There have been a few questions that mostly rely on people knowing what something is in a photo. The latest one is this question on a nautical item. This doesn't seem like a valuable question. It will not bring in search-engine traffic.

A counter example that seems like it might be related to our site is this one on bends in piping.

Added third example: This question is actually about a component, but it seems to fit in between the other two questions in regard to value.

Are these a good fit for our site?

Does the decision on whether the question fits or not depend on the amount of background information that is provided in the post?

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ A few aspects worth noting between the two example questions. Without the images, the nautical item question can't stand by itself. The natural gas line question would be okay without the image. Likewise, I don't see any mention (or consideration from the OP) about the nautical item being related to an engineering principle or practice. The natural gas line question and answer are centered around code compliance and safety practices. $\endgroup$
    – user16
    Feb 25, 2015 at 14:32
  • $\begingroup$ Additional food for thought: meta.gardening.stackexchange.com/questions/501/… Gardening & Landscaping has had a very difficult time with low quality image questions. Their mods strongly encouraged us to come up with collective guidelines for what makes an image identification question acceptable or not. $\endgroup$
    – user16
    Feb 25, 2015 at 16:03
  • $\begingroup$ I highly doubt it's a teapot; it might be something like an oil can. Until we have evidence one way or another, I think it's reasonable enough to think that the "nautical item" might be related to engineering. $\endgroup$
    – Air
    Feb 25, 2015 at 17:03
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ I would recommend creating a meta post with guidelines for asking questions such as these. Something like we created at earthscience.SE for asking 'Can you identify this rock?' questions. $\endgroup$ Feb 25, 2015 at 17:44
  • $\begingroup$ @Air: The teapot thing was meant as a joke. $\endgroup$ Feb 25, 2015 at 18:15
  • $\begingroup$ @Olin I suspected as much, but didn't want to assume. $\endgroup$
    – Air
    Feb 25, 2015 at 18:16
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Similar discussions on meta.EE.SE: “What is this XXX component” type of questions and Would a question asking to identify a plug be on topic? $\endgroup$ Feb 25, 2015 at 20:14

4 Answers 4


Does the decision on whether the question fits or not depend on the amount of background information that is provided in the post?

Absolutely it does. To say that because someone asks a question about an object they took a picture of makes it off-topic or out-of-scope is pretty ridiculous to me. As you have shown in your question, we can find examples of very good questions and some not-so-good questions that follow the general format of "What am I looking at here?" The existence of the picture or the desire to identify something seen in everyday life does not make for a good or bad question. The content of the question itself will determine the quality of the question.

If someone asks, "What is this thing?" and attaches an image, that's a question that can be answered with less than a complete sentence, and that's a bad sign. But if they ask, "What is this thing? Why is it designed like it is? What is this feature for?", now we're getting into a question that shows initiative on the part of the asker and requires some effort or knowledge on the part of the answerer.

Glen's comment on the examples offered makes a good point as well. If the question stands relatively well on its own without the image, it's probably a good question. If it entirely relies on the image, it might need some work. However, I think that's very much not a perfect tool to determine the quality of a question.

What I think I'm really driving at is that we really don't need a separate policy. The guidelines for good questions would already exclude the very basic identification questions, and include the ones that ask for more analysis or explanation. Certainly we can't ban images though, because some items are far easier shown than described, and visual representations are extremely important in engineering.

I would say that the nautical item question should be closed. Especially if Olin is correct and it is simply an oddly-shaped teapot. And the gas line question is definitely good.


Ask yourself, what kind of resource are we supposed to be?

The driving force behind our ability to answer questions is the wealth of experience represented in our user base. When someone has a question that isn't easy to answer by normal means—hard to search for, doesn't show up in Wikipedia, isn't accessible in physical texts, calls for extensive primary source research—and our particular collection of experience aligns with the topic of the question, that's where we shine.

It doesn't have to be a perfect fit; I'm not sure there is a perfect fit for this site, given the multidisciplinary nature of engineering. It just has to be a reasonable fit.

Your question is great because it gives three examples across the spectrum of quality:

  • What is the purpose of these diversions in a natural gas line? is high quality—interesting, relevant, searchable, descriptive with an image, asks why and how. Many people should find (and have found) this question worth upvoting.
  • Name of spring actuated component is moderate quality—relevant, descriptive with an image, as searchable as you could reasonably expect when the name is unknown. It's not quite as well formatted as the above and while the answer may be useful, it's not that interesting. And accordingly, it has fewer views and fewer upvotes than the first question, but it's still generally well-received, with +4/-1 score at the time of this revision.
  • https://engineering.stackexchange.com/q/1846/368 is low quality—a little interesting, invites why and how answers by asking about usage, includes images. On the other hand, it includes few details; it's hard to tell if it's relevant without knowing the answer; it's probably not going to be searchable based on "maritime related tool" as the description. Worst of all, the user claims to have come across it in a museum, but doesn't know what it is? There was no information attached to the exhibit? There was no curator to ask? The author seems to have missed their best (and perhaps, only) opportunity to get an answer. Verdict? Say hello to my little friend:

So I agree with 99% of Trevor's answer; how we react to any type of question is dictated by its quality. Where our opinions diverge is that I don't think there's a compelling reason to close questions in this category simply because they're low-quality. They're not unclear, they're not broad, they're not opinion-based; they can be answered, and those answers may be useful.

Until and unless we have evidence that the mystery item is definitely not related to engineering—e.g., it is a teapot, and not even a special "engineer's teapot" where we could say it's about engineering history/culture—I would simply downvote and move on.

I can imagine circumstances when I would be much freer with a close-vote, and shift the burden of proof onto the author of the question to show that whatever it is, it's related to engineering. But most of them are silly straw-men. I don't expect anyone to post a food item, for example, and ask us what it is. (Engineer's Metric Sandwich? Some people juggle geese...)


The question linked is especially slim on details about the device pictured, but the questions of 'identify item in the photo' aren't entirely unknown: Name of spring actuated component

While the question is unlikely to bring in search engine traffic, once answered it expands knowledge of anyone who visits. Questions like these are not unwelcome on other sites either, and while not very good for expanding "archival knowledge base" they definitely serve immediate interests of the asker, and by extension attracting people to the site, expanding the user base (and if they arouse discussion, that helps building the community spirit as well).

I think by focusing too much on "will this question be useful three years from now for people using Google?" we lose focus on the site being useful to active users now and here. My vote: accept.

  • $\begingroup$ I agree with the general philosophical point, +1. However, that particular question is borderline because of the crappy photo. It is a small object in the middle of a large picture, and not even in focus. All such identification questions should also provide as much context as the asker knows about. $\endgroup$ Feb 25, 2015 at 18:20
  • $\begingroup$ @OlinLathrop: I believe in this case Air's answer is pretty good: the question generally is on-topic but so poorly asked (phrased) that it deserves a downvote. $\endgroup$
    – SF.
    Feb 25, 2015 at 18:39
  • $\begingroup$ I think by "small object ... not even in focus" Olin is referring to the question that I referred to as "moderate quality." I could see votes going either way, and have updated my answer to reflect the current mixed reception. $\endgroup$
    – Air
    Feb 25, 2015 at 18:50

Engineering isn't just about words and formulae; it's a field that requires the visual.

I don't know how many times I have been in a conversation with other engineers or I've seen other engineers in conversation discussing an engineering issue and at some point words fail someone and that person starts drawing: a crude sketch of some aspect concerning the discussion, a graph, ... whatever, but it's done to promote the discussion. As the old saying goes "a picture paints a thousand words"

There have been numerous occasions when someone has posted a question on our site without a picture and in the comments section others have asked the person posting the question to include a picture so that it is easier for them and others to understand what is being asked. I would a liked to have seen a picture for this question.

As with the examples of questions mentioned there will be times when someone really doesn't know what they are seeing and the only way to find out is to take a photograph and post it with the question "what is this, can someone please help".

If there is a concern that such a questions won't attract search engines to our site then instead of banning such questions, if the picture and question has engineering merit we should, if possible, change the question title & the wording in the body of the question to something that gives a verbal description of what is in the picture.

  • $\begingroup$ Basically, there has to be a description along with the picture. $\endgroup$
    – hazzey Mod
    Feb 26, 2015 at 1:45

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