Chasing the Improbable: Troubleshooting Challenges

Tim Travis - Device Technician

A big part of being a successful local computer repair shop is understanding the philosophy and process of diagnosing computer issues. Although it may seem like magic, we consistently use concrete steps and procedures that guide us from one possibility to another to eliminate a problem using flow charts, work aids, and/or our wealth of experience in the field. We have developed a method that serves us and our customers effectively in saving not only time, but also money and, ultimately, cost to the user. Our commitment to sustainability and belief in repair over replacement help us against our competition and build trust with the community.

Computers as Designed Machines

One of the most common reactions that we encounter with our customers when dealing with malfunctioning computers or devices is fear. People naturally fear the unknown, and especially in the case of our most used machines, we anthropomorphize their behavior by projecting our own intentions and expectations onto them. For example, if a peripheral is not working, a customer might feel inconvenienced and confronted, as if the computer itself deliberately decided to be non-cooperative or defiant. In the case of a machine riddled with viruses, a customer may feel malicious intent from the machine or personally robbed of control.

Intel-Foundry-640x359An intel "Foundry" for manufacturing computer chips: Human-conceived and human-made.

What we strive to do at Armor is to illuminate the actual issues in problematic devices instead of their perceived malevolence. As every computer, tablet, phone, and printer has been designed, documented, and sold by humans, we believe any problems that stem from these machines can be similarly solved by humans. There is almost always a finite set of root causes, and we hope our customers can take comfort in that a solution can always be found with the right set of skills and tools, which we continue to hone. Even if we do not have an immediate answer, we have the expertise to discover a solution quickly.

Bits and Pieces

We hope to impart a bit of our knowledge on ways you can more effectively understand your own computer issues and communicate them better to professionals like us. The following are some easy checks to make before you give us a call or come into our shop. We know that these questions are a bit patronizing, but there is a good reason why these have become clichés:

  • Have you turned it off and on again?
  • Have you made sure all your relevant peripherals are plugged in?
  • Have you installed the latest drivers and software updates for your device?
  • Have you made any changes within the last 24 hours that may have led to this issue?
tech-supportExpressing your issue over the phone can be difficult if you are stressed. Keeping your mind in gear helps us hear the specifics.

When communicating with us in person or over the phone, please keep in mind to:

  • Describe your issue using your five senses, especially sight, sound, and smell.
  • Mention every action taken in the order of events leading up to the issue.
  • Describe how often and how long the issue persists.
  • Avoid using generalized language like "it doesn’t work," "it freaks out," or "it just goes crazy."

As with a checkup with your doctor, we want our diagnosis of your hardware to be informed by observable, testable symptoms. Recreating your issue in our shop the moment we power on your device is a vital step: it could be a flashing light, a few beeps that indicate a specific fault code, or a smell indicating a burned-out electronic component. Retracing your steps is also a helpful measure in establishing the setting of the issue and seeing if any recent changes may correlate to the symptoms. And finally, using descriptive language, informed by the prior points, paints a much clearer picture for our team. We are trained to listen, and the more detail we can hear, the better.

Advanced Methods

Checklists may be a great place to start, but also, using conditionals can be helpful for more complex problems. Many computer repair professionals and IT experts rely on flowcharts to navigate systematically through the problem, one question at a time. They begin with more generalized questions and eventually lead to more specific queries to find the root cause. Imagine how helpful something like this can be in solving any number of computer or non-computer related problems. The aim is to facilitate an internal dialogue aided by information: "Have a question? Try this. This does not work? Go here."

ATA Drive Failure FlowchartSATA Drive and ATA Hard Drive Diagnostic Flowchart from Foner Books.

Following a flow-chart tree is simple: answer a question in the first diamond-shaped conditional box, and take the path "yes" or "no" that best fits the problem. Then, read the text in the following rectangle or next diamond, and either implement the proposed solution or take another "yes" or "no" path. More complex flowcharts may even refer to another chart entirely for a more detailed diagnosis.

Here is an example that we might use ourselves while diagnosing a hard drive failure, using the ATA Drive Failure flowchart:

  • BIOS register drive? Yes.
  • SMART error? No.
  • CD or DVD drive? No.
  • SSD Drive? No.
  • Drive cycle up, down? No.
  • Clicks unending? Yes.
  • Swap power lead, isolate on controller, power management.

Armor for the Mind

Establishing and executing more critical thinking—whether it be in the form of internal dialogue, checklists, or following flowcharts—can be effective even outside of IT. For example, when dealing with a solicitor at your door or an unknown caller, you could use a flow chart or mental checklist to determine whether the person in question is a con-artist or scammer. Making these deliberate, conscious checks before automatically reacting or complying gives you an immense measure of discretion and could easily save you thousands of dollars from being ripped off. Part of being a skilled and aware user is understanding the warning signs of scams and practicing a healthy skepticism when grandiose promises are made on the internet.

BrainPasswordSecurityConceptIllustrationThe best way to protect your devices is to protect your mind: assume what you share is public, question everything, and keep your finances private.

Some questions to ask yourself could take the form of this:

  • Am I being promised large sums of money, returns on investment, or riches?
  • Are they telling me I am their thousandth, millionth, or nth customer?
  • Does the process at all involve paying with bitcoin?
  • Are they asking me to install strange software on my computer?
  • Are they asking me to allow them direct or remote access to my computer or device?
  • Am I not thinking about the decisions or verbal responses that I am making?

If the answer to any of the above is "yes," then it is most likely a scam. Be especially aware of any fast-talking salesperson that demands immediate, thoughtless answers or uses rhetorical questions that put your mind into an unthinking, pliable state. Give yourself time and space to think.

Wrapping Things Up

In the case of computer repair, we try our best to give you the most accurate, informed advice, and the proper time for you to make a deliberate, measured decision about your repair. In the long run, not only does this help us develop greater trust and repeat sales, but it also saves time, which we pass on in the form of savings to you. Our diagnostic and repair fees are some of the most competitive in the business for this very reason. We sincerely hope the next time you do business with us or your local IT firm, you will not only be prepared but also more confident about the service you receive.