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Can we get people to directly ask about their problems instead of topics they think might be related?

What I see a lot of are questions from seemingly inexperienced developers who ask a very specific question, but because of their inexperience, they end up asking the wrong question.

Let me concoct a non-programming example:

I need to find a winch that can be used to move 2 tons a certain distance.

Now, a more experienced person would ask the following question, given exactly the same problem:

I'm having trouble starting my car - I think it's either the starter or the battery. Is there a simple way to test which part is the problem?

So the good people of StackOverflow try to find a good Winch API or some such, when in fact all the asker needed was some advice on what to listen for or which battery terminals to test.

Sometimes, an astute individual will post a comment such as "What are you trying to accomplish?" and if the asker is responsive, a more accurate description of the problem sometimes emerges.


Is there something that can be done, or is this an inevitable and unavoidable symptom of inexperience?


4 Answers 4


What would be excellent is if people answering questions waited until the questioner has clarified their question, prompted by comments. Unfortunately, there is always a lemming-like dash to answer questions, often making wildly incorrect assumptions on what the OP actually wanted. More lemmings then pile in and upvote these answers and often the (deficient) answer too.

I don't see this stopping any time soon.

  • I see this too. This is one of the drawbacks of the reputation system. Jul 13, 2010 at 17:39
  • Perhaps a delay between when the question is asked and when it can be answered? Like, maybe, until the question has been accepted by the community?
    – Randolpho
    Jul 13, 2010 at 18:12
  • @Randolpho No thanks - I thought your "accepted by the community" idea completely unworkable. I'd rather have the lemmings.
    – nb69307
    Jul 13, 2010 at 18:20

I think that people just need to carefully read people's questions. (Esp new users)

And, instead of providing a quick, technically correct answer, people should think about what the person should really be asking.

Sometimes it is impossible to read minds deduce what they really need. In those cases, you need to ask clarifying questions. A simple why? in the case of the winch example would make the problem more clear.

If you see someone asking a question that doesn't seem exactly right, your senses should tingle that maybe you haven't gotten to the root of the problem yet.

  • Soon as you learn to read their minds, let me know.
    – Randolpho
    Jul 13, 2010 at 17:21
  • @Randolpho Sometimes it is impossible to read minds. In those cases, you need to ask clarifying questions. Like a simple why? in the case of the winch example would make the problem more clear.
    – jjnguy
    Jul 13, 2010 at 17:28
  • Now we're on the same page.
    – Randolpho
    Jul 13, 2010 at 18:15

I think the most important thing to do is to treat new users differently. Not just users with low rep, but also users who say they're newbies, or new to a particular technology. Don't assume that they know enough to ask the right question. Instead, ask yourself what might they have encountered that caused them to ask the question they did ask.

A recent example is VB.net Module returning data like a function.

  • 1
    No, don't ask yourself, ask them!
    – nb69307
    Jul 13, 2010 at 19:24
  • 1
    @Neil: of course ask them. I was addressing my answer at people who want to go ahead and answer the question before clarifying comments arrive. I find it very useful to ask myself what problem the OP is likely having, as opposed to just answering what he actually wrote. I then ask for clarification, but may go ahead and answer based on my assumptions. They're sometimes false assumptions, but they're my false assumptions, and I like them. Jul 13, 2010 at 19:29

The user asking for a winch to move two tons is obviously asking the wrong question and had he asked his question in a more open-minded and explicit way, he would benefit with more helpful answers.

However, the inexperienced user is only the one who looses out in this case (and we hope that he won't be inexperienced for long). As for the rest of the site, wrong-questions of this kind often produce creative and interesting answers, ie, where to find a good winch API.

In other words, inexperienced users asking the wrong questions should be encouraged to give clarification so that they can better be helped. However, with regard to the overall QA quality of the site and users over-zealously answering any question without waiting for clarification, I don't think there is anything to be concerned about.

Here's an example of what I mean. Maybe the guy who asked the question really shouldn't be testing his private methods, but I'm glad he asked about it because the answers provided give insight into the mechanism of unit testing and design patterns.

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