This is a question that speaks to the long-term usefulness of the site, and it helps me as a reality check. It applies primarily to questions asked by less experienced designers, and was prompted by this recent question, although that's just one example out of several I've seen in the last few months.

Answers to a question mustn't be wrong, of course, but they can be couched in such precisely-detailed technical terms that only another expert (who probably already knows the answer) will "get" it. That's great for peer accolades, maybe, but if the asker is clearly a less-experienced or beginning user, then it might not be at all helpful to that user.

Example: Someone asks why her print provider is having problems with her PDF, and is clearly inexperienced. Is it more useful to give a long and detailed explanation of PDF formats and RIPs, or to simply say, "The type of PDF you're sending is the source of the problem. Instead of 'High Quality Print' you should use 'PDF/X-1a,' and you'll not have a problem. And, by the way, it's always best to talk to your printer beforehand to find out what they need."

Another example: The person asking doesn't know the precisely correct terminology, or because of inexperience hasn't grasped what the real problem is, and so asks the "wrong question." It's clear, though, what they're trying to accomplish. Is it better to answer the exact question asked, or to answer with instructions on how to get the product they're going for?

The latter is what I call "answering the questioner" as opposed to just "answering the question," and is what I try for in my own answers. That doesn't mean it's always the right approach; I just happen to feel that way.

So do we answer as close as we can to the level of expertise of the asker, even if it means a simplified answer that skips many of the fine details, or with careful precision at our own level of expertise, even if it might be hard for the questioner to grasp (i.e., won't actually be helpful)?

Does helpfulness trump precision, or is it the other way around? In the long term, which approach will make for a better site?

3 Answers 3


re: answer the literal question vs. pointing out that they are asking the wrong question.

I much prefer the latter. I use SE not to get quick answers and run, but to actually learn and improve my thought process. When I have a question on StackOverflow, I WANT people smarter than me pointing out ways to think bigger or find alternative paths.

Now, that's just me. I'm sure there are plenty of people that just want "Please just answer this one specific question". Which is fine, but I find that lessons the overall usefulness of the site for everyone.

  • Good feedback, and I agree. It's not entirely a black-and-white situation, of course. Sometimes there's a question that's very specific when you read the fine print, but obfuscated by poor choice of words or phrasing. I've been thrown off a few times by that kind of thing, and conversely been able on occasion to tease out the real question that others missed. Feb 29, 2012 at 22:36

A quick way to nudge the question towards "the question which should have been asked" is to ask a clarifying question in a comment.

Aside from that, I would recommend giving the most technically correct answer. That is, answer what the person was going for. You can explain it thoroughly in small words if the questioner is clearly new to the field, but how do you expect someone to become a rocket scientist if you don't talk to her like she is one?

A more detailed answer will help the experts now, and help the less-expert become more so later. It might not be helpful to the asker at the moment, but that's what bookmarks are for. And follow-up comments.


I'm inclined to think that the most productive response is the one that answers the question that is probably being asked, as opposed to the question that is technically being asked, when it is apparent that the asker probably doesn't know the difference.

As a site, we ask for questions that address specific problems. The very nature of asking the question implies a lack of knowledge about the specific subject. By extension, question askers are almost guaranteed not to know the correct terminology for their questions.

Our FAQ does not clearly define what level of expertise we expect from questions on this site. If we're going to set the bar at/near "expert" level, we might expect a certain level of pedantry when terms are misused. As long as we are allowing or encouraging novices (as seems to be the case based on the number of fairly simple tool questions), I find it counterproductive to expect that they use accurate terminology.

If a question uses incorrect terminology, but the intent can still be discerned, I would vote-up responses that include a correction followed by an answer that solves the problem. Simple clarification of terminology that isn't accompanied by an answer should be relegated to the comments on the question. In the event that a question is so poorly described that it is impossible to determine the real problem, the asker should be prompted for clarification - or flagged/closed as NARQ.

As an aside, we should probably codify in our FAQ which audience we want to encourage. Alan was asking a question about this and at some point we should come to a consensus as a community and make the necessary FAQ edit.

  • That makes sense to me. As you pointed out, a high percentage of visits are from developers/programmers who don't have much design experience and likely aren't so familiar with the niceties of designer-speak. If that's going to be a dominant public, then they're more likely to stay engaged if they're not being nit-picked -- even if that's what they're used to in their more usual haunts. :) Feb 28, 2012 at 23:58

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