Tips: How to ask for help

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As you can imagine I often get emails with questions and cries for help. I actually enjoy these emails and try to help as much as I can. One of the issues I see is that some makers don’t know how to formulate a question to get the help they need. Just the other day I got an email from somebody who asked about a project I posted on Instructables a long time ago.

The project is for an oxygen analyzer to analyze dive tanks. The question was “ I get this weird error when I put sensor of make x on your sketch, what is wrong”? The problem with this question is it does not contain any information to find out what is happening. People are not able to help you if you don’t provide the correct information. If you ask this in a public forum people are not going to respond to your question.

Before you ask your question you have to do your due diligence. Below are some steps you have to take first before you ask for help.

What information do you need to supply?

You are asking for help, and may I add at no cost, you need to make it as easy as possible for people to help you. For example the person asking me about the oxygen analyzer should minimally have supplied what the error was and what changes he had made to the sketch.

If it is a question about a sample sketch that returns an error, you minimally need to supply what OS you are compiling on, the version of the Arduino IDE you use, and what libraries you are using, and of course the error message in as much detail as possible.  If you made alterations to the supply code give an explanation on what changes were made.

Minimal List of information you should supply

  • Sample sketch
  • Libraries used
  • Arduino IDE Version
  • What hardware used (Arduino related)
  • OS version you compiling on (If it is a compiler error)

Before asking for help first find out what is wrong

Before asking for help you need to try to figure out for yourself what the issue is. By doing this you also have a better understanding of the problem. It will also help you to understand the answers you are going to receive. Here are some tips on doing your own trouble shooting before asking for help.

Trouble with your hardware

First make sure your hardware is working. You do this by testing each component separately. If you create a temperature/humidity data logger that uses a sd card breakout board, make sure that each component functions alone with your Arduino. First make a sample sketch with the temperature/ humidity sensor and see if you get the data you are expecting, and do the same with the sd card breakout.

I do this for all my projects. I first test each sub component separately before combining them. This way I know I wired everything correctly and know that is not the issue. If everything seems to work separately, and it stops working when combined all the components you know there is a conflict. Find out what components are conflicting by testing them with only an Arduino and two components at a time.

Note:In the beginning try to use components and breakout boards from the big guys like; Adafruit, Sparkfun, Pololu, Seeedstudio. They always have tutorials on how to use their components, and forums you can ask questions in.

Now you have done your homework, and are ready to ask people for help. First create a diagram with something like fritzing to give a visual representation of how the components are connected. Supply the sample sketch you made to work with these components, and give as much info about the versions, makes, and models of your hardware. By doing this you will get better quality of help, and avoid the trolls making nasty comments when you ask for help.

Note: A sample sketch is a sketch that only contains the code needed to show the problem. It is a fully working sketch, but paired down just to reveal what the problem is. It is a good way to trouble shoot, and to provide enough code to people to see what the problem is

Use your serial monitor to debug

The programmers among us know a bit about debugging and how important it is. Normally you can add breakpoints (a spot the program halts so you can look at the values of variables) to see what is happening, but because this is not possible with an Arduino we use the Serial.println() function to debug your sketch. This is often done because your project is not responding as you thought it would be. When I write a sketch it is always full of these Serial.println() statements to see what is happening. I normally remove them from the final sketch as it looks cluttery (if that’s a word).

For instance you press a button and your Arduino is not responding to it’s request. By simply seeing if your digital pin is high or low you can see if the button press has an effect, or maybe your if() statement is looking for the wrong answer. A simple Serial.println(digitalRead()) will let you know if the digital pin in question is HIGH or LOW. Look at the following example where I put lines in for debugging:

  buttonState = digitalRead(buttonPin);
  //Next lines are fo debugging
  Serial.print("buttonState: ");
  // check if the pushbutton is pressed. If it is, the buttonState is HIGH:
  if (buttonState == HIGH) {
    // turn LED on:
    digitalWrite(ledPin, HIGH);
  } else {
    // turn LED off:
    digitalWrite(ledPin, LOW);

This is often done in situations where complex calculations are in play using many different variable types e.g doubles, floats, and integers. By seeing what the actual value of these variables are before going into the calculation you can often find the problem.

Language Reference

Another common issue is when you are not sure what function to use or how to convert a data type. Before reaching out to someone, try going to the Arduino Language Reference page. This is an amazing resource with tons of information. This is my go to place when I am not sure what function to use, or what is the correct syntax.

Look here first and get an idea of what you want to use in your sketch and how to use it. Sometimes the information in this area is a bit thin and their examples could be better. If you get stuck and not sure how to get unstuck, that’s when you reach out to the community. First try to come up with an example sketch how you think it needs to go, and then post your question on your favourite place.

Sometimes just except the answer even if you don’t completely understand it

Sometimes the answer will be in the form of a cryptic piece of code that works for you but doesn’t make sense to you. Just run with it and try to figure out what part you don’t understand and google it. Most of the time (and it happens to me to) it is currently out of your scope of knowledge and will take a lot of reading, learning, and gaining more experience to understand it. As long as you know what part you don’t understand how to communicate with that code you can implement it in your code as a form of a black box (a black box is something you provide data to,  it gives you the answer, but you have no clue how).

In Closing

If you implement all of my recommendations, 80% of the time you will find your own answers. The 20% where you will need help,  you will look like somebody that wants help and shows that you have worked for it. It also gives the person answering your question an understanding of your experience level. Just saying “I am a noob” does not help when asking your question. If the correct information is not provided, people can’t help you.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help, but in the end you get out of it what you put into it. Don’t be embarrassed if you are not sure if what you did was right, if you show you want to learn there are many people out there who want to help you. Finally be proud of your accomplishments, and stand behind your work, even if you are not sure you are correct.  We all started off as a noob and had to learn and gain experience by asking the community for help. 

If you like this project and would like to see more of the same type, please subscribe to my newsletter using the form below or like  and follow my Facebook page. This way you get notified when a new post is available.  If you have questions or suggestions please email at me or leave it in the comments below. Have a great day and see you next time.

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