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IT troubleshooting is as much about users as technology

An IT troubleshooting rule I’ve held for a long time is to never trust what the user tells you. In my opinion, it’s one of the fundamental rules of IT that will come back to bite you when not followed. When you assume the user knows what they’re talking about, you’ll end up going down the wrong rabbit hole.

Hours can be wasted troubleshooting a problem that doesn’t really exist. Alternatively, asking the right questions at the start can turn a complicated sounding problem into a simple one.

There are also times when the user has actually told you the correct information, but it’s too hard to believe.

This is one such story of a problem that could have been resolved quickly if a single assumption wasn’t made. It is based on real IT troubleshooting experience.

Missing a crucial step

A normal, unexciting day in IT, and the help desk phone rings, breaking the tapping of keys surrounded by silence. A flustered user is at the other end of the line, desperate to have their issue solved. The problem? They urgently need a file off a USB key, but it’s “not working.”

The help desk staff member’s brain starts ticking over the best troubleshooting steps. “Not working” isn’t useful at all and could be one of too many problems, time to do some awesome troubleshooting.

The first step they take is to ask if the USB has worked before. The user doesn’t know. “I’m following a set of instructions, and I’ve done everything it says.”

A fair question is then asked of the user: “Could you read out the instructions to me?”

The exasperated end user agrees, but highlights that they need to leave soon to catch a plane. “There’s a bunch of steps. Step one is to turn the computer on. Step two is to login with username/password.” The help desk person sighs internally at the use, and recording on instructions, of a generic account with its password. That’s a fight for another day however, as there’s a small fire to put out.

The user continues: “Step three then says to open Windows Explorer. Step four is to grab the USB drive, and step five is to click on E with some dots and a slash”.

At this stage, the support person at the help desk thinks that’s all reasonable. They can’t remote onto the computer because it’s an off-network PC at a somewhat secure location, so they’ll have to rely on the user.

“Can you see Windows Explorer?” asks the hopeful help desker.

The user quickly responds “Yes, I think so. I can see a computer and a letter under it, C dots”.

The help desk person makes a fair assumption that this is the C drive. “But you don’t see any other drives, like the E drive?”

Getting annoyed, the user responds “No, nothing else. Why isn’t this working?” A question often asked during IT troubleshooting.

“OK, let’s try rebooting the computer. Sometimes things go a bit funny and that can help” the support person offers, unsure of what to try next.

“I really don’t have time for this, but fine.” The now disgruntled user goes about finding the power button, too quickly for the IT pro to intervene for them to shut down the correct way, via the operating system.

A minute later, after some slow key presses and sighs, the user gets back on the phone. “There’s STILL no E, this is ridiculous!”

Running out of troubleshooting options, the IT staffer comes to the conclusion that it’s not something that can be fixed remotely. “I think we’re out of options here, it could be a faulty USB stick, or it could be the USB port on the front of the computer.”

After a few seconds, the user responds “That’s strange that the front of the computer would have anything to do with this, is that where the wireless card is?”

Confused by this response, the help desker asks: “Did you try unplugging and plugging in the USB drive?”

“What do you mean? The instructions don’t say that,” the user responds.

It dawns on the help desk staffer. “When it said to grab the USB, did you plug it in or just hold it?”

The user responds matter of factly that the USB key was in their hand the entire time. “Isn’t it wireless?”

Head in hands, and after a moment’s silence, the help desk staffer concludes with “I don’t think so. Let’s try plugging it in.”

As you can see, it’s easy with IT troubleshooting to head down a path that makes sense with the information you are given, following reasonable assumptions.

Verify those reasonable assumptions throughout IT troubleshooting steps. Start from the absolute basics and work your way through to the more technical troubleshooting. Various problems — a USB stick that’s been forced in the wrong way, a faulty USB stick, a faulty USB port, a driver issue, Group Policy restrictions and a myriad of other root causes — show the exact same symptoms as someone simply not plugging in a USB memory stick at all.