The UX of Subjective Questions

By | July 11, 2011

I have been a big fan of the StackExchange sites.  They are extremely well crafted applications that fill a really important need on the web.  I was miserable when there were two sites ( and ( which split the community in half, so I was happy when they consolidated to just one (  I had accumulated a ton of points by answering many people’s questions.  I really enjoyed the combination of Q&A, badges and reputation.

However, there is a terrible problem with that I don’t find on the other SE websites like programming or systems administration.  The problem is the Stack Exchange policy about subjective questions.  They really, REALLY want questions to be answered, not just explored.

This is the key stumbling block for me is that user experience questions very often cannot be definitively answered.  In programming, if you ask (for example) how to make jQuery add a click handler, there is a clear and definitive answer.  In user experience, if I asked (for example) whether you should be consistent with the marketing department with regards to instructional language in an application, there may be ideas, but there are no definitive answers.

  • In usability, one might have a study that said something like “22% of people got 88% of the way through task completion on the first try.”  But this isn’t user experience.
  • In user interface, one might know that an [X] would mean close or dismiss.
  • In information architecture, one might have patterns you could use for organizing a website or application.
  • In graphic design, there are no definitive answers.  Yet, there are many questions like “Does this look good?”.  Same goes for UX Design.

However, for user experience, there is no answer to questions like, “How do I make people love my application?”  Yet, this is a real question.  This is an ON TOPIC question.  This is a question where one answer is often better than another.  This is a question where “reputation” matters.  I want to vote up good answers and see people who have previously proved themselves to have good answers.

The StackExchange system is PERFECT for exploring these kinds of questions; absolutely perfect.  But if you try to ask a question like that, you will be shut down.  They (moderators) will close your question and possibly erase your comments or delete the question.  There is a small link to “re-open a question” but I am not sure how often that comes into play.  I am sure it has happened, but it seems to be discouraged to re-open a question.  To me it is wrong to delete a question if some people want to re-open it.  It is eliminating the voice of the community from the equation.

I complained, but the powers-that-be weren’t having it.

Jeff Atwood (Founder/Owner of StackExchange) said, “just because it is a ‘real question’ doesn’t mean it belongs here. You might consider taking such a broad, speculative question to Quora.”

Although I see Quora as an interesting site, I think it is a far cry from StackExchange in quality and overall user experience.  I used it for a few weeks and soon found myself going less and less until I just abandoned it.

The key question is a philosophical one:  Who decides what is an appropriate question?

Interesting quote from Michael Arrington at

On a final note, I don’t want to get all teary-eyed here, but the best comment I ever saw on TechCrunch was years ago in response to when I quipped something like “This is my blog and I’ll write what I want” in response to a troll. The response was “No Mike, This is OUR blog. You just work here.” – Michael Arrington

In my view, this is an incredible insight by Michael.  He realized that the community had taken on a life of it’s own.  The community became more important than the blog.  I think of StackExchange the same way.  Jeff (and team) made a wonderful application for world-wide communities.  He gave them tools like ask, answer, vote, moderate, delete and re-open.  He laid the foundation of the policies in FAQs.  This is an enormous gift.

However, if the community wants to ask a question that is “broad and speculative”, why should moderators be the ones to shut it down?  Why aren’t questions closed by votes?  To me, moderators should eliminate SPAM, eliminate or migrate questions that are OFF-TOPIC.  In other words, if you ask about jQuery programming in the UX SE site, then it should be migrated.  However, CLOSING a question should be automatic with votes.

In my opinion, moderators should not be encouraged to delete questions or close questions that are ON TOPIC.  They should vote negatively on the question.  If the question quality becomes -5, then maybe it should be closed automatically.  Only voting UP could re-open it.  This allows the community to decide what should be open and what should be closed.

Maybe this is a question of communism vs. federalism.  Should there be a central group that decides what is healthy for the community to answer, or should the wisdom of the masses be used instead?

This topic is not going to go away.  There are different sorts of people on the web and not that many options for building a strong community.  Like it or not (I assume they like it) StackExchange is one of, if not THE best place on the web to develop a community like this.  I hope that one day, they change their policy or functionality to let the community have a louder voice on subjective questions.

One thought on “The UX of Subjective Questions

  1. mdmadph

    Seems like a tough problem — they seem to want to optimize StackExchange solely for search engines by making all questions and answers super-objective and easy to find. 🙁


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