Consider questions like "Why doesn't Internet work on my Ubuntu?" Obviously this is too vague and the person is not following the suggestion in the title box to "be specific".

The catch-22 is that telling someone "be specific" is unlikely to help in the majority of cases. It's like telling a student with bad study habits to "study better". They don't know what that means. They need to be guided by the hand and told specifics of how to do so.

I noticed that Debian's "Ask" site has a much better (IMO) FAQ setup. Under the first section "How shall I ask my question?", it states "Include as much information as possible. If you ask question like "I can't open my fridge" we can't help you." On Ubuntu's main FAQ, to get to a section like that, you first have to scroll all the way down to "What if I don't get a good answer?" First, this suggests that users are just supposed to ask away and only if that fails are they supposed to read this. Second, after clicking on the follow up link, the first section is "Do your homework". The second section explains what being "specific" means, but surprisingly, without an example or much explanation. It's assumed the reader just needs a reminder to include details and not be vague.

Given all this (context for my question), let me be specific. What I want people to comment on is: Should the FAQ (and related things like the form field for questions and side-panel etc) be more geared toward getting people to ask more desciptive, less ambiguous questions?

I would think that's what we all want, but after examining the setup here, I am considering maybe Ask Ubuntu is purposefully set up to actually encourage a lot of noise, under the assumption that many people are incapable of following the guidelines without much prompting. So here's a second, related question:

Is Debian's FAQ format less "friendly"? Is that why Ubuntu's is different?

Debian's question box has above it: "What's your question? be descriptive." I think 'descriptive' is a lot better than 'specific'. It implies we want them to describe the problem, not just specify the categories of their problem (I noticed even vague questions often get appropriate tagging by the OP). What about changing "be specific" to "describe in detail"?


3 Answers 3


Basically, here's the answer - granted, we were talking about showing a video when you ask a question, but the premise is the same:

users will just say "f u video" and ask anyway - why? because when they've come to the site, they've already made up their mind to ask the question, regardless of what we do.

Yes, vague questions are a problem. But changing it from one thing to another won't really help.

So in short, changing it won't help. Why? Because we can give users all the help, hints etc we want, but until they understand what the site is about, they will ignore 99% of it.

  • I think the idea behind the video and the response (if it's generalized to all other contexts) is misguided. I don't think I'm the kind of pigheaded "f u video" guy being described. But I'd probably think, "Why on earth do I need to watch some video to post a question?" and wonder if this site is run by geeks out-of-touch with reality. I don't think it's asking much that the FAQ, which many well-meaning posters take a look at, actually be concise and to the point (as we ask of posters). Why does it take so long to get to anything that has to do with asking a question properly? Commented Apr 19, 2012 at 3:38
  • Even if you're correct, it's better to proceed on the assumption that users can learn, despite not knowing "what the site is about". When I post, I try to be as clear as possible, detailed within reason and time limits, and courteous to those helping me. I don't think it's pointless to encourage that of others, nor do I think it's as hopeless as you portray. There are people that expend a lot of effort in adding more and more vague content to their posts. They are certainly willing to be educated. We need to focus on doing so effectively, not wallowing in defeatism. Commented Apr 19, 2012 at 3:45
  • @Chan-HoSuh Based upon the kinds of questions we get, nobody reads the FAQ until we ask them. And users can learn, its called being active on the site and reading meta, which many do. However, I believe the context that you have is a brand new, just-joined-20-minutes-ago user. And we do encourage it - its called upvotes for good ones, downvote and comments explaining why for bad ones. Don't fix what isn't broken imo. :)
    – jrg
    Commented Apr 19, 2012 at 11:23
  • Perhaps my background in education is why we aren't seeing eye to eye here. In my experience, students often do read materials that they are told to read. They just do not absorb what they are supposed to, in the way they are expected to. It took me several years (including teaching teenagers) to realize that a lot of this can be mitigated if even the "obvious" is spelled out in excruciating detail. Commented Apr 23, 2012 at 18:33
  • 1
    We would have a lot of "did you watch the video" remarks, and people going "what video, I can't get my graphics to work?" instead of just asking for the video card model...
    – Mateo
    Commented May 19, 2012 at 1:19

I see exactly the same problem with bug reports filed in Launchpad. A one-liner describing a generic symptom with no context, background, or even expression of what they want. But same thing happens in forums, email lists, irc, and so on. So I think the problem is not so much with Ask Ubuntu, but a problem with the question asker.

From what I've observed, what these people want is to be engaged. They don't know what information you want, so they want you to ask (easy) questions to draw the information out of them.

Problem is, this twenty-questions approach uses up a colossal amount of time, and it's quite dull work.

For Launchpad bug reports, my solution was to utilize apport hooks and dialogs that either gather the info I will need automatically, or prompt the user with multiple-choice questions, so they simply can't file the bug without giving me at least the basics.

So a few ideas along those lines to be more Ask Ubuntu oriented:

  • If the question wasn't given much in the way of tags, present a screen with some of the more common ones to select, to help categorize their question better.

  • If a user tags a bug with say, 'graphics', instead of posting the question, go to a page with some canned questions. "What is your video driver?" "When did the problem first appear?" etc. You could have different sets of questions for each tag.

  • Allow users with higher rep an easy way to bypass the questions.

  • Examine the types of questions that get asked frequently but typically just get closed. If you can identify their question, can you redirect them to the right answer, even if it exists outside askubuntu? If so, then they get their solution and no one has to close out invalid questions - win/win.


Here's a crazy idea: Have a rep cost for posting short questions, for users less than 125 rep. The more text in your question, the lower the cost.

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