Panayiotis Christodoulou
• hat the job market demand is for user support
Common ways that organizations provide a user
support function
Services that user support groups provide
Typical position descriptions for user support
staff members
The knowledge, skills, and abilities needed to
qualify for an entry-level user support position
Career paths for user support workers
The troubleshooting process and the thinking
skills required for successful trouble shooting
Communication skills for troubleshooting
Information resources to help solve computer
Which tools are used to troubleshoot computer
Strategies for troubleshooters
How to develop a personal problem-solving
Troubleshooting is the process of defining,
diagnosing, and solving computer problems.
Solving computer problems is not generally
Troubleshooting may require following one
sequence of steps for a while then looping
back and performing another similar set of
steps that go down a different path.
Troubleshooting is both an organized,
scientific process and a creative process.
In computer problem solving, troubleshooters
move from the problem state of equipment
not working to the goal state of the
equipment working. Problem solvers might
analyze problems on the basis of analogies
by comparing a current problem to a similar
problem solved in the past. They may also
look for contradictions such as a piece of
equipment that does not work in one
machine but works in another which indicates
that the hardware is working.
Critical thinking describes the cognitive skills a
problem solver uses to analyze a situation,
search for the underlying logic or rationale, and
strive for alternate ways to explain an event or
creativity, hypothesis testing and metacognition.
Creativity is the ability to find novel or innovate
solutions to a problem. Hypothesis testing is the
ability to formulate a hypothesis about the cause
of a problem and design a test that will prove or
disprove the hypothesis. Metacognition is the
ability to think about thinking or the ability to
step back from a problem and analyze the
thought processes being used to solve it.
Decision-making is the ability to select one
alternative from among a number of
alternatives, based on some evaluation
criteria. This is especially important when
there are several diagnostic tests that can be
used to detect a problem. Selecting the best
test can expedite the solving of a problem.
Troubleshooters routinely use skills such as
problem solving, critical thinking, and
decision making in their work regardless of
their field.
Most successful troubleshooters use tools that fall
into one of five broad categories including
diagnostic and repair tools, problem-solving
strategies and personal characteristics.
Communication and interpersonal skills are very
important for
situations require some interaction with end users.
First troubleshooters must use communication skills
to work with the user to clearly identify the problem.
troubleshooter must clearly communicate the
solution to the user and will mostly likely have to
write the solution up for the support database or
incident report.
There are five basic types of communication
skills used to troubleshoot computer problems.
These skills include basic listening skills, active
listening, probes,
critical questions, and
explanation and verification skills. Basic listening
skills include the ability to listen carefully to the
words that the user chooses to describe the
problem. Active listening is when the listener is
as engaged in the communication process as the
speaker, rather than being a passive receiver of
information. One particularly useful active
listening skill is paraphrasing or restating in your
own words what you heard the user say.
Another way of eliciting more information from a
user is to use probes or effective follow-up
questions designed to encourage the user to
provide additional information.
It is also helpful to have a list of critical questions
that are designed to elicit important information
from the user. Often users will reveal more
information in response to the critical questions
then they would have thought to tell the support
representative initially. Five examples of critical
questions are:
I. Has the problem system, component, or
feature ever worked?
II. Have you ever had this problem before?
III. Is the problem repeatable (can it be
IV. What were you doing on your computer just
before you first noticed the problem?
V. Have you made any recent hardware or
software changes to your system?
Explanation and verification are important skills
at the end of a troubleshooting session.
Explanation is a communication skill whereby a
support specialist describes the solution to a
problem so the user understands why the
problem occurred and the steps required to
resolve it. A word of explanation can provide a
more satisfying experience than just suggestion.
Communication at the end of the troubleshooting
process can also help the support specialist and
the end user verify their perceptions of the
resolution are the same and that the user
believes that the problem has been solved.
Since it is impossible for support specialists to
have prior experience with every situation and
problem that can arise, it is important for
support specialists to have access to information
resources. The more knowledge and prior
experience a support specialist can bring to a
problem-solving event the more likely they will
be to find a solution. There are a wide variety of
professional contacts and coworkers, listservs,
newsgroups, support vendors and contractors,
and escalation and team problem solving.
One of the first steps in any troubleshooting
situation is to draw upon previous experiences.
Looking up notes from past problems and
reviewing similar situations can help provide
clues to the current situation. A script can be
another form of documentation that can help
when troubleshooting. A script is a document
that lists questions to ask and, depending on the
user’s response to each question, follow-up
probes. Scripts cover many of the possible or
known paths that can be used to solve problems.
A knowledge base is an organized collection of
information, articles, procedures, tips, and previous
problems with known solutions that can serve as a
resource in problem-solving situations. Vendor manuals
often contain chapters on troubleshooting and frequently
asked questions. More information can be found in
computer trade books written by third party authors. Most
products, software and hardware, have additional online
help available. Some software and hardware vendors have
a CD-ROM database subscription service available, which
provide more information and in depth technical
information about the product. Also, many organizations
have knowledge bases on the Web. Another option is a fax
back service, which allows an end user to dial a number
and have technical support documents faxed to them.
Coworkers and other professional colleagues can be an
invaluable source of information and assistance.
Professional contacts can include coworkers, however, it
can also include other industry professions and experts. A
ListServ is an automated e-mail serviced that distributes
e-mail messages to every member on the list. There are a
number of discussion lists devoted to solving software and
hardware problems where professionals in the field can
share problems and solutions. Another method that is
used for professionals to share information is a
Newsgroup or Internet discussion group. The major
difference between a listerv and a newsgroup is that
listservs distribute the messages tosubscribers and
newsgroups post a message that subscribes can access
from a centralized server.
Product vendors are often an extremely useful
resource for information. Alternatives to vendor
support can include an outsourcing company that
Organizations may also contract with an
outsourcing company if their internal help desk
has a volume of support requests that is greater
than their staff can effective handle.
When initial support attempts are unsuccessful in
solving a problem, the problem is generally
escalated or referred to a higher level.
Support specialists often use a variety of diagnostic
tools to detect and repair hardware, software, and
network problems. General-purpose diagnostic tools
may include software utilities that aid in
troubleshooting computer problems such as those
that allow support specialists to remotely control a
user’s machine. Hardware problem diagnostic tools
include software utilities that help diagnose common
hardware problems. Software problem diagnostics
include software utilities that can identify the
configurations of desktops, laptops, and servers, as
well as identify and repair various kinds of software
installation and configuration problems. Network
problem diagnostics include tools such as network
monitoring software and remote management tools.
Troubleshooters often apply one or more common
problem-solving strategies. The first strategy to try is
to look for the obvious fix. An example of an obvious
fix is a monitor that is not working.
The next step is to try to replicate the problem.
Replication is the process of trying to repeat a
problem in a different situation or environment. First,
the support specialist should try to replicate the
problem on the user’s machine, if possible. Second,
he or she should try to replicate the problem on
another system. If the problem cannot be
reproduced, it could be traced to something the user
is doing wrong.
Some problems with computer systems occur
because of a particular combination of
hardware, operating system, and applications
software that do not work well together. The
documentation for most hardware and
software includes a description of the
include the amount of memory, type of
processor, disk space needed, and video card
Another problem-solving strategy is to view
the system as a group of subsystems. By
breaking down the system into subgroups, a
support specialist can often find the problem
in a “subgroup.” One strategy is to interpret a
sequence of events at some point (often the
midpoint is a good place to start), and see
which side of the midpoint the problem
occurs. You can also look at one subgroup at
a time.
Hardware technicians frequently use module
replacement as a tool to diagnose hardware
Module replacement is a problem-solving
strategy that replaces hardware or software
component whose operational status is
unknown with one that is known to be
operational. For software, it might mean
uninstalling and reinstalling a package to see
if it works more consistently.
Hypothesis testing is another way to approach
problem solving. In hypothesis testing, the
troubleshooter formulates a hypothesis about the
cause of a problem and carries out an
experiment to determine if the hypothesis is true
or false.
The hypothesis testing strategy works best when
a support specialist can think of several alternate
explanations for a situation. It could help to
brainstorm alternatives with other support
If a problem cannot be traced to a
configuration problem, another problem
solving strategy is to “pare back the system”
or remove hardware and/or software
components that were added to the basic
variables, or factors of a problem-solving
situation that can change or be changed, that
can make a problem too complex to solve
Personal characteristics play an important role in
the troubleshooting process. Some personal
characteristics can contribute directly to the
success of a troubleshooter. Troubleshooters
need to be patient and persistent. They must also
be able to deal with frustration. Frustration can
come from either a problem that is difficult to
solve or an end user that is difficult to work with.
One way to deal with frustration is to take a
break from the problem and walk away from it
for a while.
Troubleshooters must enjoy the problem-solving
process. Technology troubleshooting can be like
a physician or a puzzle solver. If you do not enjoy
the challenge of solving a problem and the
excitement when a difficult problem is solved,
you might wish to consider another type of work.
Also, a support specialist must enjoy working
with people and have the ability to work with all
types of people. They must also be able to learn
new skills and how to work with new products as
the industry changes.
The problem solving approach in this chapter
treats troubleshooting computer problems as a
process, but not a process that has a fixed
sequence of steps that are guaranteed to work
every time. Support specialist need to have a
variety of “tools” available. Two alternate
approaches to troubleshooting that differ from
the approach in this chapter are treating
troubleshooting as a sequence of fixed steps that
one follows to solve the problem and a hit-ormiss approach to problem solving that consists
of randomly trying various things in order to
solve the problem.
All support specialists are eventually confronted
with problems that they cannot solve easily which
need a personal approach to problem solving. A
understanding of the strengths a support
specialist brings to each problem. To develop a
problem-solving philosophy, you should use
your own experience, knowledge, skills, thought
communication skills as the basis of your
troubleshooting skills and learn to use the
problem solving tools described in this chapter.
Be sure to analyze your trouble shooting
approach to recognize your strengths and
All support specialists eventually decide what
suggestions work best for them. A problemsolving philosophy is not necessarily
something a support specialist formalizes in
writing, however, a personal philosophy
about problem solving is something a
support specialist thinks about a great deal
and works hard to improve.