42

Often, when I want to ask a question (such as now on tex.stackexchange.com), I wonder:

"Is it on topic or not for this specific SE site?"

then, I'm parsing the page visually, trying to find if there is an info box with a link to a "On topic for this site" page, but I don't find any.

Then, I open another tab, and google "on topic tex stackexchange", and then I find this /help/on-topic link.

As this is not obvious / not super-easy to find, I think that most new people don't search this page, leading to potential off-topic questions, etc.

Question: Wouldn't there be a place for a (small) link "what's on topic?" in the home page of SE sites? Or at least for < 1k rep users?

Pros:

  • It helps users to know more about the specific SE they are using
  • It helps to avoid off-topic / to-be-migrated questions

Something like that in home page:

enter image description here

and like that in the asking question page:

enter image description here

Note: I just used tex.SE as an example, but that could apply to all other SE sites.

Note 2: It might be linked to this but not a duplicate in the sense that here the proposal is just a small one-line link on home page, which is quite different to what is suggested here.

  • 3
    Well, it is the first link in the Help Center. – Glorfindel Sep 26 '17 at 7:58
  • 8
    @Glorfindel Yes, but from the home page, we have to first have the idea to go to the Help Center, and then parse this page to see that the link we're interested in is the in first column, and then clicking on this link, i.e. 3 operations. Of course, when you know it, it's obvious. But my point is that, for new users or even not-so-new users (I use SE since years, and I forgot that the link can be found here, that's why I usually google to find the on topic page), it wouldn't harm to have "on-topic" link more present. – Basj Sep 26 '17 at 8:03
  • 6
    @Glorfindel It's the top left item in a grid of ~30 links, that isn't necessarily an obvious way to mark it as the most important part of that page. For me, almost all items there look equally important, so if I didn't know it, I might not look at that position first. – Mad Scientist Sep 26 '17 at 8:05
  • @MadScientist Right, but: it still requires 3 operations and make the assumption that new users will go to help center (do admins have stats about how many of < 1k users click on help center at least once?) – Basj Sep 26 '17 at 8:07
  • @gnat it's linked but not really a duplicate in the sense that here the proposal is just a small one-line link on home page, which is quite different to what is suggested here. – Basj Sep 26 '17 at 8:09
  • 1
    @gnat I edtied question to show it's not exaclty a duplicate. – Basj Sep 26 '17 at 8:15
  • 4
    your explanation of the difference looks compelling - I retracted close vote. Please feel free to ping me in case if it gets closed "by inertia" and I'll cast reopen vote – gnat Sep 26 '17 at 8:25
  • There's already a link to help/on-topic within the asking help link on the new question yellow box, along with other tips to ask a good question. This link seems to be ignored already so I'm not convinced adding one more link would help anything. – Tensibai Sep 26 '17 at 11:55
  • @Basj added as an answer as it was too long anyway for a comment. – Tensibai Sep 26 '17 at 12:01
  • 1
    Probably a related answer in the new navbar thread also (same concern about ton topic at least) – Tensibai Sep 26 '17 at 13:52
  • We're currently keeping a list of things to try in order to improve overall question quality. I'll throw this idea on that list... no idea if it'd work well or, honestly, if we'll try it the way you're describing, but it could be an interesting experiment to run on new users. – Adam Lear Sep 29 '17 at 5:32
  • @AdamLear speaking of my comment you just deleted, I've seen enough broken promises to stand by it: things are unlikely to improve in the foreseeable future. I expect engineering efforts to be focused on things that seem to look more important for SE management, eg to recognise when two posts are falsely labeled as duplicates – gnat Sep 29 '17 at 7:24
  • 2
    Related: When we want to remind users about the What topics can I ask about here? page via a comment, [help/on-topic] expands to just "help center"; it should expand to What topics can I ask about here?. See this request. – kjhughes Oct 3 '17 at 14:06
  • @Glorfindel On many beta sites, it is not the first link in the help center. What not to ask is given the first place. – Nog Shine Dec 7 '18 at 2:36
15

This seems like a good use of the wasted open space in the left nav bar:

enter image description here

Since the left nav bar takes up the space anyway – and is prominent enough – it seems to me the perfect place for this kind of thing. The left nav is enabled by default, and even if it is disabled, the link would stay in the menu.

It could be shown only to newish users, triggered by something like

  • reputation
  • posts posted
  • age of account
  • 2
    The nav bar is indeed rather underutilized at the moment. In this idea, I'd suggest that the link stay in the sidebar regardless of reputation, because I think the information in that link is helpful for users of all reputations. Also, having the link randomly appear/disappear on you based on which site you're on and how much reputation you have seems like confusing behaviour to me. (See also Wikipedia for an example of a site with a helpful collection of links in the sidebar.) – ahiijny Dec 8 '18 at 21:37
9

This is an excellent question. It echoes my own annoyance over this aspect of the current user experience at Stack Exchange. In my mind this is also the most "on top" of the "on-topic problem" questions:

I agree with the general observation that help/on-topic is too hard to find - "buried" in such a counterintuitive manner that new users, or in my case, returning forgetful users, tend to conclude that it doesn't even exist. We conclude this because:

  • The home page has links to unimportant information like "Users" and "Badges" front and center, links that I never click on. This makes it seem that important information, like what's on-topic - something which everyone has to know, and which can be very non-obvious for certain sites - does not actually have a page of its own. Users conclude that this information is meant to be guessed at by e.g. perusing the "Top Questions" list which is displayed so prominently.
  • The "Help Center" link is tiny and hidden compared to the other links on the home page. The Help Center contains a table of links to information which is the same for each site, like "Code of Conduct" and "What does it mean if a question is 'closed' or 'on hold'?". Much of it is common-sense even to first time Stack Exchange users. The very name "Help Center", and the fact that seemingly all but one of the questions in the table is generic in nature, communicates to users that this is not the place to find out about non-obvious site-specific information.
  • The "Tour" has a promising name, but it's also buried, and when you click on it you see that it is generic and animated, lacking site-specific information.

I agree with the various proposals for making the help/on-topic page more visible from the Help Center, from the "Ask Question" page, and so on. However, in my own experience, I expect to find this information very easily from the home page itself - before I even decide to ask a question, and before I classify myself as someone who needs "help".

To answer the OP's embedded question, "Wouldn't there be a place for a (small) link "what's on topic?" in the home page of SE sites?", the answer is yes. A link to help/on-topic would be more useful than most of the other stuff in the headers of SE sites, so there is certainly room for it in the UI, not just a small link but a big one.

I was going to suggest adding an "About" link to the right of the site logo, and to the left of the existing links "Questions", "Tags", "Users", "Badges", "Unanswered", and "Ask Question". Then I saw that a new UI is being rolled out, see for example math.stackexchange.com, and I was forced to reconsider my proposal. In retrospect I like my new proposal much better:

Clicking on the site logo should take you to help/on-topic.

  • The most important distinguishing information about each site is in the help/on-topic page, titled "What topics can I ask about here?". The logo is what distinguishes each site visually. Thus, it is natural that clicking on the logo would take users to help/on-topic.
  • The logo is also the most "visible" part of the home page. So this proposal would solve, at least in a certain sense, the identified need of making help/on-topic more "visible".
  • Currently, clicking on an SE site logo doesn't do anything but redisplay the home page with the "Top Questions" list. I would be OK with keeping this behavior on question pages, but on the home page the behavior is useless since it just redisplays what the user is already looking at.
  • When I have gone months without using SE, and then I create an account on a new site, I often click on the site logo thinking it will tell me something important about the site. So based on my own intuition as a web user, I think that other people, both new and old users, will be able to discover on their own that clicking on a site logo leads to information about the site.

That's my proposal.

  • 1
    The logo goes to the front page, which contains Q&A. A list of questions is the logical "main" page for a site. Appropriating the logo for help for new users, at the cost of usability for existing users (some with close to a decade of muscle memory), is a bad trade. It also still relies on new users stumbling into it. Far better to use actual words to point the way, and/or use (dismissable) "heroes" to tell new users about a site's scope. – Monica Cellio Aug 28 '18 at 14:43
  • Reasonable points, but not sure if you read the third bullet under the proposal. – Metamorphic Aug 28 '18 at 17:45
  • I'm responding to "Clicking on the site logo should take you to help/on-topic" (in bold). – Monica Cellio Aug 28 '18 at 17:55
6

So I was browsing Super User, and I thought, 'say, what exactly is on-topic for this site anyway?' And even though I've been on Stack Overflow for years, and I'm pretty familiar with how these sites work, it took me a considerable amount of time for me to find this information:

  1. Okay, from front page, go to Ask Question:

    SU front page

  2. From "Ask a question", go to "asking help":

    SU ask a question

  3. From "How do I ask a good question?", go to "What topics can I ask about here?":

    SU how to ask

  4. Finally! This is what I was looking for!

    SU on-topic

All that seems a bit unnecessarily long-winded and difficult. Knowing if a question is on-topic or not is one of the most important things that a new user could know before asking their question, yet this information is so difficult to find...

  • The (?) > Help center > What topics can I ask about here? route involves clicking on a menu button to reveal hidden menu options, so I think this route is less obvious.
  • There's also the New Tab > Google: "Super User on-topic" > What topics can I ask about here? - Help Center - Super User route, but a user shouldn't really have to go off-site to find something as fundamental as what is accepted on a site. Additionally, this route requires additional mental preparation and keystrokes, which also makes it take longer.

I'd argue that a fundamental problem that all Stack Exchange sites are suffering from is that at the moment, "on-topic" requires recall, not recognition. It should be the other way around. User interface designs should promote recognition over recall:

One of the top 10 usability heuristics advises to promote recognition over recall in user-interface design. Showing users things they can recognize improves usability over needing to recall items from scratch because the extra context helps users retrieve information from memory.

To Google "Super User on-topic", you have to recall that these sites have on-topic criteria. To go down that obfuscated long-winded route to get to the "What topics can I ask about here?" page, you have to recall the route to get to that page.

If you don't happen to already know how to get to that page, then (as previously pointed out in comments by Basj and Mad Scientist) the unnecessarily high number of operations required to get to that page would prevent users (especially new users) from reading or even being aware of the page in the first place. We want users to read this page!


My suggestion: Change the "How to Ask" box on the "Ask a question" page to link directly to the on-topic page. Users see this box right before they start typing their question, so by the "Just In Time" theory of user behaviour, putting the information here should have the highest visibility.

As an example, here's a starting point for how the Stack Overflow "How to Ask" box could look:

example improved how to ask box

Several points:

  1. The first line directly links to the how to ask guide.
    • This should really be the first thing that users see upon arriving on this page.
    • Also, Stack Overflow has a new user to read through a version of the "How to Ask" guide and requires them to tick a checkbox that they've read everything before they can access the "Ask a question" page. But once they get here, there's no obvious way to get back to that information page to reread it or reference it in case they're unsure about something. This would fix that.
  2. The first line is a direct call to action to read the "how to ask" guide.
    • Users will skim over things like passive questions or unassuming links tucked away in the bottom, but direct calls to action will draw their attention.
  3. The second line directly links to the on-topic page.
    • I think any internet-savvy person knows how topic hyperlinking works, so if the user is at any point unsure about if their topic counts as "related to programming", the hyperlink is at right their fingertips to check.
    • There's a huge difference between this and what is currently in place. At the moment, the "on-topic" page is buried behind several pages of links. It's completely unfair to expect new users to know where to find it or that it exists in the first place. If this page is shown to users more prominently, more users will click on it and actually read it.
  4. The second line uses requirement language.
    • Questions must meet these requirements. Phrasing it as a question or using language like "we prefer" makes it seem like these are only suggestions, which is not the impression that we want to give. Using direct language like this gets the point across more clearly.
  5. Users see that this information is available every time they ask a question, and continually as they're composing their question.

    • Because forgetting curve.

    forgetting curve

Other ideas:

  • Ability for sites to add custom messages to their "How to Ask" box to address common misconceptions about the site scope.
    • For example, Anime & Manga stopped accepting identification request questions a while ago, but we still see a steady flow of such questions. To be fair to the new users, that "How to Ask" box is really misleading. All of the questions that are being closed are indeed "about anime or manga" and they "can be answered, not just discussed". I feel like adding a single line of text to that box to preemptively clarify this would really save both moderators and new users a lot of grief.
    • Medical Sciences still receives a fair amount of personal medical advice questions. I think it'd help a lot if there was a line in the "How to Ask" box that clarifies what exactly counts as personal medical advice and what doesn't, so that more users would be aware of this before asking a question.

From my reading of other similar discussions, I see people tend to say things like "users are lazy and they won't read instructions, what good will this do?" and "I don't think this will do any good". But the process for checking what's on-topic for a site is unnecessarily long and obfuscated even for an experienced user of these sites. I think any improvement along these lines would be a good thing.

-4

There's already a link in the question screen to how to ask:

Ask question screenshot

This page link to on-topic as part of other recommendations :

How to ask page screenshot

For users under 500 reputation, the new navbar also include a question mark with links to the tour and help center:

New navbar screenshot

This is already ignored so much I don't see how linking the on topic page again elsewhere would really help.
My point is, there's already multiple question ignoring search (duplicates), be on topic (this is the subject), be specific (how much too broad questions?) and make it relevant to others (too localized is not a close reason anymore but the idea still stand) everyday even if that's just a link away to see it.

Either you're willing to know what is on-topic and you'll have a look at the correct pages and site's meta or you just want to ask your question without more consideration (most cases) and another link won't help much.

There's no harm adding it, but I've still to be convinced this would improve question on-topicness and reduce migrations.

  • Top down: "asking help" in blue.... – Tensibai Sep 26 '17 at 12:05
  • We could very well add a link on top of this sentence: Our community is defined by a specific [set of topics](**LINK HERE**), please stick to those topics and avoid asking for opinions or open-ended discussion.. Adding such a link would be easy and would even not require to add a sentence and/or to find a new place in UI for it, because it's already there! – Basj Sep 26 '17 at 12:06
  • Just a second, I'll add two screenshots – Tensibai Sep 26 '17 at 12:07
  • 1
    My point is: instead of => click on "that you can view in the help center" => find the link for on-topic page => click on the link we could do: => click on "specific set of topics" done! – Basj Sep 26 '17 at 12:12
  • 2
    "This is already ignored so much I don't see how linking it again elsewhere would really help": my point is: it is ignored because it requires to do several operations => going to help => finding the on-topic link => clicking on it => ... That's why a direct link could help. – Basj Sep 26 '17 at 12:14
  • @Basj answer updated, I'm still not convinced people ignoring the basis of question formatting and not even hovering on the editor button would click anywhere to assess their question are on topic. I, personally, would close as "Won't fix" if it was an issue. – Tensibai Sep 26 '17 at 12:14
  • @Basj you're proving the point yourself, you didn't even bother clicking on the "asking help" link to write a paragraph on how it doesn't fulfill the goal actually and did ask for a screenshot to spot it, do you really think another link on a sentence would be more noticed ? – Tensibai Sep 26 '17 at 12:16
  • 2
    No I didn't ask screenshot for this. I asked screenshot because I thought you were speaking about another place (that I might not have known). Sometimes layout changes, as I'm often reading SO / SE on mobile or tablet or desktop, I am used to see different layouts etc. I just wanted to be sure we spoke about the same thing. It's not about not bothering, it's really the contrary of this... – Basj Sep 26 '17 at 12:19
  • @Basj I've added a paragraph to explain a little more why I don't think one more link would help anyway, there's 4 points in the How to Ask page which are just a link away and are ignored, so adding one more link doesn't sound like a solution to me. (This is to answer your "too much operations", just the points on the how to ask page are already skipped, so putting on-topic one link away instead of two won't make a big change IMHO) – Tensibai Sep 26 '17 at 12:23
  • 8
    To me, "asking help" sounds like formatting or process, not scope. (I don't think I've ever clicked on it.) And while experienced users know that help includes the page about what's on-topic, it doesn't seem to be very obvious to new users. First-time visitors get an invitation to take the tour, so there's that at least, but it's a one-shot. – Monica Cellio Sep 28 '17 at 16:12
  • @MonicaCellio fair point – Tensibai Sep 28 '17 at 16:31
  • 5
    @MonicaCellio: I'd forgotten that "asking help" links to /help/on-topic, actually, which suggests it's ... not especially intuitive. – Nathan Tuggy Sep 29 '17 at 6:55

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .