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How to provide help

If you’re looking for help on a particular topic, a good way to go about it is to ask someone who knows more than you, or as is common in the community of programmers, send a message to a mailing list containing persons likely to know more than you.

Recently, I saw someone ask about a particular library that they were struggling to integrate into a personal learning project–you know the type–yet another testing framework, a GUI around ffmpeg, or maybe even, as was the case in the era immediately post-Rails, a web framework.

The immediate response in this case was “you are in luck, because I’ve already solved the ‘web framework’ issue, please help me fix bugs, instead.” The original poster was never making something useful for all! As they stated, it was an explorative, for learning project.

When a user has trouble, and speaks up about it, there’s an interesting opportunity to use this as feedback, and improve the situation for the future with documentation (e.g. a FAQ entry, or just clarifications in the original doc), or API improvements.

Of course, it’s also entirely possible that the API is fine, and adequate documentation exists, but the user misunderstood, or didn’t find it. In that case, a little empathy goes a long way. Reply with a smile, a tip on usage, a link to the relevant section in the manual, and some reassurance that they aren’t the only person to ever need assistance.

- 2017/08/31