"My web site is broken."
"I can't get to the contact form."
"Nothing happens when I click on that link."
"I went to my site and now everything is messed up."
These are all real email messages that I've received from clients or prospective clients with regard to their web sites. The next line was usually a variation on "let me know when it's fixed." Most times, the tone behind it was polite. Sometimes it was cranky, and once, when I worked on a help desk at a large organization, the reporting of inherent broken-ness was preceded with "Hey, a****es in the IT department -- you're probably not even reading this message because you don't bother to work Sundays, but..."
No matter the tone or the manners of the message, none of them were likely to result in five minutes of silence followed by an email from me declaring the problem fixed. The reason was not my attitude or my work hours (I did, in fact, work on Sundays), but rather this: none of them provided enough information.
Today, I'll be talking about some common problems reported to me about problems with web sites. Call them glitches, call them errors, call them whatever you like, but when you describe them to your consultant or in-house geek, the more background you can give, the less time she has to spend trying to recreate the error and the circumstances in which it occurred. Before you send that email, take note of the acronym STABLE: Sequence, Time, Attempts, Browser, Location, and Equipment.
This is arguably the most important part of your research and reporting. As well as you can, you need to record and list the entire sequence of events leading up to the error on your site. Don't start with getting out of bed this morning -- that's too early -- but do begin with opening your browser. If you can, try to remember how you arrived at the error -- what page of the site or the web were you on before you visited the troublesome page? What things did you do on that page before the error happened? Were you trying to do something else from outside the browser, like dragging an image onto a web page or uploading a document to the site? If it was a site where you need to log in first, were you logged in? With which username? The more you can remember, the easier it will be for your consultant to recreate the error on her end.
This may not be possible if your error is an urgent matter -- i.e., if it disrupts your business -- but if it isn't, try waiting 15 minutes and trying again. Especially if your site is currently under development, there may be a process running on the server or work your developer is doing that disrupts what you're working on. Giving it a little time might save you the effort of reporting the error after all.
On the other hand, if you wait 15 minutes, and the problem does not go away, then that's good information for your consultant too.
How many times did you try it? Not to get too cerebral, but sometimes, technology hiccups. It didn't work a minute ago, but when you refreshed the screen, whoomp, there it is. This is infuriating, but sometimes true. If you tell your consultant that you tried this two or three times, and nothing changed, that's also useful information. If you tell her that it failed once, but that it worked the second time, that's still useful information for her. Your customers might not try a second time, so she still needs to assess the problem and see if she can recreate it.
There are several major web browsers out there, and their rules change all the time. Some of them are easily set to update themselves when new features become available or a security hole needs patching, and some of them crack the whip and want their users to take care of these things themselves. Sometimes, like users, browsers throw little electronic temper tantrums and just stop working. Identify the browser you're using and its version. You can visit What Browser? to get the name and version number of the browser you're using.
With our clients, we try hard to condition ourselves and them to use the terms front-end and back-end. The front-end is the web site that the world sees when they browse to the client's URL -- the www . awesome-web-site . com address. The back-end is the content management system running behind the site. Because our clients manage their own content (using something like WordPress or Joomla), they spend lots of time in the back-end. When they send me messages that say "the web site is down," I assume that they mean the front-end. If they say "I can't get into Joomla," then I figure the back-end is down. Sometimes, I am right. Sometimes, I then have to send another message to my client saying, "I can see the site just fine," and if they meant that they were having trouble with the back-end, then we've all just wasted some email messages and some time.
If you mean that you can't get into Joomla, say that. If you mean that the front end of the web site is down, say that.
Also: if the problem is specific to a page of the site, please be clear about which page. Sometimes, the problem is specific to a part of the page, like the rotating image gallery or the social media feeds. If so, be specific as you can. Tell your consultant exactly where to look and what you don't like about what they'll find.
One last dignity-saving item: check your equipment. It's not uncommon for even the best of us to rant and rave against a broken web site only to find we've accidentally kicked the cable modem cord out of the wall or disabled the wifi on the laptop. Check to be sure that you have an active internet connection.
Put It All Together: STABLE!
We started with, "My web site is all messed up." Here's how we rephrase that using STABLE reporting:
I can't seem to see controls for the image gallery on my About Our Business page. I've got an active connection to the internet and I'm using the latest version of Chrome. When I went to the About Our Business page from the main menu of the site, the images were rotating from one to the other way too quickly. I opened a second tab in Chrome and logged into Joomla using my "tinajones" login. When I clicked on the Extensions menu and then the Module Manager submenu, I couldn't find anywhere to change the image gallery on that page. I logged out and logged back in, and I still can't find anything 20 minutes later. Can you please slow down those images and then tell me where to fix it myself later?
With that information, the consultant can make an effort to replicate the error, investigate it, and solve the problem, all without having to do much more digging. It's far more efficient, especially when you consider that if Tina didn't take the time to collect her information now, she'd still have to do it later when the consultant was unable to do much with "my web site is messed up."
Similar rules apply to any technology error reporting -- the more information you can provide, the better. It saves you and your consultant time, and if you pay by the hour, it also saves you money. Everyone wins.