How to troubleshoot a computer problem

What steps do you go through in order to diagnose a computer problem? There's more than one correct answer, of course, but here's one way to work through the troubleshooting thought-process.

What steps do you go through in order to diagnose a computer problem? There's more than one correct answer, of course, but here's one way to work through the troubleshooting thought process.


We all have our methods to identify and correct computer problems. Most of us probably have certain things we go through, or steps we follow, and so on. I'm not suggesting that there's only one right way to diagnose and fix a problem, but they probably all have some commonalities. Moreover, different environments, applications, and countless other circumstances will influence any troubleshooting methods, so your particular circumstances might dictate something otherwise. Nonetheless, here's an outline of my own thought process when approaching a computer problem.

User support problems usually fall into one of the following categories: Hardware failure: This could actually be a failed component -- a bad motherboard or hard drive, for example - or it could be a matter of an unplugged cable, a router or modem that needs to be recycled, or some other such thing. Software issue: This would include the operating system, something affected by a Windows update, an application update, or an actual software bug. User-created problem: These are usually of the unintentional variety where a user might inadvertently disable something, change something, delete something, and so on. Training or documentation: Often times there is no real problem, per se, except for a lack of knowledge or understanding about something. In these cases, it might be that training is needed or documentation needs to be updated. Outside vendor issue: As much as I hate hearing the buck being passed around from one support group to another, it's sometimes real and justified. A custom software application or a supported piece of hardware might be experiencing some issues. High-end and high-output printing devices often fall into these categories. In my case, the support obligation usually ends at the printing or plotting device itself (except for low-end desktop printers), and short of restarting the unit, there isn't much I can do to troubleshoot and fix the problem. Such units are seldom sold alone, and they almost always come with a use-and-support agreement.

One thing I always do, however, when calling on such outside support help is to make myself available to assist in whatever way necessary. I would never say (or seldom say), for example, this is your problem that you need to fix. But rather I'd approach it as a joint problem that we, together, need to address until the issue is resolved.

I try to identify into which category the problem falls as quickly as I can. It is possible, I suppose, for a problem to actually have two (or more) underlying reasons, which can make finding the solution even more of a challenge; and in such cases, the fixes would probably have to be addressed in that order -- hardware first, then software (drivers, etc.), then user issues (configuration, etc.), followed by training or documentation. Nonetheless, I try to isolate the problem into one of those categories as quickly as possible.

Possible steps to seek a solution: Reboot: Try this preferably before support is called. I actually had a user who posted a message to himself that he taped along the edge of his monitor: Reboot first, call Joe second. Of course, on one hand, there's the situation where a reboot actually fixes a problem. On the other hand, however, requiring a reboot might really be a symptom of a deeper underlying problem. Rebooting once and being done with it is one thing, but if it becomes necessary to reboot too frequently to fix the same problem, then digging a little deeper to find the underlying problem would be required. Replicate the problem or issue: Make the problem happen again, see the error message, etc. Experience the problem yourself to get a better feel. Retrace user steps that led up to the problem: What did the user do immediately leading up to the problem? What was changed? What was installed (or uninstalled)? The answer is usually, “I did nothing different,” or something along those lines. But it's amazing how often we actually can identify that something really was changed by simply asking questions of the user. Device Manager: This is such a quick and easy way to get an overview of the hardware status. A quick look for the yellow or red warning tags might quickly identify the source of a problem. Error logs: Like the Device Manager, the error logs might reveal the source and frequency of a problem. Isolate the problem: Is it unique to this one computer, or are more people experiencing the same issue? For example, is it only one computer that can't print versus all of them that can't print? Seek obvious solutions: Unplugged cords and cables are often the cause of a problem or failure. Sometimes the most simple and obvious solution is the hardest to see. I recall having received a support call telling me that a computer hard drive had failed, but upon further investigation I discovered that a prankster had put a floppy disk into another user's floppy disk drive, and since the BIOS boot order was set as such, it was looking for a bootable floppy disk. Since floppy disks are used so seldom any more (in fact, many computers don't even have floppy disk drives), it was an easy thing for the user to overlook.

There's no one right way to troubleshoot all computer problems, and none of my outlined steps are necessarily in any correct order. But this is pretty much my own mind-set when I approach problems in my environments. Please share your own thoughts and comments.