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Welcome to Software Development on Codidact!

Will you help us build our independent community of developers helping developers? We're small and trying to grow. We welcome questions about all aspects of software development, from design to code to QA and more. Got questions? Got answers? Got code you'd like someone to review? Please join us.

Don't close questions for lack of detail/confusion

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tl;dr: When a question is unclear, don't close right away, especially if it's possible to discern what they are trying to ask. Instead, use comments and edit suggestions to work with the asker and help them improve the question. Only close if it is absolutely hopeless (if the asker disappears for weeks and/or refuses to take feedback).

It is inevitable that people will ask bad questions on a Q&A site. Questions can be bad in many ways, for this post I am focusing on those that are closed because:

These are often closed for being "too generic", "unclear", "too broad", "off topic" or whatever other euphemism is popular at the time for "stupid question, go away".

The root cause in many cases is that the asker is a newbie and does not even understand the subject matter enough to ground it in appropriate context, or lacks the foundational skills required to properly analyze their problem and identify the specific point they need help with. When they ask about thing X, they don't just need help with thing X. They also need help understanding what they even should ask about. IMO it is unfair, unreasonable, unrealistic, unproductive and unduly elitist to refuse to provide help with the latter.

Another thing I observed is that when I was a mediocre programmer, I began to notice many people ask "bad" questions that were hard to answer because they are unclear. After I became a good programmer, I noticed that many bad questions I previously thought were unanswerable became easily answerable, because thanks to my greater skill and knowledge I was able to easily discern what the person meant to ask. This echoed the experience I had as a novice programmer, when the better mentors and teachers seemed to have an uncanny ability to figure out what I'm trying to ask before I could figure out how to phrase it myself, and this sort of Q&A was a great help in my own learning. Naturally, I strongly prefer participating in an environment where experts are considered to have a duty to not just answer questions, but also help newbies ask the questions.

I've heard the retort of just using the process, editing, commenting, then flagging to reopen - I've tried this many times on Stack as well. It doesn't work because it introduces too much overhead. As an expert, I often want to use CD in short bursts. Maybe I'm on a coffee break and want to quickly answer a question or two. An expert can answer many newbie questions quickly in this way. But if I have to submit an edit, flag, wait for the mod to see it, follow up to make sure it got reopened... That is a whole chore that drags on, and it's much more boring than a quick post while I drink my coffee. Its natural consequence is to defuse excitement from people who want to help, and to discourage experts from answering newbie questions.

This is not me saying my time is too valuable for flags and so the process should change for me. I am obviously here investing my time into this post because I care about the site. But the reality is that if you want experts to help newbies, the friction must be minimal, because experts are usually too busy to invest much time in helping an individual newbie. This doesn't scale. If you're going to be an expert helping newbies you must do it in a way that maximizes # people helped per unit work/time. Otherwise the logical thing is to let other newbies and diletants to deal with newbie questions, a situation also described as "the blind leading the blind". But the dabblers can generally only help with a well-posed question, they cannot look past a badly phrased or confused question to figure out the real intent. And as I pointed out elsewhere in this post, newbies will tend to ask bad questions, because usually when you are a newbie to a domain you are also a newbie to asking questions in that domain.

Also, when you close a question for being unclear, you are creating more work for yourself. I often hear mods on QA sites complain that moderating is endless and thankless toil. So why create more of it? When you close the question, it is now likely that the question will be edited and flagged for reopen, so you have now generated 2+ mod chores. Instead, you could leave a comment, and in the best case the question will be improved and require 0 mod chores, while in the worst case the asker will fail to improve it and eventually the question can be closed, requiring 1 chore. Of course, this is assuming reopening is even a genuine process - my own experience on other sites has been that unfortunately mod teams like to dig their heels in, and even after a question is improved refuse to go back on the earlier decision.

When a question appears to be unclear, the mods should give sufficient opportunity for other users to answer it anyway. AFAIK we do not require our mods to be virtuosos of their field. It is very possible that the mods knowledge is lacking or they simply failed to understand the question themselves. A mod not understanding a question is not a litmus test for the question being unanswerable - many experts answer questions on QA sites without seeking mod status, so it could well be that the question is unclear to the mod, but not to other users. If an expert is able to answer an unclear question, the solution should be to allow them to post an answer, and then edit the question to read better for other users. This creates knowledge, helps people and promotes a healthy community. If we close the question and thereby block experts from answering, this alienates new users, annoys experts and stymies the community.

Example:

  • https://software.codidact.com/posts/291046 - the question is a very reasonable one and part of a basic Python skillset. The asker is confused, and misphrased it. However, if you know the answer, it's not hard to deduce what they're trying to ask. I submitted an edit suggestion to this effect if anyone is curious. I would like to also post an answer, and I think that it will be a good and useful answer to people trying to learn this aspect of Python, but now I cannot because the question was closed, and who knows when (if?) it will be reopened.
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No.

Terms like "too generic", "unclear", "too broad", "off topic" are absolutely not euphemisms for "stupid question, go away". They mean what they say; and when they are used Somewhere Else, multiple of them exist simultaneously for a reason. They are explicitly not designed to be used to judge that a question is "lazy", that the person asking doesn't "deserve" an answer or anything else like that.

First off, we are judging questions, not the people asking them. But even then, some kinds of issues with a question can be fixed, and others can't. Closure is about signaling that there is an issue, so as to insist on fixing the issue if it's fixable. Finally, don't make up a close reason if the question is clear, well scoped, properly backed up by a specification or reproducible example as appropriate, etc. If you simply dislike the question - that is, if you feel that answering the question is not important (but please keep in mind that most people are beginners or near-beginners, in every discipline), that's what downvotes are for.

If we choose to make it our problem that beginners don't know what to ask (and I agree that they very often do not), here are the workable strategies I can think of:

  1. Have experts self-answer the necessary questions, using their expertise to determine what to ask. (One may think that answering would be trivial at this point, but even simple questions can be surprisingly nuanced when one tries to account for the fact that the reader doesn't already know the answer.)

  2. Use a separate section for the "plz point out the bug", "what are the steps to solve this", "what does this part of the assignment mean" etc. questions.

  3. Some kind of explicit staging or drafting system for questions (i.e. something that the Codidact Foundation is explicitly tasked to develop, with more technical support than just a separate category).


The objection you've raised fundamentally misunderstands the purpose of closing questions on a Q&A site. It is injunctive, not punitive; it is fundamentally temporary; and it is a judgement of current suitability, not potential value.

The consequence of closing a question is that it cannot be answered until reopened. Closing and reopening are both explicitly, deliberately designed features of the system; we may conclude that the purpose of closing questions is to prevent answers from being posted. Once problems are fixed, such that providing answers would be aligned with the goals of a Q&A site, the question can be reopened, and answers can be posted.

Why should this be necessary? Because well-meaning people on a "question and answer" site, who see a question and believe themselves able to say something useful in response, will be tempted to write an answer. Such answers, however, are inherently not useful to the general public. The value that the Q&A format has, which an ordinary discussion forum does not have, is that over time it accumulates a searchable reference library. As such, questions need to provide something to search for - by clearly introducing a properly-scoped problem that answers can address.

Otherwise, it wouldn't be necessary to describe problems caused by typos as "off topic", but we do. It would scarcely be necessary to close anything that's on topic, in fact. However, if we can agree that some programming questions merit deletion, then we must surely also agree that at least as many merit closure - since deletion also entails prevention of answers.

While I accept that this standard won't always be reached in practice: the gold standard for a question is that, as a curator, you should feel like you could close someone else's question as a duplicate of this one some day, and not feel like you've done the OP a disservice simply by trying to keep the answers to the same question in one place. (After all, that's another aspect of how to provide "searchable reference library" value: once you've found "the question", you shouldn't have to keep chasing links.)

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Second section - disagree (8 comments)
First paragraph - theory vs. practice (3 comments)
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No. Closing is an integral part of maintaining this knowledge repository. If a question isn't up to our standards, it doesn't belong here, and closing is the first step in ensuring that. If a question doesn't meet our standards, it shouldn't have been posted at all.[1] Closing is our way of letting people repair a question, something that deletion would've made far harder. When a question has been edited to meet our standards, it's supposed to be reopened. Leaving a question open while it's unfocused or unclear allows answers to it; something which doesn't make all that much sense. And if answers are posted at that time, we now have more problems.

The problem is that closing is seen as the end of the world. It's not. Deletion is. Well, even that isn't the end of the world, because questions can be undeleted. Although the visibility is so low that's unlikely to happen.

Instead, use comments and edit suggestions to work with the asker and help them improve the question

Then do that. There's no purpose in closing a question if the ones responsible for having it closed were able to edit it to fit the standards. But that's not always the case. Demanding that the question is not closed because it's fresh, doesn't actually help the case either. If a question is closed, that's a sign to both the author and others that an edit is needed. We don't close questions just because it's a little bit ambiguous or confusing (I hope).

They also need help understanding what they even should ask about. IMO it is unfair, unreasonable, unrealistic, unproductive and unduly elitist to refuse to provide help with the latter.

No, it's not. Codidact is not a helpdesk. That said, if the author is willing to improve their question to meet the standard, nothing prevents you from helping them do so, by the means of editing and commenting.

I've heard the retort of just using the process, editing, commenting, then flagging to reopen - I've tried this many times on Stack as well. It doesn't work because it introduces too much overhead. As an expert, I often want to use CD in short bursts. Maybe I'm on a coffee break and want to quickly answer a question or two. An expert can answer many newbie questions quickly in this way. But if I have to submit an edit, flag, wait for the mod to see it, follow up to make sure it got reopened...

That's actually a reasonable argument, and I find it more convincing than I want it to. However, I think that preventing question closure for new questions will do more harm than good. I don't yet have a lot of experience with this on Codidact, but I know from Stack Overflow that it would be very harmful.

Question authors almost never repair their questions, because it's not in their interest; they use the site more as a helpdesk for themselves when posting questions, even though that isn't what the site is supposed to be. Unfortunately, the UX for posting a question makes it easier to use the site in this way; I'm not sure how we can solve that issue, besides moving the "ask question" button somewhere much less prominent.

Closing a question upfront clearly marks it as not up to the standards. That's good, it means one post didn't go under the radar. But if we discover bad questions, then ignore closing them? That's counter-productive to curation, and puts more strain on whoever chooses to monitor the question for eventual closure. It's easier for the system, and curators, to close and reopen. The vast majority of questions don't get edited to meet the requirements, so it should be rare that you'd actually be awaiting a reopening.

Maybe there are other means of improving the process for answerers when they are able to edit a question into an acceptable form. I don't think preventing question closure is a good solution.

https://software.codidact.com/posts/291046 - the question is a very reasonable one and part of a basic Python skillset. The asker is confused, and misphrased it. However, if you know the answer, it's not hard to deduce what they're trying to ask. I submitted an edit suggestion to this effect if anyone is curious. I would like to also post an answer, and I think that it will be a good and useful answer to people trying to learn this aspect of Python, but now I cannot because the question was closed, and who knows when (if?) it will be reopened.

That post is closed as "too generic", not "unclear". There are already two comments pointing out how it doesn't meet the standards. You want to post an answer to the question, but that's precisely what you're not supposed to do. If you think it's been closed in error, that's what you should focus on, not using it as an example for the request/discussion you made here.

Another thing I observed is that when I was a mediocre programmer, I began to notice many people ask "bad" questions that were hard to answer because they are unclear. After I became a good programmer, I noticed that many bad questions I previously thought were unanswerable became easily answerable, because thanks to my greater skill and knowledge I was able to easily discern what the person meant to ask. This echoed the experience I had as a novice programmer, when the better mentors and teachers seemed to have an uncanny ability to figure out what I'm trying to ask before I could figure out how to phrase it myself, and this sort of Q&A was a great help in my own learning.

I don't think this observation is an argument for your request. I don't really see how it makes a difference to how question closure works.

Naturally, I strongly prefer participating in an environment where experts are considered to have a duty to not just answer questions, but also help newbies ask the questions.

Again, not relevant to question closure.


  1. I very much agree that we should allow people to collaborate at building up a question (or a whole Q/A) from the ground, but not by posting unfinished questions and then demanding they don't get closed. ↩︎

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Some good points (12 comments)
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As a newcomer here, I'd like to suggest two additional issues that weigh in favor of closing unworkable questions.

First, a site that wants to grow its community needs to moderate its content. If not, prospective users will get one look at a pile of garbage questions with no activity and turn right back around for another site, convinced that the community has no time for them, or doesn't have anybody around who wants to help. Moderating them to a private space resolves that.

Second, if "unclear, therefore closed" sounds harsh to a new user, wait until a dozen people show up to explain why they won't answer their question, in a space where everybody can see that reprimanding. That makes it look like the community has much more of an interest in arguing the validity of a question than fixing anybody's problem.

That said, I haven't lived through the process of closure, but I have to imagine that it could probably stand some improvement, like making it clear(er) that it's more of a "workshop" space to reorganize the question to make it easier for people to answer it than a rejection.

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Agree (4 comments)
re "workshop space" (1 comment)
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I think the problem is in the language of the status. "Closed" is not final, but it does sound like it, and as a new user who is seeking an answer, it can be received as affronting.

Can we introduce different wording for it, like "Locked", or "Needs refinement"?

Either this, or an explaination of the language like this belongs in the Software FAQ, or the global Codidact FAQ (link which is in the Software FAQ... 404 for me).

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"Locked" vs "closed", and salvageable vs unsalvageable (1 comment)
It *should* be a little affronting. (1 comment)

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