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Understanding Users

A primary purpose of help desk professionals is to support users. With this in mind, it’s important to understand them. Different types of users have different needs and skillsets, and will have a wide variety of different problems. When the help desk understands the users, their common characteristics, and their needs, they are better equipped to help them.

As an example, an ISP providing end user support for customers recognizes that many of these customers use their computers for simple tasks such as accessing their email and browsing the Internet. Common problems for these users are computer configuration to access the Internet, ensuring the proper hardware is in place and is configured correctly, and possibly configuring basic applications for Internet use.

In contrast, employees within an organization use their computers for work tasks. Employees typically use basic applications such as email programs but might also use highly complex applications such as computer aided design (CAD) or data mining programs. These employees contact the help desk for assistance when they are unable to perform their work tasks due to a computer or network issue.

User Categories

One way of understanding users is with user categories. User categories can vary widely, but some common categories are related to their knowledge level, the applications they use, and where they are using the computers.

When an organization understands the users, it can ensure that help desk technicians are prepared to help them. The organization is able to hire the technicians with the appropriate skill levels and provide the needed training to ensure these technicians provide the best possible support to the customers.

Internal or External

One of the simple user categories is based on the user’s relationship to the organization. Internal users work in the same organization as the help desk, and help desk personnel typically prioritize incidents based on the user requesting assistance. For example, when an executive has an IT problem, this is often a high priority for the help desk. Similarly, if product sales is considered a critical business function, users working in the sales department might be given preferential treatment when they contact the help desk.

External users are customers of the organization. Often, an organization is selling some other product or service and the help desk technicians assist customers having a problem with the product or service. An ISP is an obvious example of help desk personnel assisting external users. As another example, an organization might sell an online application and then assist customers that have purchased the application. This assistance might be via email, chat, or phone.

IT Knowledge Level

It’s important to realize that just because users have computers, that doesn’t mean they have intricate knowledge of how they work or how they are connected to networks. Some users grew up with computers in their home and have in-depth knowledge of computers and networks, while other users rarely use them and don’t understand many of the details.

As an example, one help desk professional was working at an ISP assisting home users. Many home users installed wireless routers in their home, sharing Internet access among multiple users within their home, and they had a high level of IT knowledge. One day, a user from Virginia called and complained that he lost his Internet connection on his laptop computer. After some discussion, the technician discovered that the customer was a long-distance truck driver and was trying to connect his laptop computer from his current location in Oklahoma to his wireless network in Virginia. Experienced personnel working with computers know that wireless transmissions used within a house have a very limited range and certainly wouldn’t travel from Virginia to Oklahoma. However, not everyone has that same level of knowledge, so it’s important to gauge the user’s knowledge level during a trouble call.

Computer Usage

Another way of classifying users is based on how they use their computers. Some users operate a single application on their computer and rarely do anything else. Other users might have five or more applications open at any given time. By understanding common usage by help desk customers, the technicians have a better chance of predicting common problems. As an example, many home users run web browsers, email applications, and games, but do little else. These users have many common problems that typically aren’t seen by an in-house help desk.

In contrast, employees within a company will typically run word processing, spreadsheet, database, email, and other applications. Additionally, many organizations have dedicated applications for specific purposes. For example, sales people within an organization might use software to check inventory, track sales, and access customer information. Help desk personnel assisting these users need to have in-depth knowledge of these specialized applications so they can effectively help the users.

Location or Environment

Identifying where the customer is using the computer also helps to understand the potential issues they might have. The two primary locations or environments are home and within an organization. Home users will typically have basic issues with their computers and a help desk will often provide generic support to them. Users within an organization will have issues related to the computers and applications used in support of the organization’s mission. Internal users might have generic problems just as home users do, but they will also have specific issues related to accessing resources within the organization.

An additional location is mobile or remote. For example, personnel within a company might routinely travel as part of their job but still need access to the company network. Similarly, organizations might allow users to work from home. A common way these personnel access the network from remote locations is via a virtual private network (VPN).

A VPN provides access to a private network through a public network such as the Internet, as shown in Figure 1-3. Once configured, remote users connect to the Internet via an ISP and are then able to connect to the organization’s private internal network. In many cases, the VPN users are able to access resources through the VPN just as if they were accessing the private network from within the organization. It gives remote users access to the internal network from almost anywhere in the world, as long as they have Internet access. The primary issue for traveling or remote users is likely to be related to connecting to the company network through the VPN, so it’s important for help desk personnel to understand what a VPN is and how it is configured within an organization.

Figure 1-3

FIGURE 1-3 User accessing company network via a VPN.

Services Provided to Users

Many users view the computer as a tool or resource they use to accomplish tasks. When computer problems prevent them from accomplishing these tasks and they can’t resolve these problems on their own, they ask for help. There are many reasons why users call the help desk. Some of them include:

  • Logging on. This can include problems related to a forgotten username or password, and locked accounts. Many organizations employ automated methods to assist external users, but they assist internal users directly. One common source of login problems is the CAPS LOCK key, which has been preventing successful logins for decades.
  • Asking for information. Users often call the help desk for information about a product or service. Help desk technicians will typically have some knowledge about products and services and have the ability to transfer the user to another area of the company if necessary. For example, if a customer calls about a product and wants to order it, the technician can transfer the call to the sales department.
  • Starting an application. Users sometimes have problems starting an application because they can’t find it or due to a software issue. For example, if the application has a problem such as a corrupt file or incorrect configuration, it might not start properly and terminate with an error.
  • Installing or upgrading software. When users are responsible for installing or upgrading operating systems and applications, they often need assistance. For example, users might have problems installing updates to the operating system or a specific program. Many times the instructions are available, but in some situations, the users simply can’t find or understand the instructions. In other situations, their system has other problems preventing the instructions from succeeding.
  • Configuring or troubleshooting hardware. If users are responsible for configuring or troubleshooting hardware, they might have problems and call the help desk for assistance. Printers often account for many hardware trouble calls within an organization, but other hardware problems related to mice, keyboards, hard drives, displays, sound cards, and speakers are common.
  • Using or performing a task with an application. Many times users are unable to perform specific tasks within an application. For example, when an organization deploys a new email application, users might not be able to do familiar tasks and ask for assistance. In this example, the help desk calls can often be reduced by providing users training before the new application is deployed. Many organizations provide online documentation and possibly videos to answer the common questions and problems.
  • Accessing a network resource. When users are unable to access a network resource such as the Internet, email, or any type of server, they will typically ask for help. The user’s computer might be the source of the problem, or the problem might be elsewhere. For example, misconfiguration or failure of the user’s computer network interface card (NIC) would prevent the user from accessing any network resource and the user’s computer would need repairs. If a network device such as a switch or router failed, a user won’t be able to access the resource, but the user’s computer isn’t at fault. Either way, help desk technicians are able to address the problem and take steps to resolve it.
  • Removing viruses or other malware. Malware causes a wide variety of problems, including system slowdowns, random reboots, lost files, errors, and more. Ideally, users will have up-to-date antivirus software running on their systems to prevent infections, but when a system is infected, users often need assistance removing the malware.
  • Recovering data. If you’ve never lost a file due to corruption, malware infection, or simply because you cannot locate it, you probably haven’t been using computers for very long. Almost everyone has lost a file at some time or another. If the file is important, users might call for help recovering it. If the file is corrupt, technicians might be able to restore it using special file recovery tools. If the file is backed up, technicians might be able to restore it from a backup. If the file is not backed up, technicians can use the problem as a teaching opportunity to stress the importance of creating backups. Some people simply never back up their data until they lose important files.
  • Rolling back changes. Users sometimes want to undo a change to their system. This might be uninstalling software, removing a recent operating system or application update, or rolling back a hardware driver. Operating systems and applications typically have methods to perform each of these tasks, but they are sometimes beyond the technical ability of common users.
  • Understanding errors and messages. Cryptic errors and messages can overwhelm users. Many of these are unclear and users aren’t sure if they should take action in response to them, or just ignore these errors and messages.
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