Lifehack: The Right Way to Ask for Help (Tech Support Part 1)

Updated 9 January 2021

Problem Solving

This article is about problem solving. Plain and simple. Which happens to be one of my favourite subjects. Just this past week, I responded to at least twenty requests for technical help. This is not a complaint. I enjoy helping people with web/email/tech related issues.

All of us will need technical assistance from time-to-time. I’m included. The way you ask for help makes a huge difference. Asking for help is a skill that can get your tech issues resolved quicker!

  1. State the specific problem up front. The more details the better. Minimalism doesn’t work well here.
  2. Include what you were trying to do when the problem occurred.
  3. Supply at the very least the main error message you see.
  4. Describe the things you’ve done to troubleshoot the issue.
  5. If you are coding, supply what’s known as minimal, reproducible example (reprex).
  6. Learn how to take screen captures and mark them up. This is an invaluable skill.
  7. If you are coding web front-ends, get a CodePen or a JSFiddle account and learn how to use them.
  8. Give us a link. If we can’t see what you’re seeing chances are we can’t help.

Don’t waste precious cycles. Be specific. What’s obvious to you will not always be obvious to everyone else.

Let’s begin with a scenario that most us should be able to relate to. Especially, if you’ve ever ate at a taco stand in Southern California.

The closest thing to a SoCal burrito I’ve found in Bali. By @marklchaves.

I’m hungry. I want to buy my fave bean & rice burrito for lunch. The taco stand I’m at only accepts cash. There’s an ATM around the corner. I have money in my bank account. I have an ATM card I can use to withdraw cash. I walk to the ATM, insert my card, enter my PIN, and hit the fast cash Withdraw button. And, nada/nothing/zip no dinero. Help!

I take out my mobile phone and dial the emergency service number.

Ok. Take a minute. How would you describe this problem?

1. The ATM doesn’t work.
2. The ATM isn’t giving me money.
3. This ATM is busted!

What if we described the problem like this instead?

  • I’m at an ATM trying to withdraw cash.
  • I see an “Error Code: 143: PTDF (Processor Timeout Delay Failure) — ACS Code only.” message on the screen after pushing on the Withdraw button.
  • The machine returns my card. But, no cash comes out.
  • I tried two more times, and I get the same result.
  • Another time, instead of hitting fast cash, I checked my balance. Checking my balance worked perfectly.
  • Can you please help?

Now, which description (from above) do you think will help the ATM gurus solve the problem faster?

Everyone’s busy. If you want to ask someone for help, and if you want to improve your chances of getting a useful answer, then you must invest time to learn how to ask a good question. By the way, this is not just for tech support. Knowing how to effectively ask for help is a freaking useful lifehack.

Getting someone to help you is a function of a) how much time someone can afford to help you and b) how much information they have to work with. Seduce someone to help you by doing your homework first, then sharing what you’ve done.

Putting it all Together

  1. State the specific problem up front. The keyword here is specific. Just this week I saw a forum post that said, “ where can I delete the > sign in the menues?” Ignore the distracting misspelling. I see these vague pleas for help all the time. Unfortunately, I pass-up many of them when I am tight on time.
  2. Include what you were trying to do when the problem occurred. Read Stack Overflow’s article on how to ask a good question.
  3. Supply at the very least the main error message you see. There might be a series of error messages. Try to capture all the messages. At the least, provide the message that’s on top of the stack. I recommend you screen capture any error messages and copy/paste them as well in a plain text file (so you can copy/paste into Google or help desk ticket). Copying text from a screen capture is not possible. So, provide both if needed.
  4. Describe the things you’ve done to troubleshoot the issue. Maybe you did a search on the error message, you tried a different device (phone, pad, laptop), you rebooted your machine, checked your software versions, posted to a forum, or cleared your cache. Sharing what you already tried can save precious time by avoiding needless/wasted cycles.
  5. If you are coding, supply what’s known as minimal, reproducible example (reprex). More on this in Part 2 of this series. Here’s sneak preview of the reprex concept https://stackoverflow.com/help/minimal-reproducible-example.
  6. Learn how to take screen captures and mark them up. On a Mac https://support.apple.com/en-us/HT201361. On Windows https://support.microsoft.com/en-us/help/13776/windows-10-use-snipping-tool-to-capture-screenshots.
  7. If you are coding web front-ends, get a CodePen or a JSFiddle account and learn how to use them.
  8. Give us a link. Last but not least. We are living the the Social Media Age. If you need help with a web page, please please please share the link! Otherwise it’s like the blind leading the blind. What’s obvious to you will not be obvious to everyone.

If you have any questions, please leave me a comment below. Stay tuned for Part 2.

Thanks for reading!

I slung code for Fortune 500 companies in a previous life. Now, I write and make some photographs. I’ve moved on to Dev.to. Portfolio on CaughtMyEye.cc