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If someone asks a poorly defined question but their intent or interest can be inferred is it appropriate to answer the question that you think they are asking ?

This may be particularly relevant where it appears that the poster may have a reasonable and non-trivial question but lacks the background knowledge or vocabulary to ask it properly.

Or indeed where it is clear that they have some basic misunderstanding of the topic which could be addressed by an answer which is might be considered tangential in other circumstances.

I have seen a few examples of questions which are certainly poorly worded but seem to be based on genuine curiosity and my own feeling is that these should be given a bit more slack that lazy homework answers or industrial users out of their depth looking for free advice.

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  • $\begingroup$ IMO many SE sites are far, far too harsh. If they aren't made more friendly, eventually competition will move in with a friendlier system that is no less effective. <\rant> Thank God comments can't be down voted. $\endgroup$ – CL22 May 5 '16 at 15:01
  • $\begingroup$ IMHO if it a post from a new poster, I prefer to be soft, guiding the poster to improve the quality of the question, before down voting or voting to close. Generally some posters will make a conscious attempt to improve the question. The danger is a response will posted in relationship to the current question, but not match with the updated question $\endgroup$ – Mahendra Gunawardena May 12 '16 at 10:55
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On larger, older sites in the network, I've seen some users scolding other users for answering questions that, apparently, ought not be answered. There's a strong movement on Stack Overflow in particular to oppose what some call "help vampires" (a term that I personally find unnecessarily antagonistic) by punishing users who offer "undeserved" answers.

If our aim is to maximize the happiness and enjoyment of answerers—and I think that's a productive goal—then I see no point in discouraging expert users from providing an answer that seems like far more than a question deserves.

If the answer is really that great, and the asker is satisfied, we have a growing and committed community of engineers and engineering enthusiasts who are willing and able, understand the Stack Exchange model well enough, to edit the question into something more useful (and more deserving). So the person who asked a lazy question earns some reputation, so what? Reputation is a heuristic with plenty of flaws, that's why we've got community moderation and human exception handlers instead of a fully automated system.

If the question is hopelessly off-topic, though, even an amazing, genius answer will probably end up being deleted along with the question itself. So when playing the role of the expert who contributes quality answers, you have to ask yourself:

  1. Am I prepared to put time and effort into this answer, even if I don't end up earning reputation, badges or other cool incentives?
  2. Am I prepared to work with the author of the question to make it more deserving of my pearls of wisdom (and more likely to persist on the site)?
  3. If this question gets edited, and the requirements change, or my answer for whatever reason starts getting downvoted, am I willing to rewrite or withdraw it?
  4. If this question gets nuked, and my answer with it, is that a problem for me?

Some folks have personal blogs or other sites where they contribute content. These folks may choose to salvage their deleted content by posting it elsewhere, or even to leave more cursory answers in response to more cursory questions and then write up something more polished to share in another format.

In my mind this all boils down to: if the question gets nuked and/or your answer gets downvoted, will you feel like you wasted your time?

As a contributor to this site, your potential future input is almost certainly worth more than your input to date. So I would recommend maintaining your own will to continue by being selective about when and where you do your best work. If you're one of those users who can just pump out answer after beautiful answer, you just love sharing your knowledge and you don't care what happens to it after you put it out there, more power to you. Haters gonna hate.

Personally, I am not one of those people. I have a limited amount of time to contribute answers. I will get frustrated and disengaged if I put a significant amount of time into writing something up and it gets deleted.

The point is, this is your decision to make. It does not prevent us from curating the site effectively.

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  • $\begingroup$ although I have an extremely low tolerance to the things that make me frustrated/disengaged, I think this is the right answer to strive for as a community/society no matter what. $\endgroup$ – agent provocateur Mar 26 '16 at 4:44
  • $\begingroup$ Instead of writing my own answer, I would just like to repeat your Point #1 about 10 times. This site is set up on the basis of gamification (and therefore gaming the system). There is a very real threat of answering a very general/bad question with a list of "helpful hints" for easy points. It is easy to say "I helped someone" when the best outcome is "I gained some points". $\endgroup$ – hazzey Mar 29 '16 at 0:39
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I largely agree with Air, but I'm not going to be quite as positive about it. You definitely need to consider the real chance that you are wasting your time. That part is up to you. It's not my business.

However, maintaining a good site is my business. Sometimes a bad question is due to a single misconception that can be cleared up, then the original question addressed. That's rare though. Most of the time bad questions are due to:

  1. Laziness. Why use Google and have to wade thru ads and search results when I can get some insufferable knurd at the other end of the internet to give me the answer on a silver platter?

  2. Sloppiness. u all dnt mattr 2 me so u o me d anser and i can b as slopy as i wanna so fork it ovr alredy

  3. Inability to think clearly. Not only can the OP not reason out what the actual problem is, but he probably has so little grasp of the underlying fundamentals that any reasonable-length answer here would be over his head anyway.

  4. Assuming solution. Instead of asking about the real problem, this OP thinks he knows the answer and just needs a small detail.

    I'm on the side of the road with a flat tire and I have a bag of tomatoes in the trunk. Is it best to mush the stem end of the tomato over the lug nut, or should I use the other end? If I cut the tomatoes in half first, can I use them like I have twice as many?"

  5. Poor English ability. This isn't always the OP's fault, but that doesn't make it any less annoying to read. Some rules are so basic, simple, and universal that even someone new to English can follow them. There is no excuse for not capitalizing the first letter of a sentence, capitalizing the word "I", or ending sentences with periods.

In some cases it can be OK to edit questions suffering from #5, but you need to be convinced it isn't some other cause. And again, there is no excuse for lower case letters starting a sentence or the word "I" lower case.

Those who write bad questions should not be rewarded with good answers. Not only does that re-enforce behavior that needs to be discouraged, but others will see that it's OK or tolerated. Worst of all, the bad example lives on in the archive where others can find it years later.

In summary, fix a misconception if you like, correct grammar and spelling from someone that appears to be genuinely trying, but DO NOT reward lazy, sloppy, and disrespectful people with the desired result.

I don't think I've downvoted anyone here yet for trying to answer a undeserving questions, but I probably will as this site matures. I have done that a few times for blatant cases on EE. My tolerance for that is lower since the site is more mature and we get more bad questions from people who care nothing about the site.

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  • $\begingroup$ I would say that this answer and Air's are coming from two different sides of the question. Air's was whether it is worth the time of the answerer. This one is whether the questioner has put forward enough effort to warrant a response. I think that both sides apply and should be considered. Or I guess if they are both taken together, the answer is most likely, "No, don't answer." $\endgroup$ – hazzey Mar 29 '16 at 13:22
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To offer another approach to the situation:

I try to assist askers with questions I believe are salvageable by encouraging the asker to improve their question through their response to pointed, question-like comments. If the asker is willing to put effort into improving their question, then I will be more likely to answer (provided I have a valuable answer to give). If the asker does not show any effort toward improvement of their question I am far more likely to abandon it as a waste of time.

I believe that using this method will result in a greater fraction of high-quality questions with high-quality answers, with only a small additional investment of time over just answering questions that start in a high-quality state.

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