Maybe this isn't an issue for the large population of Stack Overflow users, but more so on the SF/SU sites (possibly related: How do we grow the Server Fault and Super User communities?).

I feel that format of the site, and the process of obtain answers or comments is not conducive for troubleshooting difficult problems. Troubleshooting is often a linear process where you ask a question, obtain suggestions (or answers), reply with new results, and eventually the back-and-forth comes to a conclusion or solution.

Most tech sites just operate forum-like software to handle this (or even news group style), which I feel personally works quite well. However, the SOFU/Yahoo style of here's-a-question; heres-an-answer seems "clunky" for problem troubleshooting.

On SOFU, the process usually goes like this:

OP: Asks a question, usually missing some details
Commentor: Asks for more details on the question
Answer: Gives a vague answer based on the question
OP: Edits the question with more details
Answer: Possible solution (gets upvoted)
OP: Comments on the answer that the solution didn't work, gives more results
Answer: (after reading the question, sorting though and reading the other answers and comments) posts a working solution
OP: (hopefully) accepts and comments on the answer
<10 days later>
Answer: (new user) Hey, I'm having a similar problem but the solution didn't work. Any more ideas?
The Mob: Down votes the user into oblivion...he never gets an answer and doesn't return.

After all of the up votes and down votes, the above turns into a jumbled mess on the site.

On a different site, I have an issue that I have been working on for 6 months. I occasionally add more information and people bump the thread up with their tests results too. We have eventually narrowed it down to a bug in the vendor's product which occurs in very specific configurations, and were able to come up with a work around once we determined that. Troubleshooting like that could never happen here due to the Q&A format.

So, uh, I guess my question is - how do we improve that?

For some examples, just search for "error" on Server Fault. You see a bunch of questions/answers that are hard to follow, don't come up with a solution or everyone just gives up. :(

Oracle Error ORA-12560 TNS:Protocol Adapter error? Don't know what is updating ALL my stats - causing IO problems

  • I think the official SO position is... It's not a bug, it's a feature. ;) Oct 29, 2009 at 17:12
  • 2
    after some reflection, I have two thoughts. a) the sysadmin community is, by its very nature, fundamentally fragmented and vertical .. and .. b) there's a certain amount of "learning a new system" with the SO engine. Namely, favor editing your existing posts over mindlessly adding to the bottom of an endless thread. Jan 4, 2010 at 22:45

4 Answers 4


I feel personally works quite well

Having spent a lot of time on phpBB forums, troubleshooting hardware problems, I vehemently disagree. In a giant thread, nobody reads anything but the last few posts.

Every time you edit your post, it gets bumped to the top of the stack. So as you have more information, simply edit your post and add it. You can use a "running commentary" format in the post if you like, with dates and everything.

Since the post is now on the front page of the website, it will get more attention. And since nobody reads anything except the last few posts in any given "thread", editing the question at the top is functionally equivalent -- people will read your troubleshooting log as it exists in your question.

The real implied question here, is how to notify answerers when the question they answered has been edited.

  • phpBB <- I think I found your problem. However here is a fresh example of what I am talking about serverfault.com/questions/79851/… versus something like this (minus the usual EE crap)…
    – dlux
    Oct 30, 2009 at 15:40
  • Also, are you saying you would prefer to see a back and forth between edits in the question and answer? That would seem to be very difficult to follow.
    – dlux
    Oct 30, 2009 at 15:41
  • 1
    well, the sucky thing about the EE example is that I have to scroll (and I am not counting the fake obfuscated scrolling) wayyy down to get to the best answer. In our system, the best answer is at the top. Always. Jan 4, 2010 at 23:42
  • Cannot stand the news group style where you see an email like conversation indented with >, >>, >>> etc that scrolls for ages to see a single line as a new addition...the SO/SF/SU format is incredible and part of the reason it has taken off so well in such a short amount of time Jan 5, 2010 at 1:47

People should simply edit each other questions more often to make it more complete, instead of making their own version of the answer and let things get out of control.

A lot of times there is only one solution, in that case, in a perfect world, the best answer should be the only one with a lot of upvotes and stand out of the crowd.

  • 2
    Editing doesn't cut it as it is, because there's inadequate feedback to other question participants that things have changed. Oct 29, 2009 at 18:56
  • You're right that there should be more feedback, but still: the same information should be more consolidated into one answer instead of being spread out
    – Ivo Flipse
    Oct 29, 2009 at 19:33
  • I used to edit other questions quite heavily, but after finding out that 50% of the users don't like it, even when improving the answer, I stopped doing it regularly. Jan 4, 2010 at 23:32

Trouble-shooting is a form of collaboration. In a collaboration-is-discussion sense, this is avoided, by design. And for good reason.

Any tools that will encourage collaboration will also allow the question-answer dynamic to devolve into long diatribes, extended discussions, or religious platform wars. That's where the entire system will break down.

I'm not denying the usefulness of healthy collaboration. But I don't think Stack Overflow is the place for the "back-and-forth" you describe to take place... by design.

  • So what is the Community Wiki feature? Oct 29, 2009 at 16:25
  • I think that may be why SO is much more successful that SF or SU. Maybe Q&A works better for programming-related things versus troubleshooting a server or PC issue.
    – dlux
    Oct 29, 2009 at 16:26
  • @Ólafur Waage - Not a "back-and-forth" between users. From: meta.stackexchange.com/questions/21175/… ... "Community wiki should be rare. Where wiki comes into play is that rare situation where the question is answerable... but the answer is built up by group of people... Since the 'answer' will ultimately be a collaborative work, each contributor is, in effect, relinquishing individual ownership of the answers by contributing to a larger body knowledge. That's wiki." Oct 29, 2009 at 16:34
  • @DLux - Perhaps. Interesting premise. But I would add that a carefully worded question could allow answers to trouble-shoot your question. Comments handle any minor requests for follow-up or clarification. But not full-blown, back-and-forth collaboration. I think that's just the trade-off of the successful Stack Overflow design which plays against the failure of the long, drawn out discussions of traditional forums. Oct 29, 2009 at 16:49
  • 2
    I think the problem is that SO somehow got the idea that an answer being a collaborative work would be rare. EVERY question requires clarification and EVERY answer can be improved. Oct 29, 2009 at 17:11
  • But CW is a form of collaboration. Not in the sense you're talking about but it's still a tool that encourages collaboration. Oct 30, 2009 at 0:46
  • "Trouble-shooting is a form of collaboration. In a collaboration-is-discussion sense, this is avoided, by design. And for good reason" - this, whilst true, is absurd in the venue of SF. On SO, you can paste some code, someone goes "Oh, it's this semicolon here" and everyone is happy. On SF, someone posts a problem, then 25 questions need to be asked, all of which narrow the solution. Without these 25 questions, you would have to post 25 or more answers, one for each possible permutation. Another example of how SO thinking doesn't fit SF. Jan 4, 2010 at 22:33
  • Server Fault is not designed to handle all types of problems. The designers of Server Fault (and Stack Overflow) would likely argue that a question which needs 25 follow-up questions is simply not appropriate for Server Fault. Jan 5, 2010 at 0:08

Interesting question. I have a small solution that I would like to suggest.

When the OP edit's a question, that he can edit in the normal fashion (like is done now) Or he can add an extension to the question. That would appear in a separate box below the original question. This would show updates and further information in a clear way without turning the layout into a threaded form.

  • Sounds good, but I fear this makes SOFU much more complex than needed. Jan 4, 2010 at 23:33

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