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Let’s get one thing right: there are no stupid questions, especially in the realm of tech. Technology advances at such a rapid pace that it’s easy to be left in the dust, so it’s normal to have questions. Don’t ever feel like a question is stupid.

That being said, when you need tech-related help, how you ask your questions is often more important than what you’re asking — and if you don’t ask properly, many knowledgeable IT folks will ignore you. Has that happened to you before? It’s happened to me, and it sucks.

What I’ve learned is that there are common mistakes that people make when asking questions 5 Tips For Asking A Question On MakeUseOf Answers 5 Tips For Asking A Question On MakeUseOf Answers MakeUseOf Answers is a bit like Yahoo Answers, but with one key difference. The people who answer your question are the same people who write for us. If they can't help you, nobody can. Read More , and it’s these mistakes that make experts less likely to lend a helping hand.

Want to stop being ignored? Here’s what to avoid whether you’re asking a friend, a tech support forum, or customer service live chat.

1. Asking People Before Google

Let’s face it: it feels more natural to us, as human beings, to ask our questions to other human beings. (Unless you’re under 20 and grew up with Google and Wikipedia as your primary household educators.)

It makes sense, too. People are dynamic. You ask them a question and most won’t stop at a one-line reply — they’ll converse with you, back and forth, until you find the answers and explanations you sought all along. This is great for open-ended questions that are complex and meaty.

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But when it comes to simple and straightforward questions, it’s just better to use a search engine.

questions-answers-search-before

Questions that start with “What?”, “Who?”, or “Where?” are usually simple. They’re factual, which is what Google and Wikipedia excel at. On the other hand, questions that start with “How?” and “Why?” aren’t as easy to answer.

Still, always consult Google and Wikipedia first. If you’re on a forum like Reddit, use the website’s built-in search feature to look around. People hate answering frequently asked questions, and if you’re asking a question that’s been asked a million times before, people will roll their eyes and move on.

One benefit for you is that search engine results are instant. You don’t have to wait for other humans to read your question, process their thoughts, and type out a response. It’s fast and convenient — why wouldn’t you consult Google or Wikipedia first?

2. Asking Questions That Are Vague

To maximize the chance of someone answering your question, you have to be as straightforward as possible. Get to the point quickly. Present the problem as clearly as you can. The longer it takes for the reader to process your question, the more likely they’ll be to shrug and move on.

In other words, vagueness is the enemy of finding answers.

questions-answers-vague-question

Imagine if you got a call from a friend, and as soon as you picked up, the first words you heard were, “How do I fix my car?” At that point, the question doesn’t make sense. Which part of the car is broken? How old is the car? What was he doing when the car broke? These are important details.

The problem with a vague question is that it offers no context. Without proper context, a question like that could be answered in a million different ways. You could ask the question anyway, but you’ll end up wasting a lot of time as helpers reply with follow-up questions to narrow down the issue.

At the end of the day, people hate having their time wasted — so don’t waste their time with vague questions. Be clear up front:

  • What’s the specific issue? (e.g. Computer won’t boot up)
  • What are the relevant symptoms? (e.g. a long beeping tone)
  • What have you tried already? (e.g. memory diagnostics test)
  • Anything else that’s relevant? (e.g. just installed Windows 10)

3) Asking Too Many Things at Once

This particular mistake isn’t as common as the others, but it’s almost a sure-fire way to guarantee that no one will help you out: stop bombarding people with multiple questions at a time!

As a helper, a forum post that contains a dozen different questions/problems is daunting. Every additional question is extra research that needs to be done or extra time spent in typing up a reply. For a lot of helpers, that extra effort isn’t worth the energy.

questions-answers-too-many-questions

Along similar lines, asking too many follow-up questions is bad.

Here’s the thing about helpers: they like to feel like they’ve helped. Some helpers are more altruistic than others, but everyone gets some measure of satisfaction when they’re able to help another person solve an issue.

When you ask too many follow-up questions, you rob that feeling of satisfaction from your helpers, and it makes them less likely to keep helping you — especially if they’ve already put in a lot of effort in their first response to you.

If your problem wasn’t actually solved or if you need additional clarification, that’s fine. If your problem was solved and you’re now introducing a separate problem, then that’s bad. Wait a while. Don’t overwhelm your helpers.

4) Asking In an Annoying Way

If you find yourself in need of help, make sure you show a bit of respect to those who might potentially help you. A little bit of kindness and humility goes a long way, especially when you’re on the Internet (where most people are anonymous jerks 5 Ways You're (Accidentally!) Being A Condescending Jerk Online 5 Ways You're (Accidentally!) Being A Condescending Jerk Online But here's the thing: you might be a jerk and not even realize it. Here are some things to watch out for. Read More ).

For example, don’t be annoying. If you’re frustrated by your situation and need to blow off steam, do that elsewhere. When anger and irritation are palpable in your question, it makes people less likely to offer their insights.

questions-answers-annoying-way

Similarly, if someone does offer you their help but it doesn’t actually solve your issue, don’t antagonize them. Be grateful that they tried to help at all. Nothing kills the desire to help faster than a jerk with an ungrateful or condescending attitude.

And one final note: even if English isn’t your primary language, try to be grammatically correct and use proper spelling. From the helper’s perspective, it’s too much of a bother to decipher a plea for help that’s littered with typos, broken sentences, and abbreviations like “u”, “ur”, and “plz”.

Again, a little bit of online respect and good etiquette To The Manner Born: Essential Technology Etiquette Tips For Our Digital Age To The Manner Born: Essential Technology Etiquette Tips For Our Digital Age Technology etiquette could easily fall under the topic of “common sense” yet there are many who remain ignorant -- and that’s not a judgment against those who don’t know any better. For a long while,... Read More can go a long way.

What Other Reasons Are There?

In a lot of ways, these tips for “asking better questions” can be seen as an offshoot of what it takes to have a productive online discussion 4 Unexpected Ways To Make The Best Of Powerful Online Discussions 4 Unexpected Ways To Make The Best Of Powerful Online Discussions There are places online where you can find serious discussions that are well-moderated and more meaningful than the usual drivel. When you encounter such threads, how can you make the most of them? Read More . It’s important to keep a positive attitude, foster an encouraging atmosphere, and treat others as human beings (which is tough thanks to an anonymous Internet).

These things are not only important for making your arguments stronger 5 Methods To Transform Your Online Arguments & Make Them Stronger 5 Methods To Transform Your Online Arguments & Make Them Stronger There is a smart way to argue constructively online. Take the help of these five concepts and bring your best words and best behavior to the table. Increase the value of your online arguments. Read More , but they’re also important for fighting online harassment Online Harassment Is Your Fault; Here's How To Fix It Online Harassment Is Your Fault; Here's How To Fix It What happens to harassment victims who aren't good at interacting with the press, or do or say unpopular things? Read More .

Are your requests for support usually ignored? What kinds of mistakes would prevent you from answering another person’s question? Share with us in the comments!

  1. Kaedibyrd
    November 19, 2015 at 1:29 pm

    My husband is in IT support/network administration. I used to call him whenever I experienced the slightest hitch. He finally told me he wasn't going to help me with my computer until I had restarted my system three times. I got the picture.

    You have to look at it from the tech guy's perspective. My husband has been gotten out of bed early on a Saturday morning to help with a critical emergency catastrophic system failure. The client had failed to plug the computer into the wall. People call IT on a hair trigger, and they really need to learn to address basic issues - to troubleshoot - on their own first.

    He has a T-shirt now that says "No I will not fix your computer."

  2. Charles Carter
    November 7, 2015 at 2:14 pm

    Interesting article.
    I'm an MD, my daughter a nurse, my son does tech support at a small tech company. She and I were talking yesterday about communicating to patients, which can be difficult for quite a number of reasons. Later last night he talked about mostly the kind of issues raised here. She mentioned a new computer she just got at work, asking her IT guy questions about installed apps she didn't recognize. When the IT person asked her about a 'shared drive' she gave up.
    I've been trying to figure how to automate some repetitive tasks on my home computer, but unsure even where to start- powershell?; am I using a remote desktop or a virtual desktop, or are they the same thing?
    I'll refrain from opinions, just note these issues aren't entirely unique to IT. Obviously too not addressing off-work friend and family requests (tho I get those too).

    • likefun butnot
      November 11, 2015 at 3:43 am

      @Charles Carter:

      Relating to task automation, the best way to do things is the way you find easiest to do things. I cut my teeth on Unix systems and know Perl, so if I'm doing things for myself, even on a Windows machine, I'll probably break out a Korn Shell or Perl interpreter. Powershell is extremely powerful and exposes a lot of system components that don't have a a cmd.exe-style equivalent, but there's a lot less institutional knowledge of Powershell, and you may also find that your background makes writing VBscript (or, say, Rexx, which is still a thing) commands easier than either of the above.

      And in typical IT parlance, a Remote Desktop means getting the same screen as if one were sitting in front of a physical computer. A Virtual Desktop at the IT level describes an operating system instance that exists only as a virtual machine on a more powerful PC that an end user can interact with.

      • Charles Carter
        November 11, 2015 at 1:17 pm

        Thanks! Appreciate the help. Your comments give me some things to look into.

  3. A41202813GMAIL ..
    November 6, 2015 at 9:59 am

    A - Do Not Refuse Giving Help All Of A Sudden, And Without A Warning,

    B - Establish Rigid Engagement Rules Before Doing ( A ).

    Life Is A 2 Way Street.

    The Person You Denied ( A ) May Be An Expert On Some Extra IT Stuff You Know Little About - And Will Treat You Accordingly When It Is Your Time To Ask For Their Help.

    Judging A Book By Its Cover And / Or Burning Bridges Is Just Stupid.

    After The Old PCWORLD Forums Were Shut Down, I Found A New Home In SCFORUM - Even If They Can Not Help You ( And They Have Helped Me A Lot ), They Always Respond.

    Be Civil And Expect A Lot Of People Behaving The Same.

    Cheers.

  4. Last Hussar
    November 4, 2015 at 6:09 pm

    Or IT people could act like normal human beings and stop pretending they are the masters of some arcane knowledge others are not worthy of.

    Sure, you can Google, if you want to be told to do lots of unnecessary uninstalling and then download their adware...

    Has it not crossed the minds of the High and Mighty that if people don't understand the problems they can not frame a question? This is why people are better teachers, they interpret and prompt.

    Things that are fun to do when you have time. Answer the IT expert's non IT queries with the same disdain he treats others.

    • Joel Lee
      November 11, 2015 at 3:41 am

      One of the things I tried to convey with this article (and maybe I failed to do so) is that the difference rests in attitude. There are no stupid questions, and if you don't know how to frame a question, that's fine. But are you willing to put in some effort before offloading everything onto someone else? That's the key.

      If you do the research and still can't find your way, I'm sure plenty of people will be willing to help. If you treat IT folks like your personal slave, I doubt they'll be very excited to help out.

    • likefun butnot
      November 11, 2015 at 3:57 am

      @Last Hussar,

      I think that you'll find that your interactions with IT support will be improved with a moderation of your hostility toward their services.

      They are there to help you. They do not want to be at your desk or on the phone with you any longer than necessary. If you don't want or need their help, don't ask for it. They often have set procedures they have to follow that may seem obnoxious or run counter to your intuition. It may very well be that they don't like these rules either.

      You also need to understand that IT people, ESPECIALLY in support roles, are often not employees but contractors. They're often asked to account for time in unreasonably small increments (an acquaintance of mine does IT support at O'Hare Airport. He has to report his time in six minute intervals and can report no more than six minutes time to move between trouble tickets, in spite of his service area being spread out over something like four square kilometers) and may be asked to accept levels of abuse that would be unthinkable for someone in another business unit.

      Want to have a better interaction with IT? Try being polite and concise. It's not that much to ask.

  5. Rob Hindle
    November 4, 2015 at 1:54 pm

    Having worked in an IT support role in the past I still get the questions. I'm very selective about who I'll help and how much. No support person knows everything, there are millions of items of software and hardware out there and nobody knows every quirk of even the most common applications like MS Office. A lot of support issues need research to resolve, not just knowledge and it takes time. In many other professions you'd be paying a substantial hourly rate but people expect us to do them a favour or maybe repay a couple of hours work with a bottle of cheap wine. My usual response is to give them some very general advice about things they might try and the contact details of a local freelance PC support pro.

    I never get hands-on with anyone's PC nor access via VPN. I've had enough experience of "since you did xxx to my PC (xx weeks ago) yyy doesn't work" - if yyy, which from my perception is totally unrelated, stopped working why did you wait several weeks rather than tell me next day? They are aiming to make me feel responsible and get their new problem fixed for free.

    As a support person, if you want a good laugh you just say "no problem, just restore from your most recent backup" and watch their face. Everyone knows they should have backups, hardly anyone has.

    I'm a little more helpful on security issues: FFS use decent security software, secure passwords and Gmail (or similar) two factor security. Even when I've helped people who've had their email hacked and explained what they need to do to prevent a repeat I'll still get more spam from the same email account that's been hacked yet again a few weeks later. When they leave their house I wonder if they bother to close the door.

    Compare using a computer with learning to drive. In UK the average is about 45 hours of lessons at a cost of over GBP1000 before passing the driving test. Who spends anything at all, never mind that amount of time or money, learning about their digital technology? Yes, people say but a dangerous driver can kill or injure themselves or other people. Well with technology the risks are different. In the UK estimates of the cost of fraud against individuals are over GBP10 billion a year. Individual cases are often for many thousands of pounds. Perhaps you're happy to accept that risk, I'm not.

    • Joel Lee
      November 11, 2015 at 3:38 am

      "A lot of support issues need research to resolve, not just knowledge and it takes time."

      This is one of those things that people never really understand until they get a taste of being on the other side of the fence (in this case, working an IT service position). IT support folks aren't walking encyclopedias! And the hard part about tech is that there are so many avenues to explore when it comes to troubleshooting.

      Thanks for sharing, Rob. I think mandatory digital tech education is probably becoming more and more necessary with each passing year.

  6. Ivana Isadora Devcic
    November 4, 2015 at 1:33 am

    Love this article! I wrote a similar guide for a local Linux forum that I moderate, and we made it an obligatory read for all new members in an attempt to make the problem solving process easier for both sides. No matter how experienced and well-intentioned you are, it's really, really hard to help someone when you don't understand what they want because their description of a problem is unintelligible.

    As for the things that would prevent me from answering a question, I'd say that general rudeness and impatience are the worst. I understand the urgency and I know what it's like to have a problem that you can't solve on your own, but when asking for help online, you have to consider that those who are helping you have other things to attend to, and can't spend all their waking hours on a forum.

    Too many people behave so unreasonably and start throwing fits if their question doesn't get answered immediately. "Whaaat, my question about Fedora didn't get any replies, and it's already been an hour?!? Eff you guys, Linux sucks, I'm deleting it!!". That type of stuff. It's really annoying, and I wish people would adjust their expectations, especially when asking for help in smaller open source communities. Their members are people with varying levels of experience who spontaneously gather around a common interest, not a paid and trained 24/7 help & support service.

    • Joel Lee
      November 11, 2015 at 3:35 am

      "No matter how experienced and well-intentioned you are, it’s really, really hard to help someone when you don’t understand what they want because their description of a problem is unintelligible."
      You hit the nail on the head, Ivana!

      "Too many people behave so unreasonably and start throwing fits if their question doesn’t get answered immediately."
      And another nail, bang on. Thankfully most users aren't like that, but there's a considerable percentage that's entitled and impatient. Dealing with them is hard work!

  7. likefun butnot
    November 3, 2015 at 10:13 pm

    Oh boy, this is a fun list. I work in various roles as both salaried IT and as an IT contractor.

    So here are a few more for the list:
    1. You're asking for something that clearly isn't work-related or circumvents an established policy.

    The people who sign my checks or get my invoices paid can ask for help with things they have at home. Everybody else's home, personal computer problems are not mine. Maybe I'll look at them while I'm browsing Imgur or replying on MUO (which is usually something I do when I'm stuck on long phone calls, like hey, right now).

    By the same token, I don't care that you can't see a site that's tripped by network security. It's flagged for a reason. Maybe it serves ads. Maybe it serves porn. Not my problem unless it's work-related. And if you find a porn site that works and you're brave enough to visit it while you're in the office, more power to you. I'm not HR.

    I also don't care that a Mac or your personal favorite PC brand would make your job of filling out forms on web pages a zillion times easier than it is with the computer you've been stuck with.

    1a. You're asking me to make a housecall. No. I won't. Not ever. It isn't happening. Bring whatever it is to me or at least to the office if you can't get it on the VPN for remote support. "I'll buy you dinner" or "I'll buy you a case of beer" as inducement pushes you that much lower on the support ladder. That's actually insulting. My time has more value than that.

    2. You want me to do something illegal. Usually, this involves putting licensed software someplace it doesn't belong. There are some things that I'll turn a blind eye to ('m not going to audit whether you have a licensed copy of WinRAR), but no, I can't just give you a copy of Microsoft office for your personal laptop or put Photoshop on your office PC.

    This actually comes from managers and business owners as often as employees, especially in smaller organizations. Lots of small companies still have a communal copy of Microsoft Office.

    Another form of this comes from regulatory compliance. Yes, doctor, you really DO have to type your password every time you use that system. No, you can't just take those files home and work on them there.

    3. You tell me about problems that only exist in your head. Every organization I work with has at least one person who is so supremely inept at computers that I can justifiably put off dealing with their support requests. These will be the people who don't know that they can move the icons around on their desktop or complain because something changed on a web page they visit. There's only so much help I can give those people, but for the most part I've found that someone in this category probably doesn't want to actually learn anything either, so they go just above the people who want me to do stuff on their home PCs, in terms of support.

    4. You have a self inflicted, repeated issue. Usually, this involves malware, repeated accidental file deletions or somehow killing hardware over and over. Generally, if I have a support request that can be solved by stepping a user through how to do something, I take the time to show them what to do. But there are people who drop their laptop several times a year or manage to delete their mission-critical data on a regular basis. After the third time I've talked to somebody about the same problem, I really do lose any enthusiasm for helping them with it subsequently.

    • Joel Lee
      November 11, 2015 at 3:22 am

      Oh man, those are great additions! These are the kinds of horror stories that make me avoid support positions in IT. I suppose it's a reflection of society's attitude toward service positions as a whole, in that service workers are treated like slaves. Things like what you've mentioned are prime examples of why IT folks get so fed up over time.

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