How to Get Technical Help Without Relying on How-To Articles

As I was wrapping up my seventy-second how-to article for last week, I had a eureka moment which resulted in a brilliant idea. Here it is: as a Christmas gift from me to you, I am going to give you some of my own secrets on supporting Mac and iDevices. I am going to show you how to find your own answers to your how-to questions and issues with OS X and iOS. Aside from my decades of experience supporting the Apple platform, what I do to get answers is simply a matter of knowing where to look. Nothing more, nothing less.

So, let’s get started.

Apple Really Does Have Manuals

Typical Mac and iDevice users complain that Apple products don’t come with manuals. They bitterly express dismay that because of this omission, they can’t figure out how to “do things” or “fix things” on their computing devices. It’s funny though, in my experience when manuals are included in the box (cameras being a good example), their owners don’t even glance through them!

The other day, I was listening to a well-known Mac-based podcast which shall remain nameless. The host of the show often covers technical matters and reviews. I was dumbstruck when I heard her declare how surprised she was to discover, after all these years, that Apple does indeed have owners’ manuals available for just about all their products.

The front cover of Apple’s iPad User Guide

These manuals are hefty tomes – not simple “Get Started” guides.

When I teach my OS X and iOS classes, or classes covering specific Apple apps, I make it a requirement that students download the necessary manuals. We use them for class textbooks. They’re easy to follow and understand, and the price is right.

Guess what? When I write my how-to articles, I often take most of the information right out of the manuals and do a bit of wordsmithing. As Albert Einstein once said, I don’t bother memorizing details that I can simply look up somewhere!

OK, so where are these elusive manuals? Everybody within earshot… please make note of this URL:

The Manuals page on Apple’s support website

All kinds of current and vintage manuals are available at

Once at Apple’s Manuals page, get to the manual you’re interested in by clicking on the Browse by Product button on the top-right, or whichever manual is featured on the home page.

All manuals (often called User Guides) are in PDF format. By default, on a Mac and iOS device, the manual will open up in a tab or window within your browser. On a Mac, you can save it to disk as a regular PDF file, by going to File > Save As

During the holidays, when you have nothing better to do, why don’t you open your manual in Preview (the default app for PDF files in OS X), and use the tools there to highlight and make other annotations as you find your own answers to How-To questions. [For more information on Preview’s annotation tools, see my article, “How To Get the Most from Preview in OS X: Annotating”, published right here on TMO].

I am particularly keen on suggesting that if you are an iOS device user, you immediately go and download the manual for your particular device. You’ll be surprised how many handy gems of information you’ll find. These are organized by iOS version, and the iOS 7 versions of the manuals were recently updated.

While on the subject of the Apple Support website, don’t forget the Apple Knowledgebase documents available via the search bar at the top of the site. There you will also find many of Apple’s own How-To articles.

Tool Tips

It’s funny. Here’s a little OS X help tool that you’d think would be most vexing. If used correctly, though, it is quite helpful. It’s called the Tool Tip – that little yellow flag that pops up as you hover your pointer over various controls, buttons and other interface items. In the new versions of the iWork apps, these are called Coaching Tips

For the most part, after using certain apps year after year, I manage to ignore them if they do pop up. However, I find that I still count on them to specifically remind me what certain unidentifiable tools can do for me. 

Details of Coaching Tips in Pages for OS X

The new 2013 versions of the iWork apps sport the shiny new Coaching Tips

Thing is, the tool tips don’t even pop up unless you linger for about a second and a half when hovering over an interface item. Nevertheless, many people do find the flags to be intrusive, particularly when familiarity with an app is complete. Most apps that offer this type of help provide an option to disable it in it’s preferences.

Curious Pictographs

I often find that users of computing gear and software of all kinds suffer from tunnel vision. Even on small-screen devices, users just see what they want to see on screen – the main content. They completely ignore those tiny icons, symbols and buttons strewn here and there along the top and bottom menu and status bars – usually in the corners. I urge everyone to look at the edges of the screen for these little pearls. 

Details of iOS screens with numerous pictographs

The many pictographs in iOS apps mean something. There are lots of answers behind them

Granted, in iOS 7, these are a little harder to see due to style and typography changes, but they’re there. Just as good photographers should always scan the frame edges for clutter, photo-bombers, and other distractions, so the iDevice user needs to notice and explore these little controls found just beyond the main content. These often open up many of the apps’ features and other secrets that make so many people say, “Gee, I didn’t know you could do that!”

Those Question Marks

The question mark – the universal symbol representing knowledge. This is almost always the key to getting answers to how-to questions. Look for these. Click or tap on them. You will see them everywhere. Problem is, most people don’t actually see them. These lead to answers. And, they lead to new and previously unknown ways to do things with your apps and devices.

Many iOS and OS X apps come with help facilities and online documentation. Some Apple iOS apps don’t incorporate help information, but Apple’s iOS manuals certainly do cover them – yet another reason to go get download some manuals.

Other Apple and Third party iOS apps will often include documentation and other help facilities within their settings panels. Look for gear icons, wrench icons, little info icons (the letter ‘i’ within a circle, for example), as well as “about” and “help” buttons.

Three iOS screens from the Pages app

Using Pages on an iPhone as an example, there is a clear path to complete documentation

In OS X, perhaps because built-in help facilities were not all that good prior to Snow Leopard, users simply tend to ignore them. Now, Apple’s help pages are quite useful and well done. I often use them as resources when putting together my how-to and other support articles. It’s where I – as an Apple Consultant – usually access first in order to find answers on how to do things and fix things on the Mac. Going to the Help menu is often a gateway to Apple’s online support files. This ensures that you are presented with the latest information.

The Pages Help homepage on the Mac

Selecting Help > Pages Help will lead you to a rich library of Pages how-to and other support articles

Third party Mac apps will also utilize the standard Help menu to access their own resources. Sometimes you will find third-party support resources in the apps’ preferences, or even in File > About [app name]. In the About dialog, you can also often obtain a URL or actual link to the developer’s support website for even more detailed answers to questions.

The Print dialog in OS X has a question mark button

The question mark button in this Print dialog often goes unseen

Last, but certainly not least, plastered among the many OS X and Mac app controls, dialog boxes, and preferences panels, can be found a little question mark icon. Clicking it will reveal very specific information about what is on that particular control, dialog or panel. It’s where you go to find out how to do things.

Just Google It

I love this: when I sit down with members of a local Apple user group, they get all excited because they think I will give them all the answers from my “vast store of knowledge.” The other day, one member asked, “How do I print mailing labels from my Contacts app?” I answered by simply firing up Safari, and Googling “How do I print mailing labels from my Contacts app?” The answer was right there on the first search results page. Even though, I proved to them that even they can quickly find the answer on the first results page of a Google search, they thought I was some kind of Mac thaumaturge. Go figure!

I think you get my point. Just google your questions. Google your How-To queries. Use plain English. Make sure some key words are included, like Mac, OS X, iOS, Safari, How to, why, etc. If searching for the sake of troubleshooting, always be as specific as possible about your observations. If you see an error message pop up on screen, you have to capture it – exact wording and all. Jot down exactly what the error message is conveying, and enter it in your Google search. 

Grabbing a screen capture can be helpful, too. For Mac, use the basic full-screen capture via, Command-Shift-3 [Read about all the screen capture tricks in my two-part article published here on TMO, “How To Get Screen Captures with Stock Mac Software”] For iOS devices, press the Sleep/Wake button and the Home button together, to grab a shot of the screen and have it saved to your Camera Roll.

It goes without saying that should you have to resort to a an AppleCare call or a consultation with a third-party support person, full documentation of issues goes a long way to getting the issue resolved quickly. This includes screen captures, error codes and messages, your machine specifications, and a list of what you did to lead up to the problems.

Take Control of Your Personal Computing

Finally, I have to bang the virtual drum for the many Take Control Books by the folks at TidBITS Publishing. I have always found their publications to be extremely valuable for learning various techniques that are not obvious even to yours truly – arguably the most experienced Mac user in the world! 

The cover of the book “Take Control of iCloud”

One of many titles over at Take Control Books

While many of the books are perhaps a wee bit on the technical side, they are nonetheless of significant benefit to typical users of Mac and iOS devices who want to maximize their use of the technology. Along the way, they learn about security and email best practices as well as learn how to prepare a Thanksgiving turkey. Yes, Joe Kissell, who writes among the best books, has published Take Control of Thanksgiving Dinner – the only non-technology book in the TidBITS library. Check out the entire Take Control library at

People think I’m a guru, but my secret is this: the only thing I am good at is knowing where to go look for the answers.

It’s no big deal; you can do it, too!

I hope you like my gift to you. Merry Christmas!