We currently have a policy of no tools recommendation questions. However, for a given task X, often the most useful answer is "there is a tool T that does X".

Example:

Question: How do I debug a C++ program in Linux

IMHO Good Answer:

use GDB (website link) (documentation link)

example commands to debug helloworld

Less useful answer, due to restricted applicability

emacs has a gdb frontend where you can interactively set breakpoints and debug

Least useful answer, due to non-notable tool / advertising

Yesterday my dog just released SuperDebug1000 which you can find at doggercompany.com/shop. You can set breakpoints from the commandline.

Question:

Q: Should "notable" tools answers be allowed, and what is a good way to define notability?

Followup Q: If tools-based answers are allowed, should "Are there tools to do X?" automatically be converted to "How do I do X?" with the expectation that some of the answers will be tools-based?

  • Prior art: Wikipedia has a policy at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Notability that describes what kind of subject is allowed for an article. Criteria include having multiple 3rd party references and not being an isolated event with little lasting impact. – Jimmy Apr 5 at 21:26
  • Friendly reminder to everyone that if that last answer is "There this cool new tool" instead of "My dog just released this cool new tool", that's spam and should be flagged as such (optionally with a comment to let them know). Disclosure about your relation to a product you mention, whether it's free or not, is mandatory on all SE sites. – Nic Hartley Apr 8 at 22:48
  • @NicHartley could you provide a link to the policy in question? I found How do I mention my own products in answers?, but that doesn't seem to be canonical or system wide. – Pikalek Apr 9 at 18:36
  • 2
    @Pikalek Sure! It's this. If you click "flag" under any post, then look at the reason about spamming, it's linked there as well. That policy is network-wide, by the way; it's the same page (aside from a different header) on every site on Stack Exchange. – Nic Hartley Apr 9 at 21:26
up vote 4 down vote accepted

I think "What tool to use"
is always less useful than "How to solve the problem (with some tool)"

I think most if not all tools-based inquiries can be rephrased in terms of finding a method or workflow to solve a problem.

In such a form,

"Use this tool in this particular way"

is still a valid answer.

For this reason, I don't think asking users to frame their questions in terms of solutions to problems rather than lists of tools is particularly onerous, or shuts out desireable questions and answers.


In contrast, if I ask the question

"Is there a tool that does X? / What tools can do X?"

then the answer:

"Yes, there is a world-famous tool that does that, called XYZ"

is technically valid, but much less helpful than the example above that had to actually include an outline of how to apply the tool to the problem.

The fact that the tool has worldwide notoriety doesn't make the answer itself any better, it just means the user might have better luck googling for an actual solution to their problem when the answer leaves them lacking further guidance.

If the tool is complicated for a new user to pick up, or solving the problem with the tool is non-trivial, this is likely to lead to follow-up questions asking, "Okay, I have tool XYZ, now how do I make it do X?" in which case we might as well have asked how to do X in the first place. ;)

For this reason, I think it's reasonable to edit / ask for questions to be edited to focus on methods to solve the problem, rather than solely identifying tools, to encourage more constructive answers - not just "giving users a fish"


should "Are there tools to do X?" automatically be converted to "How do I do X?"

That's my usual editing policy, myself. If I see a question where the problem is clear and well-defined, I'll try to convert it to the form "How do I solve this problem?" rather than "What tools solve this problem?" or "How did Game X solve this problem?" instead of putting it on hold or down-voting.

I don't think tools are evil or poison to a question, but I do think they can distract from or mask the root issue.

  • 1
    I agree with this, especially the bit about editing to make questions about how to solve a problem in a broader sense. Answers that themselves refer to tools can be fine on their own merits, but I find we get much better answers (that may or may not reference tools) the more the question is about "how to" rather than "what can." – Josh Apr 5 at 22:36

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