A usability case study: Microsoft Online Assisted Support

I never thought I’d be writing this on a public space but Microsoft is getting this right.

As most of us techies, I do tech support for all of my less-techie friends & family. People who are particularly close to me even get ongoing preventative maintenance. (They don’t really know it’s happening, but it is.) I thus maintain Debian servers, Macbooks and Windows XP/7 laptops alike.

A few weeks ago I had a misbehaving Windows 7 laptop. It would simply not install a specific update available from Microsoft Update. I tried my best, spent some time researching the problem on the Internet (Google and Microsoft’s own support pages), tried a few Microsoft-supplied tricks (basically the Windows Update Readiness Tool as suggested in KB947821) and finally gave up. I could not find a solution that looked elegant enough to try (I’m not willing to try stuff that sounds wacky in the first place by users going wild on forums talking about registry hacks etc)

So I went to http://support.microsoft.com

As far as I was concerned, I had exhausted the existing documentation, so I opted to “Contact a Support Professional by Email, Online or Phone”.

Contact a support professional

This is a quite inconspicuous link rightly placed at the bottom of the page. The thinking seems to be that people should try to help themselves first by looking for a solution to the problem using the existing published resources. Only if that fails, should they contact a human and ask for personalised help.

This makes sense. If all Microsoft product users had to speak to support professionals, Microsoft would be running a 5,000,000 people call centre just answering email and picking up the phone. The option would be abused by people who just need too much hand-holding or are inherently lazy. Sure, systems should “just work”, but as this isn’t happening any time soon, it’s worthwhile focusing on how to provide quality support services. It’s important to have the (expensive) human option as a last resort. (In saying this I fully recognise that my “last resort” is different than your “last resort”.)

So I clicked on and was taken to http://support.microsoft.com/oas

There, I was asked what product I’m having trouble with, I designated “Windows Update” from the well-designed “quick product finder” input box and was instantly on my way.

I got a properly signed SSL certificate, accepted the legal terms of service and provided information about the bug I was experiencing over an encrypted connection.

Within the next 24 hours I got a polite email in proper English, giving a single suggestion in clear steps that immediately fixed my problem.

Should I want to refer back to the information I supplied, I can do so from a link sent in an email report of my opened case. To protect me from people hijacking the link in transit, Microsoft will ask for my email and then send me a new (https://) link after 7 days of the original link.

From a customer experience point of view, I am impressed.

Well done Microsoft.



PS: For posterity, my particular problem was that KB982632 fails to install with error code 0x800b0100. But the suggestion of the support engineer seems like a great way of resolving a whole class of  Windows/Microsoft Update problems. It basically wipes out all local Windows/Microsoft Update files and allows your machine to make a fresh start.

Step 1: Rename the Windows Update Softwaredistribution folder


This issue may occur if the Windows Update Software distribution folder has been corrupted. We can refer to the following steps to rename this folder. Please note that the folder will be re-created the next time we visit the Windows Update site.

1. Close all the open windows.

2. Click “Start”, click “All programs”, and click “Accessories”.

3. Right-click “Command Prompt”, and click “Run as administrator”.

4. In the “Administrator: Command Prompt” window, type in “net stop WuAuServ” (without the quotes) and press Enter.

Note: Please look at the cmd window and make sure it says that it was successfully stopped before we try to rename the folder. However, if it fails, please let me know before performing any further steps and include any error messages you may have received when it failed.

5. Click “Start”, in the “Start Search” box, type in “%windir%” (without the quotes) and press Enter.

6. In the opened folder, look for the folder named “SoftwareDistribution”.

7. Right-click on the folder, select “Rename” and type “SDold” (without the quotes) to rename this folder.

8. Still in “Administrator: Command Prompt” window, type the command “net start WuAuServ” (without the quotes) in the opened window to restart the Windows Updates service.

Note: Please look at the cmd window and make sure it says that it was successfully started. However, if it fails, please let me know before performing any further steps and include any error messages you may have received when it failed.

This worked as expected. The corrupted Microsoft Update cache was cleared out of the way and on the subsequent Microsoft Update run, everything installed appropriately. An elegant way of solving a horde of Windows/Microsoft Update problems.

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