How to Ask a Question When You Want Technical Help


Before you go to a forum or help desk with a computer problem, it is essential that you be prepared properly. How you ask your question or present your problem is key to obtaining help. Be sure to have all the facts about your problem lined up beforehand. You will simply waste your time (and the tech’s) if you are vague about what your problem is. In this tip, I'll give some suggestions for getting the best help.

Ten steps to getting your question answered on a tech forum

  1. Before you even go to a forum, think through what your problem is. Write down how you are going to describe it. Think about it from the other side - what would you need to know if a stranger came to you and asked a computer question? Write down any error codes that appear on your screen. Gather all the system information that seems to bear on the problem (see how at this link). Sometimes it even happens that by thinking through the problem, you come up with the answer yourself.
  2. Place your question or problem in a forum that is relevant to its subject. That may seem obvious but anyone who has experience with forums knows that a lot of questions show up in the wrong place.
  3. Select a title that briefly and accurately describes your problem. A title like  “Help!” or “Computer won’t work” will often get ignored. Almost any problem can be titled with a few key words that will raise interest in somebody who is familiar with the subject. A corollary to this is to avoid using all caps or a lot of exclamation points. Something like  “HELP!!!” turns many people off.
  4. In the post, briefly describe the problem in a paragraph. Leave out unnecessary details. Save everybody time by listing any solutions that you have tried but didn't work.
  5. Next, describe  relevant system details. For example, it is essential  to designate your operating system and type of computer and any components that might be involved in your problem. List any error code that has been displayed. Be prepared to provide more details if asked
  6. Tell what you were doing when you encountered the problem. If it is a reproducible problem, list the steps or computer operations  that cause the problem.
  7. List any recent software you have installed or hardware changes you have made. If you have updated any drivers recently, also list that.
  8. If requested, be prepared to list all the Windows and software updates that have been made recently.
  9. Be courteous and thank whoever is helping you whether you get a solution or not. Somebody is giving you their time and expertise for free. You may want to come back to the forum and it pays to be friendly.
  10. If a suggested solution works, be sure to return to the forum and report your success. It is the least you can do to return something for the help you have been given. It will make you welcome in the forum the next time you go there for help.

And there you have it - follow these rules and you'll have a better chance at getting your problem solved. Got rules of your own? Let us know about them.

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This tips section is maintained by Vic Laurie. Vic runs several websites with Windows how-to's, guides, and tutorials, including a site for learning about Windows and the Internet and another with Windows 7 tips.

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Hello everyone, I think many years ago I signed up but just did so again, and I don't see another place to enter MY OWN if there is another more appropriate place please tell me. With that said here is my questions:

1) I don't not use Internet Explorer! [Firefox 31 now].
I have a desktop computer & seperate laptop (both w/ a ver. of Win7). I manually run Windows update. I do NOT connect remotely. I don't even have a home network set up. Why would I need SERVER software they keep pushing???? I also use Apache Office 4...not Microsoft.

Are not SERVER 200x-12 etc. access points for malware & virus?! If so can I un-install any already in my computers?

2) Does anyone know a friend geek lol who has posted a concise list of KB updates describing exactamundo needs of each update? ie. remote gaming...
networking variables...and/or hardware or specific software needs? This would be invaluable when doing a semi-regular re-install of op-sys. Microsoft bounces you around with unclear rote b.s.

Thanks to anyone who can answer any of these basic initial questions. P.S. Don't forget to let this ol fart know appropriate post links. Cya later, Chuck

very good advice that will help a lot of people, thanks

"Boot manager is missing after extended partition."

My Toshiba laptop hard drive is small (120Gb) and made partitions. Due to the low speed, I reinstalled Windows Vista and formatted all drives. Then I extended to one partition (only C). When I continued installation, "The installation was canceled" and "Windows cannot install required files. The files may be corrupt or missing" messages are shown. Cannot be continued and I restarted. On the screen, "Boot manager is missing" message also shown. I tried to create new partiton from command prompt. But not success. Command prompt now showing X drive. Pls reply how can we solve this problem.

Another: Don't include a lot of blather on how you are just soooo dumb!1!lol, particularly by referring to your hair colour or your gender, in order to distract from the fact that you were too lazy to do basic troubleshooting and research. I really can't wrap my mind around people who do this and expect positive responses. As a woman, it annoys me particularly when other women pretend that their gender somehow makes them unable to use their brains and/or internet resources, because they imply that we're all like that.

If you're not familiar with something or have little experience doing more advanced technical things, by all means say so, as it helps people to help you better. But don't portray yourself as a toddler who needs a big strong computer expert to carry them every step of the way.

I understand and agree with most of what you say, although I must add that I’ve never gotten the impression that it’s an issue that is more prevalent with one gender or the other ;-).

The blatter part could be quite distracting especially when what they should really be focusing on is laying out their issue and all the facts in a clear manner.

It's also important to state what version of the software you are having the trouble with. Sometimes a fix has been made available in a more recent version.

The XKCD Tech Support Flowchart solves probably 90% of user issues :-)

There was a blog I read a few months ago where commenters talked about how they are often in the process of typing up a question for a forum post, and in the process, either the solution popped out at them. Or, while showing that they had exhausted all options, thought of one more test they could try, which ended up leading to a solution.

I agree with all of these suggestions, and trust me, I've asked for help on many forums. Searching Google and asking questions are the primary tools in my education about computers and software and they've been immensely helpful to me, a senior citizen with no formal training.

When asking for help in a forum, it may be helpful to add a line about how experienced and familiar you are with computers because a technical answer may not be useful if you don't know the difference between a command prompt and a search box. It's no shame to ask for clearer directions or specific directions because the one replying will want you to understand the advice.

Thanks for a great article on a great site!

A timeless resource is Eric S. Raymond's "How to Ask Questions the Smart Way".

Thanks for that Vic. These may seem obvious but here goes:

1. Be willing to help yourself. Search for and read any help documents, including those that may be found on the Internet. The Internet is the greatest collective resource of knowledge. Be prepared though to explore multiple sources since not everything posted is necessarily true or accurate.

2. If you must seek help on a forum, ensure you read all the forum rules and policies (including any suggestions), after all, you would be joining a forum so you should at least have the courtesy to do so.

3. Search the forum to see if the same or very similar problem was already posted in the past. Often the answer to same problem was already provided and it only takes a bit of time and effort on your part to read and find the answer.

4. Be aware that it is often easy to omit details that are obvious to yourself. Others reading your post should not have to guess at what these are - people are not mind-readers.

5. Give back what good you have received. Giving back isn't necessarily to be in the same form or fashion, but what goes around comes around.

Thanks, Joe. Those are good additions. Your #3 is very important.