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If, like me, you get friends, family, and coworkers with computer problems (whether it's server, desktop, or laptop related), who ask you to help over the phone or IM, how do you debug problems?

I'm quite good at debugging hardware and software problems...when I'm at the computer. If I'm at the machine in question, I can hammer through the dialogs I need, mess with the BIOS, listen to sounds, etc, and it's pretty easy. When it's remote, it's a different story.

What effective techniques can one use to debug problems remotely, and what can you do to get better at debugging remotely?

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5 Answers

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I think one of the first important steps is to correctly assess their readiness level so you can respond appropriately. I have a cheat-sheet for myself that is based a model from Management of Organizational Behavior. Responding appropriately helps you avoid lots of the frustration and unpleasantness that can happen. When you are on the phone this is particularly important since it is far more difficult to asses the situation, and respond appropriately then it is when you are working with someone face-to-face.

Encourage them to talk as about the problem as much as possible. Ask lots of questions. You can't see what they are seeing, you can't hear what they are hearing, you don't know exactly what they did to get to the point where they decided to contact you. Uou need to encourage them to tell you what they are seeing, hearing and doing by asking lots of appropriate questions. You need them to be your eyes and ears, and hands.

If you are able then use the tools to remotely view the computer. The suggestions others have made are good. VNC is free but the other options are good too. If you are doing this professionally, you definitely want to work out a good system to remotely support systems you are responsible for.

If you are able, have a computer or VM where you are working that is similar to what they have. If you can't use a remote access tool, then being able to follow along with what they are doing on a different system is helpful. Even if you do have remote access having a VM you can test something on is helpful. That way you don't have to break the real system to try something you are not sure about.

Work on getting as in-depth of an understanding as you can about the computer systems you may support. Some things cannot be remotely viewed or replicated on another system. Some times you are just going to have visualize what they are seeing and doing in your head. The better you understand the systems you support, the easier this is.

As l0c0b0x mentioned see the Your troubleshooting rules? question for advice on doing the actual troubleshooting.

I think this is the most complete, as it includes a number of topics and ideas. –  Daniel Huckstep May 23 '09 at 5:59
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Use a web meeting service like WebEx or Zoho... being able to see their desktop makes life 10x easier!

Totally didn't think about things like that. Copilot is another, and actually I've been dying to try it. –  Daniel Huckstep May 22 '09 at 19:21
Copilot being free on the weekends has immeasurably helped my family, who know almost nothing about computers. Trying to walk my aunt through Norton Antivirus' UI to disable real-time scanning when I don't even know what Norton's UI LOOKS like would have been impossible. –  Tom Ritter May 22 '09 at 20:15
Just FYI - Zoho is free all the time for 1-on-1 meetings –  gharper May 22 '09 at 20:36
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Treat them like any other user. If you haven't worked a support position here are some guidelines:

  • Require screenshots if you don't understand what they are describing.
  • Be able to see their machine using VNC, WebEx, or another of the above.
  • Make sure they are calm when helping them. Calm them down if you have to.
  • Have them tell you everything in add/remove programs so you can help figure out what is there.
  • Sometimes you just can't help the person over the phone or even with VNC. Make sure you are clear with them if this happens.

Above all, try to stay calm yourself, even if they don't give you the info you are asking for right away. This is especially important with friends and relatives, compared to coworkers.

Definitely all around good advice. –  Daniel Huckstep May 23 '09 at 5:58
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I recommend you take a look at this serverfault post for some troubleshooting tips (Very resourceful): http://serverfault.com/questions/8812/your-troubleshooting-rules-approach-to-troubleshooting

Troubleshooting will depend on your ability to understand the system the patience-level towards the person at the other end of the phone. I recommend if you're more keen on being on the system, you should look at remote control apps such as VNC, RDC (Windows remote desktop client), or other commercial solutions:

Thanks a great link! –  Daniel Huckstep May 23 '09 at 5:58
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Use copilot.com. It works awesome and is easy to connect for the other party.

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