In my day job, I run across problems virtually everyday. More times than I can count, someone has called me up to ask, “why doesn’t the microphone work?” or “why does that image look so fuzzy?” or something else. So, I thought I’d take a minute to help you through my thought process.

Step one: Clarify the problem.
Most of the time when I get a request to fix something the request is vague. “It’s broken,” really doesn’t help to fix it. So I start with a standard question, “What’s it doing or not doing?” With those six words, I’m able to determine what the nature of the problem is. If the answer is “nothing” I know to take very different steps to fix it than if the answer is “squealing.”

Step two: Check connections.
Now, obviously this won’t solve the problem with a squealing mic, but if something is not doing what it’s supposed to, a lot of times this will fix it. When I worked for a national appliance repair service, one of our first questions to ask was, “Is it plugged in?” Now, don’t laugh. I can’t tell you how often people would report that their dead washing machine was brought back to life via a plug that wasn’t plugged in. I actually tweaked the question to make the client feel less like a dope. I’d ask, “Is it plugged in securely?” That would tell me not only if it was totally unplugged, but also if the plug was just not quite in.

This goes for all cable connections. At work, we’ve got a computer that has a weak VGA card. It the cable is at all loose, the colors begin to shift. Checking connections has fixed a blue-tinted screen more times than I can count.

Step three: Know the points of most likely failure
While this might sound kind of like step two, it really isn’t. Sure cables and power are points of likely failure, but so are many other pieces. Anything that runs on a battery could go out at any time, even if you believe the battery is fresh–keep backups. Any time a computer is behaving oddly, reboot. Anytime something that is run by a person who is inexperienced is having issues, check their work (the operator is often a point of likely failure). Make sure everything is plugged into the right place. To me, “video in” and “video out” make sense. Some people try to

Step four: Eliminate possible causes starting with the most likely
Let’s say you have a laptop that is running through a DA (think powered splitter) to two projectors. The computer image isn’t on the screens. Assuming everything is powered on, what do you check? The first thing I’d check depends on where I am in the room. Tonight I had this exact problem and was by the laptop. I noticed that neither screen was projecting an image. First, (since I was there) I hit the “fn” key and “F5”, since on that laptop, that was the key combination that caused it to go into dual-screen mode. I noticed nothing happened on the screens, no flicker no nothing. That told me that somehow everything wasn’t plugged in correctly (see step two). I checked my connection to the computer, then to the DA and found the problem. I’d changed the VGA cable earlier to get it to reach the distance that I needed. I’d forgotten, however, to plug the new cable into the DA.

Next, I would have checked the connections to the projectors and the input on the projectors. If I hadn’t had success, I would have connected directly to a projector from the laptop. If that worked, I’d known it was either a cable (more likely) or the DA. I’d have then changed each cable in turn (not rerunning them just getting from point A to point B quickly to avoid wasting time. If everything else worked, it would have obviously been the DA. Replacing that would have proved it.

Bonus Step: K.I.S.S.
Whenever possible, keep installations as simple as possible. One cable is less likely to fail than two connected together. A direct connection is less likely to fail than one with multiple components “daisy-chained” together. The fewer components the better. Don’t eliminate necessary pieces for the sake of simplicity, just don’t add ones that you might need; only add pieces you’re likely to need with places for expansion.

Anymore tips? Feel free to add them to the comments section.