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Eleven Tips for Troubleshooting Software

Your computer software — be it a Web browser or a donor database application — likely plays a crucial role in your nonprofit's day-to-day operations. So when software problems such as unexplained crashes and strange error messages begin to occur, your workday can unceremoniously come to a silent (or not-so-silent) standstill.

By: Brian Satterfield

When software problems rear their head, panic may set in, and it can be tempting to immediately call the product's official tech-support hotline for answers. But tech-support calls can be time-consuming and, in some cases, quite expensive, so picking up the phone isn't always your best first option.

Fortunately, there are a number of basic steps you can take to solve software problems on your own, or, at the very least, narrow down their causes. So the next time you encounter a misbehaving application, try performing the following troubleshooting tips in the order that they're listed. Remember to carefully document the steps you take; that way, if a tech-support call becomes inevitable, you'll at least have a good idea of what isn't causing the problem.

1. Free up RAM by closing other open programs.

Every piece of software that's installed on your machine needs Random Access Memory (RAM) in order to run. The more software that's running on your computer at once, the more RAM it will consume. So if a certain program refuses to load or is running sluggishly, the first step you should take is to close all other open applications. This can be especially important if your nonprofit uses older machines that don't have a large amount of RAM.

If you want to investigate which open applications might be hogging much of your computer's RAM, both Windows and Macintosh operating systems (OS) provide tools that display this information. In Windows, you can locate RAM-usage statistics by hitting Ctrl+Alt+Delete, then choosing the Task Manager option. From the window that appears, click the Processes tab, then click the menu item labeled "Mem Usage," which arranges all open applications according to the amount of RAM they're using. You can shut down a process or application by clicking the End Task button, but before you do so, you may want to perform a Web search on the name of the process or application; that way you won't accidentally stop a process or program that's necessary in order for your system to run.

Mac OS X displays RAM-usage information with a tool called the Process Viewer, which you can access by going to Applications > Utilities. Once you've called up the Process Viewer, you sort programs by RAM usage by clicking the column labeled Real Memory.

2. Restart the software.

If you've closed all applications that are running on your computer and the software still runs slowly, crashes, or returns error messages, try shutting down the problematic program and immediately restarting it. Sometimes, software problems stem from a conflict with other programs or simply encounter difficulties starting up, so restarting the software can often resolve these issues.

3. Shut down and restart your computer.

Sometimes, a glitch in your computer's OS or a hardware mishap can cause software problems. If restarting the actual application doesn't resolve the issue, try rebooting your computer. Once the computer has fully restarted, re-launch the application in question and see if the problem has resolved itself.

4. Use the Internet to find help.

No matter what piece of software is misbehaving or what specific problems you encounter, chances are, it's happened to someone else. And as long as you're not having issues with a custom-built piece of software, there's a good chance that you can find help on the Internet.

When conducting online troubleshooting research using Google or your search engine of choice, include the most important information, such as the software program's name, the type of problem you've encountered, and the circumstances under which it occurs. If the program is returning a specific error message, write it down and type it into the search engine's search box along with the application's name.

Although using a search engine can be a quick way to find information regarding very specific software error messages or crashes, take a look at the manufacturer's site for more general troubleshooting advice. Most major software manufacturers provide at least some form of product-specific help on their official sites, such as a list of frequently asked questions, product documentation, or discussion forums where users can swap tips.

You might also run across the solution to your software woes at one of the many other Web sites dedicated to providing technical help. TechSoup's article Use the Web to Find Free Tech Support lists a number of Web sites that offer technology troubleshooting tutorials, articles, and discussion forums.

5. Undo any recent hardware or software changes.

As mentioned, some software problems arise from conflicts with other software. For example, Symantec Norton Antivirus can often conflict with competing antivirus products. So, if one of your organization's staffers has installed another antivirus program and Norton Antivirus no longer works correctly, uninstalling the other antivirus problem could very well solve your problem.

If you are troubleshooting one of your staff members' computers and suspect that they have tinkered with the OS's settings, it's possible that they have inadvertently made changes that are causing their current software problems. For instance, Windows XP's Start Menu contains an option called "Set Program Access and Defaults," which allows you to disable access to certain applications. If the user accidentally unchecked the box next to a program, this may be the reason it won't run. Ask the user whether he has recently changed any of their computer's settings; if he can remember what changes he made, undo them and try launching the software again.

Similarly, software problems can sometimes be caused by new or improperly configured hardware peripherals, including scanners and printers. If you've recently connected new hardware to one of your organization's computers, try disconnecting it and see if that corrects the software issue.

6. Uninstall the software, then reinstall it.

Sometimes, a certain piece of software will fail to run properly because crucial application files have been removed or deleted. For instance, many Windows applications use Dynamic Link Library (DLL) files to perform certain tasks. Oftentimes, several applications will need the same DLL file to operate properly, so if you've recently removed one program from your computer along with all of its DLL files, another application may become unstable or nonfunctional.

One step you can take to ensure that the problematic software has all of its necessary files intact is to completely uninstall it, then reinstall it on your computer. Even if you remove a program using its built-in uninstall wizard (if it includes one), it's still a safe move to check your hard drive's Program Files folder — usually located on the C drive — for any remnants of the program and delete any files or folders you find.

Next, check to see if there's a new version of the program available (the vendor or developer might have introduced bug fixes that address the issue you're having) download and install the new version if it's ready. If not, locate your installation CD or download the most current version of the software and repeat the installation process.

7. Look for software patches.

Though some software vendors will correct major problems with their products by releasing entirely new versions, other vendors may fix minor bugs by issuing patches, small software updates that address problems detected by developers or users. Even if you're sure that you have installed the most current version of the software, you might still want to visit the manufacturer or developer's Web site to check for new updates, as the vendor may have chosen to quickly correct a recently discovered problem with a patch rather than a new version.

8. Scan for viruses and malware.

Viruses, spyware, and other forms of malicious software (commonly referred to as malware) can not only compromise your nonprofit's privacy, they can also cause other applications on your computer — especially Web browsers and email clients — to freeze, crash, or quit working entirely

If tips 1 through 8 haven't helped solve your software problem, you may want to scan the machine using both antivirus and anti-malware applications, programs designed to find and remove viruses and malware. When running one of these programs, it's a good idea to use the most thorough scan mode available; also, remember to shut down and restart your machine if the antivirus or anti-malware program does find and remove threats from the computer.

For more information on getting rid of viruses and malware — including advice on antivirus and anti-malware applications — read TechSoup's article Removing Viruses, Spyware, and Other Forms of Malware. It's worth noting that, currently, the majority of viruses and malware attacks target Windows computers, although there have been occasional instances of malware threats for the Mac OS.

9. Check for a firewall conflict.

Many nonprofits do not have the budget to purchase a centralized hardware or software-based firewall and may instead choose to install personal firewall software — such as ZoneAlarm Free — on each computer in their office. Though personal firewalls can be an important line of defense against hackers and other security threats, they might also confuse users, since they frequently display messages asking users whether to allow a program to run or whether to block it.

It's possible that you may be experiencing software problems because you've accidentally instructed the personal firewall to block the program in question, most likely by responding to one of the aforementioned messages. You may want to check the firewall's settings to see if the problematic software has inadvertently been added to its list of programs to block. If so, change the firewall's settings to allow the software to run, then check to see if you're still having issues.

10. Boot up in Safe Mode.

As mentioned, some software malfunctions can be caused due to OS settings or other system problems. Windows and Mac operating systems both feature a troubleshooting environment known as Safe Mode, which disables applications and processes that are not crucial to the system, theoretically making it easier to isolate problems.

Most Windows computers allow you to enter Safe Mode by pressing the F8 key as your computer is booting up. If you're using a Mac, you can enter Safe Mode by pressing the Shift key while or directly after your computer boots up. Once your computer is in Safe Mode, launch the problematic software application and attempt to replicate the problem you encountered while your computer was in normal mode. If you don't encounter the same problem, there's a good chance that the issue is being caused by your OS or another program rather than the application you are troubleshooting.

11. Defragment your hard drive.

As a final troubleshooting step, you might choose to defragment your computer's hard drive, the process of rearranging its file structure so that the system runs more efficiently. Defragmenting a hard drive will probably prove most useful if you're experiencing extreme software sluggishness, as this process is meant to make your entire system run faster. Note that defragmenting a hard drive applies only to Windows-based computers, as the Macintosh OS automatically optimizes the hard drive's file structure.

Windows 98, ME, 2000, and XP OSs all include a built-in disk-defragmentation tool, which you can launch by going to Start > Programs > Accessories > System Tools > Disk Defragmenter. Be aware that defragmenting a hard drive can be a time-consuming process — especially if the drive contains many files — so make sure to perform this task when you (or the user) will be away from their computer for a few hours.

If the tips listed above haven't solved your software problem, it may be time to bite the bullet and call the tech-support hotline. One final tip? If you do end up having to place a tech-support call, you may want to invest in a hands-free headset; it will likely make the time you spend on hold both more comfortable and convenient.


About the Author:

Brian Satterfield is Staff Writer at TechSoup.