I'm sure we all wish that technology worked perfectly all the time. We depend on it for most of our communication and work needs, and it can be frustrating when the tools we need to do our job start breaking up on you.
Unlike a simple tool like a hammer or a saw, where there is only one step between building the tool and using it, computers and websites have an added component: they are programmed by humans. The hardware can't work on its own; it needs coders and developers to make it work properly and to make it user-friendly for non-coders.
Web developers are not magicians or mind readers. They can't guess what's wrong with a website unless someone tells them. Despite every effort to make the website as usable as possible, errors can slip in. It's unfortunate and frustrating, but they, like you, are only human. When something doesn't work like it should, we'll do our best to correct the problem as soon as we can, but we can't do it without your help.
But how can you help us when you don't know code? It's actually easier than you think. With a good bug report (this is what developers call it), you can speed up the process and ensure that your problem is solved as quickly as possible.
What's a bug report?
A bug report is pretty much what it's called: a report on a bug. Its purpose is to inform your developer of problems and issues he or she does not know exist. They're not mind readers. If you don't tell them, they can't guess.
Bug reports also have two more goals: they help developers come up with new helpful features, and they teach them how users actually use the website. With this information in hand, developers can build better, more efficient and user-friendly websites.
When should you send a bug report?
Obviously, the most important reason to send a bug report is because there's a bug. Bugs most often appear as error messages, but can also cause freezing, crashing or slowing down. If data disappears from your website, it's probably a bug, too.
Other reasons to send a bug report include:
- When the website doesn't do what you want it to do,
- When you have to find workarounds because something is missing,
- If the website doesn't fulfill your needs or annoys you,
- When you can't figure out how to do something with your website.
But the most important answer to "when should you send a bug report" is "as soon as possible". Don't ignore a problem or hope it'll go away. It usually doesn't. When you get an error message or find an obvious problem, report it right away. Waiting might make the problem more difficult to repair, and will certainly reduce your productivity over time.
How do you report a bug?
Now that we've covered the "why" and "when", it's also important to know "how". Developers work with a certain kind of information; saying "it doesn't work" isn't very helpful to them. When you send your bug report, you need to include at least the following information:
- What were you trying to do when the bug happened? Please be as precise as possible. Just saying "the website doesn't work" doesn't provide enough information. "I was trying to edit a page" or "I wanted to upload a picture to my blog post or gallery" is better. If you can remember the steps you took ("I clicked on the "edit" button"), it's even better.
- What did the website do during your attempt? For example, if you received an error message after clicking on "Edit page", you need to copy the entire error message in your bug report. It makes it easier for developers to identify the problem. If it doesn't do something, like the page remains the same even after clicking the "Save edits" button, you need to explain this as well. It's also helpful to mention what you were expecting to happen, or what usually happens when the program functions properly.
- When did the error happen? If it's the first time you've encountered the problem, mention it. If you realize it only happens under certain conditions (like with just a specific user or a specific page), note it down. It'll help your developer focus on the problem rather than look for it everywhere in the code.
For website bug reports, you also need to include URLs when specific pages are involved and to note what platform you were using (Chrome, Firefox, Safari or Internet Explorer? Which version?)
A good bug report should also use helpful titles ("Bug when trying to edit a page" instead of "Website doesn't work), mention the specific website (especially if you have more than one of them) and the severity of the problem (is it stopping you from doing anything or is it just a minor thing?). Mentioning the frequency (sometimes, every time, every full moon) can also help your developer assess the severity and possible origin of the bug.
Some tips for more effective bug reports
Although this basic information is usually enough to find and repair a bug, some things can make bug reports even more effective.
- Use screenshots. If something is popping up on your screen, take a screenshot. If something looks strange or unusual but is hard to describe in words, take a screenshot. Screenshots are your friend, and they are developers' as well.
- Stick to the point. Only discuss what is relevant to the bug. A bug report is no time to catch up on your developer's social life.
- It's not your fault. Many bug reports come to us with comments like "I'm stupid!" or "What am I doing wrong?". Stop it. It's not your fault. You didn't break your website. The machine doesn't hate you. Trust us, websites don't have feelings!
We're here to help
Most of our website builds come with support packages. It's our job to deal with bugs, so don't be afraid to report them. You won't "take away some of our time" or otherwise "bother us" with bugs. We're here for one reason: make your website as awesome and as easy to use as possible. And part of our job is dealing with bugs.
For the TL;DR people: REPORT, REPORT, REPORT! Report every bug as soon as possible in the most precise way possible. It's the only way we can help you with your website bugs.
Photo by Andrea Parrish-Geyer.