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Too many times on StackOverflow I see people describe their problem with "its not working". In most cases, this is utterly useless information.

ETA: Highlighted the important part of my question for those who are too triggerhappy.

Is there a way to encourage new users to describe their problem properly when they post their question?

Such as including error messages, expected output and actual output.

As discussed in the comments and answers, more detail is not a good thing for new users, and that's not what I am proposing. You should not be required to read an essay or three just to be allowed to post a question.

I know you can always post a comment to correct new user mistakes, but that does not always have the desired effect. And it detracts from the user experience, I feel, when you have to start out by lecturing people. Perhaps it is a step towards dumbing things down, but I feel SO should be new user friendly, i.e. you can step right in and write the perfect question on your first try.

ETA: Below are ideas I've been kicking around. These are for people who are interested in knowing what I've been thinking about, with regard to the main problem stated above. Keep in mind that the question is how to encourage people to give proper problem descriptions, not how best to shoot down my ideas.

A few things I've been thinking about are: writing a specific FAQ entry, having a tutorial mode for people below a certain rep, or having a specific question form for new users, e.g.

Expected output:
Actual Output:

Another benefit of a form is that the fields could be pre-formatted. Furthermore, fields could be made optional, or even opt-in (you simply present suggestions, and people click them to fill in additional details).

A FAQ entry could be something along the line:

Remember that it's not working is not an adequate problem description in most cases. Be sure to add as much information about your problem as possible, such as error messages, expected output and actual output.

A tutorial mode could be in effect until a user has completed a specific goal, such as X questions without downvotes, X reputation, etc.

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vigor: You seem to be trying to post to Stack Overflow. Would you like me to ask for teh codez? [OK] [Cancel] – dmckee Dec 2 '11 at 18:56
I acknowledge the problem, but your solution doesn't really solve anything. – Nicol Bolas Dec 2 '11 at 20:56

There is the saying:

If it aint broke, don't fix it.

The way it works now is fine, with all the moderation either the question is closed or edited correctly

Who is to say every problem has that same format?

How does a question like .prop() vs .attr() fit into that at all?

  • Title: √
  • Summary: √
  • Code: I guess a little √
  • Expected output: ummmmm
  • Actual Output: wth?
  • Errors: this has nothing to do with my question!!!

See? And there are so many other questions that won't fit into the other categories that you have listed.

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And that saying wasn't coined by software engineers. We like to improve things, not stick with "good enough". – jball Dec 2 '11 at 17:48
@jball see my edited answer (if you have not already) – amanaP lanaC A nalP A naM A Dec 2 '11 at 17:49
That kind of questions like prop vs attr technically belongs in and should be closed as offtopic or non-constructive on SO. If you can form a question which fulfills that list, then it indeed belongs on SO. – BalusC Dec 2 '11 at 17:51
I knew that posting an example of my ideas was a mistake, since too many people are eager to point out mistakes. However, perhaps we can move to the real question asked here, which is "Is there a way to encourage people to describe their problem when they post their question?" – TLP Dec 2 '11 at 17:51
@AManAPlanACanalPanama I need to learn to refresh before I comment :) Your edit does bring up the tricky part of the form suggestion which is "Can most/all questions be generalized into an input form that increases question quality without creating more noise". I would think making a form on which most fields are not required would help a bit. – jball Dec 2 '11 at 17:57

There are several problems with this. First and foremost, the people we are getting these sorts of questions from don't read the instructions. You can tell that from looking at their questions. You can add all the instructions you want with no impact, because they aren't reading them anyway. Second, the handful of people who do read the instructions might shrink to a smaller handful if we made the instructions longer and more complicated. Third, many of the situations people post about don't fit that format. For example, if I get a compiler error what meaningful thing should I put under "Expected output"? If my HTML layout is wonky and shape A is 3 pixels below shape B and I don't know why, what will I put under Expected Output? Or if my question is about something executing slowly, or taking up too much memory, or a thousand other things people ask about?

A template to fill out just will not work. We could add more words to the instructions but I believe that will not work either. Instead, customized advice, in the form of comments on the question, sometimes works. It's up to you whether that advice is in the form of lecturing or not, and how pleasant an experience it makes for newcomers.

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How about displaying an example question to new users? – TLP Dec 2 '11 at 17:49
@TLP that is what the site is full of: EXAMPLES why do we need to show another one?? – amanaP lanaC A nalP A naM A Dec 2 '11 at 17:50
@AManAPlanACanalPanama Where are these examples? – TLP Dec 2 '11 at 17:54
@TLP – amanaP lanaC A nalP A naM A Dec 2 '11 at 17:54
@AManAPlanACanalPanama I repeat: Where are these examples? – TLP Dec 2 '11 at 17:58
@TLP the website.... the whole website is full of them! – amanaP lanaC A nalP A naM A Dec 2 '11 at 17:59
@AManAPlanACanalPanama I disagree. There are no example questions for new users. So, perhaps you could show them to me? – TLP Dec 2 '11 at 18:01
@TLP Any open question with upvotes. Start at the front page. Look around. – Adam Lear Dec 2 '11 at 18:26
@AnnaLear Are you saying that there are instructions for new users to look around for open questions with upvotes? – TLP Dec 2 '11 at 18:45
@TLP I think the assumption is that most people look at the site before just jumping to the Ask Question page. Failing that, there's a "How to Ask" sidebar on the Ask Question page that links to the How to Ask help page which in turn has more links to help for asking better questions. The How to Ask page is shown to every new user and they have to check a "thanks, I've read this" checkbox before proceeding. What kind of miracle do you think showing an example on top of all that would be? – Adam Lear Dec 2 '11 at 18:54
There are equally as many examples of how not to ask questions. And a new user might not know that upvotes indicate a well-formed question, or what upvotes even are. The main page may also list great example questions which wouldn't fit the "template" of the person asking. I agree that a handful of well-formed sample questions linked from the Ask A Question page would be good. Sure, most users will never look at them. But some might, and in general they'd provide something we can point to other than Skeet's blog post about asking a good question. – David Dec 2 '11 at 18:54
@AnnaLear I think an example says more than an essay, which is what those links seem to be. There is nothing on the "How to Ask" page about problem specification. OT: Is there a need to reply with a "miracle" sarcasm? I think meta is sufficiently unfriendly to new users as it is without the moderators chipping in. – TLP Dec 2 '11 at 19:10
@TLP That's fair, I apologize for the "miracle" part. I didn't mean it sarcastically, but I can see how it comes across as overly melodramatic. That said, I don't think all questions can be generalized to a formula so we'd run the risk of showing an irrelevant example might make things worse. It could even possibly drive somebody away who has a good and interesting question that doesn't follow the example format. – Adam Lear Dec 2 '11 at 19:14
@AnnaLear Apology accepted. I am glad to hear it was not intentional, because it is easy to feel completely ostracized here. On topic: An example is by its very nature non-specific, and I think people understand that. I am not proposing to complicate things, rather to simplify them. The community can be pretty harsh with "low quality questions", and I'd think that poses a higher risk of turning people away. – TLP Dec 2 '11 at 19:28
@TLP: Yes it does. Sadly, I don't think Jeff and Joel care about turning people away at this point. They don't seem to want to add features that will help new posters become better; if they don't become good by some arcane ritual or knowledge, they just get perma-IP-banned. – Nicol Bolas Dec 2 '11 at 20:56

Yes, there is a way to encourage new users to describe their problem properly. Questions which are not described properly usually don't get answers or get answers that don't match asker's expectations, because someone hadn't understood what the poet was thinking correctly.

Learning how to describe your problem in such way that others will understand what you are willing to tell is like the art of googling, theory is simple but to be efficient, you must practice. I think many poor questions are a result of poor English knowledge of an author, many ather - of poor communication skills. No tempate will help for that.

On the other way, in many cases it's the author's lazyness. If he got no answer for something is not working question, or get something is working for me answer, he will learn that spending as little time as possible to write a question is really a lost of time. Either you write it good, or you get no good answer.

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This will not help new users, though. – TLP Dec 2 '11 at 20:50
-1: The problem is that this represents a failure to communicate. For example, if you post on a low-traffic set of tags, your question can be ignored for reasons other than asking a bad question. Such as nobody knowing the answer. So no; a question that goes unanswered does not necessarily mean that the question is at fault. – Nicol Bolas Dec 2 '11 at 20:53

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