With a Little Help From My Friends: 5 Tips for Posting in Online Discussion Forums

by Kate Morrical
- May 24 2013 - 3 min read

Let’s say you’re the go-to person in your office when colleagues need help troubleshooting their software. (If you’re reading this, you’re well on your way there.) But who can you turn to when you get stumped?

Many companies offer paid support options, but those aren’t necessarily cost effective for day-to-day issues. Fortunately, there are entire communities dedicated to providing user support absolutely free, and they’re available 24/7. But before you start posting in online discussion forums, there are a few things you should know that will increase your chances for a successful outcome.

Here are some do’s and don’ts for using discussion forums to get answers to questions and solutions to problems.

1. DO search first.
Chances are good that if you’re having trouble with your software, someone else has had the same problem. And if you can’t figure out how something works, there’s probably someone else somewhere who couldn’t, either.

So before you post anything, run a few keywords through your favorite search engine. Your exact question might be out there and answered already, and you’ll have your solution faster than you could write a post of your own. You might even find a new community that you can bookmark for future searches.

online discussion forums

2. DO be specific.
If you decide you need to post a question, provide as many details as you can. These might include—but are definitely not limited to—the following:

  • What feature/command/tool are you asking about? And what, specifically, do you want it to do?
  • Are you getting any error messages? If so, what do they say?
  • Is the problem in one file or in all?
  • Do you know when it started? Did you change anything on your computer before that time?
  • Can you replicate it in different files or on different machines? (This one’s especially important for bug-related questions.)
  • What are your system specs—operating system, video card, amount of RAM, etc.?

If you can, use the jargon of the program. (That “little blue box” probably has a name.) When software has a vocabulary all its own, using the program-specific terminology will help people understand you. (And if you can’t be specific, be descriptive!)

Also, if you’re new to a forum, include your experience level in your post. It’s okay to be a novice user, but knowing that will help other members of the group tailor their response to your level. And if you’re an expert, say so—but be sure to back it up with details of all the fixes you’ve already tried that haven’t worked. If you’ve been through half a dozen troubleshooting steps, include those in your post so others don’t waste time suggesting things you’ve already done.

3. DON’T be too specific.
I know, I just told you to include as much detail as possible. What I mean here is that you want to keep any identifying information out of your post. No client names, no addresses, no project locations—take all of those out before you ask your question. Be careful before you post a sample file, too. If it has anything proprietary in it, take it out before you put the file up on the Internet. And it should go without saying, but never include your software’s serial numbers in your posts, even if you’re asking about installation issues.

online discussion forums

4. DO keep it professional.
No matter how much you might want to yell at your software when it misbehaves, keep your anger out of your posts. Criticism is fine, but try to avoid a rant. Going off on a rampage will just discourage others from reading your post, and they might miss whatever point you’re trying to make.

5. DON’T get impatient.
Most discussion groups are set up as peer-to-peer support. This means that most of the other posters have day jobs, just like you, and don’t necessarily spend all their time monitoring the forums. If you’re lucky, you might get an answer in a couple of hours. Sometimes it might take a day or two… and sometimes you might not get an answer at all. If that happens, take a look at your question. Did you follow all the do’s and don’ts? If not, rewrite it, and try again. If you did… maybe it just wasn’t your day. Don’t get discouraged—there are plenty of forums out there, and a little patience (and some trial and error) will pay off in the end.


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