Monday, October 29, 2012

Heard That One Before, Part 6: Everythingitis

This is the latest in a series of support-related blog posts. These pieces are meant to focus on approaches people sometimes use with members of our support team when asking for help but are, for one reason or another, not conducive to the troubleshooting process. My hope is that some of what I've written here will be applicable to other circumstances, even if it's just trying to get tech support in some other context.

6) "I've tried everything."

This is never literally true, which makes it somewhat frustrating when someone tells us this but then refuses to elaborate. "Everything means everything," they say. Well… you'd be surprised how many definitions "everything" has. For some people, "everything" means they cleared their cache. Claiming you did "everything" is, ironically, an invitation for us to start you from scratch.

You know that one meme, don't you? Just imagine, while you're reading this, three boxes depicting:

"What I think 'everything' means"
"What support thinks 'everything' means"
"What it actually means."

No matter what you put in the first two boxes, the third should contain absolutely nothing.

Why this phrase is a problem:
There's a vast difference between everything and everything you can think of. If you had actually tried everything, then there would be nothing else to try and no point in asking for help, right? I mean, you tried everything. What more is there? In realityland, the fact that you're asking for help inherently implies that you know there may be fixes you aren't aware of.

If you've tried everything you can think of, on the other hand, then step right in and tell us exactly what that consisted of. We'll see if we can think of more options.

If you can't tell us what that was, then try not to be offended when we backtrack and suggest you do things that it turns out you already did. We've already determined that "everything" means "everything you thought of," so hopefully you can understand that we don't automatically know what that is.

Working with our wiki:
Sometimes we get the "everything" line after we've offered a wiki page of suggestions and the user returns (sometimes ridiculously quickly) and says he or she has tried everything on the page and nothing works. If we're skeptical about this, it's because of two factors: 1) the sheer frequency, in our experience, with which that turns out to be untrue, and 2) the fact that if none of the fixes on the wiki work for you, then you're not experiencing a "known" and reasonably fixable problem.

If your problem and its fix are not immediately known, then we'll be stabbing in the dark. You may be in for an extensive round of filing bugs, sharing viewer logs, allowing a team member onto your computer via TeamViewer, completely losing your saved settings, or worse. You don't want us to have you reinstall your operating system all because you skipped a step on a wiki page and got ticked off when we suggested going back over it.

Seriously, you may not want to work on your issue alone. You may not want to use the wiki. But you want one of the fixes on the wiki to work because those are the ones that will take less time or that have worked for enough people before you that we confidently recommend them. Some involve learning something new about your computer, but they're still a lot easier (for both you and us) than anything that is not yet documented.

Questions as specific as answers:
A lot of the time, when people say they tried "everything" on the wiki, it turns out to mean they tried everything they understood. Anything that looked like gibberish to them ceased to exist in their awareness, as if it were not there at all. That's not helpful.

If there's something you don't understand, please ask about it. Point out: "I don't understand what this line means." Ask: "Does it apply to me?" The more specific you can be about what you need help with, even in our wiki, the faster and better we can help you.

So to sum up:
  • Specificity is good.
  • You don't have to avoid the word "everything" as long as you realize that it doesn't substitute for a detailed explanation of what you've tried.
  • It's ok not to know things or not to understand something on the wiki. It's not helpful to overlook instructions because you didn't understand them -- ask about them instead. Specifically.
  • If we want to retrace steps you think you've already taken, don't be upset. Chances are it'll go a lot faster than whatever we might have to try next.
  • Even if you're asked to redo something you did do, it might still pay off. Competent users are the ones who know the value of double-checking and who don't get offended if we ask them to do it.

Need something more concrete?
Here's an example that happened just today. The user was having a not-uncommon issue, in which she was getting logged off at the end of the login process on Firestorm. She'd been in the group since last night trying to get the issue fixed, beginning at around 8pm SLT. I went to bed in the meantime (though I had a sneaky alt logged in), and the same person was still around in the morning with the same problem.

After I saw a couple of suggestions not work for her, I directed her to the fs_install_crash wiki page and its instructions for the problem "Firestorm Logs Out During Login." I asked if she'd already done that one.

"I did everything on that page," she answered immediately.

Now, she'd probably been getting weary of wiki pages by that time, and for those who don't read them frequently, they're likely to blend together. So I dug. "So you've deleted your open_notifications.xml file?" I prodded, because specific questions are good.

"I can do that without logging in?" she asked.

Well, since you have to be logged out to do that, that pretty much told me all I needed to know. I got her OS from her and copy/pasted the path to the file to her. A helpful user in the group helped her figure out how to locate it in Windows, and once she had, I explained what to delete. She logged back in on Firestorm with no problem and came back to thank us.

I became curious and searched through the logs from the previous night. Sure enough, around 11pm SLT, Miro had given her that very page and told her which section to look at. What I had told her to do, step by step, was exactly what the wiki instructed. Textbook case of Everythingitis.

Let's rewind a bit. Let's say I had taken her literally when she said, "I did everything on that page." Here's what probably would have happened: I'd have had her spend time resetting her router/modem, checking packet loss, running a speedtest, adjusting bandwidth, and attempting to log into a bunch of different places. When those didn't work, I'd have had her register for the JIRA, figure out how to locate logs, attempt to reproduce the problem, file a ticket, and upload the logs. Then I'd have waited six hours or so for Whirly or Nicky to wake up, poked them to look at the logs, and gotten confirmation on my very first guess: that the user just had to delete her open notifications.

This was also, of course, a solution the user had been offered eleven hours prior.

Sometimes you will get asked to redo things you did already do. But in my experience, the most knowledgeable folks are the ones who don't mind repeating steps even if they've already tried. They know that it pays to double-check. And they know there's no such thing as "everything."

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