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I know this is in the same area as some other recent discussions, but I thought a question focused on finding a consensus on this specific point could be helpful.

One of our close vote reasons has the following explanation:

Questions seeking recommendations for specific equipment are off-topic, because they are primarily opinion based. Instead, describe the required function and setting in which the equipment will be used, and ask what you should look for to achieve that.

Until recently I had always thought the advice "describe the required function and setting in which the equipment will be used and ask what you should look for to achieve that" meant that questions in the form "what kind of tool do I need to accomplish X" were solidly and clearly on-topic. However there has been some debate both about how clear that wording is, and whether "what kind of tool do I need to accomplish X" questions are necessarily on-topic.

So, as per the title: are questions along the lines of "what kind of tool do I need to accomplish X" on-topic?

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My feeling on this is that "what kind of tool do I need to accomplish X?" is often a very similar question to "How do I accomplish X"?, but with two added assumptions:

  • That the solution will be oriented around a tool of some kind
  • That a relevant type of tool actually exists

In many cases where those assumptions are valid, good answers would often be very similar to answers to "How do I accomplish X?". In those cases, I would suggest that we can leave the question as-is and focus our energy on the answers. A good answer will often cover some of the 'how' of using the tool in any case.

However, I do agree that in cases where the above assumptions don't hold, "How do I accomplish X" is going to be a more useful phrasing. Where that's the case, I think we should be confident and positively guide the asker towards rephrasing as "How do I accomplish X", perhaps even making the edits ourselves.

In other words, my suggestion is: "What kind of tool do I need to accomplish X?" should not usually be close-voted as off-topic, but we can guide towards a rephrasing as "How do I accomplish X?" where that's a helpful improvement.

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  • I think the distinction is too hard and it still allows room for the same equipment/software/tool answers that we don't want if it's not rephrased. The questions you pointed you in your last meta post are clearly seeking a specific tool rather than a class, and the simple rewording doesn't really change what they are asking.
    – Dom Mod
    May 14 at 15:59
  • 1
    @Dom maybe, but every question on this site can attract bad answers - even "How do I accomplish X?" can be answered with a low-quality link-to-a-product answer. One of the downsides of requiring a rephrase even where it wouldn't make much difference to the answers are that it often irritates askers, especially if we are asking them to do the rephrasing work themselves - with the current infrastructure, they won't have been clearly explained the details of these rules before they ask.
    – topo morto
    May 14 at 16:09
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    My main point though is that I don't think such questions should generally end up being closed. If they get rephrased, no problem.
    – topo morto
    May 14 at 16:12
  • Yes every question can attract bad answers, but this suggestion makes it easier to get bad answers and like I've said before we don't currently moderate answers well enough. I'm also trying to use the meta to make it more clear. Like I said before, this distinction is not a useful one and will more confuse the current policy than help it out.
    – Dom Mod
    May 14 at 16:12
  • We should also not be afraid of closing a question until edits are made. That's the point of closing/putting a question on hold to help fix it so we can give it the best possible answers and fit the site. We should not treat closed as a bad or final state. Questions can come back and on a healthy site it's very useful.
    – Dom Mod
    May 14 at 16:14
  • I'm increasingly convinced by @Dom's stance on this. 1) The distinction between "which tool" and "which kind of tool" does seem like splitting hairs. 2) I agree about the more active status voting — it's a more democratic solution, since, generally, several votes are required to close, and even then the question can be reopened by voting. 3) I also think we should be more assertive about editing questions. Rather than relying on the OP, particularly new users, to figure out what wording we require, we should take the lead with edits. Those can always be rolled back if necessary.
    – Aaron
    May 16 at 20:59
  • Thanks for your thoughts @Aaron. I do feel that there are a some questions I'd characterise as "what kind of tool" that are potentially quite distinct from "what specific model/brand". One is the case where an asker needs to do job X and is savvy enough to know that there may well be a class of tool that does that job, but doesn't know the right terms to google for it - sometimes this is phrased along the lines of "does something that does X exist". Another is where a user does exactly what our advice suggests, and....
    – topo morto
    May 16 at 22:23
  • ... describes "the required function and setting in which the equipment will be used, and ask what [they] should look for to achieve that". I do think it's a bit embarrassing where posters do that and their question ends up getting closed! On your point 2), I just feel we should clarify our rules as much as we can to minimise the number of cases where voting is controversial - it's often quite weird for new users to have to deal with a site with such specific rules, let alone deal with the site's established users disagreeing about what these rules are.
    – topo morto
    May 16 at 22:30
  • I do agree with you about 3) - proactively editing questions. If we're confident that questions can be improved by e.g. rephrasing them from 'what tool do i need...' to 'how to I achieve...', then let's be confident and do the edits.
    – topo morto
    May 16 at 22:32
  • Please remember for 3: at the end of the day it's still the OP's question and they do have the final say what they are asking. There have been edit wars in the past over very small details and if answers come during the edit wars, they'll be all jumbled up. Closing and verifying what the OP wants helps prevent this and I don't think we should be afraid to close questions that may need a little help to be worded so they are on topic and have the info we need to answer without guessing.
    – Dom Mod
    May 18 at 16:16
  • @Dom yes, it can be tricky - people can be annoyed by having their question closed, but also by it being edited! Closing a question certainly isn't a sure path to happy users and avoidance of ill-feeling though - people have been frequently upset by it. Maybe it's an area where what we do isn't as important as how we do it.
    – topo morto
    May 18 at 16:25
  • @topoReinstateMonica SE tries to explain closing is not necessarily a bad thing and like every other feature, it's useful and if used correctly it will help focus the question and make sure the OP gets what they want while the people answering the question know what the OP wants. IMO, we need to be able to use the tools we have on the site to best help the site and explain them to new users. Not hide them from them or treat them differently or else the tools don't make sense. It does not mean we shut them out, we just may need to help them more and point them in the right direction.
    – Dom Mod
    May 18 at 16:32
  • @Dom we both know as very long-term users though that SE doesn't do a good job of onboarding users with respect to the ins and outs of site infrastructure and rules, so close votes have a risk of annoyance attached to them. Doesn't mean we should never close vote but it is always a consideration.
    – topo morto
    May 18 at 17:08
  • @topoReinstateMonica but it should not stop using them or be deterred from using them. We just may need to give additional context/links and again it helps us out when used correctly. Leaving something open that we have to guess, is off-topic, needs clarity hurts us and closing it helps fix it before that can happen. I'd really not dissuade users from closing questions that have issues as it's more harmful than helpful.
    – Dom Mod
    May 18 at 17:34
0

recommendations for specific equipment are off-topic

The problem with this is that the wording is far too vague.

Given this problem: "I need to put a ½" cylindrical hole in a 2" thick oak board.", the following questions are each asking for recommendations for "specific equipment":

  1. Is there a tool I can use for this task?
  2. Is a spade bit or a twist bit better for this task?
  3. Is the DeWalt or the Makita cordless drill better for this task?

Only the third should be rejected.

If the intent isn't to reject all three questions, what is meant by "specific equipment" needs to be clarified.

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  • 1
    The ideal question would be "How do I put a 1/2" cylindrical hole in a 2" think oak board?" Given any of the three versions you've suggested, it should be edited to read this way. (Or, you know, vote to close as off-topic, because that would be a weird question to ask here. ;-) )
    – Aaron
    May 16 at 21:36
  • @Aaron We'd need to be careful not to lose useful context by editing some versions of the question to "How do I put a 1/2" cylindrical hole in a 2" think oak board?". Someone answering that might think that the best way would be to use a laser cutter, for example. But the person asking "Is a spade bit or a twist bit better for this task?" possibly already has a drill and can only afford a bit, while the person asking "Is the DeWalt or the Makita cordless drill better for this task?" still perhaps can't afford or access a laser cutter.
    – topo morto
    May 18 at 8:12
  • That's not to say that they can't all be rephrased as some form of "How do I..." question, but in some cases it will need to be "how do I do do X given constraints A, B, and C".
    – topo morto
    May 18 at 8:14
  • @topoReinstateMonica we also need to make sure the question with constraints is useful to future users. There are some constraints that are just not reasonable and won't be useful outside the OP's scenario. There's also nothing stopping the constraints from being limited to the answers as keeping the question itself general offers the most future reuse.
    – Dom Mod
    May 18 at 16:09
  • @Dom what SE sites aim to do is to create broadly-useful answers from people's specific problems, so there's a balance to be struck: We don't want to only encourage questions that have very narrowly-applicable answers, but at the same time, we do want to allow people to ask about their actual situation, rather than just some generalized version of the problem.
    – topo morto
    May 18 at 16:18
  • @topoReinstateMonica and I'd argue in general, we're not doing that right now for most of our questions. We have a lot of questions that could be considered duplicates of one another that are not. Focusing on generally will help that problem and this topic I feel will suffer a lot from this problem as while the equipment/plugin/app may change, the general pattern of what problem you are trying to solve and how to do it says the same.
    – Dom Mod
    May 18 at 16:24
  • @Dom having more generally-worded questions would indeed help the problem of duplicate questions, but a hazard with going too far in that direction is that an answer that is generally applicable in the sense of being true for a lot of cases might not be broadly useful in the sense of actually containing information that a large proportion of people with the relevant issue can use to solve their problem.
    – topo morto
    May 18 at 16:31
  • @topoReinstateMonica a good answer will explain application and there is always room for multiple approaches from different answers. There's a lot of time on questions we get, the OP makes assumptions that don't make sense and while sometimes it helps show a common pitfall, other times it distracts from the core problem. In these questions cases IMO, the tool is a distraction. Everyone has their own tool/app/setup and they can change with the seasons. Sometimes someone will need to know "How do I do X with tool Y?", but when someone is starting from nowhere a specific tool may be distracting
    – Dom Mod
    May 18 at 16:38
  • @Dom certainly a good answer will go into some depth, but then of course when a question requires a lot of depth to any kind of reasonable answer, it may indicate that the question is too broad! So, as with many things, it's a balance. You are of course right that many questions are based around wrong assumptions, but we have to be careful about saying that they distract from the core problem - for the asker of the question, those false assumptions may well be the core problem, and we do owe question askers a service - we are a Q and A site, not an encyclopedia or purely neutral reference.
    – topo morto
    May 18 at 18:39
-1

I would say the distinction between "what tool" and "what kind of tool" does not change the question enough to make it on topic. At the end of the day the question is still more about equipment/tools than an actual problem and solution for it and it still leaves room for spam and outdated answers that recommend specific equipment/tools.

There can also be a ton of opinion as questions like "What type of tool do I need to start to compose music?" there are many types of tools people can recommend that are all valid. DAWs? Makes sense. Notation software? Makes sense. Text editors? Make sense if you going the lyrics route.

Plus if there is no type of tool that works, it sets up an answer "There is none" which while valid, does not make for an insightful answer. Even if there isn't a type of tool for the problem someone asking about the problem itself will at least yield more information about why the problem may be difficult for a single type tool to do it.

So again, we should prefer How do I accomplish X? over "What kind of tool do I need to accomplish X?"

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