How to Use Q&A Sites Effectively

How to Use Q&A Sites EffectivelyQuestion and Answer (Q&A) sites seem to be excellent resources of knowledge when one needs it these days. While I’m programming and hop onto Google with a question, usually I will arrive at StackOverflow. Chris has covered asking questions previously on the Gnomies site, but this article targets behavior on Q&A sites in particular.

LockerGnome has a Q&A site of its own: You can ask just about anything there, and odds are you’ll hear from a myriad of folks from all over with their ideas on the issue.

I would like to take the time now, however, to point out the frustration I experience when I see these Q&A sites being used “improperly.” What follows is a list of my biggest pet peeves about Q&A sites and how you can use these sites effectively and productively.

  • Learn the difference between an answer and a comment — This is high on the list, so much so that I wanted to discuss it first. Far too often I see people posting entirely new answers in order to say something like “I agree with John Doe,” or to ask the original poster to clarify his question. These are comments, folks. If you aren’t answering the question, but still need to say something, post a new comment. That’s what they are there for.
  • If you don’t know the answer, don’t post one — Also an annoying sight is when I see people posting new answers only to tell the original poster that they have no clue what the answer might be. Seriously? I doubt the original poster finds such responses to be of any use, so you are doing absolutely no good by posting useless “answers.” If you don’t know the answer to a question, move on to another one (or ask the original poster in a comment to clarify, if need be).
  • Be generous with up-votes and down-votes — The ratings system is in place to allow the community to decide what the best answer to a question might be. This is especially useful to visitors coming in from a search engine that simply want to quickly find the answer to their question. If the answers are void of any rating, how are they to know if the answer is worthwhile or not? Not only that, but the ratings system encourages people to post helpful and informative answers, improving the Q&A ecosystem over all.
  • Mark an answer as accepted if it answers your question — I see this a ton on plenty of questions are asked, but when the answers arrive, none are marked as being accepted. Please, be a courteous and responsible inquirer by frequently checking back on your questions, and marking an answer as accepted if it solves your problem. Also, the process shouldn’t end there. You should check back with the question from time to time to read new and updated answers; in this way, you can make the decision to mark a different answer as the accepted one instead, allowing people to better understand which answer solved your problem in the most informative and effective manner.
  • Don’t be redundant — Never, ever post an answer to a question that already has a similar answer. This just adds to the stack of possible choices people must make when trying to figure out the solution to their problem. If there is an answer similar to the solution you have, but you see room for improvement, add a comment on that answer instead to provide your additional insight to the matter. “Me too!” answers are just as bad; just up-vote the question or an answer if it particularly applies to you, also.
  • This all goes for opinions, too — in particular seems to have quite a number of opinion-based questions. While these types of questions are fine to ask, they make for a headache when trying to read the incredibly long list of answers. For some reason, the previous points discussed here are doubly ignored on opinion-based questions, and I see a thousand of practically the same responses over and over again. Again, if you agree with someone’s opinion, just up-vote them and be on your way, commenting if you’d like to clarify your stance further.

The list probably extends beyond those few points, but as stated, those are the biggest I felt needed to be touched on. Perhaps now you can go forth onto the multitude of Q&A sites out there on the Web, ready to question and answer like a true professional. Go share your knowledge.

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  • Greg Gazin

    Another point I would like to add:

    Don’t make it personal with others that answer.

    One should consider refraining from things like: “I think you are pretty stupid to think that!” If some made an error, possibly point it out gently or even send them a private message.  

    Just yesterday I had someone chastise me publicly for a phrase in my blog post.  

    Funny enough, it was a quote, legal bumf, not even my words.   I ask myself these questions before I post an answer: ” Is what I’m about to write/post add value to the conversation?”  “Does it help, does it clarify?”    

    Thanks for this post. You covered many points I’ve always been thinking, but never actually put in writing.  :)

  • Dustin Harper

    Also, people don’t know everything. You give as many details as possible in your question and we can narrow it down. If you’re very general and vague, you’ll get a lot of different answers as we try and figure out the root cause. That will get you a lot more questions. So, answers aren’t the only thing that needs discussed. Perhaps a future TLDR video on how to ask questions…

    I really don’t like questions like “My mouse doesn’t work”. To narrow it down, the answer could be many steps (from checking batteries to new USB port, or hit the connect button, or if it’s in device manager… etc…). Some people get real angry when you give them those steps, too. They say “I already tried that, dammit!”. Most of us are all volunteers on the forums we visit and help out, but some people just want free tech support and put the blame on us. Even when we aren’t even close to related to the manufacturer, software developers or even a real tech support agent.

    Great suggestions for answers!

  • Antim Evtimov Batchev

    I use Q and A sites all the time i usually use Yahoo and, i actually love helping people with the most information i can give. I just can’t stand when a person asks a legitimate question and gets answered with a silly answer. I think when a person has to ask a question it has to be a smart and intelligent one and not a dumb or idiotic question that you can get the answer on google. Also a person has to be polite when asking if a person is rude he or she can get banned from the website or receive a warning