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^ That... is a joke. I'm making a point and trying to give an example of this type of question. My real question is:

What should we do (if anything) about questions that suffer from the XY problem? Are these types of questions "OK" here?

If you're not familiar with what an XY problem question looks like, this site does a great job of explaining them... even my Friday night addled brain figured it out finally after reviewing it.

The XY problem is asking about your attempted solution rather than your actual problem. This leads to enormous amounts of wasted time and energy, both on the part of people asking for help, and on the part of those providing help. The basic description of the problem:

  • User wants to do X.
  • User doesn't know how to do X, but thinks they can fumble their way to a solution if they can just manage to do Y.
  • User doesn't know how to do Y either.
  • User asks for help with Y.
  • Others try to help user with Y, but are confused because Y seems like a strange problem to want to solve.
  • After much interaction and wasted time, it finally becomes clear that the user really wants help with X, and that Y wasn't even a suitable solution for X.

The problem occurs when people get stuck on what they believe is the solution and are unable step back and explain the issue in full.

If you want the Stack Exchange explanation, you can read it on the Meta Stack Exchange FAQ.

But, this merely explains it... what should we actually do with these questions? I'm sure there are a bunch of options that involve editing, closing, asking questions to get a clearer understanding... etc.


So, now, you might ask, "Do we even have any of these questions? Is this a problem here at all?" And the answer is, "Definitely!"

Additionally, many of the questions that are about getting around people's boundaries are inherently XY problems. As an example, the one discussed in What to do with questions about "getting around" peoples' boundaries / autonomy - in the example question here, we repeatedly asked the OP to explain why they needed to know this information so that we could suggest a solution that addressed the entire issue rather than their preconceived solution. Their continued refusal to do so caused the question to be deleted.

So, what should we be doing with these XY problems?


If you're wondering whether this is really a "problem" or not, I submit a couple of additional questions for your perusal that are XY problems:

These two questions both have lots of answers... and they both actually aren't IPS questions at all, if you rephrase the question to address the actual problem.

The bicycle question is really "How can I carry more water on a bike ride?" They've just decided that there is no way to do it on their own bike and have constructed an elaborate "solution" - asking their friend if they can have some of the water. This question really isn't for us. They're trying to solve a problem that all of the answers are showing doesn't exist... there are a multitude of other options for carrying water.

The question about an unknown urinating person is also, not an IPS question. It similarly attracted many answers that had nothing to do with IPS. The question here is really "How do I stop someone from peeing on my garage door?" but they decided they wanted to "solve" the problem by communicating a "message" - somehow... I don't know if there's a site for this question but it's still not an IPS question at heart.

I'm less concerned with XY questions that are IPS issues regardless as they're on topic either way but these sorts of questions - where the real question isn't an IPS issue - really don't belong here. They need to be on a site that has experts in cycling or home security. That's where the user can get the most help.

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    I found this comment by John Doe explaining the XY problem better for me. For example, let's say Bob is trying to hang some blinds, and decides to use pizza dough to install them. He asks Alice if pizza dough would be a good adhesive, but she has no idea that he's trying to hang blinds, so she doesn't have the information she needs to tell Bob that this is a bad approach, and her answer isn't as useful for Bob as "try using screws" or something like that. – NVZ Oct 7 '17 at 6:05
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    More insistence on OPs formulating a goal could solve many of those XY problems, but probably not all. At least, it would make the OPs think a bit harder about what they want to achieve. The "Anything" and "Lazy" questions may well have benefitted from it. – Anne Daunted Oct 8 '17 at 16:13
  • @OldPadawan As a note, I intentionally left your comment there because I think the title needs to be fixed... but shrug. – Catija Oct 9 '17 at 16:28
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I think that if there really is an XY problem with a question, it should be put on-hold as 'unclear what you're asking' AND leave a comment asking the OP of the question if they are asking about X or Y or even Z, ask the OP for more context and to state his goal clearly. To keep with the pizza dough, a comment on an XY question could read something like:

I'm confused as to what the goal is here. Are you trying to get rid of an excess of pizza dough? Trying to find a way how to hang your blinds? Or is there a reason it is really necessary to use pizza dough to hang your blinds, and do you want us to tell you the best way to do so? Can you edit your question or leave a comment stating what you're trying to achieve so we can help you?

What should we do (if anything) about questions that suffer from the XY problem? Are these types of questions "OK" here?

I think we can expect interpersonal skills questions that are asking about solutions in relation to a problem the OP is having. Let's face it, how many times have we had to ask 'What have you already tried and how?' so we can give a better answer? For example, for the anything-reply question, yes you can argue this is about the 'solution' the OP has already tried and which isn't working (simply asking 'where/what do you want to eat'). But I think it's like the OP asking "I've tried hanging my blinds with pizza dough as an adhesive and they came down/things started to smell. I want to hang them securely and without stink, how can I do that?" And that isn't an XY question in my opinion.

In the case of Can I tell my girlfriend I'm too lazy to meet up?
There is an excellent comment from HDE 226868♦ explaining what the question is lacking:

Hi, Juli. There are a few things you can edit into your question that would make it answerable, and would probably get it reopened: 1) What are you trying to accomplish? In other words, what is your specific goal you need help with? 2) Can you give some more background on your relationship, if you think it's needed? Certain personal details (e.g. general age range) could also be useful. 3) What culture is this taking place in? Interpersonal situations are often strongly culturally-dependent. – HDE 226868♦ Oct 4 at 4:25

But, we can't look insides OP's head. So we can't say OP here is wanting to know "How can I tell my girlfriend that I'm too tired to meet up with her after a long day without making her think I don't care?". The question certainly lacks a goal we can address, but that doesn't mean OP had a certain goal in mind when asking the question. It's just as plausible that OP was just wondering if his solution 'is really that strange'. Back to the pizza dough: this question here could be something like "I hung up my blinds with pizza dough. Is that weird?" Hooray! We as a community handled it correctly by closing as opinion based and asking for a goal we can address. But it's not an XY problem.

Should you point out a friend's flaws when they ask for insight into problems with another relationship? I actually left a comment here myself:

@superstar: would you be okay to change this question a little? Not "Should I point out" and "How should I react" --> These are very opinion based. If you could edit it to ask "How to react tactfully" and "How to point out", this would make the question less opinion based, and better answerable. Then, based on the answers you get, you might make your own decision on whether or not to go through with it. – Tinkeringbell Sep 21 at 18:47

The question was closed as 'primarily opinion based' on Sep 21 at 1:51. I think I left the comment but forgot to vote, since no close-vote of mine is registered. Again, it was initially closed because 'Should I' is opinion based, but not necessarily an indicator of an XY problem.

After editing, the question is valid in my opinion. Pizza dough example: "I've tried to hang up blinds with pizza dough. I think Jane might have done that as well. It didn't work for me, and I think it didn't work for Jane either. How can I tactfully explain to Sally that her idea that she can use pizza dough to hang her blinds isn't going to work (although she is certain herself that it will work) and that that might be why Jane got upset when she mentioned that she wanted to do so?" And this is what is present in the question body, although the title could use some editing. I think it can be changed to what you're suggesting, but I would leave the bits about character flaws in the question. Look at them as examples of what OP is wanting to do, we like examples as they give us something to work with. It doesn't make it an XY problem.

As for getting around people's boundaries,
Apparently the OP was asked multiple times what his goals were, why he needed to go around these boundaries. Again, a clear goal is missing in the question. If it's missing a goal, vote to close as 'unclear what you're asking', and ask what the goal is. As mentioned in this comment by Shog9:

I'm closing this for the time being to stall the stream of "don't" answers, Anoplexian. The problem with this question as it stands is that you're directly asking how to ask someone something that you know is impolite to ask; this is a bit of a paradox. You can resolve this by focusing on the problem you're trying to solve instead of your assumed solution (tactfully asking a tactless question) - for example, if your primary goal is to express congratulations to a friend or colleague, start with that; if your primary goal is to avoid planning exclusionary activities, start with that. – Shog9♦ Aug 10 at 22:36

If an OP doesn't edit his question to provide a goal, a question is up for deletion. The example question was deleted until edited:

...Deleting until this is edited. – Shog9♦ Aug 11 at 16:52

I don't know why a mod might do this, but I'm assuming the main reason might be that other users can't vote to reopen a question that's deleted, and thus the question was prevented from being reopened without having a specific goal. It might be harsh, but it's a good way to get an OP to edit their question (or not).

To use the pizza dough example: The OP here isn't asking if pizza dough is a good adhesive. He's asking directly how to use pizza dough to hang his blinds. If OP could have provided a statement as to why it was absolutely necessary to use pizza dough and why other options (like not using pizza dough) weren't an option, we may have been able to provide him with answers (like how to make a very sticky pizza dough that won't get smelly when you hang blinds with them). So, question is handled correctly but not an XY problem.

How do I ask my friend for some of his water on a long bicycle ride without offending him? I'm actually not sure what to make of this one. I think I'll agree with your assessment of the question. Feel free to cast a close-vote and put what you've said here in a comment the next time, as soon as you notice the problem. A comment and close-vote may help other users reach a decision about the question as well.

How to convey a message that will convince an unknown person to not urinate next to my garage door? Similar case. I think the OP is asking 'How can I best use pizza dough to hang my blinds' instead of 'Is pizza dough a good adhesive?'. So for me, again, it's not an XY problem. I agree that the pizza dough in this case has nothing to do with interpersonal skills though, and that this question isn't a good fit for IPS. Might it be that it slipped through because it was posted in August, and wasn't deemed out of the scope of this site then?

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    Aand... after spending 3 days writing this answer I just noted the meta question was asked by a mod. So please excuse my part on the asking-for-water-during-a-bike-ride about casting a close-vote. I prefer to leave it in, but I understand that you as a mod are hesitant to cast a close-vote since you've got power to close a question single-handedly. – Tinkeringbell Oct 9 '17 at 16:04
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    Very detailed answer. Nice. It doesn't matter who asked a question. That's irrelevant. We are all part of the same community. Nothing to worry there. :) – NVZ Oct 9 '17 at 17:17
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First note: At first when I saw the title I thought "XY problems" had something to do with boy-vs-girl issues... ;D

I'd advocate extreme caution in editing such questions, and here's why:

While OP may be confused as to what his real question is, he understands his mind better than we do.

From his point of view, the "Y" part may be vital. We don't know until it comes out in the conversation. For instance, the guy whose friend is a mooch is honestly concerned about whether he should bring up this as supporting material when he talks to her about the third party. It might not be appropriate for him to bring this up -- I recommended that he not do it -- but the very fact that he is seeing this as a strong option is important. If someone should edit the question to be more like "How can I tactfully explain to a friend why our mutual friend is upset at them?" we actually lose valuable intel on the situation. The X will come out in answers and comments -- if it's really there. But the Y wouldn't be there if it were not important. In fact, in many cases the Y may actually be the important part, and the X is just the precipitating factor.

To put it in concrete terms of @NVZ pizza dough example, might be that the guy has an overwhelming surplus of pizza dough. The blinds are not the real issue, and if someone edits the question to "What's a good adhesive for blinds; pizza dough didn't work", OP's real problem is hidden.

In such cases, I think that it's best to not edit the question title or text; perhaps better to put an edit at the bottom of the Q marked off in some way. Maybe something like this:

Editors: There is a strong suspicion from the community is that X is the key problem, and Y is a distraction or ancillary issue.

En fin: These are my two cents, in the local currency of choice.

  • To use the example, it's still hidden in it's original form, since the question should then be "What to do with a surplus of pizza dough?". – Anne Daunted Oct 8 '17 at 16:46
  • @AnneDaunted it may be hard for us to decide which is the "real" issue; I'd as soon a comment be put asking OP to clarify "Is it the blinds really, or is it the dough. Consider splitting into two questions" or the like. Seems presumptuous of us to decide which is more important to the guy... – akaioi Oct 8 '17 at 17:39
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    I agree with not guessing in edits, but I don't agree with that last part. If the community identifies a problem (any problem, not just XY problems) that prevents a question from being effectively and unambiguously addressed, then that question should be put on hold until the OP addresses the problem, which should be clearly and constructively raised in comments. – Monica Cellio Oct 8 '17 at 18:50
  • You have good points, but you lost me at the last part where you suggest editing in a notice into OP's post. That's not something we normally do here. Also, OPs can rollback the edit anyway. The real banners we can use are the ones that appear once a question is closed. – NVZ Oct 8 '17 at 19:02
  • Maybe you were referring to those moderator notices slapped onto bad questions or answers. Those are however quite rarely seen. – NVZ Oct 8 '17 at 19:12
  • @NVZ I'm not quite sure whether moderator notices, or differently colored blocks (which per other comments is quite unpopular) are the way to go, or simply put on hold with comments asking for OP to fix/narrow the question. That latter is probably closest to current practice. The main point is, though, that mods or random editors are at risk of missing OP's admittedly muddled point if they try to edit the XY question seeking X. Holding the question, or at least comments seems safer to me. – akaioi Oct 10 '17 at 2:26
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What you call an XY problem is what I call an XYZ problem:

"I want to do X."

"Why do you want to do X?" (When I hear this is when I start to get a little bit nervous.)

"Because I'm trying to accomplish Y."

"Well, if you do Z then you will accomplish Y. End of problem."

"No, that's not the end of the problem, because I still want to do X. Yes, that's really what I want. You've answered the wrong question."

(At this point I expect others to gang up on me, saying that Z is the solution, and I should leave it at that.)

  • I think you've mixed up X and Y. X is the thing which you reaaallyy want to accomplish. An XY question is where the user asks only about Y without giving us the X. See my comment to learn more: the pizza dough example – NVZ Oct 15 '17 at 13:28
  • X, Y, whatever. The point is sometimes the original question asked is the question the asker wants answered. – Jennifer 442 Oct 15 '17 at 20:15
  • then you've failed to explain that well. – NVZ Oct 16 '17 at 2:16

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