Over the years, I have joined a number of Stack Exchange communities to varying degrees of participation. Unfortunately, it has often been at least six months between joining communities - just long enough for me to forget the details - and so I keep making the same mistake.

Regrettably, my first foray into a new community is often ... painful. It usually goes like this:

  • I have a question in a general category, say math or networking
  • I find the community with an appropriate sounding name, say "mathematics" or "network engineering"
  • I join that community
  • I immediately click on "Tour" (often the top link of those at the bottom) to find out what the site is about and usually get a fairly generic description of the site, and perhaps even an "Informed" badge or some such. Unfortunately, this section usually only contains a very broad description of the community.
  • I proceed to ask my question, because it still seems to generally fit the category. Note: At this point I think I'm still on topic, so I don't use the helpful sidebar to the right of asking the question.
  • The community informs me that my question is off-topic.
  • The community is not benefited and at a personal level, inner rage ensues. (Perhaps inner rage ensues for the community member informing of said off-topicness)
  • I once again try to remember where the detailed description of on/off topics are, and eventually stumble through this on a link under help. Note: I'm not sure the guidelines are linked on the "edit" page of the question, but sometimes only on a new question.
  • I then repeatedly edit my somewhat on-topic question until it meets community standards and perhaps get an answer - albeit with much inward grumbling. The question was originally only partially on-topic, so it often benefits the community less despite repeated reformulation.

I know the site design tries to help with this, but despite being part of Stack Exchange sites for years I sadly still find myself gravitating towards this anti-pattern by complete accident. I think I've done this at least three times so I wonder if this is common user behavior.

The key thing here is that I expect the top link - "Tour" - to actually equip me with the secret decoder ring to ask the right type of question. Is there some easy way to pull the community guidelines and on/off topic list into the "Tour" page generically?

Alternatively, I would take the much more blunt approach too when I hit the "Join" button: "Hey - welcome to the community! Here is the awful modal popup you will ignore, but tells you what you should know to ask a good question!" to help avoid these types of situations. Even a summary of the on/off topic list directly when asking the question could work too.

  • 5
    Hi there! I see you are downvoting my question. I have read the "Tour", the guidelines on "Help", and checked for similar questions to help ensure this is a constructive question for the site. I believe it highlights a small but real hole in the user experience and have suggested one of several features to help alleviate the issue. It is quite discouraging to receive downvotes after all these precautions, particularly without an explanation. Can you please provide one? – J Trana Sep 9 '18 at 7:03
  • Don't worry too much about "downvotes", especialy not about anonymous ones, and for sure not about "questions" ... also because downvoting questions is "cheap" (it does not cost -1 rep to the downvoter, as for answers). Also note that on ""meta.SE" downvotes are also used to indicate something like "I do not agree". – Pierre.Vriens Sep 9 '18 at 7:56
  • 1
    Thanks for the explanation - I thought downvoting without explanation usually was usually a bit of a no-no elsewhere on the StackExchange family of sites so I mistook it for rudeness. – J Trana Sep 9 '18 at 8:08
  • Re "I proceed to ask my question": Lurking first might work better: "Lurking allows users to learn the conventions of an online community before they participate, improving their socialization when they eventually de-lurk." and "Users also choose to lurk in order to find examples to follow when they decide to participate, avoid making redundant posts or contributions, and learn more about the topics of conversation.". – Peter Mortensen Sep 9 '18 at 9:53
  • Funny thing is the tour kinda is supposed to be the "one stop" place to get someone started - there used to be a single page help but it was felt splitting that into multiple pages and having a tour was more newbie friendly – Journeyman Geek Sep 9 '18 at 11:02

The tour is intended to be a quick overview while well-developed help will be more extensive, but we could do better at linking the two together.

Here's an example of what I mean. Here's that part of the tour on Writing:


Here's the core of the on-topic help:

Questions on these topics are welcome here:

  • Non-fiction, technical, scholarly, journalistic, or professional blog writing, including the presentation of examples, charts, and diagrams.
  • Writing fiction, poetry, scripts, or song lyrics.
  • General copywriting, style, and organization.
  • Questions asking for help expressing a concept or an idea, within limits. (See this meta post for more information.)
  • The publishing and editing process itself.
  • Questions about specialized writing tools.

On the other hand, these kinds of questions aren't allowed here:

While the limits of art might include all sorts of topics, themes, and means of expression, the limits of Stack Exchange are stricter. Please do not include expletives or offensive content as part of your question, even if such is part of your writing.

For more help, see "What types of questions should I avoid asking?"

That's a lot of information to jam into the tour (and note all the meta links too), but a short bulleted list without that explanation is not sufficient. (Most of that help developed in response to specific issues that happened on the site.)

What would make sense, however, is to do a couple things:

  • Remind communities to update the tour from its generic initial state. I had to check a couple sites before I found the example for this answer; a lot of them really are too vague.

  • Include, from the tour, a link to the fuller on-topic help. This provides easy access and visibility to visitors who were guided to the tour but don't yet know about the help.

  • Being a newcomer to this part of the process, how would you recommend that I courteously and respectfully remind communities to do this? – J Trana Sep 10 '18 at 1:45
  • @JTrana: A meta post on the per-site meta should work. – Kevin Sep 10 '18 at 2:06
  • @JTrana sorry for being unclear. I think it's mainly on us experienced users to remind and help people on our own communities to do better. That said, anybody can post a question on a per-site meta asking about the differences between the tour and help, or asking that the tour be made less generic. Mostly people don't think about these pages until somebody raises it, and then we look and say "wow, that could be a lot better". – Monica Cellio Sep 12 '18 at 0:39
  • 1
    Thanks for responding! I've thought about the flows on the tour now off and on for a couple days and I noticed another psychological aspect of the tour page: the right panes have both example text (like pretend questions) as well as real information (on/off topic questions) in largely the same style. Unfortunately the example text comes first in the top section such that my mind is already primed to ignore the valuable stuff in the second section; furthermore the third section is also example text. This makes a laz.. I mean, "speedy", reader such as myself potentially gloss over it. :) – J Trana Sep 12 '18 at 4:58
  • @JTrana these are good points. I hadn't considered, in particular, the "tuning out" effect of the default unicorn question. (Ideally that question is replaced by a real one, but the requirements for use in the tour make it hard on many sites.) You might consider sharing your experience finding the on-topic info in an answer to this new question. – Monica Cellio Sep 12 '18 at 21:27

It seems that you're looking in the wrong direction, what you're looking for is not something you'll find in the "Tour" of any SE site. Instead, you want to look in either of these (for the site you have in mind):

  • the page located at relative path help/on-topic (= Help Center > Asking > What topics can I ask about here?).

  • the Definition tab of "Area 51". Be aware that, as mentioned by MEE, a Tour only exists for sites in status beta or launched.

As a sample, assume you'd want to know about "Drupal Answers" (accidently one of the site I'm a bit familiar with):

Some more hints to help you decide between the 2 available options:

  • Some existing help/on-topic pages, such as the one for DevOps, don't seem to contain a lot of information, at least not yet.

  • As mentioned by curiousdannii, what is allowed on a site can change over time, so the area 51 page might not be up to date anymore. So it would probably be better to have an appropriate link to some on topic page in the help center.

  • For new sites that have not reached beta status yet, such as the "Mainframes" proposal, the Definition tab of "Area 51" for the site is your best bet to answer your question.

PS: Not to hijack your question, but how come at this very moment you have NOT yet earned the Informed badge on meta.SE? Beter visit the tour page of meta.SE, and page down to the bottom ... you'll be surpised what happens next ...

  • Thanks! I did not know that definition page existed, and it is useful. However, I wonder how many others like me also don't know it exists! While there are one or more avenues to find the right information, I'm wondering how many bad first questions could be improved/not asked in the first place by further funneling user to make sure the question is relevant. I like the idea of adding the link from "Tour" - or would it maybe be possible to slurp in the text into the description at the top? I think that would have helped me a lot. – J Trana Sep 9 '18 at 8:01
  • @Pierre.Vriens sites that are in definition or commitment don't even have a tour page yetl. They are just proposals and a real live site is only created in the beta phase. – MEE - codidact.org Sep 9 '18 at 9:45
  • 4
    No, this would not be helpful as the specific details of what is allowed on a site can change over time, and the area 51 page won't be kept up to date. Better to have a link to the on topic page in the help center. – curiousdannii Sep 9 '18 at 10:07
  • @MEE you're right, I've integrated your comment in my answer now to clarify that. Feel free to further refine/edit my answer about that, should you want to do so. – Pierre.Vriens Sep 9 '18 at 12:57
  • 1
    @Pierre.Vriens Every site already has an on-topic help center page. – curiousdannii Sep 9 '18 at 13:01
  • @curiousdannii You're right, I tried to further improve my anser about that also. So what do you think about the DevOps "on topic" page , how much does that page help to know what's on topic for that site? Would you agree that in that case the definition tab is a better fit (at least "for now")? – Pierre.Vriens Sep 9 '18 at 13:22
  • 1
    I just don't think it's good to recommend people go looking at the A51 page once a site is out of closed beta. If the on topic help center page needs work then that should be discussed in the site's meta. – curiousdannii Sep 9 '18 at 13:36

You must log in to answer this question.

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