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Help the users help the help desk with Problem Steps Recorder

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Derek Schauland (Microsoft MVP)
I am a consultant, technical writer, and documentation aficionado with a strong focus in Microsoft technologies.
Anyone who has been working in IT has at some point done a bit of help desk work.  Weather the organization you work for has a formal helpdesk or you just get called because you are in IT, the help desk process can be very interesting.

Many times you will not receive the actual error message that Windows or another application generates or when an issue pops up, the person calling doesn't know (or perhaps want to admit) that they performed action X which caused the error.

Microsoft has included a tool in Windows 7 that should assist the help desk and support folks by recording the steps performed.  This post looks at the problem steps recorder and how it might improve the support experience for your end users (once they get used to it).

Meet the Problem Steps Recorder

Figure A
Problem Steps Recorder (Figure A)The Problem Steps Recorder applet in Windows 7

To start the Problem Steps Recorder
Use Start / Run and enter
   PSR
or create a shortcut on the desktop and enter PSR sa the program name.

The application will record the actions taken at the windows 7 console once it is turned on, in the control panel.

Clicking the start record button begins the process of capturing the actions of the user, if there is a specific thing that the user remembers doing before the error happened, they can add comments to the session.
 
To add a comment to the recording, click Add Comment button.  Doing this will open a comment window and dim the screen.  The idea here Is to allow the user to highlight the area of the screen that is causing the problem or that they wish to call attention to, and then enter notes or comments regarding the highlighted area.

Figure B
Problem Steps Recorder (Figure B)Screen clipping and adding notes during recording

If there is a need to pause the recording, click the pause recording button, which will not generate any output and allow recording to continue.

When the user has completed all the steps to duplicate the problem, they can click Stop Recording.  This will compress recorded data into a zip file which they can save and email to the helpdesk.

Using recorded information

The contents of the zip file are specially formatted HTML documents which open right in Internet Explorer.  The file is broken down into three areas:

1.      General usage info for PSR
2.      Problem Steps
3.      Additional Details

The general usage info is kept at the top of the page to aid the helpdesk in navigating the document.  Problem steps shown next allow the help desk to see what the user was doing when the error occurred.  This can be viewed as a screen shot right within the HTML file.  Lastly the additional details section outlines the OS version and build, and other useful information as well as comments entered by the user.
The HTML file is shown below, by section in figures C, D, and E.

Figure C
Problem Steps Recorder (Figure C)Header information for problem steps recorder output

Figure D
Problem Steps Recorder (Figure D)Screenshots taken by Problem Steps Recorder

Figure E
Problem Steps Recorder (Figure E)Additional info and notes

Being someone who does quite a bit of user support for my organization I think the Problem Steps Recorder will be a great tool to help reproduce the errors that get sent in.  There will need to be some training on how to use the tool and to get users comfortable with the tool, but the ability to only duplicate the problem once (on purpose) and watch the steps during troubleshooting could make this feature in Windows 7 extremely useful.

I encourage you to download the Windows 7 RC and give the feature a look, it might be just the thing your organization needs.
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Expert Comment

by:DanRollins
A nice article about a feature I'd never heard about.  I voted Yes, above.
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Expert Comment

by:LeeTutor
Good article.  I'll vote yes, too.
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