Ask for Information, not Answers

One of my favorite parts of my job is troubleshooting. I enjoy troubleshooting issues for users, and I enjoy helping my coworkers troubleshoot issues they encounter. There’s just something satisfying about seeing a mysterious problem and picking it apart until you find the cause.

As a result, people sometimes ask me how to get better at troubleshooting. It’s a hard skill to explain — sometimes it feels like I just know the correct solution to a problem, and sometimes it feels like I’m just intuiting where the issue lies. Those aren’t really helpful to someone who wants to improve, and the truth is that I didn’t walk into this job with all of the answers or intuition I have today. So where does it come from?

One key that I realized is that to be good at troubleshooting, you have to be curious. Specifically, you have to ask questions (either literally asking another person or just asking yourself as a step in the process) with the intent to learn, not just the intent to get an answer for the one problem you are currently facing. Whether you’re getting help or you’re eavesdropping on someone else who’s troubleshooting an issue (also a great way to learn!), here are things to consider:

  1. How did someone else break down the issue I’m looking at and approach or investigate it?
  2. What is the general subject underlying this issue, and what information can I brush up on (with further reading, classes, conversations with experts) that will help me solve an issue related to that subject later on?
  3. What keywords (error messages, feature names, descriptions of the problem) can I use to search for past occurrences of this issue?
  4. What tools do I have access to that could possibly give me more information about the problem that underlies this issue?

A lot of the time, my troubleshooting is a lot of trial and error. I might pop open my browser console to discover it’s completely blank, and later find out that my terminal could have given me more useful information. Or I’ll be absolutely sure I’m encountering a theme bug, only to discover that the problem is solved by changing a widget. That’s ok.

Learning to troubleshoot is learning how to approach a problem, and going down the wrong path is bound to happen in that process. But the more practice you get, and the more techniques and information you learn, the better you’ll become at identifying the likely cause of any given issue and figuring out how to resolve it — without having to rely on someone else handing you the right answer.

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Finding Problems

My coworker Kelly shared a fantastic lesson recently:

Tell me the problem, not how you think I should fix it.

This is really much harder than it seems at first glance. While talking with users, I often end up with all sorts of suggestions about how we could improve our products. Add a feature, change the layout, remove a roadblock, etc. Even if a user didn’t make the suggestion explicitly, I sometimes come away from an interaction thinking, If only we did this instead of that

It’s really easy to think you know the solution to your problem. If I had a penny for every time I told a developer or designer, “Our users want X,” or “We could resolve the issue by doing Y,” well, you know. But the fix you come up with might not be the best fix for everyone using the product, or even the best fix to help you reach your own goal — and pushing for minute fixes can also mean missing out on fixes you can make to the bigger picture.

Slowly, I am learning to recognize that instinct to come up with a fix and refocus on identifying the problem. Here are some things I ask myself to help with that:

  • What assumptions did we make when designing the product about how it was going to be used, and what assumptions is this user making about how the product should work? Where do those assumptions clash?
  • What was the user’s goal, and where did the product fail to help them meet that goal?
  • What patterns or trends have I seen recently in the problems our users are telling us about (or the fixes they are asking for) that might indicate a bigger breakdown?

With those questions in mind, I can engage the people who use our products in conversations about the problems they are encountering, and communicate those problems to the people who create our products. And I’m happy to brainstorm and offer suggestions when it’s helpful, but unless I start by communicating the problem, we are all missing an important step along the way to the solution.