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First of all, I want to clearly express that I believe that the questions asking about "how to solve a problem" should include what the user thinks about the problem, things he considered up until that point, and his exact position in the journey to a solution.

No one would want to do someone else's dirty work: A person who is answering a question is probably motivated the fact that (at least, I am) the person who asked the question is learning something.

However, I don't believe that in some cases it's not appropriate to reply with a "what have you tried/found so far" comment. Some questions do not involve problem solving -- they just ask for a direct expert knowledge.

This is what I have encountered a few days ago:

Wittgenstein, formal languages, logic

In such a case, the person who is asking the question cannot use Google, or any kind of book review to answer such a question as "which books of author X make such a specialized connection with field Y". The only way to do a concrete form of research would be either (1) reading the books of X (2) ask an expert in real life

Obviously, (1) isn't a plausible option. I don't believe it's much different than saying "I see that you have a programming question on SO. We are expecting you to come after you solve lots of other problems related to it and implement them in various languages to really understand the problem. Then you can come and tell us what you have done and we can tell you whether you are on the right track"

As for option (2), if a person who can ask the question personally knows an expert in real life, why ask it on a Stack Exchange site?

After this long introduction, my question is as follows:

Do you also think that in some cases (as illustrated above), which asks for an expert opinion or a bit of knowledge which cannot be found in anywhere except an expert person, "what have you tried/found so far" responses are inappropriate? If yes, what would be an objective way to describe that class of questions?

Some other example questions would be as follows:

"I saw a PDF document with a table that looked such and such, but I don't know what it is called. How can I achieve that effect?" on

"Is there an idiom for expressing such and such" on

"I'm looking for a PC game with such and such features" on

share|improve this question
I use it when the question is more or less phrased as a mini work order. I want to see some evidence they have tried and aren't just expecting other people to do it all for them. – Martin Smith Jun 3 '12 at 18:47
You've changed the meaning of your question to mean the opposite... why? – Ben Brocka Jun 4 '12 at 0:01
The question in the body asks for the cases which such a response is inappropriate. The title was in the opposite direction (I meant to ask 'when and only when' such a response is appropriate, however the responses only mention "when such a response is appropriate". This is already discussed in another question (see…), and my real concern was in the opposite direction). I hope this clears the issue a bit. – loudandclear Jun 4 '12 at 1:14

When what they've tried so far isn't clear and is necessary or important in formulating an answer.

Generally this is asked when there's a lot of possible solutions and it's not clear from the question which they've used and which are unsuitable.

share|improve this answer
Sounds like a good example for closing as "Not a Real Question." – Robert Harvey Jun 3 '12 at 22:58
@RobertHarvey that it often is! But it takes time to close and a suggested method of improvement is nice to have. – Ben Brocka Jun 4 '12 at 0:01
Right, and asking what they have tried and why those methods didn't work can prevent the question from being closed. I would rather push the user to improve the question, while it's still open and likely to draw eyeballs / comments, than just close it and give them no idea what is wrong with it. – Aaron Bertrand Dec 11 '12 at 23:42

I can't speak for any other site besides SO, but here the main situation I've used it in is when there's a question that is open-ended, and subject to experimentation. These are questions or problems that are geared to engage the recipient, and would benefit the asker to try a few things before giving up and asking for help.

For instance, if I get a question that asks how one can implement a peer-to-peer game in Java, that's easily a candidate for "What have you tried?" There are so many ways to go about doing that, it's tough to pull the right way out based on the context of the question.

It's also the case that the question may be a fast candidate for "not a real question", but I digress.

I don't like asking the question very often, but in cases in which the question is just asked without any demonstration that the asker made an honest* attempt at a solution, that will be the first thing that I reply to them.

*: for your definition of "honest"

share|improve this answer is about programming, which is all about doing things, not thinking about things, or comparing things, or observing shadows of things on walls.

Therefore, questions on stackoverflow have to be concrete. Sometimes you can ask a perfectly concrete question without trying anything. I asked one today, 'is there a mechanism in javascript to provide data for download without going back to the server?' There was no giant cloud of uncertainty about my requirements; my one oversight was to forget to mention that I wasn't worried about gigantic data sizes. I wasn't asking anyone to code anything or do anything, just tell me if this capability was out there.

In contrast, the questions that elicit 'what have you tried' pose broad, general, demands. "How to a code a solitaire game in Java?' 'How do I optimize an (unprovided) SQL query?'

All of the above is about stackoverflow itself. Other sites with other subject matter may have, or develop, very different norms in this area. So if your concern is really Wittgenstein, you're asking in the wrong place.

Or, with respect to the relevant meta site, ......

What have you tried?

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sometimes, to avoid doing things, I like to think about things, compare things, and observe shadows of things on walls. – Jeff Atwood Jun 7 '12 at 6:34

I'm going to go ahead and express the inverse of Ben Brocka's answer and say that

When you don't intend to use information about what they have tried to answer the question, than asking "what have you tried?" is annoying as hell.

Most of the time when people are asking "what have you tried" they are actually asking for something different or more specific such as.

  • What is the context? (or show me the code/SSCCE)
  • What are the requirements?
  • What do you mean by "doesn't work"

Or, they're trying to tell the OP

  • your question is too broad, or it is not concrete.
  • your question is a duplicate.

And then there's the annoying as hell

  • Your question is not worthy of being answered

When I write questions, I hardly ever mention in the question What I've tried, yet since I define my context and requirement, I'm never asked what I had tried either.


In my opinion, the ideal question doesn't have a list of failed attempts that are there for no other reason to appease people who will ask what you have tried.

Every time I see someone ask "what have you tried" I imagine those questions with walls of unimportant text, and blocks of mostly unimportant code, and unimportant explanations of failed attempts.

share|improve this answer
I disagree. If someone asks how to replicate data from one server to another, it can be helpful to know that mirroring is out of the question because of x, transactional replication won't work because of y, etc. before I spend half an hour formulating an answer that relies on a technology that is already ruled out for some reason. That reason can be corrected too if it is based on false assumptions. If you're never asked those questions, and you never provide context about what you've tried and what options are not valid, then you're better at asking questions than 99% of SO. IMHO. – Aaron Bertrand Dec 11 '12 at 23:45

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