I see a lot of questions here that essentially turn into polls. Often the nature of the question leads to poll-style answers but to me the "issue" seems to be in the answers themselves.

An example of the general form of such a question and its answers might be:

Q: How do I X without using Y?

A1: You could use A, B, or C.

A2: How about D or E?

A3: I like F and G, they've worked well for me.

However, I posit that the issue is the answers, not the question, as a more general answer such as this can usually cover the whole list:

A4: Given your current situation, look around you to find something that can 1, 2, and 3. Any such item will let you do X without using Y.

The reason I believe this is an issue is essentially this: When somebody asks how to solve a problem, an arbitrary list of items that others can think of off the top of their heads is often given. However, answerers can't really know what materials are in the OP's surroundings. Something better may exist, which listing specifics does not help find, while listing general requirements of a solution lets the OP find themselves. This is good because:

  • It promotes general problem solving skills (it instructs the OP to look around them and gives advice on what to look for, that is, on how to choose an item that solves their problem - if you give a man fire, you know the saying...) which is good in the long run.
  • Even if the OP manages to fully describe their surroundings, it helps future readers who might have the same issue but not have the same materials available.

I believe the arbitrary specific item list answers don't encourage problem-solving, thus aren't necessarily truly helpful, and don't lend themselves well to future use.

Here are just a few examples (there are many examples, my goal is not to pull a high quantity of examples, but just to give concrete form to the general pattern above):

  • How can I effectively black out my room for sleeping, cheaply and such that I can still open the curtains during the day?

    • Problem: Answers here are various things that block out light. The result is a vote for everybody's favorite thing that blocks out light. The OP doesn't learn how to find an item, rather the OP may end up at a loss if in the same situation with none of the suggested items available, even though other perfectly good items may unknowingly be in arm's reach.
    • Better answer that covers all of them and teaches something: "Look through your house or take a walk around a store, find a cheap flat material, large enough to cover the window and opaque to light, and mountable to the wall using mounting techniques such as nails, screws, or tape, or able to rest on a window sill."
  • Stop car doors from slamming against wall inside my garage

    • Problem: Answers here are various things that are padding. The result is a vote for everybody's favorite soft thing. Same deal as above.
    • Better answer that covers all of them and teaches something: "Look through your house or take a walk around a store, find a cheap, soft material. Your goal is to allow the door to hit the material without taking damage. You can either mount the material to the car door, or to the garage. When mounting to the car door, specialized bumpers may exist, take a walk through an auto supply store or look for something easily mountable to the edge of a door. When mounting to the garage, look for something mountable using techniques such as nails and screws."
  • Stop keyboard wobble due to uneven desk

    • As with the above, essentially the answers become suggestions for everybody's favorite, well... object that occupies space.

Here are some examples of good answers. These are the style of answer that I believe should be given:

  • Is there any way to kill a fly without a flyswatter? - While the majority of answers there were just lists of random objects and ways to kill flies, the top answer describes the technique and requirements rather than focusing on the objects. Thus, a reader learns something, and also learns how to determine what objects around them work on their own.

To be clear I do think some of the questions listed as examples above have other issues, but that is not the focus of this post.


So:

  1. Is this bad? I believe it is, for reasons stated above. Answering questions in this way does not lead to the best end result (improving life skills) and does not lead to the best future usefulness (future readers in different surroundings).
  2. If it is bad, is the issue with the questions, or with the answers? On one hand there is a class of questions that definitely attracts this type of answer. On the other hand, a more generally useful answer can still be given to nearly all of those types of questions.
  3. If it's the questions, should they be closed as opinion-based? It fits the definition of the close reason.

And in the mean time: I personally think answerers should really start to focus on the how to find your solution rather than the here is a specific list of arbitrary items angle. If the site is to be higher quality than the other "life hacks" sites out there and is to maintain long term usefulness, it's probably better to teach people how to do things. I personally believe that this type of philosophy is what will make LH stand out among the crowds.

I believe the base issue at hand here, is that a lot of the questions do have various standard solutions, which the question does not address. This could have a lot of reasons, and could be a concern as I understand it is not the intention for Lifehacks to be a general howto-site.

Some of these questions should most likely be closed, either as off-topic, too broad. Maybe with a reference/comment stating that the question doesn't show any effort trying to find a standard solution before asking.

Some of these question might have a right-of-life on this site, once the standard solutions/variations are out of they way, or because some of their pre-requisites are not met, and this leads me to a possible solution (besides closing the question):

Let one or two answers provide multiple, comprehensive, general, standard solutions, thusly leaving room for the truely hackish answers to the question at hand

Edit: After reading Answers which contain standard solutions and hacks, I'm a little more undecided:

...But this all falls apart when you start trying to make up for the deficiencies in questions with additional requirements placed on answers. That is, when an answer can be both accurate and useful in solving the problem and yet still be inappropriate for the site, it's no longer possible for the community at large to moderate answers - you have to rely on Moderators. For every. single. question.

My solution doesn't address the questions, but is more of a guideline to structuring the answers. But this last quote, and some other questions here on meta, aims for a wholy different topic of: How to train questioners to ask good question for this site!

Different answers should be posted as different answers.

The optimal plan of action when seeing answers which lists various options is to recommend answers to break down their answers. In an event answers overlap, one can try to reduce the area of overlapping.

Of course, there is nothing to worry about the reputation influx - when there are many answers (>20 is the Stack Exchange software configuration, I believe), the question and its answers are automatically converted into Community Wiki.

  • The overlapping of answers wasn't the concern. I tried to make my example realistic but I think it was distracting. Edited. – Captain Obvious Jun 1 '15 at 11:40
  • To add, but not as a part of my answer here, the presence of multiple solutions seems to be a reflection of how answering works on other sites without quality control, for example cough Yahoo answers cough. – Unihedron Jun 1 '15 at 11:44
  • I think that my point in the OP may have been unclear. Issue is basically "give a man fire" vs. "teach a man how to start a fire". Because answers to some questions take the former approach, posts become an arbitrary poll of everbody's favorite way to give a man fire out of infinitely many ways. If answers took the latter approach (as in the example I posted of a "good" answer) (and no this doesn't limit to single answers), this site would stand out and answers would teach skills instead of being arbitrary object lists with everybody voting on their favorite object. – Captain Obvious Jun 1 '15 at 11:49
  • @JasonC When LH was still in proposal, I had high hopes for it to come with quality guides on solving everyday problems. We all know how it went. – Unihedron Jun 1 '15 at 11:52
  • 2
    My purpose is to try and improve quality, because as much as I bash it, there's still a sliver of potential as long as the community makes a strong concerted effort. If it can switch to a philosophy of "teaching a man to fish" (I forgot about the fish version, it's better than the fire one, ha) then there is hope. The name should probably be changed to something besides "Lifehacks" too, but that's a whoooole other conversation. – Captain Obvious Jun 1 '15 at 11:53

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