It all starts with phenotype.
Phenotypes are the set of observable characteristics of an organism. It is usually pointed out that these result from a combination of genotype and its interactions with the environment. Close observation is often required. A strain might make alkaline phosphatase in one medium but not another; many strains of bacteria might fail to form spores, but at what stage in the process are they blocked?
Computer use has phenotypes also. They result from interaction between the hardware and software (genotype) and the users and network (environment). To solve problems (undesirable phenotypes), we gather data about how they are associated with specific genotypes or environmental interactions.
So how to define the phenotype of a computer problem? Maybe we know that Windows won’t boot, but at what stage in the process is it blocked? Maybe we know that we can’t open an article from www.cell.com, but from what browser or from what network did we try to do it?
There is no cookbook formula for specifying computer phenotypes, but there are some guidelines.
- reproducible characteristics are good. Try to find a procedure (protocol) that will cause the problem to occur every time. This will let someone else try to do more testing on your problem on a different computer
- document the phenotype. Be specific. Do you get an error message? What is its exact text? Does your computer make a noise?
- what is the history of the phenotype? Is this a newly emerged phenoytpe (it always worked before, but suddenly stopped last Wednesday)? Has it always been this way? Or is this the first time you’ve tried something?
- what is the genetic background in which the phenotype is observed? What kind of computer do you have? What operating system? What software is connected to the problem? What software version? Just as in the lab, you don’t have to list everything — start with what you think is most relevant. As you go on not finding the answer, then you look at variables that seemed less likely at the start.
Keep these in mind if you’re reporting problems to me, the forums, or the Brandeis Help Desk, or any other computer help. A few minutes of thought trying to make your problem report precise at the beginning will save you lots of time answering irrelevant questions later.