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How about a difficulty rating for questions?

I enjoy looking at the "iPhone" questions on Stack Overflow.

The only problem is: on any given day there are four types of questions:

  1. 45% badly written bizarre newbie questions. "I want to make an RPG like Quake and should I use NSArray for that. Is it hard?"

  2. 45% newbie faq-level questions. The answer is always "you forgot self", "that's the controller, not the view", or similar.

  3. 5% difficult engineering questions. Advanced technical questions. (Always answered, thankfully, by the same three or four people.)

  4. 5% difficult comp sci questions. (collision detection between heptagons, how to guess the user has a belgian accent, etc)

It would be astoundingly useful to distinguish between batch 1/2 versus batch 3/4. Some days you want to help the world by explaining properties as clearly as possible for the 100th time. Some days you are wondering if there are any new 3/4 group questions posted.

Is there something incredibly obvious I am missing here?

Or, can someone important create a "difficult" tag? At a stroke, that would totally change the nature of Stack Overflow. You could just search on "iphone" "difficult" and instantly (if you were feeling that way at that time) get past all the retainCount questions and see only the 3-4 style questions.

If you are reading this and you are important, you should do it right away.

  • 15
    5) meta-questions like this.
    – Spacedman
    Commented Jan 11, 2011 at 15:41
  • 1
    Complementing Spacdeman’s comment: meta.stackoverflow.com
    – Bavarious
    Commented Jan 11, 2011 at 15:45
  • 3
    I think the biggest problem with something like this would be that anyone can apply this tag to their posts. What is to prevent the groups 1/2 from saying they have difficult questions as well? That said, I totally agree with you that some way to delineate like this would be sweet, I just don't know if a tag is the way to do it.
    – Wade Tandy
    Commented Jan 11, 2011 at 15:46
  • @Bavarious there'll be a handy 'migrated to' link to that site soon enough :)
    – AakashM
    Commented Jan 11, 2011 at 15:49
  • "I think the biggest problem with something like this would be that anyone can apply this tag to their posts" So what? The current situation is "utterly ridiculous and hopeless". The problem you mention is only a minor one. In time people would be reasonable about the tag, just as they are reasonable about tags today. The occasional idiot would misuse it. So what? no Problem!
    – Fattie
    Commented Jan 11, 2011 at 20:25

5 Answers 5


One thing you can try to find the harder-but-interesting questions is to browse the unanswered questions tab, but skip the new questions. If a question remains unanswered for some days, there is a good chance it isn't too simple. Of course you still have the "too unclear to answer" batch, but they fade away by downvoting them.

Leave the easy ones for the rep wolves, and concentrate on the hard ones. If one is even too hard for you, vote it up, so it gets more attention from other experts.

  • ...or cast a bounty!
    – badp
    Commented Jan 11, 2011 at 16:00
  • That's a good suggestion. I often have a look through to see if I can answer any of those. Also, the unanswered questions section, including no answers, can sometimes be good.
    – user142852
    Commented Jan 11, 2011 at 16:05
  • Of course I'm aware of that Jan. there needs to be A SOLUTION to the problem though.
    – Fattie
    Commented Jan 11, 2011 at 20:26

But but but... wouldn't said users simply tag their questions:

iphone rpg quake hard difficult helpme

Here's an example. It's in my C++ and Java feeds, yet it has absolutely nothing specifically to do with Java or C++. Having a difficult tag won't make users use it appropriately.

  • 1
    I fixed your example. Maybe I shouldn't have, b/c it was an example. But it was broken and crying to be fixed.
    – C. Ross
    Commented Jan 11, 2011 at 16:11
  • Occasionally someone would do this. So what? the current situation is ridiculous and horrible
    – Fattie
    Commented Jan 11, 2011 at 20:26
  • @C. Ross I'll let you off. @user155609 Currently, people don't. But the point of my example is to show you that users often mistag for a wider audience; why C++ or Java over lisp or python in that question? If they knew there was a tag for difficult questions, they'd just use it. If you set rep limits, that creates an unequal community. The only real solution is to offer an appropriately-sized bounty.
    – user142852
    Commented Jan 11, 2011 at 20:43

I'm hesitant to support a "difficult" tag, as it seems that it will have a lot of noise: people not applying when they should (so you miss interesting questions) and people applying it when they shouldn't (either because they don't realize their question isn't difficult, or in an attempt to bring it to the attention of particular people when a plain old question would work). Further, difficulty is relative; the asker is probably finding it difficult (else they wouldn't ask), but it may or may not be difficult for an answerer, depending on who they are. It also breaks the current general idea that tags identify the subject matter of the question.

It seems that this is an interesting machine learning opportunity, though. Something that would tell you what questions are "difficult" without the asker being able or required to label them as such. More generally, a recommender system to figure out what questions are interesting to you would probably do the trick.

As it is, you could try doing some filtering with additional tags that tend to come up in the questions you are actually interested in, if there are recurrent ones.

  • The current situation is ALL NOISE. It's nuts. Difficulty is not relative. There are newbie questions (people working on their first coupe of apps), and expert questions (by seasoned professionals).
    – Fattie
    Commented Jan 11, 2011 at 20:27

This would be considered a "meta" tag, similar to "subjective", "beginner", and so on. These are currently discouraged, although many feel that they are helpful for cases similar to your own.

Unfortunately, the problem with these tags is that you'll never find two people who agree on what should be considered a "beginner" question, what should be considered "difficult", and so on.

  • It's extremely clear-cut. And so what if one or two questions are edge cases? You might as well say "there should not be ANY age limit for driving, because, there are some edge cases." If a "beginner" or "newbie" tag is currently discouraged, whoever made the policy was silly or lived in a simpler time when there was only a question a week.
    – Fattie
    Commented Jan 11, 2011 at 20:28
  • 2
    @user (lots-o-numbers): a) I'm not saying the tags shouldn't exist (I actually tend to favor them), but that is the state of the community as I know it; b) have you any argument supporting the idea that these sorts of taxonomies are "extremely clear-cut"? From where I'm sitting, it's extremely difficult to distinguish a 'beginner' from an 'advanced' topics in many cases. Particularly, 'beginners' lack the meta-knowledge (think Dunning-Kruger effect) to assess the difficulty of their own questions---which may seem trivial but touch on 'advanced' subtleties (C++ comes strongly to mind here). Commented Jan 11, 2011 at 21:49

I, too, monitor the [iphone] tag for more difficult questions. I don't think a tag for more challenging questions would do any good, because you'd first need to properly educate people to start using it. This is why people use the [iphone] tag instead of the arguably more correct [iphone-sdk] or [ios]. I've realized that educating every new user from Google about the proper, but non-obvious, way of tagging questions is a losing battle.

Also, whether or not something is difficult is a subjective measure. The fact that someone is asking a question indicates that something is beyond their current abilities, so I'd think they'd be more likely to think of it as difficult.

I find plenty of challenging questions simply by subscribing to an RSS feed of all [iphone] questions. I can then go back at my leisure and cherry-pick the ones with intriguing titles, no matter when they were asked. If they don't have a good answer, I'll take the time to provide one. While some people have good questions with poor or nondescript titles, usually I can quickly sort the interesting ones from the questions I'd rather let others deal with.

I've also been discovering good questions using the new Stack Overflow front page. The heuristics used for ordering there seem to do a good job of bubbling up questions I'm interested in. This only handles newer questions, though, so it misses many unanswered older ones. I might enjoy having the same rankings be applied to older questions that I may have missed.

  • Brad, if you think about it, the iPhone tag currently ... works. Right? After all, one can indeed find the iPhone questions. Sure, it would be even better if people more subtly used the iphone-sdk and ios tags. However the iphone tag works just fine. Observably, it's working. Similarly, a "difficult" (or perhaps conversely a "newbie") tag would have lots of small problems. But, my guess is, it would work absolutely fine -- it would work "as well as" say the iphone tag currently (and of course small improvements would always be possible, if people used their brain as you say - but
    – Fattie
    Commented Jan 15, 2011 at 8:30
  • .. but so what?) It's an interesting observation that with tags, clearly only the lowest common denominator works. Sophisticates like you and me want people to carefully understand and use the difference between ios, cocoa, xcode etc. However in practice - observably - the common user (again observably, I am describing what is, not what should be), just uses "iphone" 95% of the time and that's about it. Similarly an extremely simple, broad tag like "newbie" (or conversely "expert") would work great. Of course, it's not my site and none of my business.
    – Fattie
    Commented Jan 15, 2011 at 8:33
  • It's the business of the business owners. But I would GUESS that a lot of people (myself being a good example) are walking away bored because nobody has implemented the astoundingly simple idea of a switch that you set "newbie / advanced" when you are entering a question. That idea is good for both categories of questioners. If I suddenly wanted to know something about some absurd topic like Windoze, I would much rather it was clearly flagged as "newbie question" in that field you know. Cheers!
    – Fattie
    Commented Jan 15, 2011 at 8:35

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