Nothing.”
Me: “Hmm, that’s odd.”
(I ponder for a couple of minutes and run another Google search.)
Me: “What happens if you run ‘anki’?”
User: “The same thing that happened before.”
Me: “Which was?”
User: [what I was hoping for in the first place when I asked what happened]

How to Avoid It: If anything happened when you clicked the mouse button or pressed Enter, that qualifies as “something.” The response “nothing happened” does not mean “I don’t understand the message I got” or even “I ended up back where I was before.” To me, anyway, it means that you pushed the button and no pixel on the screen changed (which could happen, but typically doesn’t).

I can do my part for this, too—I try to avoid asking “What happened?”, instead saying, “Did [x] happen?” But sometimes I’m don’t know exactly what’s going to happen, and sometimes I just forget.

1: “What program are you using?” / “Microsoft.” (or even worse, “Adobe”)
Microsoft is not a piece of software, or even a piece of hardware (nor is Adobe). It is a company. (It may be a software company, but that doesn’t help much; being a logical person, I would not need to ask to conclude that the software you’re using was made by a company that makes software.)

For the purposes of solving a problem, “Microsoft” is a word almost completely devoid of useful information. It could refer to one of probably over a hundred products. And plenty of those are liable to be used: Windows, Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook, the Windows Live apps…the list goes on. And that’s not including the hardware: the Xbox, mice, Kinect…

Referring to your software as “Microsoft” is something like calling an auto supply store to request a part for your car and describing your car as a “Ford”.

How to Avoid It: “Microsoft” is never an acceptable name to refer to anything except the company itself. There is no piece of software called Microsoft, nor can I usually assume which Microsoft software you’re using. If you’re not sure what the software is actually called, please describe it (“I can type documents with it”) instead of calling it “Microsoft.”
And “Adobe” is even worse: we have Adobe Flash Player, Adobe Reader, Photoshop, InDesign…the same goes here.

0: “Are you hacking?”
This isn’t really about technical support, and it’s also number 7, but I get this question a lot. My typical internal response is, “Well, I will be hacking your head off if you keep asking me that.” (Of course, I never actually say that.)

The answer really depends on your definition of “hacking.” If you mean the typical popular culture definition of “breaking into computer systems,” then (generally ;-)) the answer is no. But in geek culture, hacking means a whole lot more: coming up with creative solutions to problems and the like. See here for the view of much of this community. * If you mean that, then frequently I am.

But nobody who asked me this question ever meant that, did they?

How to Avoid It: Suppose I came up to you and accused you of breaking the law because you were using a Mac instead of a PC. That’s roughly what it’s like to me when you ask me, “Are you hacking?” So please don’t do it. I’m just trying to work on my computer, and I happen to use different tools than most people do.


* If you notice, in order to avoid this ambiguity, I typically try to use the term “cracking” instead of “hacking” to mean attempts at defeating security systems.


Soren “scorchgeek” Bjornstad

http://www.thetechnicalgeekery.com

If you have found an error or notable omission in this tip, please leave a comment or email me: webmaster@thetechnicalgeekery.com.

Copyright 2012 Soren Bjornstad.
Verbatim copying and redistribution of part or all of this article
is permitted, provided this notice is preserved.

2 thoughts on “Six Things Not To Do When Asking for Computer Help”

  1. >Due to the article where you posted this comment, I'm not entirely sure if it was meant to be sarcastic or not.

    If it was a serious question, you can print a list of files by opening the C: drive, holding down Alt and pressing the Print Screen key, then opening Paint, selecting Paste, and printing the resulting image.

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