Trapdoor In The Sun

Alan Shanahan, Technician & Consultant

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Help, The Internet Isn’t Working

Please Help Me

“The internet is not working.”
“My computer isn’t working.”
“That program doesn’t work properly.”.

If you’re asking someone for help and you think this is useful information, then you really need to try harder. Most of those who have spent time supporting others will have heard lines similar to these at least once. It’s the equivalent of someone throwing their arms in the air and say “I don’t care how you do it, just fix it”, and it’s hard to take.┬áThis is bad enough when it comes from self-confessed, even proud, Luddites. But when it comes from other┬átechnicians, it is hard to forgive.

Often it’s because they have no experience of supporting users themselves and cannot perceive of the viewpoint of the person coming to their rescue. It screams loudly “I am not prepared to invest a moment into this, I just want it to work”, and much of technology just isn’t like that. If it’s man-made, it’s fallible and things go wrong.

Consider the first phrase above: “the internet is not working”. Apart from displaying a high degree of ignorance, it isn’t helpful in the slightest. You can glean from that phrase that someone has a problem browsing the web. Because the “web” and the “internet” are the same thing, right? There’s the first problem. Let’s assume there’s a problem browsing the web; how does the problem manifest itself? Is the web page slow to load? Does it load at all? Is there a visible error message anywhere? Before wasting your support person’s time, look closely at the problem. If the web browser says “HTTP error 404”, pass on that information. What web page are you trying to access? Pass that information along. What web browser are you using, Internet Explorer, Chrome, Firefox? Tell the man! It’s all useful information. Are you able to access another web page, one you know works, e.g. Let him know. Is your WiFi connection active? Can you access any other internet services, e.g. email? Can you send messages? Can you receive? This is all useful information and accelerates your support person’s ability to resolve your problem.

Where To Start

From the support point of view, it’s all about having a decent starting point. A succinct, clear description of the problem, some supporting information. From there, it’s a game of elimination. There are many components in this problem; the technician has to think about “the chain”. What is the chain?

Computer -> browser/email client -> firewall -> wifi, if any -> cables, if any -> router -> incoming cabling -> ISP -> DNS servers -> web server

This is a simplified chain to make the point. Look at any one of those points of failure and think about how many possible faults there are. The number is quite large. It needs to be reduced. Giving additional information like “I cannot access my email” or “I can see the BBC news web site but site X pages aren’t loading” is very useful. It shows that the computer, browser, connection, router, incoming cables, ISP and DNS servers are all working and that the problem may lie at the web server side or email server of things. The techie asks “what URL did you type”, “how are you trying to access the web site” or “show me your POP3/SMTP settings” and discovers that the user has typed in the wrong URL or has a misconfigured email client. Without this extra detail, the user has to check each component above until he discovers the point of failure. Each link in the chain could force many questions and take a lot of time.


The central message of this post is not just for users of technology, it’s for designers too, at all levels. Give users the visibility they need to help you to help them. Consider how they have visibility of your system and how they can extract useful information from it to help you support them. Everyone stands to gain from this.