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I encountered a non-answer earlier, the essence of which was "try these particular debugging strategies to find out what's actually happening." It didn't actually attempt to answer the question, though, as the OP hadn't yet provided enough information to reliably reproduce the problem. While considering flagging or downvoting the answer, I noticed again the tooltip text for the upvote and downvote buttons:

  • This answer is useful.
  • This answer is not useful.

Now, perhaps the text "this answer" is supposed to restrict the applicability to actual answers (i.e., it could be read as "This is, in fact, an answer, and this answer is useful." The (non-)answer already has two upvotes, and I agree that it is useful (it may end up helping the OP find a solution to the problem), but it's not really an answer. A later user with the same problem wouldn't be able to fix the problem with this answer; they'd have to follow the same debugging process and hope to have at least as much luck as the original OP did.

What do people typically do in this case? I'm tempted to flag as "not an answer" and simultaneously upvote for the "good advice" factor (after all, it is useful), but that feels a bit weird. We should definitely be flagging, but should any voting occur? I think what this really boils down to is:

  1. Should we vote at all on non-answers?
  2. If we do vote, do we:
    1. vote on the content as what it is (i.e., whether it's useful in some way or not) and treat voting as orthogonal to whether it's an answer or not; or
    2. downvote because it's not useful as an answer to the specific question.

Note 1: If we take approach 2.1 and vote on the content as useful or not, then that's an argument for preserving upvotes during the answer to comment conversion, but that's not the topic of this question. It's discussed in Answers converted to comments should retain upvotes .

Note 2: As an aside, this is distinct from the problem mentioned in Why do people upvote obvious non-answers? where the non-answers are of the "I have this problem, too!" variety.

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i thought flagging for moderators attention was the appropriate action /TODO –  user221081 Dec 2 '13 at 15:21
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If the answer just seek more information from the OP it should be a comment. Period. As comment, it's helpful and can receive upvotes. So bottom line flag, choose Other and explain that it better fit as comment. (Just choosing NAA might not be good idea, moderator might think it's useful on first glance) –  Shadow Wizard Dec 2 '13 at 15:28
    
@ShaWizDowArd There's no question that it should be a comment and should not be an answer. I have, in fact, flagged the post. The question is whether the voting is orthogonal to whether the post is a actually an answer or not, or whether voting should only occur if the post is in fact an answer. (If the voting is a separate concern, then since those who might have upvoted it as an answer might not come back and upvote the converted comment, it might be reasonable to convert the upvotes, too (but that's discussed in the other, linked, question, not here).) –  Joshua Taylor Dec 2 '13 at 15:31
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@Joshua in my opinion, upvote only if it's both an answer and is useful. Otherwise no upvote and maybe downvote. –  Shadow Wizard Dec 2 '13 at 15:33
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@JoshuaTaylor The criteria This answer is useful. assumes that it's an answer. Things that are non-answers are not even eligible, regardless of whether it is useful or not. –  Cruncher Dec 2 '13 at 17:15
    
I have encountered a similar situation from the experience as a user with low reputation. Without the ability yet to comment on answers other than my own. I put a similar "non answer" and it was commented (correctly) that it was not an answer and that I may wish to increase my reputation in order to comment. However, without the ability to ask the necessary questions to draw out the infomation required to answer I find that quite difficult. –  TimP Dec 2 '13 at 17:16
    
As an aside, I think we should get some reputation for comment upvotes. Maybe 1 or 2, just to feel like it was worth something. –  Cruncher Dec 2 '13 at 17:17
    
I agree with @ShaWizDowArd. If it is a comment in as an answer it should be flagged as such. Upvoting only encourages that type of behavior. Flag it as a comment, downvote if it seems egregious. –  Travis J Dec 2 '13 at 17:33
    
@TravisJ also keep in mind that upvoted answer without flags will be candidate as audit and this might trick innocent reviewers. –  Shadow Wizard Dec 2 '13 at 18:27
    
@TimP: There are many ways to earn sufficient rep to gain the comment privilege. Circumventing not having the privilege by posting comments as an answer is improper behavior here. If you can't answer a particular question without more information, and you can't comment to ask for it, just move on to a different question. Anything posted as an answer should be just that - an answer - with no exceptions. –  Ken White Dec 3 '13 at 1:35
    
@Ken White. Point taken. The system works well I have no complaint with that. –  TimP Dec 3 '13 at 4:12

4 Answers 4

In order to maintain the potency of the site as a place to find answers for questions, the coupling between a question and responses that directly answer that question should be guarded as closely as possible. Therefore, an answer is only good if it is good within the context of the question. While "There are 360 degrees in a circle" is correct and useful to know, it is not relevant when someone asks, "What is the chemical composition of bronze?" If the percentage of these sort of answers rises, the potency of the site (in terms of 'finding relevant answers to specific questions' instead of 'finding useful general knowledge') decreases.

So, within the context of the question even an answer with 'good advice' isn't a 'good answer'. I don't think a downvote is necessary particularly, but commenting that the answer isn't directly relevant and flagging is probably appropriate. Even if you do upvote, the flagging will probably (eventually) clear these answers out.

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"Even if you do upvote, the flagging will probably (eventually) clear these questions out." I assume you mean that it will clear the answer out. I agree, but in the meanwhile (and this is important with low traffic tags, I think), it's still nice to let the OP know in some way that "this is on the right track; this may be the thing you need to do". –  Joshua Taylor Dec 2 '13 at 17:23
    
Yes, answers; corrected. :) I think comments would be the appropriate place to tell someone a general track without being able to give a comprehensive response. –  Nathaniel Ford Dec 2 '13 at 17:27
    
I think that upvoting an answer while flagging it would be a mixed message. If it is worthy of being flagged, it is probably deserving of a downvote. Downvoting will also push the answer down the page thus lowering its relevance. –  Travis J Dec 2 '13 at 17:30
    
@TravisJ In some of the less frequented tags, the downvoted answers are still at the top. :) Part of the problem with the question I mentioned is that there's not quite enough information yet to diagnose the problem, yet, and it's not 100% reproducible, so the sort of answer that might be needed might actually need to include some debugging techniques. I'd hesitate to downvote an answer that only includes those, but also to upvote it, since it's not yet complete. –  Joshua Taylor Dec 2 '13 at 17:47

If the non-answer is short enough that it could be a comment, then it probably should be, and you should flag it as "not an answer".

However, sometimes, when a question does not provide enough information to answer it definitively, it may be useful to ask the OP to, say, carry out a series of diagnostic steps in order to determine what the actual problem is. Similarly, sometimes one might not be able to fully answer a question, but might still have some relevant, non-trivial information that could potentially help the OP or someone else come up with a real answer.

Ideally, such non-answers should be posted as comments, but the comment box is rather limited in both length and formatting capabilities. In such cases, when this has happened to me, my approach has been to post the information as if it were an answer, but prefix it with an explicit note like:

"This is not a real answer. It should be a comment, but it's too long for the comment box. Please do not upvote this."

I might also consider marking the non-answer as Community Wiki, but usually I haven't done that, especially if I'm hoping that I might be able to turn it into a real answer later when more information becomes available. If somebody wants to upvote (or downvote) it anyway despite the note, I figure it's their own choice.

I've done this a couple of times myself over the years on various SE sites, and haven't noticed anyone really objecting to it, at least as long as it's not done too often. In fact, in at least one case, the "non-answer" ended up eventually getting two upvotes and accepted(!).

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I would argue that the correct approach in such a case, rather than posting a comment as an answer, would be to just post multiple sequential comments. –  neminem Dec 2 '13 at 21:24
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@neminem: That is generally also frowned upon, perhaps even more so than answers-that-are-not-answers. Also, even disregarding the length limit, comments are rather inconvenient if you, say, want to suggest a non-trivial piece of code that the OP could use to better diagnose their problem. –  Ilmari Karonen Dec 2 '13 at 21:35

If you think it's not an answer, don't vote on it. Would you click a button labelled "this cake was delicious!" after drinking a fantastic cup of coffee?

Upvotes may mislead a moderator who is quickly processing not an answer flags. Actually, so may downvotes, since some people use "not an answer" to mean "not a correct answer". Prove that you believe it not to be an answer by not voting on it, by giving more weight to "this cake" than "was delicious".

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In many of my answers I try to walk users through the debugging process that I've used to determine what the problem with their code (or what have they) was. That's often the big part of addressing a problem: figuring out exactly what the problem is. If that isn't present in an answer, then certain types of questions and answers quickly become too localized, and not useful to future users. The particular case I was dealing with was an answer that could have, if the OP provided more information, eventually become such an answer. I sort of wanted a "not an answer (yet)" flag. –  Joshua Taylor Dec 2 '13 at 21:35
    
If the button said "this cake was delicious", I wouldn't click it, but I'd still want to say "this was delicious, but it wasn't cake…". I may not know cake, but I know what I like. :) –  Joshua Taylor Dec 2 '13 at 21:37

I would agree that "try these things, and maybe we can help you" makes more sense as a comment than an answer, and shouldn't be upvoted/encouraged. On the other hand, there are a number of cases where the original poster hasn't done a lot yet (either from laziness, or because they have little to no idea what they're doing to start with) where I would say that a general "point them in the right direction" answer (which provides basic understanding, rather than, say, code) is the best way to go. I wouldn't want people downvoting/flagging teaching answers of that variety using this as precedent.

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This is very similar to the case that I actually ran into. There were some very specific debugging techniques that the answerer suggested, and they'd almost certainly be used by anyone who actually solves the problem. I think most good answers to the problem would walk the OP through how these were used to find the problem. The OP needs to know that this is good advice; everyone else needs to know "this isn't quite a complete answer yet". –  Joshua Taylor Dec 2 '13 at 20:16
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@JoshuaTaylor Here I'd say that there's a distinction between suggesting specific techniques on the one side, and suggesting specific techniques and giving explanations on the other side. If you're just saying "check these things and get back to us, and maybe we can tell you" then that's not an answer. If you're saying "here are things you can check, and here's what they'd mean, and here's (in vague terms) what you might do about them" then I'd say that that is a valid answer. –  Ben Barden Dec 2 '13 at 20:29
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If that is the only answer the current question supports, edit the question to "how can I find out why xyz" instead of "why does xyz?" and then you can answer with your debugging techniques. I would probably only do that after the OP had ignored comments asking for more information, though. –  Kate Gregory Dec 2 '13 at 21:00

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