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This question is mostly about the broader Stack Exchange network, rather than Stack Overflow.

I have a recurring issue when I asking questions on Stack Exchange, across the whole network: very often, if I ask a question of the form "how do I do X?", I get comments or answers that boil down to "you shouldn't want to do X."

When this happens I feel I either have to get into the weeds of explaining why doing X would actually not be a terrible idea in my case, or else I have to try and make a case for why I should be allowed to ask the "how" question without having to justify the "why".

The first approach usually works eventually, but it takes a lot of time and often leads to further arguments of the "my workflow is better than your workflow" variety, while the second approach generally tends to fall on deaf ears and can also lead to a lot of unproductive discussion.

I'm not saying that I don't occasionally want to do things that are in fact a bad idea, or even that I don't sometimes fail to realise I have an XY problem. But I do think both of those things are relatively rare, and they don't change the fact that the "why do you want to do this?" line of questioning is often irrelevant to the question being asked, and very often leads to a lot of off-topic discussion.

I have two questions in relation to this phenomenon:

  1. Is there something that I can do personally to avoid this kind of discussion on my questions, aside from not wanting to do things that other people wouldn't want to do? Are there tips on writing questions that will make them less likely to elicit this kind of response? Is there a good way to respond to this kind of comment that avoids the potential for off-topic discussion?

  2. If others experience the same issue, is there something that can be done about it at the network level? If there was a FAQ or policy somewhere that would discourage this kind of response, then at least there would be somewhere to point people.

Note that there is a similar previous question, Why would you want to do that? or I can't see any reason to do that, but that question just asks for discussion of the issue - it doesn't ask the concrete questions about what to do about it.

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    Do you often actually get an answer from someone who goes on a protracted "my workflow is better than your workflow" argument or do you just eventually get an answer from someone else after the fact?
    – BSMP
    Jul 28 at 5:49
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    @N.Virgo FYI, a fairly closely related question, which may provide (at least in some cases) a few useful ideas regarding what you're asking about (including reasons why members may ask about your idea, although they should still be careful to not just suggest you don't do something if they don't really understand why you are trying to do that thing), is What is the XY problem?. Jul 28 at 5:53
  • @BSMP I'm not sure off the top of my head, but I think it's rare that a good answer (or any answer) comes from the person giving that kind of argument.
    – N. Virgo
    Jul 28 at 5:59
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    I can't agree more, and have a perfect example. This answer was given to question "How to fix a mug?", which for some reason the moderator handling my NAA flag chose to delete. Jul 28 at 6:04
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    @JohnOmielan as I mentioned in the question, I don't deny that I might occasionally have an XY problem without realising it - we're all human after all - but I honestly don't think it's usually the case. I think part of the issue is that the term "XY problem" has become such a meme that people often just assume that's what's happening, even if there's no particularly good reason to think so. It's at exactly that point that the issues described in the question start to happen.
    – N. Virgo
    Jul 28 at 6:05
  • @N.Virgo I just intended to suggest the question I linked to might be of interest (& possibly some use) to you, without trying to imply anything about the potential prevalence of your questions being examples of XY problems. I apologize that my comment did not make this more clear. Jul 28 at 6:10
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    @JohnOmielan no problem at all!
    – N. Virgo
    Jul 28 at 6:10
  • Downvote the answers telling you you should not be trying to do that if you do not find them helpful. Otherwise, maybe learn the lesson and include the justification for why you want to do it that way from the get-go to preempt that type of response.
    – TylerH
    Jul 28 at 15:20
  • @ShadowTheKidWizard I mean "how to fix a broken mug" is not a life hack question, but then again that site seems to just be filled with "how to do this basic human task" questions rather than actual life hacks (the concept of which is kind of iffy in the first place for a stack exchange site, admittedly)
    – TylerH
    Jul 28 at 15:22
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    @TylerH well sometimes there are actual helpful tips there, that the askers wouldn't think about otherwise. But I just hate cases of people judging those who ask, like the example I gave, and giving tips for better life instead of actual answer. Jul 28 at 15:29
  • ->Diversity and Inclusion training for problem users.
    – Adrian M.
    Jul 28 at 20:01

3 Answers 3

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It takes two to tango. If you feel a discussion in comments is not productive, you can say "I understand your concerns, but they aren't really relevant to my situation." then stop engaging. You should update your question to clarify it if you're receiving a lot of discussion or answers that miss the point. You should also flag comment discussions that you feel you've addressed by editing your question and ask a moderator to move them to chat or delete them. This keeps future readers from getting caught up in the discussion.

You don't have to justify the reason why you're asking the question. You should provide enough detail and context so the people understand the question well enough to answer it, but not so much detail that readers get distracted by the least important parts. Assume that people who are off-track are sincerely trying to help you and don't ignore their feedback. They're basically telling you that the way you've written your question has somehow derailed their train of thought. Resist the urge to debate.

Questions and answers on SE are iterative. It may take a couple tries before you've refined the question well enough that people don't misunderstand the point of it. If you get an answer that doesn't even attempt to answer your question, flag it as "not an answer". For example, if you ask "How do I tell the difference between this poisonous mushroom and this edible mushroom?" and someone writes an answer that just tells you to not eat foraged mushrooms, explaining why it's a bad idea, that is not an answer and you should flag it. You should update your question to make it clear you are aware of the dangers of eating foraged mushrooms and that you're just interested if there is a way to distinguish them. It would be nice to leave a comment for the author of an answer that is off-track to let them know you've updated the question so that they have an opportunity to improve their answer.

It is hard to write certain types of questions in a way that people from all over the world will fully grok them on your first try. I think if we tried to dissuade people from pointing out that the question might not be the right one to ask for what you want to do (in their opinion), we would lose a lot of valuable feedback and discourage people from engaging with questions.

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I'm not saying that I don't occasionally want to do things that are in fact a bad idea, or even that I don't sometimes fail to realise I have an XY problem. But I do think both of those things are relatively rare

Perhaps they're rare in your case, but they're not generally rare amongst all users. A good number of questions by beginners in any field involve an XY problem. So, unless you demonstrate that you really do know what you need, it's going to be difficult for readers to determine whether or not you fall in the said group without asking or suggesting that this might be an XY problem.

Is there something that I can do personally to avoid this kind of discussion on my questions...?

In my experience, it usually helps to do one of the following:

  1. Go into specifics (briefly). If the question doesn't look like it's written by a beginner, it's more likely that users will take the actual request seriously. Otherwise, if the question appears trivial and is asking for a solution that's usually the wrong one, people are going to assume that it's an XY problem, or at least want to ask questions to make sure it isn't.

  2. Demonstrate that you've considered the alternative. Sometimes when writing a question, you can anticipate concerns that readers might have. So, it helps in this case to include something along the lines of:

    I'm aware that I can do Y but I need to do X because [insert short reason here].

If others experience the same issue, is there something that can be done about it at the network level? If there was a FAQ or policy somewhere that would discourage this kind of response, then at least there would be somewhere to point people.

Although I agree that some users use that kind of response excessively or inappropriately, I also don't think we should discourage it in all situations. You should also look at this from the perspective of the reader/answerer. As I mentioned above, it's not really that rare where the question does indeed involve an XY problem or wants to do something that's generally a bad idea. If we encourage people to always provide a direct answer without ever questioning the motive, I don't think that would increase the overall quality of questions and answers.

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    On that last point, I agree that there's some balance that needs to be struck. (I had put some text in the question about that, but took it out because it made the question a bit long and meandering.) I guess there's a pretty blurry line between helpful discussion trying to pin down an XY problem, and irrelevant discussion about why a user should want to do something that's unusual but for which there are legitimate possible reasons to want to do it. I don't really know the best way to strike that balance.
    – N. Virgo
    Jul 28 at 7:01
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I'm not sure off the top of my head, but I think it's rare that a good answer (or any answer) comes from the person giving that kind of argument. – N. Virgo

Given that these discussions rarely result in you getting useful information, I'd argue that the answer to this:

Is there a good way to respond to this kind of comment that avoids the potential for off-topic discussion?

Is to just not have the discussion. It may be worth explaining once why you're doing X, either pre-emptively in the question as suggested by 41686d6564 stands w. Palestine or one comment if someone asks (for the benefit of others who might have the same question) but otherwise disengage. I realize that sounds like it's contrary to the common advice to respond to people trying to help you but comments are for clarification. You aren't obligated to keep responding just because someone continues asking about it.


Belatedly, I realized I did the thing you're complaining about: you asked how to do a thing (how to respond) and I said not to do that. I promise I wasn't trying to be funny! And if you'd said you sometimes get an answer at the end of these discussions I wouldn't have left this answer. However, it doesn't sound like you're benefiting from these discussions even when you eventually convince them.

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