Asking for computer help & similar

This is general guidance that applies to everyone.

I ran a tech help desk from 1995 to 2017. That makes me an expert in knowing what information I need in order to help solve a problem quickly. In a large percentage of cases, the customer's problem stems from the fact that he's trying to do something that was never intended to be possible, or that is possible to achieve but in a totally different way, or that is is simply not necessary (and occasionally something that is downright dangerous). The same principles apply, regardless of what you are trying to fix, whether it be electrical, electronic, plumbing, mechanical ...


DO NOT PHONE OR EMAIL anyone if you are angry or upset about a problem. Take time to calm down and think rationally. If you appear to be angry or upset, people are much less likely to want to help you or interact with you in any way. In addition, you might kill any chance of getting help ... ever.


DO NOT ALLOW REMOTE ACCESS to your computer unless you are 100% certain that the person accessing it is who he says he is and has no ill intentions.

For any equipment fault, the first thing to try is rebooting. (Switch the power off for ten seconds then on again.)

1. State your level of expertise and experience.

2. List make, model, software version etc.

3. State what you are trying to achieve.

4. State why you are trying to achieve it.

5. State exactly what you have already tried, how you did it and what you observed.

6. State the exact error message or symptoms that you observed and what action you performed that triggered it.

7. List all equipment connected (including any wireless connection) and explain how they are connected and with what cables/pipes, etc.

8. Explain the history of any problem; was everything OK originally? When did the problem begin? What had you changed immediately beforehand? Also consider weather or environmental changes.

9. DO NOT refer to your inanimate device as if it were human. For example DO NOT state that "My TV/computer wouldn't let me ..." or "X-software can't see...". This is totally unhelpful. State exactly what you did (e.g. pressed a specific button sequence on a specific remote control) and what you observed (e.g. a red flashing light, error message, three beeps on a specific screen or panel). Take a photo or a screen shot of the error message(s).

10. Do write understandable English: start a sentence with a capital letter and end it with a full stop (US "period"). Check spelling. Don't use strings of periods .... or hyphens --- instead of correct punctuation; that makes the text more difficult to read. Avoid "txt spk" and unnecessary abbreviations. (It might save your time in typing but it can greatly extend the time needed for understanding.)

11. Include a brief description of your problem in the Subject line (eight words max.) and repeat it in the message body. (Don't limit the description to something obvious such as "Need help!!!".) Make this description meaningful so that people will want to read your message and can easily locate it later.

12. Check units - e.g. don't type "Gb" (Gigabits) if you mean "GB" (GigaBytes, which are 8 times larger). Don't type "MB" (Megabytes - a measurement of size) if you mean "Mbps" (Megabits per second - a measurement of data transmission speed).

13. Put a question mark (?) at the end of a question so that it's absolutely clear what you are asking. Don't type a bunch of statements and expect the reader to guess what you need to know. Don't put a question mark after a statement.

14. If you use email, don't assume that your helper will remember (or search for) information that you provided previously. Keep all relevant information together in each message.

15. Providing complete information from the start is most likely to result in the most useful answer. "Complete" includes links to wiring diagram, clear photos, model numbers, history of the fault, list of things you already tried (e.g. swapping connections), tests, measurements, etc.

Providing incomplete or incorrect information will greatly increase the chances of your being asked "why" or of being told "don't" or of being given the wrong answer or of our simply losing patience. Avoid getting yourself into the position of having to write "I already tried that" or "I forgot to mention..." or "wait a week because I'm too busy to take photos". Nothing will annoy your helper more! Always include FULL details and state what you already tried.

In short, plan your report and question carefully; check for mistakes before you click "Send"; make it easy to understand. It may be easier if you type it in a simple text editor first, check it, save a copy, then paste it into the email or forum message window.

Always remember that YOU are the one needing help so be helpful and nice to anyone trying to help you. Ignoring them or criticising the manner in which they try to help is likely to leave you on your own.

And, finally: you probably don't need to ask for help anyway! If you are seeing an error message, type the error message into your favourite search engine to see what it finds. Likewise, if you are observing a specific symptom, type a lucid description of that symptom, plus the make & model number, into a search engine. Don't forget to check "YouTube", too.

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