There is TOO such a thing as a dumb question…

July 25th, 2005

Dwight Silverman can’t decide if Microsoft’s guide to asking good questions is geek absurdism or serious. It’s serious, Dwight. People who answer questions about software and computers get amazingly dumb questions all the time.

Once upon a time, I wrote an Open Source program for downloading programs from Kodak digital cameras. I used to get questions like this:

I can’t download pictures from my camera with your program. Can you tell me what to try to fix it?

That’s it. No specific information, just a vague plea for help. Not a single clue that would help me understand his problem. No mention of what operating system he was running. No mention of what version of my software he was using. No mention of what kind of camera he was using, and what version of firmware it had. No mention of how he was connecting his camera to the computer (my program could use a serial cable or USB). No mention of how he was invoking the program. And the worst oversight of all: no mention of what the program did – what messages he saw from it, in particular error messages.

Only slightly less clueless than this guy were the people who would send me the error message, but no other pertinent details. Of all the emails I got asking for help, it was rare that I got an email with all the information in it the first time. If I wasn’t such a nice guy, I’d have just ignored the dumb emails, but instead I usually wrote with a list of the information I needed.

Another open source project I worked on was call ps-print, and it was adopted into both the Emacs and XEmacs projects. I got many, many error reports for ps-print because the two varieties of Emacs are used by programmers all over the world, because they are different in subtle and maddening ways, and because people were using ps-print in ways I couldn’t have imagined when I wrote it.

The bug reports from Emacs users were generally much more detailed that the reports from the camera users. That’s probably because Emacs users are often programmers themselves, and understand how to write a good, detailed bug report. Another reason is probably because most Emacs users had, at one time or another, reported errors to comp.emacs, a newsgroup famous for ignoring (or flaming) people who posted stupidly inadequate requests or bug reports.

All I’ve covered here are the questions that are dumb because they’re woefully incomplete. There are also those that are dumb because a tiny bit of research would have led straight to the answer (Google is your friend). There are questions that are dumb because they’re so poorly written they’re impossible to understand. And – most amazingly – there are the questions that are dumb because they are rude, abusive, or even threatening.

So, Microsoft’s “How to ask a question” might seem absurd, Dwight, but I assure you it’s not. It’s all very good advice.

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