Email tip: When you say that something didn’t work, you have to say how it didn’t work


I illustrate this point with an imaginary conversation, inspired by actual ones I've seen (and, occasionally, been a frustrated party to).

From: X

I want to do ABC, but I don't have a DEF. Anybody know of a workaround?

Somebody has an idea:

From: Y

Try mounting this ISO file into a virtual machine and trying the ABC from there.

Unfortunately, it didn't work:

From: X

I tried that, but it didn't work. Any other ideas?

When somebody suggests a troubleshooting step or a workaround, but when you try it and it doesn't work, you need to say how it didn't work. The person who made the suggestion had some expectation that it would work, and just saying that it didn't work will probably just generate an unhelpful response like "Well, try again." Which doesn't help anybody.

In this example (which I just made up), a better response from X would be something like this:

  • "I tried that, but it didn't work. Virtual PC refused to load the ISO image, putting up the error message 'The CD image could not be captured. You may not have the proper access privileges to the CD image files.'"
  • "I tried that, but it didn't work. Virtual PC loaded the ISO image, but when I tried to view the contents of the CD, I got 'Not ready reading drive D.'"
  • "I tried that, but it didn't work. Virtual PC loaded the ISO image, but when I double-clicked the ABC file, I got the same error that I got when I tried to do ABC directly."

Each of these is a different failure mode that suggests a different course of action.

And then the response probably won't be, "Well, try again."

Comments (47)
  1. John says:

    And you call yourself a psychic debugger.

    [I don’t. Psychic debugging is not something you aspire to do. It’s something you are forced to do because the person asking the question is lame. -Raymond]
  2. barbie says:

    Well, I’m sure Raymond could tell you that the problem is actually because of GHI. How’s that ?

  3. David Walker says:

    "I tried to do ABC, but I got an error.  What should I do?"

    "What was the error message?"

    "I don’t know, I didn’t write it down."

    Scream….

  4. Maurits says:

    From: Y

    What happened?

  5. Marquess says:

    Yeah, we all know GHI is a piece of crap. They shouldn’t have shipped it with Vista.

    What?

  6. dave says:

    "I tried to do ABC, but I got an error.  What should I do?"

    "Find a job more in line with your capabilities."

  7. Nawak says:

    Typo:

    (and, occasionally, been a frustrated party >too<).

  8. Maurits says:

    > “I tried to do ABC, but I got an error.  What should I do?”

    > “What was the error message?”

    > “I don’t know, I didn’t write it down.”

    “Do it again.”

    Two possible responses:

    “OK, the error was 1337.”

    “That’s ERROR_JOMBISTAT_IS_NOT_FRANGOED.  Frango the jombistat.”

     

    “This time it worked.”

    “Great, let us know if it happens again.”

    First rule of dealing with clients: don’t get frustrated.  Support is just as much of a pain for them (or more) as it is for you.

  9. Maurits says:

    been a frustrated party >too<

    "To" is correct, barring ending-with-a-preposition pedantry.

  10. Nawak says:

    Or maybe it’s not a typo… I can’t decide since both versions look strange to me…

    • Did you try making sense of the sentence?
    • I tried, didn’t work… Any other ideas?

    • Well, try again

    Redressing it into "I’ve been a party to frustrating conversations" makes sense so I guess "to" is correct,  I’m just not used to see sentences ending like that. :)

  11. Rick C says:

    Raymond’s original usage is correct, except for the split infinitive.  The more correct formation is as Nawak suggested, although Raymond’s original usage is generally understood, most people not wanting to resort to "That is the kind of language up with which I will not put."

    In this case, using "too" would work if it was being used in the sense of "also."

    Having said all that, I will now attempt to return to the topic.  If I’m dealing with a customer, I can almost always find a way of asking them to try again and tell me the error that won’t piss ’em off.  "Please send me a screenshot showing the error" usually works.

  12. CoMargo says:

    One of the usual sentence that I hear from our US office (programmers are in Russia, while hardware engineers are in US): "Your software is completely broken!"

  13. Nick says:

    Any more I’m tired enough of conversations like this that I just reply with some bogus "solution".  Why doesn’t your ABC do DEF?  Check if your caps-lock key is on.

    If I can’t provide helpful advice because somebody doesn’t care enough to give details about their problem, I’ll provide useless advice. I’m helping!

  14. MItaly says:

    [ "OK, the error was 1337."

    "That’s ERROR_JOMBISTAT_IS_NOT_FRANGOED.  Frango the jombistat." ]

    The sad thing is that this happens also when the error is clearly explained:

    "I tried to do ABC, but I got an error.  What should I do?"

    "What was the error message?"

    "Did I have to read that?"

    "Try again, what does it say?"

    " ‘The selected file is marked as read-only. Please select another file or remove the read-only attribute from the file’. What should I do?’ "

  15. Rangoric says:

    @Rick C

    Split Infinitive is not a grammatical rule of the English Language. It is a Latin rule that Latin loving English scholars thought might work in a non-Latin based language.

    Same with ending a sentence with a preposition. Latin rule people decided should be in a non-Latin based language.

  16. Jono says:

    I read an excellent article on this the other day:

    How to Report Bugs Effectively

    http://www.chiark.greenend.org.uk/~sgtatham/bugs.html

    Killer quote: "Instead of being a mongoose, be an antelope."

  17. mikeb says:

    "Try again, what does it say?"

    " ‘The selected file is marked as read-only. Please select another file or remove the read-only attribute from the file’. What should I do?’ "

    Master Shake has the proper response: "You may as well paint yourself yellow, run around like a maniac and call yourself "Banana Man", cause that’s what you’re doin’!"

    Now, I haven’t had the opportunity to actually use this response in real life, but when I do, it’ll feel really, really good, I’m certain.

  18. GoogleMaster says:

    I know this is very long, but sometimes I get frustrated and throw a link to Eric Raymond’s "How To Ask Questions The Smart Way" in my .sig:

    http://catb.org/~esr/faqs/smart-questions.html

    Sadly, people who can’t be bothered to read and extract meaning from "The selected file is marked as read-only. Please select another file or remove the read-only attribute from the file." will also not be reading that post.

  19. Nawak says:

    Sometimes a good technique is to be slow to answer:

    • it doesn’t work!

    (2 days pass)

    • what happens?

    3 mins 37s later:

    • an error message pops out and the application quits!

    (3 days pass)

    • what does the error message say?

    Usually, the interlocutor starts to notice that while you are helping, he still hasn’t got anywhere in five days. He will then try to anticipate your questions and provide more information. Hopefully, the next time he contacts you, it will go like this:

    first email:

    • it doesn’t work!

    five minutes later, second email:

    • forgot to say, an error box shows up complaining about file permissions

    If you are lucky, he will even explain what he already tried!

    If all goes well, by anticipating your questions, he may also anticipate your answers and may well end up finding the solution by himself. By taking the time to correctly state the problem, the user has allowed his brain to wake up.

    Of course the initial slow response can be skipped if the interlocutor is really inexperienced and has no idea what can be a useful information in his situation. The delay can be introduced when it becomes obvious he is not making any effort at helping you helping him.

  20. Cooney says:

    I’m sorry, I can’t think of any way to respond to those sorts of people than saying "go back and read the error message until you understand it" and I just know someone will complain that I’m mean and it’ll show up at review time.

  21. Anonymous Coward says:

    Nice bit of advice Raymond. But it can be applied to strictly. I’ve seen a situation where all the doumzas where sprocking out of control. We were told to press button X, which didn’t work. This got reflected at us: what doesn’t work? Well, we’ve pressed the button and the doumzas are still sprocking out of control. If something else had happened, we would have told you, <expletive deleted>. Barring catastrophic failure or weird surprises there’s usually just one failure mode for a button: it doesn’t work.

    It is a Latin rule

    I find that really hard to believe since a) in Latin the issue does not arise and b) in Latin it is common to split word groups that we wouldn’t, because thanks to the casing system this introduces less ambiguity and can better tie the sentence together and emphasise important words.

    That is the kind of language up with which I will not put.

    In this case ‘up’ is not normally considered to be governed by the ‘rule’ because in this context it isn’t really a preposition. So ‘with which I will not put up’ is correct. Note that I personally don’t have a real dislike for putting prepositions at the end, it’s just that misrepresenting the ‘old’ way of doing things to make a point is wrong.

  22. JJJ says:

    "Well, we’ve pressed the button and the doumzas are still sprocking out of control. "

    Why wouldn’t you say that in the first place?  They told you to press button X and you said it didn’t work.  The button press didn’t work?  Did the button get stuck?  Was there a modal dialog preventing you from clicking it?  Was it grayed out?

    Raymond’s advice holds true:  you should have said you pressed the button, but the doumzas are still sprocking out of control.

  23. Dean Harding says:

    You’ve got to remember that Raymond does "support" mostly for programmers who should know better. It’s one thing for a customer or end-user who just wants to get their job done and doesn’t care HOW computers do whatever they do: for those people, tact and politeness are important. But a programmer should know better than to just say "it doesn’t work".

  24. occasional support provider says:

    There are support situations with very different expectations with regard to the quality of information provided by the party seeking help. You try to keep your customers happy as long as they are not rude to you (and, sometimes, even then) and you can shun and make fun of incompetent "professionals" as much as you like.

  25. Cooney says:

    It is a Latin rule

    No, it is a conjugation. You don’t split the infinitive in latin for the same reason you don’t chop up words and spread them around the sentence. English != Latin, so split infinitives if you like.

  26. Rangoric says:

    @Anon and Cooney

    That’s my point. Latin scholars decided that the no split infinitive rule from Latin should be in English. It’s not a "rule" in Latin because they can not happen. They wanted English to be more Latin-Like so they tried to get it to be a rule in English.

    That’s why you hear people spout it off as if it is a rule in English, when it really isn’t. Same with the ending a sentence with a preposition.

  27. Dean Harding says:

    English has rules?!

  28. Mark says:

    Rangoric: It’s not as simple as that.  A number of processes are causing reanalysis of its syntactic function.  Historically, part of the tension would be the overloading of the word "to" after loss of the English case system, but the appeal today is probably the simplistic desire to model the infinitive as a single unit.

    However, the English infinitive has little to do with Latin, and evolved (including its splitting) independently of it.  So please don’t blame "Latin scholars".

  29. Cheong says:

    In certain forums, this kind of question be asked without adequate information will be absorbed into black hole and never got answered.

    To get question answered, you have to fuel your question with enough information to show that you’ve tried your best to figure out yourself but not success in order to help it escape from the black hole.

    But then again those forums have some technical requirement so the standard may be different.

  30. Lazbro says:

    I can so vouch for this. I make a game mod and half of the questions are of this format.

    ‘I can’t make unique items’. Too bad I suppose. What exactly did you do? You probably misread the recipe.

    Usually the answer is silence.

  31. Marquess says:

    “You don’t split the infinitive in latin for the same reason you don’t chop up words and spread them around the sentence.”

    BTW, German has no problem doing just that that.

  32. Marquess says:

    “You don’t split the infinitive in latin for the same reason you don’t chop up words and spread them around the sentence.”

    BTW, German has no problem doing just that.

  33. Jono, this text is great! I was actually thinking about writing something on that topic myself but now that you found it I can simply link that text. I get tons of useless bug reports and this might help somewhat.

  34. cooney says:

    English has rules?!

    English has /habits/

  35. ChristW says:

    @Dean Harding

    English has rules?!

    Yoda rules has!

  36. Andrew Brehm says:

    "Split Infinitive is not a grammatical rule of the English Language. It is a Latin rule that Latin loving English scholars thought might work in a non-Latin based language."

    What is it with people and Latin rules?

    Latin doesn’t have "to" plus infinitive. The rule not to "split" infinitives is Germanic. You cannot split infinitives like that in German either (and in fact it would sound wrong to a German speaker if you did). English has evolved a bit faster, maybe, but the rule is Germanic. It has NOTHING to do with Latin.

    The same applies to ending sentences with prepositions. You can’t do it in German. Presumably it was also wrong in English before it evolved. Again, this is a rule of Germanic languages and has nothing to do with Latin.

    These rules were not introduced by Latin scholars trying to make English more like Latin, these rules have been part of the English language ever since it became its own branch of the proto-Germanic language. And before that the rule was part of the proto-Germanic language.

  37. anonymous says:

    Auto refresh doesn’t work for me in Windows 7 and Vista. Is the option to disable it coming or not in SP1?

  38. Joel says:

    ""Split Infinitive is not a grammatical rule of the English Language. It is a Latin rule that Latin loving English scholars thought might work in a non-Latin based language."

    What is it with people and Latin rules?

    Latin doesn’t have "to" plus infinitive. The rule not to "split" infinitives is Germanic. You cannot split infinitives like that in German either (and in fact it would sound wrong to a German speaker if you did). English has evolved a bit faster, maybe, but the rule is Germanic. It has NOTHING to do with Latin.

    The same applies to ending sentences with prepositions. You can’t do it in German. Presumably it was also wrong in English before it evolved. Again, this is a rule of Germanic languages and has nothing to do with Latin.

    These rules were not introduced by Latin scholars trying to make English more like Latin, these rules have been part of the English language ever since it became its own branch of the proto-Germanic language. And before that the rule was part of the proto-Germanic language."

    Both English and German had a historical tendency to place prepositions away from their complements.  I can remember a sentence from the poem Iwein (Middle High German): "da ist daz herze schuldec an", which in Modern German would be more like "das Herze ist schuldig daran" (just arranging the words correctly, not accounting for meaning).  German has followed the path of tightening up phrases, while English has remained a bit lax.

    And if you look at it from a syntactic point of view, you see that pulling the object of a preposition out of its normal place is not really different from pulling the whole phrase out.  You are just moving smaller and larger chunks.  The chunks themselves are syntactically valid units, so it doesn’t really matter which one you pick.  I don’t think there are any languages, however, that let you pull things out of phrases that aren’t valid phrases themselves.  So you can’t, for example, do this:

    "I was on the green grass" -> "I was on the green what?" -> *"What was I on the green?"

    Usually you’d say "What green thing was I on?".  Either you take the entire noun phrase from after the preposition, or you take the entire prepositional phrase (preposition + noun phrase).  You can’t just take an arbitrary part.

  39. Ray Trent says:

    "(and, occasionally, been a frustrated party >too<)."

    A lovely, if perhaps ironic, example of Muphrey’s Law: http://www.mikepope.com/blog/BlogDisplayAllQuotes.aspx?tag=laws

  40. Maurits says:

    I’ve been reading and re-reading Raymond’s sentence and I don’t see a split infinitive anywhere.  Maybe it… split?

    *rimshot*

  41. There were no infinitives. Somebody saw the word ‘to’, saw a grammatical argument, and (presumably) not knowing what in infinitive is leapt to the conclusion that there must be a split one somewhere. This sort of thing happens *all the time* when people who have no idea what they’re talking about try to correct others’ grammar.

  42. @Jono:

    And just before that line is this part:

    “A friend of mine at school deleted all her Word documents by mistake, and before calling in any expert help, she tried reinstalling Word, and then she tried running Defrag”

    That made me want to cry. And the worst part is: I’ve known people to do that. They delete something, and then they think ‘how can I recover this? I know! I’ll try running defrag and see if it turns up’. It’s *common*.

    I am not able rightly to apprehend the kind of confusion of ideas that could provoke such behaviour.

    I guess somebody’s going round telling people some nonsense about what defrag actually *does*?

    [It makes perfect sense. You can’t find a book but you know it’s on your bookshelf somewhere. So you go and “defrag” the books on the bookshelf (sort them by author). Hey look, the book you’re looking for turned up. This trick works in real life all the time. Book=file, bookshelf=hard drive, defrag=rearrange files (books) on the hard drive (shelf) to be more efficient. -Raymond]
  43. Cooney says:

    [It makes perfect sense. You can’t find a book but you know it’s on your bookshelf somewhere. So you go and “defrag” the books on the bookshelf (sort them by author). Hey look, the book you’re looking for turned up. This trick works in real life all the time. Book=file, bookshelf=hard drive, defrag=rearrange files (books) on the hard drive (shelf) to be more efficient. -Raymond]

    you’re missing the part where delete file = chuck the book in the garbage. Why would you then expect it to still be on your bookshelf?

    [I didn’t chuck the file in the garbage; I just lost track of it. I mean, obviously the file is still in the computer somewhere. -Raymond]
  44. Mike says:

    Of course, it is even more fun dealing with that sort of thing on the message boards where the user fails to

    a) adequately describe the problem

    b) utilize the forum search (which would have turned up several helpfull threads on that exact problem, and the full solution if they searched with the error number)

    c) And then gets all pissy because the community weren’t all online to help babysit him through his deadline… at 11:45 p.m. EST….. on New Years Eve.

  45. 640k says:

    Most companies develop mediocre software. Then the support doesn’t have any other choice than to be rude and try a non sequitur. The few companies that actually make high quality software does also have the opportunity to be helpful when the user want help.

    The source of a bad support experience starts long before the user contacts the support. A software that angrys the user usually makes the support experience even worse, especially when the manufacturer is arrogant and don’t admit that there’s a flaw.

  46. Miral says:

    You do have to be careful though.  Most of the time, the user is just too lazy to read the docs.  But sometimes they missed the docs because they’re not easy/obvious enough to find.  The latter is a genuine bug.

  47. Engywuck says:

    ‘ I can remember a sentence from the poem Iwein (Middle High German): "da ist daz herze schuldec an", which in Modern German would be more like "das Herze ist schuldig daran"’

    well, "da ist das Herze schuldig dran" would still not be incomprehensible in modern german – while sounding a bit "poetic", admittedly (and perhaps not exactly in the same sense as in middle high german)

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