Anybody who has written software for public use will probably have received at least one bad bug report. Reports that say nothing ("It doesn't work!"); reports that make no sense; reports that don't give enough information; reports that give wrong information. Reports of problems that turn out to be user error; reports of problems that turn out to be the fault of somebody else's program; reports of problems that turn out to be network failures.
There's a reason why technical support is seen as a horrible job to be in, and that reason is bad bug reports. However, not all bug reports are unpleasant: I maintain free software, when I'm not earning my living, and sometimes I receive wonderfully clear, helpful, informative bug reports.
In this essay I'll try to state clearly what makes a good bug report. Ideally I would like everybody in the world to read this essay before reporting any bugs to anybody. Certainly I would like everybody who reports bugs to me to have read it.
In a nutshell, the aim of a bug report is to enable the programmer to see the program failing in front of them. You can either show them in person, or give them careful and detailed instructions on how to make it fail. If they can make it fail, they will try to gather extra information until they know the cause. If they can't make it fail, they will have to ask you to gather that information for them.
In bug reports, try to make very clear what are actual facts ("I was at the computer and this happened") and what are speculations ("I think the problem might be this"). Leave out speculations if you want to, but don't leave out facts.
When you report a bug, you are doing so because you want the bug fixed. There is no point in swearing at the programmer or being deliberately unhelpful: it may be their fault and your problem, and you might be right to be angry with them, but the bug will get fixed faster if you help them by supplying all the information they need. Remember also that if the program is free, then the author is providing it out of kindness, so if too many people are rude to them then they may stop feeling kind. "It doesn't work."
Give the programmer some credit for basic intelligence: if the program really didn't work at all, they would probably have noticed. Since they haven't noticed, it must be working for them. Therefore, either you are doing something differently from them, or your environment is different from theirs. They need information; providing this information is the purpose of a bug report. More information is almost always better than less.
Many programs, particularly free ones, publish their list of known bugs. If you can find a list of known bugs, it's worth reading it to see if the bug you've just found is already known or not. If it's already known, it probably isn't worth reporting again, but if you think you have more information than the report in the bug list, you might want to contact the programmer anyway. They might be able to fix the bug more easily if you can give them information they didn't already have.
This essay is full of guidelines. None of them is an absolute rule. Particular programmers have particular ways they like bugs to be reported. If the program comes with its own set of bug-reporting guidelines, read them. If the guidelines that come with the program contradict the guidelines in this essay, follow the ones that come with the program!
If you are not reporting a bug but just asking for help using the program, you should state where you have already looked for the answer to your question. ("I looked in chapter 4 and section 5.2 but couldn't find anything that told me if this is possible.") This will let the programmer know where people will expect to find the answer, so they can make the documentation easier to use. "Show me."
One of the very best ways you can report a bug is by showing it to the programmer. Stand them in front of your computer, fire up their...
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