The Art of Troubleshooting with Jason Maxham
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The Art of Troubleshooting with Jason Maxham

With the right approach, you can probably fix anything. 

There are two approaches to repair. Sometimes, you know exactly what’s wrong: The screen has a big crack down the middle, or the CPU pins are bent, or the front fell off. Helping at that point is a lot of what we do here at iFixit—we’ll give you all the guides and parts and tools to get your thing working again as fast as possible. This lies at the heart of our philosophy that anybody is capable of making even very complex repairs if they have the tools and support. 

But other times, repair starts with more of a mystery or a puzzle. There’s a weird noise. A screen flickers intermittently. Your thing rattles and wheezes to a stop, without an obvious cause. At this point, you probably shouldn’t just swap in new parts willy-nilly. Instead, you’ve got to turn to another approach to fixing things. It’s born of an intense curiosity about how things work, a need to understand their inner workings, and the belief that anything can be fixed if only you take the time to do it. That’s the kind of approach of Jason Maxham, who lays out his philosophy in the now-classic book The Art of Troubleshooting. And this is where our new iFixit troubleshooting manuals come in. 

When we say “philosophy,” we don’t just mean that this is some kind of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance for the modern day. Well, it kind of is that, but it’s also an intensely practical guide to troubleshooting problems, communicating, knowing how to ask the right questions, and—yes—fixing stuff. 

We were interested in this difference, so we asked Jason to tell us about his approach to repair, and how to get good answers from others when fixing their problems.

It’s an intensely practical guide to troubleshooting problems, communicating, knowing how to ask the right questions, and—yes—fixing stuff.

Repair Therapy

Repair isn’t just about fixing things. It’s also a state of mind. Once you start repairing things instead of replacing them, you start to see the world in a different way. You understand that breaking something doesn’t mean that it’s dead and useless. Working for iFixit, you hear from a lot of folks about how they used a repair guide to fix their computer or phone for the first time. Every single one I have spoken to seems super happy at the realization that it’s something they can do. 

Photo by Tory Bishop

“I saw this in play because I was co-owner of a community workshop in San Francisco called Piston and Chain,” says Jason. “It was a motorcycle club slash community workshop. And we had three lifts and a whole wall of tools, and you could bring your motorcycle in and, you know, ride it, monkey around with it, change the oil, or put an accessory on it or something. And I’d say about half of the membership were these techie types. And they really responded to this world of hands-on repair. They needed it. There was something missing in their lives and this provided that.”

Uh-oh, Here Comes Trouble

We’ve steadily been expanding our library of repair content to include troubleshooting manuals. After all, how can you fix a problem if you don’t even know what’s causing it? Classic examples include fast-draining batteries, or devices that won’t even switch on.

Is the problem hardware or software? Is the battery a dud, or is there some runaway software process burning through your battery?

We have troubleshooting manuals for gadgets like the Nintendo Switch, the iPhone, and the Steam Deck, but we also have great guides to getting to the bottom of issues with home appliances. Can’t open the door of your washing machine? Find out why

How to troubleshoot a washing machine

How to Ask the Right Question

The core of the Art of Troubleshooting is digging down to the root of the problem. It’s pretty easy to diagnose the cause of a wobbly table, harder to work out why your computer isn’t connecting to the internet, and harder still to track down a hardware glitch somewhere in an entire data center. And that’s if it’s your own problem. Try troubleshooting from a distance, and you have a whole other angle to deal with—the human element. 

Jason—who has been the CTO and/or co-founder of several software and data-mining companies—has plenty of experience trying to finagle answers from other people.

“Skillfully interviewing people to obtain meaningful information about a malfunction is an essential skill for the troubleshooter,” he writes in the first of a four-part series of blog posts titled “Skillful Questioning.”

Skillful questioning means both asking the right question, and interpreting the answer. “Machines don’t talk, so you better get good at listening to those that speak on their behalf (i.e. humans). That means going deep in the ways people talk about their problems,” says Jason.

Machines don’t talk, so you better get good at listening to those that speak on their behalf.

— Jason Maxham
Photo by Kenny Eliason

We’ve all been there. Perhaps a relative has called you because their browser won’t load a page, or they can’t quit the app they’re in. You tell them to go to the Settings app, say, and they tell you yes, they’re there, but they don’t see any of the settings you’re telling them to look for. It can be hard enough to troubleshoot your own problems, but doing it for somebody else, based only on what they tell you, is a whole other level. 

I remember an old trick one of my school teachers used to illustrate giving proper instructions. He held up a matchbox, and we had to tell him how to open it, step-by-step. Easy, right? Except as soon as we told him to push his finger into the short side, it dumped all the matches on the floor. He deliberately held it with the drawer upside-down, to show that you have to think of everything. 

Jason has distilled his approach into his Universal Troubleshooting Guide, in handy PDF format. Even if you’re not doing high-level repairs, take a look at that PDF. It outlines many of the things that an experienced repair person will do naturally, from considering the risks of the repair, the time it might take, and the reversibility of the steps taken so far, so you can still back out if things turn out to go deeper than anticipated.

Creative Troubleshooting

There is also a creativity to troubleshooting that’s not so obvious when you’re following a guide and using one of our repair kits. We might all be familiar with standing in the aisle of the hardware store, staring at what’s available, and trying to work out how it might work to help with your project. 

“As far as exercising your creativity is concerned, if you focus on the end goal, you realize there’s like a thousand different paths that will take you there,” says Jason. “When you’re troubleshooting in a professional environment, it’s a much hotter crucible. Where things must be fixed or contracts get broken, you have to become really, really creative.”

Photo by Markus Spiske

Here’s an example of troubleshooting  creativity. Jason was helping his dad to fit a ceiling fan, which came with a proprietary lighting module that “does something mysterious.” This module, probably there for smart-home reasons, had a hideous built-in light. Jason found an online guide that showed the unit could be removed entirely. 

“Snip, snip, snip, you cut it out and boom, you can, you can wire the lights in directly, right? You can just go right around what the manufacturer was doing. The end goal was light; we took a different path to [get there],” says Jason. 

One Size Doesn’t Fit All

Jason’s troubleshooting guide is as much about how to find out as much as possible about the kind of problem you have, and fitting your strategy to that, instead of having a top-down set of steps or methods to follow. 

“I have this one piece called One Size Doesn’t Fit All, and it goes into the impossibility of having a universal troubleshooting formula that you follow step to step. It’s just too complicated. It’s not how we think,” says Jason.

If you focus on the end goal, you realize there’s a thousand different paths that will take you there.

— Jason Maxham

So Jason’s universal guide instead uses questions that point you in the right direction, or help you to either focus, or to step back. “How can I narrow down the problem space? Can I use half-splitting (aka, binary search)?” is one step on the guide. “Is troubleshooting the best use of my resources? Is there a workaround that’s better? Can I swap or replace?” asks another. 

The guide is a handy prompt, but in the end, what matters is experience. The more you fix, the better you get, and the easier it is to narrow down the possibilities and home in on the cause.

“You see this sometimes, like the guy at the mall who runs the little kiosk for cell phone repair, he’s seen hundreds of iPhones. He knows exactly what’s going to happen, right? He doesn’t need to look at my universal troubleshooting guide or anything like that.”

At iFixit, we want to make repair possible for anyone through our guides, tools, and parts. But we also want these repairs to start people on the road of curiosity about how things work, and to maybe change how they think about things being broken. Jason’s book is ten years old now, but repair hasn’t changed much at all in that time.

And if you start to use our various troubleshooting manuals, you’ll soon end up solving even the strangest of repair mysteries. It’s just about asking the right questions, and never giving up—kind of like being the Colombo of repair.