Troubleshooting a problem is like solving a mystery. You make a list of possibles and eliminate them, one at a time. What else is important? Having an agile mind, the ability to look at the problem from different angles and most importantly: asking the right question.
Framing the right question is not as easy as it seems. Of course, every other fellow out there can just shoot their mouths off with the typical “Why did the problem happen?” and “How can it be fixed?”, nothing spectacular from a customer/user point of view.
Should you be involved in the troubleshooting however, the questions need to be more focused and on a more granular level: something that requires knowledge, experience and instinct.
This skill becomes a very obvious need when information is relayed second-hand. We usually manage to work our way through things with first-hand access to the situation, but listening and talking someone through a problem requires a bit more savviness. The other party might not know what you need, and it’s entirely up to you to structure your queries correctly. Without questions that delve directly into the issue at hand, everyone is in for a long, long night.
Think about questions that focus on what happened prior to the problem. Was anything unusual noticed? Ask for forensic evidence (e.g. server logs, emails). Assemble every bit of information you can find. Find out if any changes were made recently. Look for patterns. Think about what is going on now, write everything down and see if anything pops out at you. More often than not, looking at everything on paper helps.
With patience, calm and a bit of luck, you could be on your way to finding the answer. Remember: the answer is not appearing out of thin air if you fail to grasp the important facts. Concentrate, and use your questions to find out the important clues that could lead you to a breakthrough.