Simple Approach to Troubleshooting Computer Problems

I recently did a quick interview on troubleshooting website/computer problems with LaVonne Ellis of The Complete Flake (she's not).

It's definitely much easier for me to *do* the troubleshooting than explain the exact process.  Partly because each situation is unique.  There are some commonalities, but it's a challenge coming up with things that work in all cases.

General Approach to Debugging Computer Problems

  1. Gather info
    • Did this *ever* work?  When?  What's changed since then (no matter how minor it seems)
    • Program version numbers, product details, etc...
    • Operating System, web host name, etc..
    • Login details
  2. Eliminate "interference" (narrow down problem location) if exact problem location unknown
    • If anything's been changed, undo the change if possible
    • Disable or remove potentially related devices, plugins, and other software
    • Verify any related configuration settings (volume/mute controls, userid's and passwords, etc).  Surprisingly often you'll be able to fix things during this step.
    • If it works elsewhere, see if settings differ, and note any other differences between the machines
  3. Search for others having similar problems
    • Use as many keywords as you can to narrow the results (you want the results that are as close to your problem as possible)
    • Include any error messages and numbers
    • Exclude anything that may relate specifically to your computer/website... Don't include your domain, etc in any of the keywords
    • Experiment with variations on keywords if you aren't getting useful results (eg, "account", "userid", "user", "login")
    • When clicking on a search result, do a Right-Click and open it in a new window or tab.  You will often need to visit a fair number of sites to find the answers you seek.  Being able to go back to your search results list and continue can come in handy.  I often open up the top 3 or 4 promising results first, then go and view them.
  4. Keep experimenting and trying things until the issue is solved.  This is the real "secret" to solving your computer problems.  I can't tell you how many people have told me how patient I am in dealing with this stuff.  Seriously, if I gave up early, I'd have far fewer positive results.  The more success you have, the quicker it will be next time.  Your  new knowledge builds to help each time you have a new problem.

The Computer Troubleshooting Interview has a few other tips sprinkled in, and as LaVonne points out, I blurted out something at the end, for her listeners which can help get you a real head start.  The offer may disappear once I've gathered the variety of case-studies I need to take things to the next step.

I know the list above isn't complete by a long shot, but it's a good start.

What other ideas and tools have you found to help you solve a computer or website problem?


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