BEFORE there is a problem:

The most important steps in troubleshooting happen before a problem even occurs. These are the steps that allow you to quickly solve a problem, or recover from a problem that you can’t solve. These tend to be easy actions, IF they are carried out before they are needed. First and most important is the back up. Make sure that everything that is important to you is backed up. In fact, it is preferable to back up everything to at least two different places! This can be done in the cloud, through services such as Dropbox or Google Drive, or through an external hard drive, or through a USB thumb drive. The cost in time and money to back up is minimal, so there is no excuse.

It is also possible to back up your system configuration, through Time Machine on a Mac or through Backup and Recovery on a Windows machine.These tools are built into the system software, and very easy to use. They can save a great deal of time recovering from many computer issues.

Finally, know your passwords. This can be difficult to do if you use a large number of unique passwords (as you should) for the various secure sites you use. It may be worthwhile keeping a list of passwords locked away somewhere. This will also help should you need someone else to access your data.  An ideal solution is to keep an encrypted list of passwords on a USB drive, with a friend who has the password to the file, but not the drive itself unless it is necessary. A password list should NOT be kept unencrypted on a computer, and certainly not in the cloud.  

When there is a problem:

Focus

First, take a deep breath, and make sure you are calm before attempting to fix a problem. Computer problems can be very frustrating, and it is possible to miss even very obvious solutions if you are not focused. Sometimes taking a step back will save a lot of time.

Verify

Make sure you understand what the problem is. Does it happen every time? Are you sure? It is often surprising how many problems disappear when closely examined. For example, a “forgotten” password that turns out to have been just a typo. This type of problem can happen to anyone, particularly if they have lost focus due to frustration! Make sure you have a clear grasp of the problem, in case you need to describe it to someone later.

Quick-fixes

At this point, you can try some “quick-fixes.” These do not necessarily require diagnosing the problem, but may get you going in a hurry. First, try rebooting the machine. This works surprisingly often, and will often fix whatever caused the problem in the first place. Also, check your cables. Many times, cables will feel like they are attached even if they are not entirely set in their sockets. I recommend unplugging cables completely and re-attaching them.

Finally, try a work-around. This is a solution that does not fix the problem, but allows you to get things done until you have time to address the problem. For example, if your machine does not have a network connection, maybe there is another machine nearby that is connected. Sometimes fixing the problem is less important than finishing a critical piece of work.

 Gather Info

Now is the time to do some thinking and some diagnostics. Did the device work properly in the past? Has anything changed since then? Has new hardware or software been added? Has any software been updated? Are there any error messages? This last question is especially important, and any messages should be recorded exactly (I frequently take a screenshot or a picture to make sure it is accurate). Often a quick online search of the message will provide a solution.

Determine the scope of the problem. Does it affect other applications? Other computers? Other users on the same computers? These questions will help to isolate the problem. One technique that is very useful in troubleshooting is using “known-good” devices. This means trying the same procedure with another system that has been working normally with other tasks, or swapping out components that have been tested and are working normally.

Finally, there are some diagnostic tools that may be very useful at this stage. Task Manager on Windows machines may be accessed by pressing Ctrl-Alt-Del, and can identify running programs, memory usage, processor usage, and other useful data. Activity Monitor on Apple machines performs a very similar function. It’s a good idea to be familiar with these tools before there is a problem. They are much easier to use than they may appear, and sometimes lead to a very quick diagnosis. For example, a program in Task Manager that is using 90% of the memory usage likely points to a problem with the program (which can be closed from Task Manager), or a shortage of memory in the machine (which is easy to add).

Search

Find out if someone has had this problem before, and how they fixed it. The key here is your search terms. If you have an error message, enter it exactly. Otherwise, try using the specific application name and version number (e.g. Word 2010), and a short description of the problem (e.g. crashes when printing). You will likely have to revise your search once you see the results; sometimes there are “magic words” that will give you just the search result you need, and it can take a couple tries to identify them. Frequently, a few minutes of searching are all that are needed to find others who have identified the issue and a solution.

Escalate

When none of the above techniques have provided a solution in a reasonable amount of time, it is time to escalate the issue. All of the work you put in so far will still save you time, however, as you can now more completely describe the problems you’ve experienced and the steps you’ve taken to a technician. If you can clearly describe the issue, and can demonstrate that you have already taken appropriate steps, you will likely gain the respect of the technician. You may also be able to provide enough information for the technician to diagnose the problem immediately. Otherwise, you will need to be patient. This can be especially difficult, as the technician will often have you repeat steps you have already taken. Be assured that there is a method to this madness! Many technicians actually have a flowchart that they use to systematically identify problems.
If you have reached this stage of the process, it is also time to revisit the possibilities of workarounds and backups. The amount of time you are willing to devote to a particular problem can vary, so make sure you aware of what that limit is. It is seldom worthwhile, for example, to spend hours on the phone with technical support.

After the problem is resolved:

Once the problem is resolved, there may still be work to do. First, you may want to make a note of the problem and steps taken to resolve it. This can be useful if the problem resurfaces or if another problem arises from the fix. Second, you may need to perform another backup of your system with the solution in place. Finally, if you have had help solving the problem, a quick note of thanks is always appreciated. It can be very useful, as well, as technicians often don’t hear back from clients, and have to guess whether their solution worked.
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