How to Ask a Technical Question on an Internet Forum

I might even make a flowchart on this topic…

Search

Chances are, someone else has either been in a similar situation, or had a similar problem. You might be able to get an answer immediately by searching. Depending on the forum you’re browsing, your search options might be limited – so try Google. Often, you can type a question into Google, and it will bring up forum results of similar questions asked by others. It’s important to spell things, especially technical names or numbers that Google might not auto-correct, correctly – the same goes for terminology. For example, “What LaRue Mount for Aimpoint CompM3” is probably going to be more effective than “lowry scop mount lazer site”.

Also, don’t forget about “stickied” topics. They’re often full of excellent and helpful information, and are worth browsing before you post a question.

Why is this important? Well, most forums only allow 10, 20, 50 etc topics on the first page (which has the most visibility), so by limiting the number of unnecessary threads, folks with unusual problems can get help fast.

Contact the Company

This is especially true for technical problems. You might be absolutely convinced that your part is broken or that it was manufactured incorrectly, but it may be a design feature or you may be putting it together wrong. If you’re wrong, you could hurt a struggling small business by posting a false comment that will be accessible to anyone with Google for all eternity. If you’re right, you may get a quicker answer or a lightning-fast service offer if you call or email the manufacturer or dealer first.

There are a few exceptions. If it’s the middle of the night, and you’ve got a hunting trip or a shooting match scheduled at 5AM, it’s understandable to ask for clarification on whether or not there’s a problem with your gear.

In addition, if you’ve already contacted the company, and they either blew you off or were unable to answer your question – by all means, post online.

Most of the time, I have very good luck when I call manufacturers and dealers. Most of them realize that their reputation precedes them, and that sales in a cutthroat market are often based on how responsive they are to consumer needs and problems. Give them a chance to fix their mistake or help you out.

Use English

Unless you’ve got a seriously simple question, you’ll probably need to use more than one sentence – so use the period button and the spacebar. No, this isn’t grammar nazi-ism – if the people who are willing and able to help you can’t understand what you’re saying, you won’t be happy with the results. If you never learned how to spell, don’t worry, the readers will probably figure it out – but break up your words into manageable bits. Pretend you’re talking to someone at the counter of your local gun store – you’d stop to take a breath, right?

Describe What You Have

People who are trying to help you can do more if they know what you’re dealing with. My initial thoughts on “failures to feed” with a .22LR AR-15 upper on a registered full auto lower would be different than the same description with a semi auto 5.56mm weapon. Generally, what type of rail covers or what optic you have won’t affect function – but items such as action springs, bolt carrier groups, barrels, buffers, etc will. If you’ve recently changed anything, describe what you changed and how it functioned before the change. If you don’t know what parts you have, just describe where you got them – for example, “I bought this action spring from Hong Kong” will be helpful.

If you’re looking for advice on what to buy, this is also important. Someone with optics experience is probably going to recommend a different optic for a Remington 700 in .308 than they would for that full auto 22.

If You Have a Problem, Describe the Problem, Not Some Acronym

All too often, someone will post something along the lines of “I’m having FTF/FTE all the time, what should I do?”

The problem with this is that “FTF/FTE” are broad terms. Failure to feed? Failure to fire? Failure to extract or eject? You could mean “Failure to Function” when in fact the problem is failure to eject – all the time you and others spend chasing phantom problems will be wasted.

Describe exactly what’s wrong. If loaded rounds stop halfway up the feed ramps, say so. If empty cases are sticking in your chamber and the extractor is ripping a portion of the case rim off, say so. If the extractor is instead slipping off the case rim, say so. Don’t worry about using terminology that you aren’t sure about. Just describe the actual problem to the best of your abilities.

Be Patient, Be Respectful

You may not hear what you wanted to hear. You may not get the advice you wanted to get, or the justification for a purchase that you were looking for. You may not hear back from someone with a lot of knowledge right away. Don’t take your frustration out on the people on the forum. Fewer people will want to help you if you responded to the first few posts in a very negative manner.

 

 

I’ll probably update this, but it covers a lot of the common “mistakes” I see on various forums.

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10 Comments

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10 responses to “How to Ask a Technical Question on an Internet Forum

  1. 67mustang

    Good post for those that are new to this. On some forums, the search function isn’t very user-friendly. Your last point is probably the most important, be patient, be polite.

  2. Dan

    Flow chart necessary! While I was able to read it, I could see someone else not being able to make it to the end. You might want to repost without punctuation and capitals. It could help those people.

    • Redchrome

      Dan, you do make a good point about conciseness. It’s important to get messages across clearly and quickly, otherwise people often feel overwhelmed.

      Unfortunately, explaining the way things work often is not simple and easy to condense into soundbites.

      On a humorous note, here are some flowcharts.

      One to help with understanding flowcharts:
      http://xkcd.com/518/

      And one to solve tech support problems:
      http://xkcd.com/627/

  3. Redchrome

    The useful part here is suggesting that people use Google rather than a particular forum’s search function. Often, it’s faster and more reliable in getting the results you’re looking for. (There’s a reason Google are the Kings of Search).

    If you’re interested in restricting the search to one site, try the ‘site:’ limiter. So an example search on Google might be:
    ‘site:vuurwapenblog.com gunfighter handle’

    Also, use copy-and-paste to put the search terms in, if you have some already available; or if you’re bad at spelling. If you copy from a good source, you’re more likely to spell things correctly.

    Be careful about correlation vs. causation. When you say ‘my free-floating firing pin caused my gun to go off when I used the bolt release lever to send the bolt forward’ you may or may not know for certain that the free-floating firing pin was at fault. If you have two facts:
    * this gun has a free-floating firing pin
    * the gun went off when the bolt was released with the bolt release lever
    They are not necessarily related.

    State the facts, just the facts, in as much detail as possible; then draw some preliminary conclusions at the end. I struggle with this myself; but the difference between a clear writer and an unclear writer is the number of assumptions they make about the listener’s knowlege. If we don’t know you; how do we know that you used the bolt release lever with your left thumb rather than pulling back on the charging handle with two fingers of your right hand and holding on as the bolt went forward? As you write; consider how the reader will picture in their mind what you are writing. Consider what hand gestures you might be using if you were holding a face-to-face conversation, and what information they might convey that is not captured by your words.

    Along with the point about not using acronyms; avoid using slang. (Admittedly, I had to edit my words for this post to avoid it myself — we’re all guilty of it).
    * Don’t say “ride the bolt forward” say “hold on as the bolt goes forward”.
    * Don’t say “ping-pong paddle” say “bolt release lever”.
    * Don’t say “eyepro” say “eye protection”. (Unless your optometrist really was there and his quick action saved your eyes).

    This may sound pedantic; but I do tech support for a living; where I’m paid to decipher people’s reports of problems. Often this involves a phone call; where after some questioning I determine that the user’s e-mailed description of what happened omitted huge amounts of important information — such as exactly which button they pushed, what order things happened in, and whether the results have ever happened before whether or not they did these things. If your problem description is similarly unclear I’m *much* less inclined to help you out of the goodness of my heart, than if you give a detailed technical description of exactly what happened and in what time order and spacing.

    You may also discover that writing this stuff down in detail helps you organize your thoughts enough to solve the problem yourself. For instance, you may realize that if you try releasing the bolt on your empty rifle a number of times; about once in 20 the hammer falls along with it. (Then you can proceed to asking “My hammer falls about 1 time in 20 when I use the bolt release. Why?”)

    This is the process of science. 🙂

  4. Mark

    This should be a mandatory sign off for first posters on any tech forum: they need to know how to use the resource and ask a question the best way. It’s not something taught in school.

    It really IS a common pattern to take a dozen posts discovering the important stuff. Just describe it as fully as you can – the gun stuff, not the brand of beer you took with you. Keep It Simple and Sincere.

    Preconceived notions are the worst problem. All too often the least experienced users bring in the most extreme expectations, as if all circumstances and possible problems can be addressed and answered in one post. What they miss is that those who could do that Charge By The Hour. It’s a living for them, they make money applying their hard won proprietary knowledge and do not give it away free. Those that do are willing to help, but they honestly admit they don’t have all the answers – or they would be charging by the hour, too. Technical repair is a Trade job with pay, not a volunteer position at the local charity. The specific solution may require paying money, not posting a question on the internet in a vain attempt to circumvent it.

    Adult life is about the money, and if you didn’t get the education, you have to pay for the information or solution. What’s fascinating is that as life becomes more technically interwoven, more and more American’s are less educated or even knowledgeable about it. They keep chasing the liberal arts dream and never learn about the infrastructure that supports them. Until the power goes out.

    THEY are the potential future zombies.

  5. TenRing

    Ive learned that if I use FTEj or FTEx (Failure To Eject, Failure To Extract) and FTFe or FTFi (Failure To Feed, Failure To Fire), its a lot easier for someone to figure out what Im talking about.

  6. MrMaigo

    I’m sorry, but many people are to stupid to own things.

  7. Chris

    Following the mentioned rules, I have had highly successful customer support from FNH through e-mail. They were quick to address any issue I had and replace any parts that needed replacement.

  8. MarkM

    Unfortunately, acronyms do more harm than good.

    FTE may mean Failure To Extract for many, but it still doesn’t describe what is actually going on. WHY the case failed to extract is usually a multifaceted problem with a number of answers.

    The extractor may be hanging on, and the bolt can’t overcome friction to remove the case, stopping dead in a partially open position, or, the extractor slips off completely and the weapon cycles another cartridge into the blocked chamber.

    It’s better to simply describe what is actually happening and leave the jargon to those who think they know what is going on.

  9. Ferris2son

    Wow! I really learned a lot here. This is a great info source. Thanks.

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