Using Mental Models for Troubleshooting

When a user reports an issue they’re having with the product you support, how do you know what to do next? How do you identify the source of the issue? How do you know where to start investigating?

I’ve mulled over these questions countless times as I tried to explain to coworkers how I troubleshoot. When someone describes an issue, it always seems like the possible causes just pop into my head, unbidden. But of course that isn’t it at all — I have gotten better at troubleshooting our products over time, and that didn’t happen by chance.

When I read Jim Grey’s post How to Hire an Entry-Level Tester, his key traits for testers meshed with how I understand troubleshooting and this trait stood out:

Create mental models:  Building a mental model of a system, even if it’s incomplete or partially inaccurate, helps a tester orient themselves to a problem and generate ideas on how to work through it.

When I look at a problem, I fit it into my mental model of the product and use that model to start investigating. On my team, I’ve started to explicitly discuss mental models, how to build and expand them, and how to use them to get better at supporting and troubleshooting our products. Rather than trying to summarize the things we’ve talked about on my team, I’ll share the introduction to mental models I wrote recently, as part of a troubleshooting training I’m developing for WordPress.com support.


Mental Models

mental model is “an explanation of someone’s thought process about how something works in the real world” (Wikipedia). In other words, a mental model is how you understand or represent a real thing in a more simplified or abstract way.

Mental Model of a Bicycle

To get a better sense of mental models, let’s look at an example: Bicycles. Not everyone understands every part of a bicycle, but even if you just ride a bicycle now and then you probably have a concept of what it is and — at least to some extent — how it works. That is your mental model.

A user’s mental model

As a bicycle user, your mental model might be very simple — all you need to know are the parts you interact with or a general sense of what makes a bicycle different from, say, a tricycle or a car. In this simple mental model, you’ll see that the bicycle includes a frame, handlebars, a seat, and two wheels:

bicycle-simple
Continue reading “Using Mental Models for Troubleshooting”

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Embracing Openness

An exciting part of working at Automattic is the open source philosophy. It’s thrilling to help open source projects like Calypso (the new WordPress.com), even in a small way. I spent a chunk of time last year reviewing open bug reports, enhancement requests, and the like before the project was open sourced — it’s fun to see (and help with) new issues that come up as more people work with, get inspired by, and contribute to Calypso.

Open source isn’t just about developers, either — I do a lot of my day-to-day work in the open. I used to mainly provide support out in the open, helping users in the WordPress.com forums. These days I spend most of my time in the WordPress app repos, reporting and testing issues in the open there. (If you’d like to get involved, I also started posting calls for testing the WordPress apps over at Make WordPress Mobile.)

In the spirit of open testing, Automattic also recently released the WordPress.com Automated end-to-end tests into the open. I’m so glad we can share the awesome work that our QA and testing folks are doing. I’d also highly recommend checking out my coworker Alister’s blog WatirMelon for more testing talk.

Openness can really be part of everyone’s work — from open source, to open testing, and open support. Being open helps us learn from each other, inspire each other, and keep us aware of and oriented toward the wider community in which we work.

How We Engineer Happiness at WordPress.com

The Happiness Lead at Automattic, Andrew Spittle, did a nice interview with Olark about how we approach engineering happiness for everyone who uses WordPress.com and other Automattic products:

Engineering Customer Service at WordPress.com

Along with the larger overview of what we do, Andrew included this little tidbit describing what I think is one of the biggest challenges (but also biggest opportunities) in our work in the WordPress.com forums, where I spend the bulk of my time:

… a Happiness Engineer also does a little bit of qualitative customer feedback. We always get long public forum threads whenever we change something. It’s partly going back through those and picking out the highlights or the commonalities, and communicating those back to product teams.

New Design: Kiore Moana

I was bit by the redesign bug over the weekend and freshened up this blog’s design. I decided to try out Kiore Moana, by Elmastudio. It’s the first time I’ve used a premium theme on my blog — I tend to try out new themes often enough that I don’t want to commit to buying a premium theme. But I’ve had my eye on this one for a while, and it was relatively inexpensive.

I’m also trying out the theme with only minor customizations, at least for now. I really love the minimal style, so it seems a shame to dress it up too much with extra bits and pieces. I added some custom fonts, chose one custom color (the background color on my about page), and removed the post format icons — they’re really cute but didn’t feel right for my style.

Otherwise, I’m using the theme as it is out of the box. It took me more time to settle on the new theme than it did to set it up, and so far I’m really happy with it. It even inspired me to choose a little logo for the blog. I hope you like it!