I don’t mind helping out friends, loved ones, and extended family members when some device or service goes wrong, but it can be tricky when they don’t quite understand how to describe the problem—or even the things they’ve done to fix it. Having found myself in this position quite a few times, I’ve come up with a few general troubleshooting techniques that you can use to (hopefully) address most problems your family members bug you about.
Make sure the device is running the most updated version of its software
Whether someone says they’re having a problem with their smartphone, their router, or most other devices, it never hurts to confirm that they’ve actually updated their device’s software to the latest version. That’s easy for smartphones; for PCs, make sure they’ve at least run the system-update tools in Windows or macOS recently. If they’re still using an ancient version of either (such as Windows 7 or macOS Sierra, for example), you might even consider walking them through an upgrade to a more modern OS—a longer-term project, but something worth considering as a larger solution.
You’ll probably need to walk your friends and family members through the firmware update process for trickier devices, like their routers, but it’s worth the time for the additional security updates or features they’ll receive. And if a device has some kind of auto-updating feature, it doesn’t take that long to pull up its manual, find out where that setting is, and have them confirm for you that they have it turned on.
Try restarting fussy devices
The classic advice is often the best advice. If a person is having a problem with a device, have then power cycle it—in the safest way possible, of course. That means shutting down their PC and powering it back on, not pulling the plug randomly. (Though you can get away with that technique for dumber devices, like a wireless router.) With luck, whatever issue they were having will magically disappear once their device pops back on.
Try a different cable
This is probably better advice for issues related to smartphone charging or networking spottiness than anything else, but when confronted with a fussy device, it never hurts to try a different cable. Your USB cable might look great on the outside, but it’s possible that some internal issue is preventing it from performing at its best—and, as a result, a loved one’s smartphone is unable to charge or connect consistently. If someone has the option to try a different cable with a particular device, I recommend they swap it out to test whether that’s the source of their issue.
Ask them to let you fiddle with their device directly
If someone you know is having a problem with their PC, for example, you might want to walk them through the process of letting you connect remotely—either directly through the operating system, or using a third-party service like Google’s—so you can directly troubleshoot the issue. This will likely save you lots of time and frustration, as you and said person won’t have to perform some complicated dance over the phone. Instead, you can jump right in as if you were sitting in front of their system and work your magic remotely.
And if you’re helping out trusted family members—and find yourself always helping out the same trusted family members—having them add you as a guest or administrative user for whatever devices allow it can also help. If you can reset their router yourself without having to call them up and talk them through the process, you’ll save a lot of time; they can just shoot you a quick email whenever their internet is acting up (if they can), and you can test their connection yourself and triage with the most obvious techniques first.
Instead of a frantic phone call, try a FaceTime
The one thing that’s always troublesome about troubleshooting is when two people of vastly different experience levels with technology attempt to describe things to each other—how something is connected, what they’re seeing on a screen, what should happen when they perform some troubleshooting (and what’s happening instead), et cetera.
Instead of trying to solve a person’s problem only using words, have the person fire up a video call on their Android or iPhone. They can still talk to you, obviously, but having eyes on whatever it is you’re trying to fix might clue you in to an issue that’s obvious to you, but something they might not have thought to mention (or got wrong).
Ask them to factory-reset their device and set it up again
I encountered this problem this past week—a friend’s family member bought a new router, but found their old wireless extenders weren’t working. The obvious answer was that they needed to simply use the same SSID for their new router’s wifi networks as they used on their old router, but to make things even easier, I suggested that they simply factory-reset their wifi extenders and set them up from scratch. (And I pointed them to the quick start guide online that would walk them through the process.)
While the SSID approach would have probably been fine, factory-resetting the wireless extenders felt like the faster approach—at least, sparing me another round of troubleshooting if there was still something funky with the connection between the two devices. (Perhaps the wifi extenders were looking for a specific 2.4GHz network, and the person actually used that name for the router’s 5GHz network and the extenders couldn’t find them, or who-knows-what.)
I mention this, as it never hurts to ask a person to start from scratch. Yes, they’ll have to set up their device again—less painful for an iPhone, if you have a fresh iCloud backup, and more challenging for a person’s primary laptop. However, this might be exactly what the person needs to get their device working and performing well.
I always recommend a regular PC refresh, and it’s one of the first things I think of when I encounter an underperforming laptop. You could troubleshoot, sure, but sometimes it saves time and gets better results when you nuke everything and start over again.
Take photos before you become the tech support
I stumbled across this Reddit thread a few months ago, and it stuck with me because I absolutely love the advice. If you’re always troubleshooting for a friend or family member that you see fairly frequently, go in and take pictures of their setup—the wires, the connections, the devices, et cetera. Not only will you then have a reference point for what everything looked like when it was working, but you’ll be able to more easily describe the steps they need to take, rather than having to first ask them to tell you what their setup looks like before you tell them what to do.
Also, feel free to tape down any buttons on any devices, panels, or whatever that they absolutely should never touch. This probably applies more to those who are extremely technologically unsavvy, but it’s a great way to keep them from making things worse.
This article has been updated since its original publication.