I've been answering questions here on and off since the private beta started. Going by reputation, I think I've done ok - but it doesn't feel that way. Quite frankly, I still have no clear idea of how I should be answering these questions.
A question I answered yesterday hammered this home for me:
I have several many nails hammered in a floor parquet. What is the best way to remove them? Lots of these nails are rusty or without head.
As I see it, there are two ways to interpret a question like this:
It's an ordinary DIY HOWTO question. It doesn't even really belong here, and in order for it to be answered effectively on https://diy.stackexchange.com/ we'd want to see a lot more detail about the project.
It's someone in a bind looking for a quick'n'dirty solution. It'd still help a lot if we had more detail, but the question as-stated can be answered by simply assuming that the asker had a good reason to ask here - namely, he can't "do it right" for reasons that aren't necessarily important.
Given this site is called Lifehacks and not Home Improvement Lite, I went with the latter assumption and offered a pretty hacky solution. That ended up being somewhat controversial, but no matter - hacky solutions do tend to spark some controversy, and rightly so - if you're signing up for a site dedicated to recommending glass bottles in lieu of hammers, you want a little bit of push-back. What gets to me is that the criticism wasn't about the dodgy nature of the solution, it was about the question itself. And it was then that I realized...
The "safest" answers here aren't hacks. Look around for a bit; find a common question without a clear explanation for why conventional solutions won't work. Chances are, someone will have posted the conventional solution. And that answer will have been well-received, even if it doesn't solve the asker's problem. The most perfunctory presentation of the garden-variety answer will suffice to get you at least a few upvotes. Here's a recent example, though there are plenty of others. These seem to do well even if the question later gets closed!
The most popular hack answers have no obvious downsides. By which I mean, they're not clearly dangerous and the author doesn't bother pointing out subtle problems that might arise. This is kinda expected, I guess - they're the "use a rock" answer to "how do I pound a nail without a hammer?" - but worth noting because...
...If your hack does have obvious tradeoffs, you can "innoculate" it by including conventional solutions! I've made good use of this in the past, as have many others. I guess this kinda makes sense - you're essentially providing enough information for readers to judge the applicability of the "hack" in the answer itself instead of relying on them knowing it (or the asker explaining why he can't use it), so it side-steps a lot of common problems. Oh, and if you don't know the conventional answer...
...A laundry list of hacks does better than a single hack, even if you haven't tested any of them. No knowledge of the topic to even guess at the normal solution? No personal experience to draw on for hacks? No problem! Just google it and post the results as a list of quotes. Hey, they wouldn't let people put 'em on The Internet if they didn't work, right??!
Based on my own experience thus far, I'm heavily leaning toward option #3 as the "ideal" for an answer here, but it's clear this is far from universal - indeed, if I had to guess I'd say #1 and #4 are going to represent the majority of answers here long-term, and it wouldn't surprise me one bit if folks didn't start looking at #3 as something of a cheat. So I figured I'd put this up for discussion: as a group, what do we feel we should be striving for here?
Should we be downvoting conventional answers? - answers lauding the ideal of the conventional answer as a hack (if it's new to you, it's a hack?)
How do we define what is on-topic without requiring the questioner to know the answer to their question? a pinned question hand-wringing over the notion that folks will try & sneak questions by us that don't want hacky answers, presumably based on the assumption that folks will cheerfully provide non-hacky answers as a matter of course unless these are closed (which... yeah, does seem to be happening.)