• 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’’

    or

    ‘’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).
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