I have seen a lot of questions that don't have enough details to allow any one to start formulating an answer. And yet the question will have several psychic answers provided. How can we encourage detailed questions?

How can we encourage users to post comments asking for more information rather than pointless answers? Down voting does not seem a cost effective solution. For an example, see: https://stackoverflow.com/questions/369051/best-database-for-c-product#369129

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    Ok, here's a question for the assembled experts: should the request for further clarification be an answer or a comment? Dec 15 '08 at 17:53
  • @Paul: I'd base it on the rep of the asker. If they have 2-digit rep, they're probably not used to the format of SO, and so might miss a comment. Dec 15 '08 at 18:01
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    Comment is the right place for the request for clarification. Using a different approach for new users vs. experienced users is just going to confuse the new ones: they need a consistent experience to learn from.
    – Jay Bazuzi
    Dec 15 '08 at 18:13
  • @Jay: Good point. I retract my earlier suggestion. Dec 15 '08 at 18:29
  • @Bill - the bigger problem at the moment is people who don't have enough reputation to comment (requires 50 points); they have to provide answers. It also seems you need some number of points to be able to edit your own questions - at least, many newbies answer their questions to give extra info. Dec 21 '08 at 7:39
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    @Paul Tomblin: My rule of thumb: if I have a potentially useful solution, it's an answer, and I'll mention in the answer that more detail would allow us to be more helpful. If I just have questions, it's a comment. Feb 11 '10 at 3:36

There are many cases where psychic answers correctly predict the intended question. The point should not be to combat psychic answers -- it should be to combat vague questions.

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    Here's my favorite trick: Don't answer the vague ones.
    – S.Lott
    Dec 15 '08 at 17:54
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    I wonder if some of the authors realize they are vague questions. Does a vague tag help or do they need more direction on what to provide? Dec 15 '08 at 17:58
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    What usually helps is politely asking them to provide more details, but not spending any time on the question if they don't.
    – Pekka
    Feb 11 '10 at 1:55

We also need to understand that people of all levels will post questions and answers. Often it can be helpful for newbies to give them answers to help them see how ambiguity in their questions can lead to answers they weren't intending.

These people I am sure aren't deliberately writing ambiguous questions, they just don't know better. It is all part of the learning curve.

A little bit if tolerance goes a long way.

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    If they are not pushed for more information will they realize they are getting low quality answers? Dec 15 '08 at 18:45
  • that's why it's important to ask for more details in a comment, not just downvote, or adding a [vague] tag.
    – Javier
    Dec 15 '08 at 18:47

How to Combat Psychic Answers?

I don't believe we need to.

How can we encourage detailed questions?

I don't think detailed questions can be encouraged any more than they already are. Yes, we could make the instructions in the right hand column blink...

How To Ask Is Your Question About Programming?

...but that won't work either.

I think the best way to deal with this is to let the person post the question, and then let the community assess it. Some of them will just shake their head and move on. Some will ask follow up questions. Some will downvote. Some will vote to close. Some will take what little information they have, and attempt an answer.

I think this is great! If we give a shotgun approach to a new question, then something may well hit the target, or the community will eventually reach a consensus on whether it should be closed, edited, or downvoted into oblivion.

Regardless of what happens, the person who asked the question gets a lot of fast feedback. If the issue is important to them they will engage the community and the question will be fixed, and the answers will get better.

If they don't engage, and the question remains broken, then it doesn't hurt anyone to have some wild-guess answers floating around, some of which might help someone else with a similar problem later, searching google for similar terms.

How can we encourage users to post comments asking for more information rather then pointless answers?

I don't believe this is necessary, and in fact it's a good survival trait to approach the problem with some guesses even when it's not clearly defined.

I've seen several questions where the OP responds to the guessed answers with additional information that eventually fills the whole picture out, but they did not respond to direct questions in the comments. Some people simply engage differently.

From their perspective they ask a question, and all they get in response are more questions. What they might prefer is a few answers that may be wildly off the mark - they may know immediately that they are off the mark, or they may try it out and come back with more information. Regardless, this is how they engage with others.

It's not necessary to discourage people from trying to solve a problem when the issue is not clearly defined.


Request for more information can be made in the comments section. Then the question can be edited to make it more meaningful.


As the comments and answers indicate, the issue is not to stop people being psychic, but to ensure that the questioners get feedback - not just downvotes but verbal feedback - asking for more information. If they're rank beginners, it seems they cannot even edit their own questions (well, empirically, a lot of newbies edit their question by adding answers - I've not been that much of a newbie for a while, so I don't remember except that it was a little frustrating for a while). So, it is then up to people who can edit to combine the extra information into the main question and request that the newcomer remove the information.

Tolerance of newbies is important. If someone with a few hundred points or more asks a question without enough information, they deserve any brickbats lobbed at them in the form of down-votes or whatever. If they're a newbie, they need the education more.

Comments help. Sometimes, it is necessary to edit the question to get their attention. Overall, on average, I'd say that most people get the message and end up being sensible. I may just be avoiding the topics where this is not self-evident.

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