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A Web of Tech Problems: Finding Answers Online

Visalia Direct: Virtual Valley
March 28, 2011 Deadline
May 2011 Issue

A Web of Tech Problems: Finding Answers Online

Computer hardware and software once came with stacks of manuals. I remember the massive slipcases containing manuals for DOS, WordPerfect and my programming tools. The original CorelDRAW manuals were in the most impressive box on my desk.

In addition to the manuals that accompanied products, the early 1980s were a glorious time for computer-related magazines. Once a year, most of the major publications would publish indices of that year’s issues. I learned that with patience and a good index I could locate the answer to almost any tech question in either a book or magazine.

Today, finding answers is no longer so simple.

I cannot recall the last application I purchased that included a full-length printed manual. Most software titles I now purchase are downloaded from the Internet and the only manuals are the online help systems. The quality of the online help systems ranges from somewhat helpful to completely useless. I can’t recall the last application that impressed me with the clarity of its online documentation.

Knowing what to search for in an online manual can be almost impossible. I recently needed to reformat a document in an expensive editing application. I tried to search for “formatting” with no luck. I must have tried at least six different searches in the help. All I wanted to do was change the way computer programming code was formatted. This is something most programmers like to customize. The answer should have been easy to find and even easier to understand.

I was finally able to understand the frustrations of my clients and students. For too many years I had told students, “Use the online help. Learn to find the answers so you can help yourself in the future.” After all, great teachers know that students need to master how to learn and how to find the answers on their own. It turns out, you really cannot help yourself anymore.

When I found the answer, almost by accident, I couldn’t make any sense of the directions. There were no “screenshots” of where to locate the menu option I needed. There were no explanations of how changing the formatting settings would alter existing files or future projects. The development software sells for $1500, with an annual subscription fee for updates to the application. For that price, I want a manual — and a manual that makes sense.

Donna, a reader of this column, recently sent me an email asking how I find answers to technical questions. My experiences with a programming tool’s exceptionally horrible help system reminded me that most of my questions are answered by people kind enough to help fellow computer users. Even after I thought I understood how to format programming code, I went online to verify the information.

When I have a question about technology, I turn to online forums. Many software vendors offer free online forums where users help each other. If you have a problem with a software or hardware product, search Bing or Google for the vendor’s name and the phrase “support forum.” I also search for the phrases “user community” and “online manual” with the vendor’s name.

If no one has struggled with a similar problem, my experience is that I can post a question and have an answer within two days. Usually, I receive several good answers. For example, if I am having a problem with customizing Adobe’s Dreamweaver, I turn to the forums hosted by Adobe Systems, Inc., and search the messages.

Some of the software vendor forums I recommend:

If specific vendor forums don’t have the answer you seek, I suggest turning to the forums hosted by online magazines and their publishers. While some of the print editions are shells of their former selves, the online magazines remain wonderful sources of information. The following online magazines include user forums that are among my favorites:

Computer Shopper:
Digital Photography:
Macworld (and MacUser):
PC Magazine:

Notice I include Digital Photography among the best computer-related sites. With the explosion in digital photography, many of my own software questions involve photo editing and managing the images that fill the hard drives in our office. There are similar forums for desktop publishing, audio recording and video editing. If you remember to search for “forums” you will find helpful people.

When I have a complex question that forums don’t seem to answer, I search for blogs on specific topics. Google allows you to narrow search results to blogs, which helps a great deal. Bloggers tend to be passionate about hardware or software and offer detailed explanations of how to accomplish specific tasks. Most technology how-to blogs include screenshots and some include videos.

Forums and blogs aren’t the only way to find assistance. The “Dummies” site features videos, which are convenient for visual learners. Often I read how to fix a problem and don’t quite understand the instructions. Video lessons are great for those moments. Two sites with some of the best videos are:

I was a very loyal consumer of computer books. While there remain third-party books for most software and hardware, the quality has declined somewhat over the last decade. There are also fewer dedicated technology publishers and the best of these publish advanced texts for programmers and technicians. If you do consider a book to help you find answers, I recommend the following, in order from beginner to advanced:

Microsoft Press Step-by-Step Guides:
Apress Books:
Que Publishing:
O’Reilly Media:
Wiley & Sons:

Pearson Education’s Que Publishing remains a personal favorite. Pearson also publishes books under the Adobe Press ( and Peachpit ( imprints. Some of my friends consider the Wiley & Sons imprint Wrox ( the best programming books. Wiley & Sons is also home to the Dummies and software Bible series.


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