Thursday, October 30, 2014

How to Ask Questions on Forums

This article is a set of "best practices" based primarily on my own observations from asking, reading, answering, and not answering questions posted on CG forums. The advice here is written with 3D creative software in mind, but many ideas can be generalized to other topics. Likewise, not every point will be relevant for every query; pick and choose what makes sense. Finally, though the advice is intended to increase the probability of a timely and helpful response, there is no guarantee this will happen. Some questions just don't get answered and it's a good idea to have a backup plan in mind.

The presumption here is that you have run into a problem during your creative endeavors. Perhaps you are following a tutorial and the sequence of steps you are doing doesn't match the instructor's result. Or perhaps you've encountered what looks like a hideous bug, complete with jagged legs and colorless eyes. Or maybe you're trying to produce a particular effect and you just don't know how to go about achieving it. You look around the room, but there's no one nearby to help out. Time to go to the interwebs.

The preparation:
Before you create a post on a forum, it's important to do your due diligence.
1) Do some searching to see if an existing solution can be found. Effective web searching, or "googling" as the kids are calling it these days, is an important topic for another time. The basic idea is to use the right terminology, filter for your software version, and try many searches with different phrases. Most problems have been encountered by someone else before you, and it saves everyone time if you can find an existing solution rather than posting about it again.

2) Try to understand a bit more about your problem. Even if you can't find a direct solution, it can be extremely effective to educate yourself about certain terms and ideas related to your problem (e.g. How does Final Gather actually work? What are "normals"? What part of the software controls motion interpolation between keys?). This will help you use the right words in your forum question and sound more intelligent in the process.

The title:
The title of your post should be concise and informative. It is useless to say "Help please" or "Urgent problem"; these types of titles make you sound as though you aren't willing to make an effort. Likewise "Modelling question" or "Issue with render" are equally uninformative. Try to use terms specific to your problem (e.g. "Geometry doesn't follow skeleton", "Creases in mesh after boolean", or "Jagged shadows in render"). Without even clicking on the topic, an experienced user might already have an idea of what the problem might be and a few possible solutions. Congratulations, you've just hooked someone into helping.

The post:
Above all, be courteous. In most instances, the person who ends up helping you will be doing so with no reward or compensation besides the satisfaction of solving a problem and assisting a fellow user. You may be tearing your hair out and warming up your computer-tossing arm, but take a few breaths and approach this professionally.

Start with a one to two sentence summary of your problem. Again, many forum browsers will be doing so in their spare time, so in the event someone doesn't have time to read a longer message, give them the low-down up front. This should be a slightly fleshed out version of your post title (e.g. "I was using the bridge tool to connect a series of edges and the resulting faces don't appear to have any material"). This raises the importance of correct terminology; make sure you're giving tools and commands the right name and look around to find what words other people use when they face similar problems.

Add a couple of line breaks, because smaller chunks of text are visually more inviting to read than a huge block. Then provide some context for the question. What were you doing when you encountered the problem? A detailed sequence of steps will hopefully allow someone to reproduce the problem. What are you trying to achieve? No one can read your mind, so be clear about the desired outcome (maybe you're after more noise in your render). Are you following a tutorial? If so, add a link or share an image of the pertinent step (if copyright allows). What is your experience level? If you've been using software X and have just switched to Y, another convert might be the best person to understand your situation. If you're a senior lighting TD, people will be less likely to assume a newbie error.

Do include what you have already tried. What do you mean you haven't tried anything? Go away and come back when you have. This way users won't waste your time and theirs by suggesting things you've already attempted. It also proves you're serious about finding the answer.

Don't include how frustrated you are and how you have a deadline this weekend and how this always seems to happen and other editorializing. Everyone's project is important and frantic cries will probably not speed things up.

Generally it is a good idea to include your software version. Include hardware info if and only if you suspect a possible hardware problem. Include operating system info if and only if you suspect an operating system problem. If you are getting an error message, copy and paste the error message word for word exactly.

Include screenshots and other images whenever possible. A picture says—what was it, eight hundred words? This being said, don't add eleven screenshots when two will tell the whole story. If you want to show a problem related to geometry, wireframe on shaded is the easiest to interpret. Figure out in your operating system how to take a screenshot of a region of the screen. This will save you time cropping. If you have to capture the whole screen, take that bad boy into an image editor and crop it to the relevant region. No one wants to open and zoom a 2560x1440 image that has a 200 pixel square region showing your glitchy model. Mark up the image too. Take your virtual red pen and add circles, arrows, and exclamation marks (maybe not the last one) to tell others where to look. Use text in your post to tell us what we're looking at too (Is this the broken texture or the one that was working properly?).

Finally, thank readers for their time and assistance and hit submit.  Someone may reply within minutes, hours, days, or perhaps not at all. You've crafted a professional, informative question and now you can't do any more—or can you? While you're waiting for a reply, keep doing your research and experiments to try to solve the problem on your own or at least learn more about it.

The follow-up:
If you don't get any responses within what you feel is a reasonable amount of time, don't "bump" the post or say "Twelve views and no replies? What's the matter with people?" Be patient and keep investigating on your own. If you really feel the thread has been lost among the others, you can add a reply with some new information or other solutions you've attempted.

If you were provided an effective solution, write back to a) say thank you and b) confirm that the suggested solution worked. This will help future readers know what to try. If you were provided a partial solution, write back to say what part worked and what didn't. If you were able to solve the rest on your own, make sure to add the specifics of the complete solution, again for future reference. If the offered solution didn't work, share any new behaviour you're experiencing and, as always, be polite.

While much of this article may seem like common sense, I hope at least it provided new perspective on composing questions on forums. As a final thought, consider the potential time investment by both parties. If you can get a quick and informative answer, it may save you hours or even days of troubleshooting. On the flip side, another user browsing through a forum likely has many threads available to look through. If they can't understand your problem in a minute or two, they will likely move on and help other people; typically they have nothing invested. Therefore, spend that little bit of extra time to craft your query carefully and it will be rewarded.

Thanks for reading.

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