YX problem

Software people are always all up in the XY problem: someone asks about how to do X when what they’re really trying to solve is Y. I find the YX problem much more frustrating: where software people decide that they want to answer question Y even though what someone asks is question X.

I’ve seen a few different manifestations of this pattern:

  • Respondent doesn’t know the answer to X, but does know the answer to Y, and hopes that answering Y demonstrates expertise/usefulness.
  • Respondent doesn’t know the answer to X, but riffs on what the answer probably would be, and ends up answering Y.
  • Respondent doesn’t believe that the querent should be trying X and thinks they should be trying Y instead; respondent didn’t ask querent the context for X but jumped straight to answering Y.
  • Respondent knows of a process Y that leads up to the querent trying X and decides to enumerate the steps of that process Y; even though they know that the querent is already trying X.
  • Respondent misunderstood question X to be question Y.

The common advice on questions for software people is How to ask questions the smart way. The problem with this advice is that it’s written from the perspective of an asymmetric relationship: the respondent is a busy expert, the querent is an idle dilettante; the querent has a responsibility to frame their question in the optimum way for the expert to impart wisdom to the idler.

Frequently the situation is more symmetric: we’re both busy experts, and we both have incomplete knowledge of both the question domain and what we’re trying to achieve. Have some patience with other people (whichever side of the interaction you’re on), and assume good faith on the part of all involved until they present contrary evidence. That means starting from the assumption that someone asked question X because they want an answer to question X.

About Graham

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2 Responses to YX problem

  1. This is a problem in any specialized field, computer related, medical, engineering, construction, machine work, and so on. What separates people who can do this well from ones who can’t is humility, patience and empathy

  2. Patricia Reach says:

    Well said Chris. Trying to find answers on libera IRC has been a frustrating exercise in futility. They are so hung up on insisting you have an XY problem that it often turns philosophical, and the experts often being jaded elitists just make for an all around bad time. Then the mods ban you.

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