Troubleshooting with the Scientific Method

Today, one of our good friend’s stopped by the office and asked us to take a look at her laptop. Firstly, I want to know why everyone thinks that if you work in the tech sector you know what you’re doing. We work on the web. We are software people, not hardware people. But somehow, after fiddling with it, problem was solved.

Another incident that occurred today was Ken was unable to save a business card design as a PDF in illustrator. He spent about 10 minutes trying to figure out what was going on his computer that would cause an issue. He tried resetting the program, the computer, all of it. No dice. He then transferred the file to another computer to find out if it was his computer. New computer, still problematic. So he knew it was the file. 10 minutes or so, he realized the text layer wasn’t rasterized.

Give this issue to a non-scientific-method using person and they’d spend hours or lots of money to get it fixed. This is what we do in our minds while we’re working on the issues you bring us.

scientific_method 1. Make an Observation

This is easy. What’s wrong? In the two examples above. The computer is not turning on. Or, the file will not save in a specific format. That’s the observation.

2. Invent a Hypothesis

This is also a fun part. Basically, come up with all the things that could be the cause of the problem. This is usually, when on a Tech Support call, the first few questions they ask you “Is the computer plugged in? Is the computer turned on? Etc.” That is because they’ve developed these to be a common hypothesis that has proven to be true. This plus step 3, can also be considered Process of Elimination.

3. Test Hypothesis

If you think the program is causing the issue. Restart it. If you think its the computer, test it on another computer. Etc. Are you using IE6 and there is an image missing? Have you tried looking at the site in Firefox or IE7? I bet you the PNG file will work then. You need to test your hypothesis until you find one that proves true.

4. Theory

This is where your hypothesis has proven true to such an extent that you know it is the case. Generally speaking, at least with browser or OS related issues, you want to test it multiple times on different computers. If the same thing occurs each time, you can consider it a theory. You’re suppose to test this theory a few more times to make sure. Possibly try it on different ISP’s or at different times. The point is, you want to know that if this happens, then this will happen (the classic If-Then scenario my 6th Grade teacher taught us – Thanks Mrs. Turner).

5. Law

This is usually what is posted over and over again in user forums, the training manual, FAQs, etc. Enough people have come across the exact same problem, formed a similar hypothesis, done numerous testing, and found it to become law.

I’ll be honest, sometimes you can skip all this and call Tech Support and they will basically go through the motions with you on the phone. Ultimately a waste of both your time. Most technical people will refuse to call Tech Support until after they’ve exhausted all avenues. Every hypothesis we’ve tried has failed, and even when we’ve scoured the user guides, training manual, forums, the deep depths of the internet, only then will we contact Tech Support – this is usually where we find out that we simply missed something small and minuscule we almost feel stupid, or there is a bug with the software, the hardware is so totally fried it needs to be replaced.

What is your limit until you contact Tech Support?

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3 Replies to “Troubleshooting with the Scientific Method”

  1. HAHA! Yeah I made the mistake of working for Geek Squad. Now my family swears I can fix any computer issue ever. I’m not allowed to say “nope”
    I think it’s our generation just get’s it. I wonder if my reluctance to ever call tech support is from having to sit on hold for hours with AOL way back when it first came out, or that I know I can find the answer my self and develop a better understanding for how something works. I’d rather know and understand than have someone holding my hand through something.

  2. I disagree. While it’s important to sort of have a mental algorithm, people who work in the tech field also tend to be the ones who are best informed thanks to, as Mike said, generational bias though field experience is a large factor.

  3. I follow your blog for a long time and should tell that your articles are always valuable to readers.

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