(I wrote this and was pointed here to Meta.)

At Network Engineering we get very many questions which are off-topic, typically for being homework, repeats, or not fulfilling the non-obvious but quite strict guidelines (networks should be professionally managed, professional equipment etc). Surely many other sites have the same issue.

One important reason for this is that the "Ask Question" button is right in your face; "What to ask" is at least three clicks away. We say PLEASE ASK, without caveats, and then, often within minutes, we say BUT NOT THAT.

This is incredibly frustrating for the new people, who immediately (and sometimes volubly), form the impression it's unwelcoming. It's hard to say they're wrong.

This is not a new observation: a year ago it was considered Time To Change.

Please can we put some How-To-Ask help somewhere effective.

All I'm suggesting is link next to the "Ask Question" button, perhaps labelled "What to ask" or "Guidance". (Others have suggested something clever, but I'm just talking about basic user experience competence: most new users are doing it "wrong", that means we should explain better/clearer/ differently/elsewhere).

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    You might be interested in the Ask a Question Wizard.
    – Glorfindel Mod
    Commented Apr 23, 2019 at 18:28
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    @Glorfindel thank you ... is that only for Stack Overflow and not the other Stack Exchange sites?
    – jonathanjo
    Commented Apr 23, 2019 at 18:32
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    According to 2018: a year in closing, 55.63% of questions asked on Network Engineering were closed. Of the 2,921 questions closed, 2,156 were closed as off-topic.
    – Ron Maupin
    Commented Apr 23, 2019 at 18:38
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    Only for Stack Overflow at the moment. Commented Apr 23, 2019 at 19:03
  • @SonictheInclusiveHedgehog thanks. It looks interesting, but special purpose. A link "What can I ask about?" right next to "Ask Question" might well work fine and would work for all the sites.
    – jonathanjo
    Commented Apr 23, 2019 at 19:08
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    The sidebar on the Ask page can be customized too... Here's an example of how to ask for that
    – Shog9
    Commented Apr 23, 2019 at 19:12
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    The percentage of people who ask a bad question because they couldn't find information on how to ask a good question is dramatically lower than the percentage of people who didn't ask a good question because they were entirely disinterested in taking the time to ask a good question. The system already thrusts the how to ask guidelines in new users faces pretty aggressively. They're ignoring it. I'm not really opposed to being even more aggressive about it, but I don't expect it to improve question quality so much as make it easier to say, "I told you so" when they continue to ignore it.
    – Servy
    Commented Apr 23, 2019 at 19:13
  • @Shog9 thanks ... who can change the "how to ask" text and how do they do it?
    – jonathanjo
    Commented Apr 23, 2019 at 19:18
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    Employees, based on a request on your meta, @jonathanjo. Come up with some useful, succinct guidance in the style already used on the page and we'll try & work it in.
    – Shog9
    Commented Apr 23, 2019 at 19:20
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    @Servy According to a famous micro-study, it was shown that people ask bad questions because 1. we (as a whole across SE) don't make our guidelines initially clear (only one of the 20 participants saw a help center, and that wasn't via the top bar link), and 2. the positioning of the sidebar on the right side makes people overlook it, and the small proportion of participants who saw it only saw it after already composing their question (and thinking, "they won't mind, right?"). Commented Apr 23, 2019 at 19:32
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    @Shog9 Have you considered that a large proportion of users overlook the sidebar due to its placement on the right (possibly due to the natural left-to-right reading direction), and if they later notice it and it makes their question off-topic, they tend to think, "they won't mind, right?" Commented Apr 23, 2019 at 19:34
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    @SonictheInclusiveHedgehog I absolutely believe that people didn't even see the help center. But it is shown to people really forcefully. That people are shown a screen just telling them to read the guidelines, and they click through it without reading it, just means that no matter how intrusive you are, many users won't read the guidelines. The solution to the problem isn't to make them more intrusive, as it just makes people annoyed at having to dismiss some intrusive message they're not going to read.
    – Servy
    Commented Apr 23, 2019 at 21:24
  • @Servy ... yes, certainly being intrusive doesn't help, and I find the "similar question" are never similar (so that's just accept-conditions intrustion), but our current NE How to Ask is just noise because it contains no NE-type words. It's in the right place, if it has keywords (and very importantly, links) it might help if can find a good spot between too short to be useful and too long to be read. I am eternally optimistic.
    – jonathanjo
    Commented Apr 23, 2019 at 21:34
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    If the most common problem is that people are posting off topic questions then perhaps the most pertinent place to add information is in the site's name. Perhaps the name "professional network engineering" would lead people to understand the topic most quickly. I don't believe "Electrical Engineering" and "Software Engineering" are as strict about homework questions. Commented Apr 24, 2019 at 10:52
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    @RonMaupin I agree ServerFault does have a similar problem. I disagree on the root cause how to fix it. I read Time To Change very differently. I read: We are blaming new users for being new. Fundamentally if people are misunderstanding the scope of a website, that's a problem with either branding or choice of scope. Rather like a door which physically looks like a "Pull" people will pull it and only then read the sign saying "Push". Adding more words saying Push won't help. Commented Apr 25, 2019 at 8:43

2 Answers 2


There are a few options right now:

In the future, we may be able to offer customized Ask Question Wizards as well, but this isn't possible now.

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    Based on your statistics, NE closes over half its questions as off-topic, so there is certainly a problem. We try very hard to guide the users to the proper site when putting an off-topic question on hold, and we seem to bend over backwards to rehabilitate other questions. The (subjective) division between people who thanks us for pointing to a better site, and those who get belligerent and simply demand the question be answered seems to be about evenly split. People will spend days arguing to reopen a question that would have been answered on the correct site in very short order.
    – Ron Maupin
    Commented Apr 23, 2019 at 21:06
  • @shog9 Thanks that's very helpful, I've put a question up on NE-meta with a suggestion. networkengineering.meta.stackexchange.com/questions/856/…
    – jonathanjo
    Commented Apr 23, 2019 at 21:09
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    Lifting the ban on telling users what not to do would help. Commented Apr 23, 2019 at 22:42
  • @PeterMortensen couldn't agree more
    – unixandria
    Commented May 4, 2019 at 20:44

Spinning out a comment into an answer... I don't really agree with the problem as described though I do believe there is a problem.

I read Time To Change very differently. The crucial piece of this for me is

Let’s make it easier for new users to succeed. No, I’m not shifting the blame. We set them up for failure, and our power users have been asking us to help them for ages. We’re planning to test a new “beginner” ask page that breaks the question box into multiple fields – one for each of the key things answers need to help

One interpretation of this is "give more guidance". A "better" interpretation is "don't set people up to fail".

To explain the difference: Most of us have had the experience of pulling on a door only to read the word "Push". Was the word "Push" unclear? Was it in the wrong place? Or did the door look like a "Push"? If the design regularly leads people to believe the wrong thing, then no amount of documentation will help.

This is fundamentally the Principle of Least Astonishment.

Now to talk about Network Engineering (SE). I've never visited this site before now. I find it surprising that Network Engineering is a "professionals only" site where Electrical Engineering (SE) and Software Engineering (SE) are not. Indeed event Engineering (Beta SE) isn't.

A link to "What to ask" is already too late because the new user has already decided what to ask. Arguably "Is this the right place to ask?" is better but it still has the problem that new users have already decided that it is, much like a door that says "Push".

I'll admit that I'm deeply disappointed by the community choosing to have "professional only" sites. We're here to help people learn, why do we turn away those who have not yet learned?...

...But if we must have them then, please, lets make it clear in the branding. Why not a simple name change to "Professional Network Engineering"?

  • Thanks for interesting suggestions. My task I was trying to achieve with this question was to find out how we change the guidance within the current parameters. I completely agree there are other, more important issues, about remit. I also think all the "affordances" are pointing in the wrong direction.
    – jonathanjo
    Commented Apr 25, 2019 at 9:46

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