This blog post was originally written by Brian Satterfield and updated by Ariel Gilbert-Knight at TechSoup. This post has been adapted and expanded for a Canadian audience by TechSoup Canada.
Your nonprofit or library relies on software to get its work done, and unexplained software crashes and error messages can bring your work to a standstill. When this happens, it's tempting to call tech support immediately. But before you make the call, there are basic steps you can take to solve software problems on your own, or at least narrow down their causes.
The next time you have a software problem, try these troubleshooting tips in the order they're listed below. Carefully document the steps you take. That way, if a tech support call becomes necessary, at least you'll have a good idea of what isn't causing the problem.
1. Free up RAM by closing other open programs.
Every piece of software uses Random Access Memory (RAM). The more software that's running on your computer, the more RAM it uses. This can be especially problematic if you're using older machines that don't have a lot of RAM. So if a software program refuses to load or is running slowly, the first thing to do is to close all other open applications.
If you want to find out which open applications might be hogging your RAM, both Windows and Macintosh operating systems (OS) have tools that display this information:
In Windows, hit Ctrl+Alt+Delete, then choose the Start Task Manager option. From the window that appears, click the Processes tab. This sorts all open processes based on the amount of RAM they're using. You can shut down a runaway process by clicking the End Task button. Before you do that, you may want to do a bit of research on the process to ensure that you don't accidentally stop a critical process or program.
In Mac OS X, use the Activity Monitor (called the Process Viewer in older versions of OS X). Access the Activity Monitor by going to Applications > Utilities. Once you've called up the Activity Monitor, sort programs based on RAM usage by clicking the column labeled "Real Memory."
2. Restart the software.
Software problems can stem from a conflict with other programs or simply from difficulties the software encountered when starting up. Shutting the program down and restarting it can sometimes resolve these issues.
3. Shut down and restart your computer.
If restarting the problematic program doesn't resolve the issue, try rebooting your computer. Once the computer has fully restarted, re-launch the application in question and see if the problem has been resolved.
4. Use the Internet to find help.
No matter what software problems you encounter, chances are it's happened to someone else. So there's a good chance you can find help on the Internet. Here are a few places to get started:
Search for answers: In your search engine query, include the software program name and version, the problem you encountered, and the circumstances under which the problem occurred. If you received a specific error message, enter the exact error message text, along with the name of the application.
Check the vendor's website: Most software vendors provide some form of product help, such as answers to frequently asked questions, product documentation, or user discussion forums.
Check other websites: TechSoup's article Learning About Technology Online lists a number of other websites that offer technology tutorials, articles, and discussion forums.
5. Undo any recent hardware or software changes.
Changes to software and hardware can sometimes cause software problems, such as:
Conflicts with other software: Newly installed software may conflict with other software. For example, Symantec Norton Antivirus can conflict with competing antivirus products. So, if you recently installed another antivirus program and Norton Antivirus no longer works correctly, uninstalling the other antivirus product could solve your problem.
Changes to computer settings: Undo any recent changes to your computer's settings, and try launching the software again. For example, the Windows Control Panel includes an option to "Set Program Access and Defaults," which allows you to disable access to certain applications. If you accidentally disable access to a program here, the program may not run.
Conflicts with new or improperly configured hardware, such as scanners and printers. If you've recently connected new hardware to one of your computers, try disconnecting the hardware and see if that corrects the software issue.
6. Uninstall the software, then reinstall it.
Sometimes, software problems occur because critical application files have been removed, updated, or deleted. For example, many Windows applications use Dynamic Link Library (DLL) files to perform basic tasks. Often, several applications will use the same DLL file. If you've recently removed one program from your computer, it's possible you removed DLL files that another program relied on. Similarly, adding a program could add or update DLL files. Applications that were dependent on those DLL files may become unstable or stop working entirely.
To ensure that all the necessary files are intact, you can completely uninstall the problematic software, then reinstall it. Even if you remove a program using its built-in uninstall wizard (if it includes one), it's still a good idea to check your hard drive's Program Files folder — usually located on the C drive — for any remnants of the program, and delete any files or folders you find.
Before reinstalling, check to see if there's a new version of the program available. The vendor or developer might have introduced bug fixes that address the issue you're having.
7. Look for software patches.
Software vendors may also fix bugs by issuing patches — small software updates that address known problems. Even if you're using the most current version of the software, there may be a more recent patch available for that version.
8. Scan for viruses and malware.
Viruses, spyware, and other forms of malicious software (or "malware") can cause software to freeze, crash, or quit working entirely.
If tips 1 through 8 haven't helped solve your software problem, you may also want to scan the computer using both antivirus and anti-malware tools to find and remove viruses and malware. Use the most thorough scan mode available, and remember to restart your machine if the antivirus or anti-malware programs found any threats.
9. Check for a firewall conflict.
Some organizations may choose to install personal firewall software on each computer, rather than a centralized hardware or software-based firewall. Personal firewalls can be an important line of defense against hackers and other security threats, but they can also cause software conflicts.
Firewalls frequently display messages asking whether it should allow a program to run or block it. Therefore, it's possible to accidentally tell the personal firewall to block a program from running. Check the firewall's settings to see if the problematic software was added to the firewall's list of programs to block. If so, change the firewall's settings to allow the software to run, then check to see if you're still having issues with your software.
10. Boot up in Safe Mode.
Some software malfunctions can be caused by OS settings or other system problems. Windows and Mac operating systems both offer a troubleshooting environment known as Safe Mode. Safe Mode disables non-critical applications and processes, which theoretically makes it easier to isolate problems.
Most Windows computers allow you to enter Safe Mode by pressing the F8 key as your computer is booting up. On a Mac, enter Safe Mode by pressing the Shift key while your computer boots up (or immediately after it boots up).
Once your computer is in Safe Mode, launch the problematic software and try to replicate the problem you had while your computer was in normal mode. If you don't have the same problem in safe mode, there's a good chance that the issue was caused by your OS or another program, not by the application you are troubleshooting.
11. Defragment your hard drive.
As a final troubleshooting step, you might defragment your computer's hard drive. Defragmenting rearranges your hard drive's file structure so that the system runs more efficiently. Defragmenting will probably be most useful if you're experiencing overall sluggishness on your computer, because defragmenting is meant to make your entire system run faster. Note that defragmenting a hard drive applies primarily to Windows-based computers.
Most recent Windows editions — including XP, Vista, and Windows 7 — include a built-in disk-defragmentation tool. To launch it, go to Start > All Programs > Accessories > System Tools > Disk Defragmenter. Be aware that defragmenting a hard drive can be time-consuming, so make sure to perform this task when you will be away from your computer for a few hours.
If the tips listed above haven't solved your software problem, it may be time to call tech support. At minimum, you'll be able to help them narrow down the problem by describing the troubleshooting steps you've already taken on your own.