Making some statements and asking for advice isn’t a question

Date:September 12, 2007 / year-entry #340
Orig Link:
Comments:    21
Summary:This is a corollary to Don't forget to ask your question: Making some statements and asking for advice isn't a question. When we do X, and then select Y, and then click the Q button, we get an error message saying that Q can't be performed because "The computer Z that Y refers to cannot be contacted." Can you...

This is a corollary to Don't forget to ask your question: Making some statements and asking for advice isn't a question.

When we do X, and then select Y, and then click the Q button, we get an error message saying that Q can't be performed because "The computer Z that Y refers to cannot be contacted." Can you provide advice?

Now, this person did remember to ask a question, but the question doesn't really specify what sort of advice was desired. In this case, the question might be "Can you please provide advice on how we can avoid that error message?" But even that isn't a good question.

The error message already told you how to fix the problem: Re-establish the connection to the computer Z. Is the problem that you think the connection is working and you're still getting the error? Is the problem that you don't want to or can't establish a connection to computer Z, but you still want to perform operation Q? Why do you think it should be possible to perform the operation even though there is no Z? Do you simply want to suppress the error message?

Comments (21)
  1. SM says:

    I’m reminded of the football press conference beer commercial with Bill Parcells:

    Reporter: Coach, I have a question! I love cold Coors Light!

    Bill: That’s really not a question.

  2. CGomez says:

    I think in some cases people use this kind of question because they simply have no idea what has happened.  Perhaps the error message means nothing to them (they don’t have expertise to know what it means), and they just wonder where to begin looking for answers.

    I don’t really believe that was the case in your example.  I’m just saying that, in my own organization, I have seen developers write code that displays an error that is so generic, that the person who needed to use the application really has no guidance on where to begin.  The error might as well have said, "The sun will most likely come up tomorrow."

    In those situations, a person doesn’t have much recourse other than to say "What do I do?"

  3. Scott says:

    I’m starting to think that Raymond Chen is really just an AI program that just has a really strict input parser ;)

  4. Bob says:

    Many users in my organization are too lazy to a) read and attempt to understand the error message, and b) attempt to act on the message.

    How can I improve my messages if folks won’t even try to follow their direction?

  5. joanne says:

    I think the advice they are looking for is…

    "Re-establish the connection to the computer Z."

  6. Mikkin says:

    "but the question doesn’t really specify what sort of advice was desired."

    Q:  Can you provide advice?

    A:  Yes. Next question?

  7. I was always impressed by the cut & dried no-BS approach to support that Manifold put forth:

    In fact, it was inspirational when writing my company’s (gentler) support document:

    Another gem is ESR’s "How To Ask Questions The Smart Way"

    though I understand ESR and Microsoft are like antimatter and matter. ;)

  8. David Walker says:

    CGomez: "In those situations, a person doesn’t have much recourse other than to say "What do I do?""

    It depends on what outcome you would like!  Perhaps you should go to the beach.

    Asking "What do I do" is no better than asking for advice.

    You want advice?  Don’t marry a jerk.  There, that’s some good advice.  :-)

    Now, if you were to ask "What do I do to avoid this message, since I have already verified the connection to computer Z?" is a more specific question.

  9. Dean Harding says:

    Hehe, it reminds me of a famous ad here a few years ago for Pizza Hut. The delivery boy was delivering a pizza (to his dad as it happened) and just before his dad closed the door, he says "so, how ’bout a tip?" To which the dad replied "A tip? Work hard, be good to your mother," and shut the door.

    I loved that ad :-)

  10. Morten says:

    This just went off in my head:

    UserFriendly is so true to life. *sob* Wish it wasn’t so…

  11. Jonny says:

    Is is only IT or does it happen in other professions. If I go to the doctor with a problem I don’t expect to be laughed at,  mocked or ignored because I don’t state my problem or question the correct way. Basically told to go away and come back when I can ask better questions.

  12. Ashley Ross says:

    Except that this is like emailing a doctor with "My X is sore and Y is a different colour from usual. Can you help?" I’m sure that if doctors were in the habit of providing free advice via email, they too would quickly tire of having to drag details out of people. The question is whether people would then complain that the doctors are being "unprofessional" for wanting specifics when providing free help.

  13. Cheong says:

    Sometime when I have time and I’m in good mood, I might create a checklist on "what can go wrong" for the customer.

    Then again, for most of the days I’m not in good mood. :P

  14. Josh says:

    I’d like to file your whole post in Nitpickers corner :) Human communication doesn’t have to take place over a strict protocol (thankfully) and that’s because we have the power of intuition. I bet you can safely infer exactly what mails like this one are asking for 9 times out of 10. And for those 1 in 10 that you can’t, ask for more info. Human conversation, it might not be as structured as SOAP, but it’s much more fun.


  15. arun.philip says:

    @Josh – good one

  16. KenW says:

    Jonny: "If I go to the doctor with a problem…"

    That’s a poor comparison. First, you’re not getting medical advice via email from that doctor, and secondly, you’re not getting FREE medical advice, either. You’re paying a lot of money (either directly to the doctor or to your insurance company) for that advice.

    I’m sure if someone said "Raymond, here are two one hundred dollar bills. Can you help me with this issue?", Raymond might look at it a little differently.

    And Josh: Just because "human communication doesn’t have to take place over a strict protocol" doesn’t mean that the person asking the question shouldn’t take some time composing a decent question. Search this site for a post I made in the past concerning "What do you know about telephones?" and you’ll see what I mean.

  17. mccoyn says:

    1 out of 10 customers will tell tech support about there problems.  9 out of 10 will tell their friends and coworkers.  You don’t have the time to figure out what this persons problem is so you can make it disappear forever in the next release?

    [It saddens me that people take my “How to write better email” series and reinterpret it as “Raymond will refuse to answer your email if you don’t follow all these rules to the letter.” -Raymond]
  18. Dave says:

    Hm. Good point.

    Allow me to vent a few pet observations:

    1. A group of true facts does not constitute an explanation. You can totally obscure the topic and ruin your audience’s understanding while still saying things that are true. This is what Edward Tufte called "negative information", iirc.

    2. A demonstration isn’t an explanation. The only purpose of a demonstration is to make an explanation easier to digest. Using a demonstration in the place of an explanation is at best lazy thinking, and at worst contemptuous of your listener.

    3. No explanation happens in a vacuum; all explanations involve a difference in power between the audience and the speaker. Some people are more interested in abusing that relationship by putting odious burdens on the audience that don’t *really* help (cough — ESR — cough…), which, sadly, tends to reward sycophants.

  19. Mikkin says:

    Don’t be sad Raymond. I am sure some people take your point. For those who don’t, well, you can lead a horse to water….

    Let me try to sweeten the kool-aid a little. When I give job interviews there is a checkbox on my form for "asks good questions." This is not just a tie breaker. In my experience, people who do not know how to ask good questions do not make productive workers.

  20. A corollary to "don’t forget to ask your question".

  21. Raymond has had lots of great posts over the years on how to not get a question answered. Some of the

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