Tales Of User Support Questions – How Not To Ask For Help

Puzzled-SmallDoing user support can be a bit tiring sometimes. Then again, sometimes it can be funny.
We all have problems with software sometimes, and it is good if you can mail some support person to get some help. In our development team, we get quite a bit of mail from our users. But obviously, some users are better at asking questions than others.

Should you ever find yourself in the situation where you need to ask a question, maybe it will help to keep the following examples in mind.

Here are some of my favourite user questions and comments from the last few years.


First, a bit of context. We are a very small team, so we don’t have a separate support group. All of the developers on the team do a bit of user support (we all get the mails), while one of us if officially responsible at any time. We try to be as helpful as we can, and make every effort to answer every question or solve every problem.

The person being responsible changes over time. I did the primary user support some years ago, then Bruce took over, then Andrew, Kasper, Poul, and now it’s mostly Davin.

A bit of context: Our system is a development environment for beginners, so our users are often students at college or high school, and novices in programming; the system is called “BlueJ”.

I have removed names and email addresses, but otherwise all these mails are real and complete.

1 – Web translators gone mad

The first category is the Babel Fish category. The problem is fairly understandable and harmless – not everyone is a native English speaker. Was there an automated web translator at work here? Or has someone carefully hand-crafted this? I don’t know, but it makes it quite a challenge to answer!

From: xxxxxxxx@ig.com.br
Subject: objects-first mailing list
Date: 23 July 2004 11:26:35 BST
To: mik@mip.sdu.dk

Good day,
Prezados srs.as.
Very I am interested in learning the Java language. It would like to get tips of as to obtain to learn without having that to spend
very, it type:
– Where I can obtain softwares basic and gratuitous, you emend.
– I am looking softwares or you emend FREE that explain what the object is orientation!
What it must contain in the KIT OF TOOLS FOR DESENVOLER a SYSTEM IN JAVA?
I ask for that for gentility leie my email and answers me.
Anticipatedly I am thankful and I wait.
xxxxxxxxxx
São Paulo – SP
@: xxxxxxxxxxx@hotmail.com

2 – The mind reader

The next group is the Am-I-Psychic? category. The problem is that some users ask for help, but don’t really tell us what their problems are. Again, we try our best – but what can you say?

From: xxxxxxxxx@lycos.com
Subject: Re: [Bluej-discuss] Request: help
Date: 20 December 2003 09:28:45 GMT
To: bluej-support@bluej.org

I am new to java and bluej anyone help.

Yes, that’s really the complete email! How do you answer that? Or this one:

From: xxxxxxxxxxx@yahoo.com
Subject: problems in blue j
Date: 12 January 2006 12:46:55 GMT
To: M.Kolling@kent.ac.uk

there some problems in blue j

Yes, I believe that. Why not tell me what they are? Is this a question? Or just some constructive criticism?

3 – Write My Code – And be quick about it!
Then there is a whole bunch of mails I get regularly in the Could-You-Do-My-Homework-For-Me-Please category. Since ours is an educational system, and my email address is on the web site, some students seem to conclude that we must be there to provide homework help. A sort of Rent-A-Coder. Just without the payment.

From: xxxxxxxxx@hotmail.com
Subject: JavaLogoProg-help
Date: 9 March 2004 10:47:56 GMT
To: mik@mip.sdu.dk

Dear Sir Kólling,

We are 2 students of an Dutch Highschool.
For one subject we are using Java Logo Prog.
But we don’t understand the programm, and our teacher doesn’t want to explain it to us….
So now we would like to ask you for your help, could you maybe make something like this, some figure so we have something to give to our teacher:

(some Java code fragments removed)

Yours sincerily,
xxxxxxxxx xxxxxxxxxxx
and
xxxxxxxxx xxx xxxxxxxxxxx
Ps. We got your emailadress from your site.

Ontvang je Hotmail & Messenger berichten op je mobiele telefoon met Hotmail SMS klik hier

And then there are the ones that also tell you that you have to be quick about it. After all, there are deadlines!

From: xxxxxxxxxxxx@rediffmail.com
Subject: [Bluej-discuss] (no subject)
Date: 26 June 2007 17:19:26 BST
To: bluej-discuss@bluej.org

Respected Sir,
I would require the solution to my problem of the program were I have to store first 10 prime numbers and user gives the range and the prime nos in that range is printed out. I need the solution in my BlueJ version of jdk1.5.0.
The date of submission is very limited so I want your urgent response
please.
xxxxxxxxx.

4 – Compile This!

Also popular is the Compile-This! category. These are users that send you only code. No text. No comment. No questions. What are they expecting?

From: xxxxxxxxxx@yahoo.co.in
Subject: error
Date: 22 March 2005 16:33:19 GMT
To: mik@mip.sdu.dk

class menu
{
public static void main(String arg[])
{
char choice;
String s1,s2,s3,side,breadth,len;
int s,num,num1,num2,num3,num4,num5,s4;
double area;
InputStreamReader iReader =new InputStreamReader(System.in);
BufferedReader br=new BufferedReader(iReader);
BufferedReader br1=new BufferedReader(iReader);
BufferedReader br2=new BufferedReader(iReader);
do{
System.out.println(“1.Area of square”);
System.out.println(“2.Area of rectangle”);
System.out.println(“3.Area of circle”);
System.out.println(“4.Exit”);
System.out.println(“Enter 1 to 4”);
choice=(char)System.in.read();
}
while(choice<‘1’||choice>’4’);
System.out.println(‘n’);
switch(choice)
{
case ‘1’:System.out.println(“Enter side of square”);
side=br.readLine();
num=Integer.parselnt(side);
area=num*num;
System.out.println(“Area of square: “+area);
break;
case ‘2’:System.out.println(“Enter length and breadth”);
len=br1.readLine();
num1=Integer.parselnt(len);
breadth=br1.readLine();
num2=Integer.parselnt(breadth);
area=num1*num2;
Systeam.out.println(“Area of rectangle: “+area);
break;
case ‘3’:System.out.println(“Enter 3 sides of triangle”);
s1=br.readLine();
s2=br1.readLine();
s3=br2.readLine();
num3=Integer.parselnt(s1);
num4=Integer.parselnt(s2);
num5=Integer.parselnt(s3);
s4=(num3+num4+num5)/2;
area=Math.sqrt(s4(s4-num3)*(s4-num4)*(s4-num5));
System.out.println(“Area of triangle: “+area);
break;
}
}
}

Yes, this is really the complete email!

5 – “Doctor, every time I poke this stick in my ear, it hurts over here!”

Next we have the Why-Would-You-Do-That? category. Here’s an example:

From: bugzilla-daemon@bluej.org
Date: 12 January 2006 10:09:46 AM
To: mik@kent.ac.uk
Subject: [Bug 1012] New: error when renaming bluej.exe to Java.exe

http://bugs.bluej.org/show_bug.cgi?id=1012

Summary: error when renaming bluej.exe to Java.exe
Product: BlueJ
Version: 2.1.1
Platform: PC
OS/Version: Windows XP
Status: NEW
Severity: minor
Priority: P3
Component: unknown
AssignedTo: xxxxxxx@xxxxxx.xxx
ReportedBy: xxxxxxxxx@hotmail.com

If you rename bluej.exe (the file that runs BlueJ) to Java.exe, the computer
loads an infinite number of copies of BlueJ and crashes.

Well, then — don’t!!

6 – Bless them

Some users, however, are different. They are blessed with a surprising amount of patience. Although that’s nice to see, you cannot avoid cringing a bit. The When-I-Have-Problems-I-Reinstall category.

From: xxxxxxxxxx@brunel.ac.uk
Subject: Re: creating an object
Date: 28 February 2006 10:31:38 GMT
To: bluej-discuss-owner@bluej.org

i can not create an object in bluej (the little red box in the bottom left hand side of the screen)

i have left the class creating an object over night! in the morning there was still no object 🙁

i have uninstalled and installed it many times. And downloaded versions of the net!

please help!

Or this even more worrying one:

From: xxxxxxxxxxxx@fastmail.fm
Subject: I need your help
Date: 12 May 2004 15:05:26 BST
To: mik@mip.sdu.dk

I have problem in blue j. i get error ‘; expected’. I have reinstalled bluej sevrel times
and I have re-installed windows twice, but still I get the same error. Can you tell me
what is wrong plz.

xxxxxxxxx

7 – Almighty Bruce

Of course, sometimes support is not without its rewards. Occasionally, we receive praise – that’s nice to see:

From: xxxxxxxxxxxxx@hotmail.com
Subject: Re: [Bluej-discuss] Seeing output
Date: 26 October 2004 07:26:20 BST
To: bluej-discuss@bluej.org

So everyone knows- Bruce is so cool. He solved my problem and made my night.

Fortunately, my problem was only based on the user’s (that’s me) lack of knowledge. But Almighty Bruce has given me the answer I needed:)

Xxxxxx

That’s very nice of her!

8 – Optimism

And lastly the Can’t-Hurt-To-Ask category. Users perhaps a little over-optimistic about the amount of work we can do for them:

From: xxxxxxxxxx@hotmail.com
Subject: BlueJ
Date: 19 October 2006 05:45:38 BST
To: M.Kolling@kent.ac.uk

Hi Michael,

Can you write a book (Java- BlueJ) for high school student? Thanks

xxxxxxxxxxx.

And, no, unfortunately I didn’t answer that by writing a textbook.

So, next time you need help – by all means, ask! But also ask yourself: Are you in one of these categories?

3 thoughts on “Tales Of User Support Questions – How Not To Ask For Help

  1. I’ve been on the staff team of a large gaming site for a while now, and I’ve seen support items which fit into practically every category.

    Inexplicably, despite the fact we’re pretty clear we’re a fansite, it seems a great many people believe otherwise. We’ve been asked for exclusive details, told to hurry up developing the game, asked to add certain features, and even port the game to mac.

    We’ve had so many posts of the babelfish variety that I’ve stopped counting – many of these also fall neatly into the category above too, requiring a standard response explaining that we don’t develop the game.

    They also frequently fit into another category – capslockians.

    Subject: “I NEED HELP ?”
    Message: “I NEED HELP AND OR A PICTURE TO HOW TO GET IN TO THE TOWER I HAVE TAKEN THE CRABS OUT THEN MOVES TO THE CRYSTAL BUT HOW DO I JUMP AND GET TO THE PLACE IN THE MIDDEL WERE THE LAKE WAS AND WHERE IS ALL THE MARKS AT TO PUSH ON THE MARKERS TO MOVE ON”

    We even got an email from a French person _demanding_ that we created a french translation of the site.

  2. Bug 1012 looks interesting! I have to say that whilst I like to think I am a pretty defensive coder – I never anticipated a user doing that.

  3. Re french person “demanding”. Just to note, that french “demander” just means “to ask”, it doesn’t have the imperious “norman conqueror instructing anglo-saxon peasant” connotations of the english word “demand”.

    If the french person said something like “Je vous demande…?”, it’s like an english person saying “Would you…?”

    Even if the french person was writing in english, he may not have realised the negative slant of english “demand” and assumed it was okay. French people do that a lot, there are a lot of english words that are derived from french, but not all mean exactly the same thing anymore.

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