Monday 7 January 2013

Help Me Help You

You've finally got fed up enough with whatever your current problem is to ask for help from someone. That help could come from a number of sources, but for the sake of argument, let's imagine that it's a mailing list. Further, let's imagine that it's a mailing list that I'm on, and that I genuinely want to help you. Here's how you can help me help you:

  • Tell me what it is you're actually trying to do, at a high level. Why? Because there might just be another way of approaching the problem that's just as valid. An example? Sure: "I want to log into gmail via the web UI" That's an inadvisable thing to do, especially when what you're really wanting to do is verify that some email was sent by your system. 
  • Remember, you've been pushing hard to fix this problem for a while now. You're probably reaching out to the group because you've run out of ideas; either that, or you've no idea how to begin solving the problem and really need some pointers. In both cases, you're loaded with context that I'm lacking. Help provide that context. Tell me why other ideas haven't worked. Perhaps it'd help to talk to the teddy.
  • Information is vital. Without it, I can't help you. A reproducible test case is one of the best ways to let me help you. Yes, yes, yes, I know that there's absolutely no way that anyone, anywhere could possibly see your Super Sekret company intranet. You're a smart chap. Creating a reproducible test case is not normally that hard.
Those are the key things, and they can be encapsulated as "I'm not you." There are other things that are more likely to get me interested in helping you:
  • Run a spell checker across your email. Just quickly.
  • Read your email to yourself before sending it. You were most likely frustrated when you wrote it, and missed out something that might help provide more context to me.
  • Read your email aloud before sending it. You were most likely very frustrated when you wrote it, if you've stumbled over things and not clearly explained them, I'll just move on.
  • I know you're frustrated and annoyed. Calling the tool your working with "shit" or "appalling" or relying on gross over-generalisations ("clicking never works"), insults, or, better yet, combining any random two ("only a flea bitten moron would think of using this pile of crap") isn't a way to make friends and influence people.
And, that, my friends, is all I have to say on that for now.