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Recently, a user got upset because some of us asked for clarification on a question. New questions with insufficient detail come in all of the time, in fact. In this case, someone guessed at an answer, and apparently got it right, and the original questioner felt this validated the original lack of detail, and got upset at requests for more information.

That should be it, right? The site is supposed to be here to help people. Why are we being so annoying?

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Here's the deal. Or rather, here are six of the deals.

1. It might be something you didn't think of.

I'm going to call out Why do I see this yellow color shift at high ISOs and fast shutter speeds? as an example of a great question in this regard. The answer turns out to be in a detail that the asker didn't think important, but diligently mentioned anyway. Because that detail was there, someone who knew that it was important could easily respond with an answer that we know is right, not just speculation.

2. If the answerer has to guess, so do the voters.

This is a collaborative community site, and while individuals have ownership of and responsibility for their own answers, the voting is what makes it work so well. If I come across a question and I know an answer is right, I can vote it up, and enough votes make it clear to the question asker and to future visitors that the answer has a high degree of confidence. (And it's also the "currency" of the site, giving the answer the credit they deserve for helping.)

3. It helps future visitors (in two ways!)

A. Someone else might have the same problem. By describing the issue clearly, you make it easier for other people to find in the future.

B. Someone might have a similar problem but actually significant difference in details. Then, the answers might not actually apply, but appear to to new visitors. This is making the internet worse rather than better.

4. Maybe the answer is already here.

That last point goes the other way, too. Maybe you are the "future visitor" and just don't know it. If you provide details, we can quickly tell if there is an earlier, already answered question which will help you right away.

5. Or maybe it isn't

Maybe the question appears superficially similar to existing ones, but there is actually an important difference. If you don't mention that difference, your question is very likely to be closed as a duplicate, leaving you without a good answer for your actual problem.

6. You want help, right?

And finally: while it's true that helping people with their question is the mission, remember that the people actually doing the helping are doing it for free, with no reward but ultimately valueless points and digital stickers. By making things nicer (and more friendly) for those trying to help, you'll get better help. Please read How do I ask a good question? for more.

Bottom Line

Be as descriptive and clear as you can. Even if you are having trouble describing what the issue is, try. It doesn't hurt, doesn't really take that much more effort, and has significant benefits for you, for the other site members, and for future visitors.

  • While I agree in principal, I have to point out that #1 isn't really a good example. It would be obvious from looking at the shot that it was florescent lights regardless of if they had mentioned them to anyone familiar with the problem. I didn't even read that question before I knew the problem, the photo itself was self-explanatory. – AJ Henderson Apr 3 '14 at 15:31
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    I want to up-vote this ten times. – Robert Cartaino Apr 3 '14 at 16:26
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    @AJHenderson I would say the example is sufficient. I remembered about the florescent lights once they were mentioned, but having never experienced it for myself I'm not sure I would have recognized it without that hint. However, because the florescent lights were mentioned (which was seemingly an unimportant detail when the questioner thought it was high ISO related), it gave me the confidence to assuredly vote up matt's answer (see his #2 above). – rfusca Apr 3 '14 at 16:48
  • @rfusca - that's fair, but I do think there are better examples out there where the added details really are critical. Granted, I don't have any actual suggestions for a better example without going digging. – AJ Henderson Apr 3 '14 at 17:02
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    This should be featured across SE. :D Great answer. – jrista Apr 3 '14 at 17:52
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Just because one answerer is able to make out the meaning of the question doesn't mean it is a well written question and you may miss out on a valuable answer because someone who could have answered it either isn't able to read it or doesn't feel like spending the time to figure out what you are asking.

Remember, not everyone on the site is a native English speaker and so reading comprehension isn't always going to be at the highest levels. Often, if someone is able to make out the meaning, they may edit the question to help if they are sure about the meaning, but the better you can ask the question and the more detail you can provide, the more likely people will be able to understand what you are asking.

People can't answer or benefit from your question if they can't understand it and just because one person is able to piece it together doesn't mean that everyone can or that it isn't poorly written.

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