Years ago, a lot of day to day business and personal matters had to be done in person or over the phone. We didn’t have smartphones with dozens (or hundreds) of apps. We didn’t have online ordering for pretty much any store you can think of.

Technology is in a great place. However, it means that many companies are now tech companies in some capacity – whether they realise it or not. As soon as you give people a way to self-serve – to login, to place orders, to change their details, or do a lot of things without needing to rely on back-office staff to do it for them – you’re providing a service.

Software is a great way to automate manual processes – but it doesn’t remove the need for people. If customers can place orders online, you’re going to need people to fulfil those orders. Not to mention the ongoing need for software development, and a bunch of other things.

When you’re in the business of providing software that people use, you’re going to need to support it. And this is where I’ve seen a lot of companies fall short.

The common line is to ask you to hard refresh the page, clear your cookies, clear your cache, restart your browser, and restart your computer.

In some cases, these can help – but not all.

One major downside of using this guidance first is that if it does solve the issue, you could be masking a solvable problem.

It’s worth taking a moment to understand what each of these actions does – and how to make sure you’re doing it properly.

Hard refresh

One of the common uses of a hard refresh is when releasing a new version of certain files (particularly JS / CSS files). A website might look odd following changes to these files – until you do a hard refresh (or clear the cache).

This is a bit of a cop-out, but also doesn’t scale well if you’re making lots of changes that affect lots of users. You shouldn’t have to ask users to do a hard refresh every time these files change. Putting a query string on the end, or changing the filename, will force new files to download across all browsers. Example:

<script src="assets.js"></script>

Any changes to this file will require a hard refresh to pick up. But you can do this:

<script src="assets.js?v=20210511"></script>

You could populate the bit after the ?v= with a timestamp generated by your build and deployment process.

Setting cache headers to expire will not immediately force the file to re-download, as the browser cache may ignore these headers for longer than you specify. It’s also hard to get this right across every file you’ve changed when you could just pop in a new query string.

I’ve been using the query string approach for years and it’s the only method I’ve found that works consistently.

Clearing your cache

I’m not going to lie, this has saved me a number of times. Today I was doing quite a bit of admin, and the site I was using was running more and more slowly. Clearing the cache fixed it.

What this does is remove temporary files stored on your computer that can make repeat visits to a website a bit quicker – so the browser doesn’t have to keep downloading the same files every time you visit the site – or on every page load.

Over time, the cache will fill up, and it’s worth clearing it now and again. In Chrome, the clear cache option looks like this:

Look for the part that says “Frees up 1.1GB” – that’s quite large. Even half that would be big.

Make sure you look at the “Time range” option, as by default that will only clear the cache for the last hour. If you set it to “All time”, it will clear everything. If the cache is your issue but you’re only clearing the cache for the last hour, it won’t do much.

Clearing your cookies

Cookies are small files that contain things like settings for certain sites. If when logging in, you’ve ever ticked “Remember me”, or “This is a private computer” (or a shared computer), chances are the site will remember that setting via a cookie.

So, if you clear your cookies, expect to be logged out of everything – and you may need to re-apply some settings for certain sites.

If you’re worried about not being able to login again, you should probably look at password managers. 1password and LastPass are both good. There are others too.

Clearing your cookies can be good to do now and again, but it can be quite annoying to clear cookies regularly. Instead, if you’re running into issues, it’s worth trying Incognito Mode in Chrome. This is like having a fresh browser without actually needing to clear anything. It’s a faster way to troubleshoot issues with a site you’re using, or perhaps with a site you’re working on as a developer or tester.

Restarting your browser

Chrome can be a bit of a resource hog, and sometimes restarting it is necessary. But if you aren’t also clearing cookies and cache, and you’re reopening your windows when you restart, you might find it doesn’t help that much.

It’s worth looking in Chrome’s task manager to see if any tabs are more resource-heavy than others. If so, close the ones you’re not using.

I’d also recommend having as much RAM as you can. I recently switched from a MacBook Air with 8GB RAM to a MacBook Pro with 16GB RAM, and I’m using a similar number of tabs (usually around 30 at a time). It’s not just the RAM that’s different between the two Macs – but the difference is like night and day. Large Google Sheets can be particularly heavy-going, and my MacBook Air was borderline unusable with a much smaller number of tabs open.

In short, restarting the browser might not make a lot of difference – though it is necessary if you have a browser update to install.

Restarting your computer

These days, restarting your computer should be a rare thing. Outside of operating system updates and certain software updates, a full restart can be pretty pointless when most of what you do is in a browser. If you must, restart your browser first.

What to do instead

Instead of suggesting a hard refresh, clearing cookies and cache, restarting the browser or restarting the computer, another way would be to do the following.

  • Find out which browser, browser version, and operating system the person is using. Look out for any particularly old setups, such as old versions of Windows, old browsers, or old phones and tablets. Aside from it being harder to support these older versions, using unsupported software or devices is a security risk to the user.
  • Find out, step by step, what the person is doing and what happens as a result. This will help you identify if things are working as expected – and also gives you the opportunity to try for yourself.
  • Ask if any error messages come up.
  • Ask for screenshots.

Listen to the feedback – and pass it on to someone who can review it, and either deal with it or help to give an appropriate response.

As a software company, tech support is part of customer support. By taking the time to deal with any feedback, you can identify any issues that could be fixed – or any improvements that may be needed. Great software means happier customers, and fewer people needing to call to report issues – so a win-win for everyone.