Most people assume that learning is about research. However, for many of us, it's about poking things with a stick to see what happens. If you want to learn to make better use of your tech, it's about digging in and moving stuff around until it works. Anybody can do this, geek and luddite alike.
Over the last couple of weeks, I've been the go-to iOS 8 troubleshooting guy for most of my friends. People ask me questions, I answer off the top of my head, and they think I'm some kind of genius magician. But the only reason I know this stuff is because I've poked every corner of the operating system to fix my own annoyances and troubleshoot my own problems. There's nothing inherently special about this. It just requires some patience and a bit of curiosity.
I like to refer to this as the fiddle factor. When you tinker with something, you'll learn about it and solve your own problems. The more often you do it, the more you learn and the better you get at it. This isn't just for techies, it's for everyone — you don't need any special skills to be good with computers and phones.
Step 1: Identify Your Problem
Nothing is perfect and chances are you can fix just about anything with some tinkering. You just have to know what you're trying to fix. With something like iOS, it's about figuring out what's annoying you and seeing if Apple provides a way to correct it. This is much the same with every operating system or software. Of course, this is easier said than done — many of us go through our days annoyed at the way something works without thinking about how it might be possible to fix it.
For example, a friend of mine complained about iOS 8's predictive keyboard, saying that he never used it and it was getting in his way. At no point did he think about looking to see if he could just turn it off or try a different keyboard.
This first step is the most obvious, but it's also the easiest to pass over. Be mindful of how you're using your devices. When something is bothering you, take note of it. You might be surprised at how easy it is to fix.
Step 2: Take Everything Apart to Find the Fix
The best way to fix a problem is peek under the hood and see what's inside. That might mean poking around in the settings (easy), playing around with the command line (more difficult), or literally taking something apart (which may require some skills, or another person). Your natural reaction is probably to search Google for a solution, but if you want to tune your brain for this, hold off on that for now.
With software, you have a few common places you can look to fix problems. Let's run through them real quick:
- Settings/Preferences: It's obvious to many of us that when you need to do some troubleshooting, the first place to look is in the settings, but not everyone realises just how much you can do here. With software, this is usually pretty easy (unless it's something like Microsoft Word, which has a billion different preferences with no descriptions on what they do). Hop into the settings, look around, and see if you can find a fix to your problem. With operating systems, this is a much harder task because you typically have a panel of different options. In this case, I find it best to go with common sense first (if you're trying to fix that predictive keyboard, find the keyboard options), then start just poking around in every panel. On iOS, you can even ask Siri to take you right to a specific setting. Just say "Take me to the keyboard settings." You can do this on Android with some settings but be specific with your request. Personally, when I get any new software, the first place I go is the settings just so I can get a handle on what's going on underneath the hood.
- Help Menus: Both Windows and OS X usually have a Help menu bar item. If you've never used this, you're missing out. It's useful for finding hidden settings. Just load up the Help menu and type a keyword for the setting you're looking for. If it's in there, the menu should guide you to a setting you need to fix. (If you're on a Mac, it will often lead you straight to the button you need to click)
- The Command Line: The command line is a scary place for many, but it's also one of the best places to go when you're trying to fix a problem. On Windows, you have a lot of hidden tools to help you diagnose and fix. On Macs, you can customise and change a lot of annoyances with just a few commands. Linux is the same way. Even if you've never been in a terminal before, don't be afraid of the command line — just follow instructions carefully and you'll realise how easy it is.
There's a good chance that just digging around in the basic settings will get you a fix for your problem. The more you dig around in there, the more settings you'll get familiar with, and the easier it will be to fix problems in the future. Just make sure you only fiddle with one setting at a time, otherwise you won't know what's working and what isn't.
When you just find an answer on Google, you fix the issue and go about your day. When you find it yourself, you learn a lot more about the system in general. Plus, you might find cool hidden settings you wouldn't think to look for. For example, the other day I was changing the difficulty in Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 and found the amazing setting to disable quicktime events.
Of course, software is just one possible problem in the world, but the basic principles here extend into the real world. If your car's having problems, pop open the hood and look around. It might surprise you how many thingsyou can fix yourself. The same goes for just about everything else. With electronics or appliances, it's about knowing just enough about electricity to not kill yourself. Home improvement is the same way. If you don't know where to start, tinker with it a bit. Just be careful. You can really mess things up as an amateur, so document what you're doing and back out if you're in over your head.
Step 3: Do Some Research Online
Once you've done a good amount of fiddling with no results, it might be time to turn to online resources. Don't worry, there's no shame in looking for solutions elsewhere (including here on Lifehacker, of course).
The most obvious step here is to search Google for your problem and see if others have found a solution, but Google doesn't search everywhere. If search engines aren't coming up with results, it's time to dig deeper. Here are a few places to look when Google fails.
- Forums: Forums can sometimes get buried in search results, but they're an excellent resource for troubleshooting pretty much any problem. Find a forum that matches whatever you're trying to fix and use the search feature there. If you're still not coming up with anything, ask a question in the forums to see if someone can help.
- Reddit: Reddit's also an excellent resource that doesn't always show up in Google results. There's a Subreddit for just about everything and searching through them can reveal answers to your questions.
- Twitter: Twitter is a surprisingly good resource for troubleshooting problems. Obviously you can communicate with people on Twitter, but it's also worth using the site's search feature to see if someone has a solution for a problem.
- Stack Exchange: Stack Exchange has answers to all kinds of problems and it's one of the best places to look for solutions to common tech problems. Just search for your issue in the search menu and see if anyone else has asked about it. If not, ask a question yourself.
Site specific searches: If you know a site is good for helping you troubleshoot, start there. You can search specific sites on Google by typing in
site:site.com searchstring. For example, if you wanted to search Lifehacker, you'd search:
site:lifehacker.com.au iphone keyboard(or whatever you're looking for). This gives you a way to get search results from sites you trust.
Once you've got your research in hand, give those fixes a try again. Don't be afraid to hit up those forums and Reddit posts again for help throughout the process.
Step 4: Share Your Experiences
Sometimes, the best way to learn about something is to share it with others. This isn't just helpful for you, it's also helpful for everyone else. After all, it's a pretty small chance that you're the only person with a particular problem.
If you used any of the above sites like Reddit, Twitter or Stack Exchange, be sure to share your solutions with the rest of the community. Likewise, DIY sites like Instructables and Make are great places to share your experiences. Of course, you can always email us as well. If you find that you're particularly adept at one kind of problem-solving, it's also worth starting a blog — you never know who might stumble on it.
Step 5: Know Your Limits
Sometimes, you just reach a wall where nothing is working and no amount of fiddling will change that. In that case, it's good to know when it's time to quit. There's a cost-risk delta you reach when you try to fix everything yourself as an amateur, so be careful no to go overboard and really mess things up.
There's no shame in acknowledging when you're in over your head. Whether you're sitting on the floor with tools everywhere and you head in your hands, or you're stuck staring at a computer that refuses to boot, throwing in the towel for expert help is always an option. After all, failure is one of the best ways to get better at something.
The point is this: Just about every problem has a solution. There's a good chance that solution is obvious, but you need to know where and when to look for it. The more you fiddle, the more tuned you become to both identifying and solving problems. If you don't know how something works, you'll never know how to fix it. If you don't try to fix it, you'll probably never know how it works. So fiddle away, and astound your friends with your amazing troubleshooting skills.