• How To Ask a Good Question and Get Great Answers

    For what seems like the hundredth time this week, iTunes has just crapped out again. Or you can’t send email even though it was working fine yesterday. Or the DVD movie that played perfectly last week won’t even stay in your DVD drive this week.

    You’ve been tearing your hair out and trying to work out what’s wrong and what you need to do to make it all fine again.

    You just don’t seem to be making progress.

    Web searches keep sending you to online forums where other people have asked a similar kind of question but there’s no useful answers.

    What now?

    The reality is that, at least where the Internet is concerned, there’s a multitude of questions. If you want to get an answer you’ll need to stand out from the crowd a bit. In the process, you can get great answers and, with some magic thrown in by Google (and other search engines), your answered question will be there for plenty of others to find and benefit from as well.

    This is a how-to on asking a good question. A good question will get you great answers. You can learn from someone else who may have already had the same problem and fixed it, or you can get the attention of someone who’s an expert in that field and can provide you with fantastic support.

    Getting Attention
    If you’re going to get your question answered, you first have to get the attention of people who know the answer. These people are often regulars on the forum you’re using. They’re looking the forum daily, sometimes hourly. They scan through all the new posts looking for stuff that interests them.

    More often than not, they aren’t reading all of the new posts, they’re just scanning the subject, or topic, of each post.

    This is your first chance to grab attention.

    Let’s say you’re trying to fix a problem with the Video app on your iPad crashing.

    Which subject is more likely to get noticed:

    ‘’iPad - Please Help’’


    ‘’iPad Video Playback Not Working’’

    For me, the second topic is more likely to make me want to see what’s going on (especially since I’ve had this problem and worked out a fix). The first is so generic that it could mean anything. If I’m short on time I may not even bother to look further.

    As a secondary consideration, the topic of your question is what will most often show up in search engines so the next person who’s having the same problem has a better shot at finding a solution.

    Fill in the Background
    An often missed aspect to asking a question is to provide some background.

    What are you trying to achieve? What have you tried? What results did you get from what you’ve already tried?

    Equally important, take notes about things like error messages or other information that might be relevant. It’s much easier to find out what an error means if you’ve actually taken note of what the error message was.

    Adding this information helps anyone reading your question understand what’s really going on. It also helps avoid those pointless exchanges where someone suggests that you try something, then you respond and say you already did, to which they ask what happened, and so on.

    Including the background helps anyone reading your question understand the scope of the issue. Perhaps they’ve seen the exact same thing before and they’ve got the precise answer. Just as important, they realise that their problem was completely different and not relevant to your problem.

    Perhaps less understood, though, is that we all tend to focus in on specific problems rather than looking at bigger pictures. Someone on the outside of the problem, with the benefit of some background, may be able to look at the issue and suggest a solution you haven’t even considered.

    For example, using the iPad video problem, most people would think that a fix would involve restarting the iPad or forcing the video app to quit. Looking outside the box, though, there’s also a good solution that makes use of the built-in search functions on IOS.

    A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words
    In the technical world, images can really help. Take a photo of the cables plugged into your router. Create a simple diagram of what you’re trying to achieve. Take screenshots of the error you’re seeing.

    I understand that it can be a pain to take that extra time and then have the added complexity of trying to find somewhere to put the images online so you can link to them in a forum. But take that time. It’s worth it. It helps to cut straight to the heart of the issue.

    Skitch is a popular solution for handling this task, but there’s also plenty of other alternatives on the Mac App Store (do a search for “screen shot”) and elsewhere.

    Some of these apps include the web hosting of your images and will even produce the BBCODE tags you need to just paste into your post.

    Ask Your Question
    All that comes before here is context. Now for the heart of the matter. Ask your question.

    When you’re asking a question, understand what it is you want. In our iPad video example, a good question might be:

    “How can I get video working again on my iPad?”

    while a bad question might be:

    “How do I reset my iPad?”

    Why is the second alternative bad? Reseting your iPad may not actually fix your problem, video not playing, but you’ll definitely get direct and easy to follow answer to your question. The first question is more likely to elicit an answer that will actually address your problem.

    The key is understanding the result you’re after. The result you want isn’t a reset iPad, it’s video working. By narrowing down your question too far you may miss out on the answer you need. This is even more likely if you haven’t provided any background for your question.

    Interpret the Answers
    Internet forums are, largely, a free resource. Few people are being paid to provide you with help. Mostly, it’s just people exactly like you who want to share what they know and help where they can on the basis that when they need help someone else will provide.

    That means that even if you’ve got an appropriate topic and have included background, with images, to support your great question you may still end up with answers that don’t seem relevant. That’s just how it is.

    However, if you’ve nailed all the other stuff, you’ll find some gems that cut straight to your problem.

    If you get a great answer, say so. Let the person who gave you the answer know that they were spot on - it’s probably the only payment they’ll get for their time and effort.

    At least as important, by posting back what the right solution was you help other people later. Think about your own experience searching for a result and seeing all those forum posts that may, or may not, have had answers but without anyone saying “this one worked”. Help the next person by telling everyone what worked for you.

    Photo Credits:

    David Freeman is an Apple Certified Macintosh Technician and the proprietor of Outback Queensland Internet (aka Leading Edge Computers Longreach). He has worked as a technician since 1995 and been involved in computers and the Internet since 1988 when he purchased his first computer (an Amiga 1000).
    Comments 5 Comments
    1. the8thark's Avatar
      the8thark -
      Very good article. Pretty much stuff most people know but it's good to have it reiterated from time to time.

      But there is one catch. Most people say "if you want an answer just google it up". But many people don't know how to ask a good question and sometimes they don't even know how to ask at all. They get an issue and then their mind goes blank. "Ummmm what do I do now?". Google is useless if you don't know what you want to know. Ie. Don't know the right targeted question that'll give the answer that is being looked for.
      When you’re asking a question, understand what it is you want. In our iPad video example, a good question might be:
      “How can I get video working again on my iPad?”
      while a bad question might be:
      “How do I reset my iPad?”
      I see your point here. And I agree. But using your example some people get am ipad error and just don't know what to ask. But if we can get users to go really basic and ask the basic things, like in your example. "I have this issue, what can I do about it?" is much better then "I found a possible fix and how do I do it?". Simply cause for the kinds of people who ask these questions they might not know if the fix they want to try out if the right one. Best let the more regular forum goers direct them to the right fix.

      I so believe in 42. As in I believe the answer to all our problems lies in asking the right questions. But when you just don't know about things it's hard to ask a good question. I don't think your article posted here is perfect. But it does go a long way to helping people to ask the right questions. And most regular forum goers can see when someone asks about one thing when it's clear their problem is another thing. The regulars can politely steer them in the right direction and help them.

      If you don't know what the problem is, how do you describe it to get an answer? That's where a good memory comes in. A little point that needs to be said that is not in the article. If you don't know what the problem is but you can tell us what steps you took that let you to arrive at the problem we can most times work out what the problem is if you can't.

      So overall a very good article. Just remember not everyone can understand or recognise the problem infront of them.
    1. glacierdave's Avatar
      glacierdave -
      Quote Originally Posted by the8thark View Post
      If you don't know what the problem is, how do you describe it to get an answer? That's where a good memory comes in. A little point that needs to be said that is not in the article. If you don't know what the problem is but you can tell us what steps you took that let you to arrive at the problem we can most times work out what the problem is if you can't.
      That's why you offer background, include photos/screengrabs/whatever. It's so that those who're trying to answer the question can gain some insight.

      This is also the advice for someone who gets an error and doesn't know what to ask. The best question would be something like:

      "I got this error (providing some detail about what they were doing when they got the error and what the precise error was), what do I do now?"

      This would be much better than, for example:

      "My iPad got some error, I forgot what it said, now it doesn't work. What do I do?"

      That pretty much only leaves someone who'd like to answer the question with the option to ask more questions.

      If everyone understood, and recognised, the problem things would be much easier. It's because people don't that some background and images are useful.

    1. Devil's Avatar
      Devil -
      Fantastic article as usual David.

      Do you have time to write one that teaches forums users how best to answer a question?

      Some examples:

      If you don't have time to fully read and understand the question before replying, please respond when you do have time.

      Don't assume people are being trolls, and if they genuinely are, don't respond in a way that adds flames to the fire.

      Drop the attitude of "you shouldn't be using a computer if you don't know as much as me"
    1. glacierdave's Avatar
      glacierdave -
      Know the feeling Devil, but then, you get what you pay for.

      By and large, the people answering the questions are doing so "because they can".

      Way back in the old days of online messaging (if you remember using FIDOnet, AARNet or UUCP then you're in the right ballpark) there used to be a little saying commonly quoted:

      Be considerate in what you send out and accepting on what you receive back.

      Basically, we'd all be better off if we self-censored a little better but didn't lose any sleep over other people not doing so...

    1. Mike Sprawson's Avatar
      Mike Sprawson -
      "...even if you’ve got an appropriate topic and have included background, with images, to support your great question you may still end up with answers that don’t seem relevant. That’s just how it is."

      And there's a reason for this. As memory works by association, when something is mentioned in the posts, it may trigger a memory of something in context with the thread, or, out of context with the thread by the OP. This in itself can be quite harmless, as informed posters will indicate a comment has been made, and then get back on topic.

      Difficulties arise when a side comment becomes a major issue, whereupon a moderator will correctly advise a poster to start another thread. Communication can be a challenge at the best of times, especially on public forums where, for the most part, posters are unknown to each other. However, it is possible to arrive at a meeting of minds, as the following shows.

      There's a touching story about Helen Keller's battle for comprehension under the loving and determined tutelage of Anne Sullivan. The point of Helen's understanding took place when she was about 7 years of age. It'd been a huge struggle on the part of her teacher Anne Sullivan, who'd guided young Helen through her blind, deaf, and emotionally agonising journey into the delightful moment in which she made intellectual contact with another human being, Anne Sullivan, and then her own Family.

      Helen was a difficult child. Being both blind and deaf, is a grave handicap. Yet, Anne Sullivan persevered with her, and a month later, Helen became aware that the finger-spelling Anne had been doing upon her hand had meaning. This point became an emotionally charged event as Helen's comprehension was at last revealed by her intelligently finger-spelling back to Anne.

      Most take for granted the chatting they do with each other, but, there's more to chatting than merely talking. For instance, it's possible to witness two or three people "conversing," only to realise that there were simply two or three monologues. And that contact, intellectually or emotionally, is absent.

      Intellectual contact only ever takes place when one's mind is able to grasp what another means. Then and only then, will there be a meeting-of-minds. And this is the victory of Anne over Helen's severe handicap, there was this delightful meeting-of-minds, which led to the most charming of friendships that mere "chatting" will ever achieve.

      Likewise in forums, it needs both poster and reader to make the appropriate effort, for understanding to take place. It's always helpful when Posters assume that others may have the same problem/s, but lack the ability to articulate them. This insightful approach may then result in a post that meets another's felt needs, prompting the exclamation, "Wow, this is what I'm having trouble with, I just didn't know how to put it into words."

      Thanks David for your pointers to effective and profitable posting. Much appreciated. And may your presentation lead to an increased meeting-of-minds between posters and readers, as they "finger-spell" their way around MacTalk; and other forums.

      Helen Keller
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