Helping people with computers... one answer at a time.

With different support resources offering frequently conflicting advice, how do you decide who's right? Which tech support resource do you believe?

I was researching a question on the internet, and I find it very strange that what one expert recommends another advises against. I refer to various posts on discussion forums and advice sites such as yours, all of which are most helpful not often contradictory. One finds those who swear by a product and others who don't reckon much to it. That leaves novices like me rather bewildered to who to heed and who not.

Who do I believe?

I understand the frustration. When all you're looking for is an answer, it's puzzling to come up with various differing opinions.

I'll try to explain why I think that is, and what I do when faced with it myself.

It almost goes without saying that computers and politics are very similar. People have strong opinions on what is, and is not, the right way to approach the problems we face. Start with the Mac/Linux versus PC debate and work your way down, and almost every aspect of computing from hardware to software to networking and everything in between is open for debate.

And that's frustrating if you're not the least bit interested in the debate, you just want to get your work done.

I think one of the biggest reasons that you see different opinions is based on people's different experiences. Specifically:

"We may want to be objective, but we all see the world through our own experiences, priorities and values."
  • Direct Personal Experience - Their opinion is based on their direct experience with something. This is sometimes the best source of accurate information if viewed in the correct perspective.

  • Over Generalization - The person who has a bad experience with something, and then based solely on that bad experience proclaims "this product is crap" is taking their single experience and assuming that it is generally true. It might or might not be - it's absolutely human nature to do that, but it's also statistically inaccurate. It's a data point of one. If a million other people have had wonderful experiences with a product, it might not actually be as bad as that single experience would indicate. But that person is, rightfully, going to hold and express a negative opinion.

  • Hearsay - Recounting the experiences of others can be good or bad, depending on how objectively those experiences are taken. If I tell you that product X should be avoided because my buddy had a problem with it, that's not nearly as valuable a statement as saying that the product should be avoided because I regularly hear of problems from many different people.

Another major reason for differences of opinions are differences in values.

I might pick product A over product B because it's easier to use, and as I evaluate products for use by my readership I believe that ease of use is very important. Someone else might pick product B over product A because it does a slightly better job at whatever it does. That person values the incremental improvement over the ease of use consideration.

As a gross, yet often common example, you'll often hear people disrecommend software from Microsoft simply because it's from Microsoft. The software might, in fact, be the most appropriate solution for many people, but you'll find people recommending other solutions, often very strongly, simply to avoid using Microsoft software.

And to be honest, I can't really argue with 'em. Not on Microsoft specifically, but there are indeed companies who's products I now avoid simply because the products come from those companies. For assorted reasons that I personally feel are valid those companies have somehow placed themselves on my personal blacklist.

And again, I think everything I've just described is human nature. We may want to be objective, but we all see the world through our own experiences, priorities and values. The result is that we may come to different conclusions.

So, none of that helps answer your question:

Who do you believe?

The short answer: the person, persons or group that most closely matches your own needs or values.

Which, of course, is easier said that done.

And that's where some work comes in.

When looking for an answer, don't just stop when you think you've found the answer. Take a few minutes to get a sense for the person or community providing that answer. Does what they say make sense to you? Do they appear to have an understanding of the issues you're facing? If you're inexperienced, do they regularly pose solutions in ways that you can understand? If you're experienced and looking for more technical solutions, does what they provide match your own experience and do they have a clear sense of what they're talking about in general?

When relating experiences, are you finding more "this didn't work for me, so the product is crap", or "this didn't work for me, so be careful"? Are the reports of hearsay based on reasonable data, or almost urban-legend-like friend-of-a-friend conversations? Naturally the more reasoned and objective the opinions, the more trustworthy they would be.

I know that, personally, I value my own experience with products highly, but I do try to do so with an open mind. I rarely say something should be avoided because of my own single experience, or because of one or two reports. However, because I do have a steady stream of reports of issues coming in, then that's absolutely going to color both my opinion, and my recommendations.

The most glaring example I can provide is the my position on the use of free email services. It wasn't until I'd received repeated and consistent reports of people losing everything as accounts were hacked or otherwise lost that I formulated my own strong opinion on the subject. My personal experience has been nearly perfect with every free email service I've used, but it became clear that there's a much larger and more common issue that warranted action.

Ultimately, the answer is to spend a little time and find a few resources that you feel comfortable with. Or, as you search for a specific solution, take the time to evaluate where you end up and make sure that the resource matches your own needs and values.

And, hey, if I'm one of them, that's great. But if not, I know that there are many, many alternatives out there that might also be appropriate for you.

And keep your eyes open for new resources. This is the internet, and there are new sources of information almost every day.

Article C3374 - May 7, 2008 « »

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Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

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9 Comments
Lynn Beeler
May 13, 2008 12:39 PM

Very insightful answer. These concepts are extremely useful when trying to make a decision about different products. Two additional thoughts along this line: Before making a decision I will try to ask knowledgeable friends or relatives if they have a recommendation. A conversation on the item in question can reveal a lot. Second, consider those products that offer a free trial period when trying to decide the use of one software item over another. Hands on usage in a trial period is often the determining factor for me.

Steve Burgess
May 15, 2008 8:44 AM

Leo,

I agree with everything you�ve said & would like to add one or two more: It depends on your application and it depends on your perspective (much like your personal experience, as you mentioned). In the data recovery business (23 years for me so far) there are often dominant vendors. For many years, Seagate sold half of all disk drives in the resale market. As a result, more Seagate drives than any other single brand failed and came into data recovery and computer repair shops. As a percentage of the drives they sold, they were no worse than most other brands, but as a percentage of failed drives seen overall, they were quite overrepresented. A lot of tecchies considered their drives to be crap as a result. For years, my favorite laptops were IBM ThinkPads and Mac Powerbooks because it was easiest to remove disk drives from them, and Quantum hard disks were my favorite because it was easiest to do head replacements on them � not necessarily the average user�s concerns! Another common example of perspective is whether to leave a computer running overnight, or turn it off every time you get up and of course, it depends! Here�s my six bits worth on the subject {dead link removed} I�m always impressed with your accurate and valuable advice, Leo.

Ron
May 17, 2011 10:24 AM

I agree with what you say. In answer to that question I always suggest people read as many opinions as they can and then make their own informed decision. The best way I've found is to look for someone with as similar tastes and experience as you can find.

In one place you mention "ease of use". I lump that with "intuitive". People find what they have past history "intuitive" and "easy to use". So someone with Windows will often find Mac or the various other *Nix's "unintuitive" (and visa versa).

JTH
May 17, 2011 10:29 AM

These principles apply to other area of life also.

Wikipedia is great because you can read the discussion of how the article was created and make your decision from there rather than trust some unseen editor. The discussion tab on most Wikipedia articles will expose biases and show more detailed information about disputed information. I consider the discussion on an article just as important as the main article and qualifies the articles authority. Critics of Wikipedia don't understand this concept and think everyone should trust the unseen editor.

I hope this is not too far off topic.

Glenn P.
May 17, 2011 12:57 PM

I will add that you should cultivate four or five "trusted sources" of information. Mine include Windows Secrets, Ask Bob Rankin and Internet Tourbus, Kim Komando's newsletter, Neat Net Tricks, and of course (need I say it?) Ask Leo!.

In developing a "trusted source", you take at least one question out of the equation right at the outset -- whether you consider that particular source of information to be trustworthy -- and can proceed from there.

Steve Silagi
May 17, 2011 1:00 PM

I just clicked on Steve Burgess' link to DataRecoveryWorldwide.com and came up with a 404NotFound as if to highlight your heading. Even tried pasting the link: no dice.

GREG JACKSON
May 17, 2011 5:55 PM

Wow! A tough topic handled properly. I love research, so digging down and sorting things out is a pure joy. After a while you notice trends. In short, Ask Leo site has value to anyone that uses a computer.

Re:Post by JTH "These principles apply to other area of life also." My brother refuses to use Wikipedia because "people can alter or change it's contents" as if it's a blog or "anything goes" website. What a shame.

Re:Post by Steve Burgess: Example- Acronis. I find so many bad reviews (cnet). Some are real horror stories and I sympathize with them. Based on these comments anyone could determine not to approach this product at all. But... considering that more complaints are posted than positive results, and that Acronis is a big seller - it is not a bad product at all. Just one example.

It's tough out there. So it is nice to eventually find a few sites that are trustworthy. I find peace in knowing that. May everyone find their sites. You know youv'e found it when a search begins with "I wonder what xxxxx says about this"

Tom Higgins
May 18, 2011 9:44 AM

I echo the "appropriate to your needs" criteria.
My long standing (may I say 30 year) gripe with programers, is the "more is better" philosophy. Every ad and every upgrade touts its "added features". Heck, I still haven't used everything that was in Word Perfect 20 years ago.
The words missing in "best" discussions are often "clean" and "uncomplicated". Which is exactly what mainstream users usually need.
Not that I expect programers to reduce the number of available features. I just wish, as I have for years, that unwanted features could be hidden in application menus. Many user errors and hours of support could be saved.

Josh
May 18, 2011 4:56 PM

There is another problem when researching a problem on the Internet. Hundreds of sites with the correct keywords appear on Google, but when you go there, you find that they are trying to entice you to download a huge trial program, often a registry cleaner or antivirus program you never heard of and which does not list your specific problem, but promises that it will fix any problem in general. Alternatively you land on a page dated 6 years ago, where someone else asked a question about the same problem, but never received an answer. Why is the latter site still there? - if they could not come up with an answer in 6 years, the chances are slim that it will happen now, or ever. Sifting through this useless list wastes valuable time. Restricting searches to specific, historically reliable sites, often comes up with no answer to your query. I'm afraid that search engines have become bloated with shady vendors pushing their wares and outdated sites with no solutions. Can't sites like Google offer an option to list sites within a specific time period and to include only technical advice, i.e. exclude shady vendors who exploit technical questions?

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