55

Especially with "minimal understanding" and "show what you've tried" and such taken away, people are floundering looking for a close reason for questions they believe to be awful, lazy, and of no value to anyone else. When specific examples are given I generally feel they count as Unclear What You're Asking because gimmetehcodez or debugmetehcodes is (counterintuitively) unclear.

In these cases someone is guaranteed to say "it couldn't be clearer! They want to know how to change the code so that it does what they want!" (Or they want to know what the output would be if they ran it, or whaever.) I feel that the real question is actually not "how should my code be changed so that it works?" but one of these:

  • what is a debugger? How do I use it?
  • if my program doesn't give the right output, how can I fix it?
  • what is a function?
  • what is scope?

and so on. The reason I can't help these people is I have no idea what their underlying problem is.

This isn't always a matter of bad writing. Someone in who is asking about if (x=1) always doing the if-thing even when x was 2 before the if, I know what their underlying problem is no matter how poorly they write the question, and I can help them if I feel like it. But when someone pastes in a complete C program and says "what is the output if this runs?" how in heaven can that question be clear? I mean, why are you asking us? Why not just run the darn thing? Do you mean that you did and the output confused you and you want to us to clear up the confusion? Or do you honestly not know how to run it so you want someone to run it for you so you can paste the answer in to some homework assignment? Or you tried to run it but because you made some trivial mistake it's not running, so really what you would love is if we helped with that, but you'll settle for someone telling you the output. Or what? It's totally unclear.

But then we argue that no, the OP clearly asked "What is the output?" that's clear, and you're a bad person to try to say otherwise. So, can we call Unclear What You're Asking something else?

  • Missing Required Information?
  • Not Answerable?
  • No Generally Applicable Question?

Some of these I know are reminding people of NARQ and TL and I don't want to go there. I want to figure out the underlying concept behind "answering your literal question is of no value, or you have no literal question, and I can't find anything to answer that would ever be useful to anyone else. Can we work together to make this question into something others would care about too?"

Am I alone in this?


I am suddenly reminded of the ur-NARQ:

Why is there a car parked outside my house?

Clear, well written, and the OP might even be able to accept (or decline accepting) an answer. But unanswerable. Nobody here even knows where your house is, or whose car it is, or why it is there. We can't answer it. "What is the output of this program?" is like that. Whatever the real question is, we can't answer. And if for by some wild fluke we did, nobody else would ever benefit from it. But a question like the one that made Eric Lippert explain about hotel room drawers and such - that has lasting value. Some of these debugmetehcodez questions might have value if they were rewritten just enough to trigger a good explanation of scope, functions, debugging, or how to try stuff yourself. That's what I want this close reason to encourage. Come on, asker!, I want it to say, we can turn this into something the community can answer!


Exhibit A: Why is this question on hold?

  • 9
    I have handled 40 items from the close vote queue today and I have voted to leave open more then before and was blessed when a custom close reason was present. In one or two I provided a custom close reason myself because I was very much struggling with the point you address. No, you're not alone... – rene Jan 10 '14 at 19:40
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    I know what you mean: as much as I hated “not a real close reason”, I've found that unclear and too broad do sometimes overlap. Still, I'm generally satisfied with picking either, and leaving a comment that has to be tailored to the specific question anyway. – Gilles Jan 10 '14 at 19:40
  • In response to your edit: "Too Localized" is still gone. We already allow such questions, if they are answerable. – Robert Harvey Jan 10 '14 at 20:26
  • If they are answerable. And these are not. – Kate Gregory Jan 10 '14 at 20:27
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    Unanswerable questions are almost always "Too Broad" or "Unclear What you are Asking." I agree with the overall premise of your question (if I understand your question correctly) that shoehorning the removed close reasons into Too Broad and Unclear brings with it its own potential set of problems, but I don't see how tweaking the close reason wording will solve those. In the end, the folks who are genuinely interested in becoming productive community members will find their way. The rest, well... – Robert Harvey Jan 10 '14 at 20:29
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    I appreciate your frustration. I certainly wish there were "You are the only person who can answer this question" or "We cannot predict the future any better than you can" or "if you want to know what the code does, maybe run it?" close reasons. And your desire to help is admirable. But the priority for low quality questions is to my mind, get them closed and deleted as soon as possible and not worry over-much about the reason. I agree with @RobertHarvey: someone genuinely interested in helping us help them will do so. – Eric Lippert Jan 10 '14 at 22:27
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    «In these cases someone is guaranteed to say "it couldn't be clearer! They want to know how to change the code so that it does what they want!"» This is the part where you say "toldyouso": Why is this question on hold? – Josh Caswell Jan 11 '14 at 9:18
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    All your reasoning is based on the change of custom close reasons on Stack Overflow. Do you want to change “unclear what you're asking” only on SO, or across the whole network? – Gilles Jan 12 '14 at 20:38
  • 1
    I think it's an issue elsewhere also, take cooking.stackexchange.com/review/close/14937 for example: the asker is clearly asking "can I warm up my potato dish" but is the real question will it taste good, will it be bad for me, or something else? I have seen similar things on Travel although "too broad" gets a lot of use there when people just ask things like "is it nice to visit France?" or "what is the best island to visit"? – Kate Gregory Jan 12 '14 at 20:57
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    You might get some great answers if you were to ask this over at ux.stackexchange.com as well! – Albert Renshaw Jan 15 '14 at 6:28
  • related question at MSO: How to reduce and quickly close questions that are merely requirements? – gnat Dec 27 '14 at 11:12
42
+50

I'm thinking Unclear What Help You Need is really what we want here. The extra detail could then be:

Please clarify your specific problem or provide additional details to highlight exactly what you need. As it's currently written, it’s hard to tell what problem you are trying to solve or what aspect of your solution needs to be corrected or explained. See the How to Ask page for help clarifying this question.

Now when someone very clearly asks "why does this not work?" it can still be unclear what help they need, rather than what they are asking. For example, https://stackoverflow.com/q/21065676/203458 clearly asks how to use the plugin, but nobody can tell what starting knowledge the person has in order to help, other than "not very much."

New example today https://stackoverflow.com/q/21210095/203458 - revision history and comments will be enlightening I think.

  • code, recipe, plan... At SO I'd say "implementation". Network-wide term looks like a tough nut to crack. Approach, solution - still feels slippery. Your idea to leave it open to be set as site-specific parameter makes good sense – gnat Jan 15 '14 at 7:24
  • I like the title but the text does not work at all on some sites. Not every site requires "code" to be there. – Raphael Jan 15 '14 at 7:57
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    This looks perfect - how do we get this added as an official close option to be picked from? – ArtOfWarfare Apr 10 '15 at 18:25
  • I disagree that OP needs help. OP certainly isn't entitled to it. This focuses too much on the benefits for OP, but we don't care about OP. Unclear means your question doesn't fit the site. – bjb568 Mar 19 '16 at 21:23
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    @bjb568: SE usually uses the OP as a conveniently-available standin for "anyone who has this problem"; if it's unclear what help they need, it's unclear what help anyone else could receive. This only breaks down if it is clear what help they need, and that it's completely unreusable, individualized help. – Nathan Tuggy Mar 19 '16 at 21:58
  • Stack Exchange is fundamentally not about help. It's about data; about creating a repository for lasting knowledge. Users are here to build this repository, SE just offers a framework to incentivize this behavior. Helping users is a side effect of the system. An unclear question isn't the failure to categorize the question based on what help the asker happens to want, it's a failure of the system on SE's end and complete misunderstanding or outright abuse on the user's end. An unclear question is simply one that is not conductive to this repository of knowledge. – bjb568 Mar 20 '16 at 0:41
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    +1 Good suggestion. It seems like a simple change on the technical side (although I could be wrong), so I wish SE staff can consider this on their to-do-list. – Buffer Over Read Nov 7 '16 at 15:08
17

I don't think there is a better name for "Unclear what you are asking." The close reason is general in nature, and is meant to cover a number of specific problems that questions can have. Changing a few words isn't going to produce instant enlightenment for anyone.

If you want to provide specific guidance to the OP regarding your close vote, you will now have to post a comment with your rationalization. I argue that this is better than any boilerplate verbiage you might provide in a close reason title.

I do agree that it was convenient to stamp questions with "Must demonstrate a minimal understanding." But consider this:

  1. The "must demonstrate minimal understanding" close reason was widely mis-interpreted to mean "must demonstrate minimal effort," which is not the same thing at all.

  2. Most questions never got rehabilitated, even with the specific close reasons. The OP often spent more time and effort arguing with you than they spent on making their question better.

  3. There is now plenty of excellent guidance in the help center on how to write good questions, and it is linked from both "Unclear what you are asking" and "Too Broad." Directing new users into the Help Center is a good thing.

  4. If the OP genuinely wants specific guidance on how to make their question better, they can always ask, either in the comments or on meta. They almost always get good feedback if they don't rant.

  5. The vast majority of vague, underspecified, lazy questions fall neatly into the "Unclear What you are Asking" or "Too Broad" categories anyway.

In short, changing four words in a close reason isn't going to solve closing problems, no matter how good the words are. It's better to direct folks to a comprehensive resource for writing better questions, and providing specific guidance when needed. This respects peoples time, and focuses their attention on the folks who genuinely want help.

9

While I'm torn between this being a better way of wording "Unclear what you're asking", I think it's definitely an obvious oversight in the close-reasons:

There needs to be a less ambiguous close reason for Not enough information.

  • Too Broad doesn't quite cut it, because this could easily imply too much information.
  • Unclear what you're asking by itself doesn't quite cut it either, because it could be just the right amount of information but still be unclear.

Not enough information is great catch-all for questions like these, which either provide no code sample (SSCCE anyone?!) or are simply not verbose enough to isolate the issue:

Perhaps the best wording is something like:

Unclear what you're asking or not enough information

Please clarify your specific problem or add additional details to highlight exactly what you need. As it's currently written, either there isn't enough information to answer the question or it’s hard to tell exactly what you're asking. See the How to Ask page for help clarifying this question.

7

First off, I don't think you're a bad person :)

I'm still trying to come to terms with the new close reasons myself. After following the conversations here about them, I think that it doesn't need to be renamed, if we gave it sub-reasons like the off-topic category has.

There are several reasons a question may be "unclear", and most of them are completely unrelated to each other:

  • The answer is X, but I don't think that's what you want
  • Would you like fries with that code?
  • Not enough information
  • Complete gibberish (badly translated "english", etc)
  • (I'm sure you can think of others)

The problem is this:

Please clarify your specific problem or add additional details to highlight exactly what you need. As it's currently written, it’s hard to tell exactly what you're asking. See the How to Ask page for help clarifying this question.

This is easily read as "I don't understand what you are asking," when in many cases what you want to ask is "Why are you asking this" or "You're asking the wrong question", among others. There's no easy way to say that without writing a custom comment for every single one.

I get that it's supposed to be used in a general sense, I just feel it's too general now. I completely understand the decision to remove "minimal understanding" due to abuse, but I truly don't think that a general "unclear" works for all of it. "Too broad" is another story, but I'm trying to concentrate on one issue at a time.


Even the linked help center page just gives general advice. Many people may feel that their question covers all the stuff listed there (look at it from the perspective of a new asker, not an answerer):

  • I searched, but nobody else has this exact problem
  • My title is clear, I want to know the output
  • The question is clear: "What does this output?"
  • I included code, and since it was only 15 lines, pasting the whole thing seems okay
  • I'm pretty sure my tags are right
  • (People are notoriously bad at proofreading their own writing, so this only goes so far)
  • But I did respond to comments for clarification!

Even if the asker feels they covered all that, that's the only guidance they have now. No specifics, and the close banner is all they have to go on.


I don't know exactly how sub-reasons should be worded, but I don't see the value of lumping all these types of questions in with the genuine "I really have no clue what this person is saying" ones. They're just two(three, four?) different beasts.

I think that if we're going to close them, we should be able to provide specific guidance in an easier manner than "install this app/userscript and use templated custom comments" every time. As Jaydles said when the last changes to closing were made (emphasis mine):

Many of the the close reason descriptions aren't specific enough to convey what exactly the OP needs to do to fix the question...

  • Keep in mind that the close reasons that were removed were site-specific, custom close reasons, and Jaydles remarks don't apply to those. – Robert Harvey Jan 10 '14 at 20:51
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    So we're okay with vague guidance as long as it's top-level vague guidance? I ask because the other top-level reasons seem pretty clear(discarding off-topic, since it has children), and it seems ironic that the vaguest, most general one is the one telling people their questions are unclear and need specifics. – Geobits Jan 10 '14 at 20:54
  • As far as "site-specific" goes, I understand that, and assume that's why they were place in OT before, since "unclear" didn't have site-specific reasons available. I'm saying that it should, because various sites have different standards of clarity. – Geobits Jan 10 '14 at 20:56
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    Do you have any ideas for fixing the site-specific close reasons that were removed? That's what this is really about, not the "unclear what you are asking" close reason. "Unclear what you are asking" now has to shoulder the burden of the close reasons that were removed, because the site-specific close reasons were (supposedly) being abused. – Robert Harvey Jan 10 '14 at 20:58
  • Of course, nothing prevents people from providing specific guidance (in comments below the question) about why a question is being closed. – Robert Harvey Jan 10 '14 at 21:02
  • 1
    I think that "unclear" is more appropriate than off-topic, but is too vague to be top-level. It should be given children, site specific, if we're going to be using it for this. After all, the questions we're talking about are generally on topic. I don't think "fixing" new OT reasons will help. – Geobits Jan 10 '14 at 21:05
  • What would the new children for Stack Overflow "unclear" look like? Remember, the emphasis has to be on the current community members, not necessarily on new users. Extraordinary effort for folks who aren't going to "get it" anyway (by choice or otherwise) is not productive effort. – Robert Harvey Jan 10 '14 at 21:11
  • As I said above, I'm unsure. If I come up with good ones, I'll post a feature request. I don't want to blurt out the first thing that comes to mind, since that will undoubtedly be full of holes. – Geobits Jan 10 '14 at 21:17

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