I've only been active (again) on the site for the past couple of weeks, and an awful lot of the programming questions I see contain:

  • an explanation of what someone's doing, possibly making vague references to some troubles they're having along the way
  • some code
  • a question of "any ideas?" or "thoughts?"

The problem is: these questions don't state what problem they're asking us for assistance with. This site isn't intended to work like code review (I think) where we look for arbitrary things to point out — we need to be pointed in the direction of what kinds of answers we should be providing. It's not clear if the troubles they're describing are what they currently need help with, especially when they describe multiple.

I've recently been casting close votes of these as Unclear. Some examples:

Many of these don't seem to get closed as unclear or get much attention at all. I've had mixed success leaving comments trying to get them improved. I think questions like this lower the apparent quality of the site, and at least for me it's frustrating because it makes it harder to find pearls among the sand. (An overabundance of poor quality programming questions was, in fact, why I previously went inactive.)

Is there something we can do to improve close rates & handling of these questions? Would we benefit from a version of Stack Overflow's "no clear problem statement" off topic close reason to succinctly state our requirements to people?

(This is a genuine question, since I'm relatively new back to the site after a while & I will not have as good an overall picture of the site's circumstances as all of you reading this. I'm open to the idea I might be concerned over nothing serious, or that the close reason will be a poor way to go about handling this.)

The text of Stack Overflow's "no clear problem statement" close reason:

Questions seeking debugging help ("why isn't this code working?") must include the desired behavior, a specific problem or error and the shortest code necessary to reproduce it in the question itself. Questions without a clear problem statement are not useful to other readers. See: How to create a Minimal, Complete, and Verifiable example.

We don't need the "reproduceable code" portion of this since we have the following close reason already:

Questions about debugging a problem must provide a minimal, complete, verifiable example of the issue so that readers can diagnose it without needing to guess, read all of your code, or engage in extensive back-and-forth dialog. For more information, see this meta thread.


3 Answers 3


I see no practical benefit from a "no clear problem statement" close reason. We already cover these issues across two separate close reasons, and as such, a third would be redundant. Furthermore, I see conflicting issues in the mentioned examples; clear issues in why they should not really be closed for the mentioned reason, and clear issues in why they should be closed, anyway.

In such cases where you can not tell what the user is asking, we already have the practical close reason of "unclear what your asking". Asking them for a problem statement seems a bit counter productive; we don't actually want a "problem statement", technically. We want a question.

In the linked questions, there is a clear pattern of not asking a question, where it is otherwise very clear what the user is asking. "I am trying to do this, but this does not work". In such cases, it is much easier to simply add the question, ergo "why is this not working". The ones that are really bad have already been closed; and not after the fact - they were closed before you posted about it in meta. I address this fact because it implies that this is not a case of having been dealt with because the questions were brought up, in meta. They took the natural course through the close voting queue, and the community handled them.

In cases where you have the problematic "debug my code" questions, the "verifiable, minimal example" close vote seems more than adequate. The only thing it does not clearly cover is the lack of a question; again, we can use "unclear" in these situations, if the question is not so blatantly obvious that we can not just simply edit them in.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks, I'm glad the meta community feels the unclear reason is enough. \$\endgroup\$ May 30, 2017 at 10:49

Do we need a “no clear problem statement” close reason?

I don't think we do.

I think the

unclear what you're asking

Please clarify your specific problem or add additional details to highlight exactly what you need. As it's currently written, it’s hard to tell exactly what you're asking. See the How to Ask page for help clarifying this question.

fulfills what you intend to do here.

Many of these don't seem to get closed as unclear or get much attention at all.

In the cases of the Any thought? questions, I think it's generally interpreted as "What am I doing wrong and how can I improve it?" or "I've built it like this, but I'm not sure it's the most appropriate way; am I on the right path or is there something I could improve?" In either case, I think the post could be edited to improve and highlight the actual question.

If the actual question can't be interpreted from the rest of the post, then the unclear what you're asking close vote should be used.

Is there something we can do to improve close rates & handling of these questions?

I think mods don't hesitate to close questions that are blatantly unclear, but I think if there is a slight way to interpret it in a way, they will not cast their vote on them. So I guess having more active users reviewing the questions that are waiting in the review queues would do the trick :) This would help set the tone by the community.

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Agree that the review process could use more attention. I hope reviews are stopping a great majority of poor content that I never get to see, yet sometimes I look at new posts & cannot fathom how they made it past a screening. \$\endgroup\$
    – Pikalek
    May 28, 2017 at 14:41
  • \$\begingroup\$ Maybe we should petition to enable review screening, like they do on other exchanges? Every so often, a "bad post" is dug up from the past. If the user fails to act appropriately, they get banned from that queue for maybe a week. \$\endgroup\$
    – Gnemlock
    May 28, 2017 at 23:22
  • \$\begingroup\$ Might be worth taking a look at how people have been using the First Posts queue \$\endgroup\$ May 29, 2017 at 0:24

When I asked about getting a close option for free resource questions, I was informed that we get 3 custom close options and maybe a fourth under special circumstances.

I don't feel the benefit of gaining that option outweighs the loss of removing one of our other custom close options ("general programming should be on SO," "how to get started," and "debugging a problem") or that the situation is different enough from 'unclear' to warrant asking for a fourth option.

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Unclear, too broad, and opinion based aren't custom, FWIW. Our custom ones are "general programming should be on SO," "how to get started," and "debugging a problem." Custom reasons show up under the "off-topic because..." drill-down. \$\endgroup\$
    – user1430
    May 28, 2017 at 15:06
  • \$\begingroup\$ Yup, that was clearly an error on my part. I've updated my answer accordingly. Thanks for catching that. \$\endgroup\$
    – Pikalek
    May 28, 2017 at 17:05

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