Frequently I see questions where the OP has basically come to the conclusion: "If only I knew how to do Z, then I could solve my problem," then basically asks "How do I do Z?" on SO (or pick another site). Often, it turns out that "doing Z" is impossible or impractical (see this example) and you get the sense that if only the user had described their actual problem, you might be able to help them.

Is it advisable to encourage people to describe the context of their question as well as the specific question as well? How can we encourage people to do this? I usually comment, but there is often a lag before the question gets updated with additional information, leaving some answers as irrelevant once the real question comes to the fore. People tend not to read instructions, so perhaps there isn't a good way to catch this any earlier. Thoughts?

  • Apparently your example was answered! [I don't quite understand it though ...] May 21, 2010 at 2:36
  • From the first day I used SO, I've been trying to learn how to ask proper questions that would receive proper answers, and I still feel far away sometimes. I think you have a nice point there. As far as I understand, you're saying that you should try and explain the complete context, and then explain what your approach is, but then what should you ask? Should you still ask for Z, or should you ask for "the best solution" (sounds vague in my ears)? To me, neither seems to welcome good answers.
    – Aske B.
    Aug 22, 2012 at 10:29

6 Answers 6


I think comments are the best option for this scenario. After all, comments are supposed to be meta about the post.

Ideally, the original poster is checking their new questions often, both to get their answers and to provide any followup information requested. If they are not, then the question will only get the (lack of) attention it deserves. You get out what you put in... The same concepts apply to the answers, too.


Many people feel uncomfortable 'courting' a room full of experts. When I see a question that suggests its own answer, I just take into consideration that the poster is very likely wearing blinders and respond appropriately.

Sometimes, people feel the need to show that they have worked through their problem or question as far as they possibly can prior to asking a question. While this is indeed good practice, some take it to the extreme.

The best thing to do is just gently alert the person that they have become either snow blind or over determined to or for a certain course of action. Some people just feel the need to show they know something while asking for help.


I don't think we should necessarily think of 'bad' questions as being bad for these sites! Sometimes it's good for people to find a question and see: "This is impossible.".

I'm inclined to 'punish' leading questions for which you can transparently predict the direction they're disguising. Some questions should be downvoted and mocked derisively in the comments!

We should strive to close obvious duplicates first, but then edit questions to the 'closest' good question. We should resist feeding morphing do-my-work-for-me questions that (eventually) encompass the full design of an application (or worse). Maybe that's uncommon; or those questions just unanswered.


This is something that I've come across in my professional life too.

The only thing you can do is ask for more information to try and get to the reason behind the question.

With the format of SO all you've got is answers, comments and votes.

You can't post an request for more information as an answer, so you've only got comments on the question. As you say there's a lag between posting a comment and getting a response. The only way to get a more timely response might be to down-vote the question as well as posting the comment, but that seems harsh to me. However, as Matthew Scharley points out, you can always undo the vote if the question is modified, so it might have the desired effect.

  • 1
    On the upside, if they do edit their question in response to your comment, you can always reverse or atleast undo the vote. Oct 4, 2009 at 14:01

To oversimplify, there are two types of questioners.

One will pay attention to guidelines, and will almost certainly have learned to ask good questions already. Therefore, there's no point in putting things like this in the guidelines.

One (the more common) will not. In this case, there's no point in putting anything in the guidelines.

Realistically, there are people who will glance at the guidelines, and for them we need to keep guidelines short. I don't think this belongs in quick guidelines, since I've seen a lot more questions with insufficient information than I've seen asking the wrong question.

So, I think the only thing to do is to post comments. If I don't see a response fairly soon, I might downvote the question.


This is quite common; I tend to post the correct answer with an explanation of the mistaken assumptions...

...and then get downvoted ;-).

  • Been there, too.
    – tvanfosson
    Oct 6, 2009 at 11:30
  • There's the downvoters and then there's us, the downvoteds!
    – cregox
    Mar 31, 2010 at 19:40

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