How and when should the different post formats (discussion vs Q&A) be used here?

There are two major options when creating posts:

  • open-ended discussions that follow a forum-like style, allowing back-and-forth conversations between several users. Responses are posted in chronological order.
    • This can also be used for announcements, polls and other activities where the order of responses is important to understanding the progression of the post.
  • Q&A format where users can ask questions and get answers, which community members can vote on to indicate agreement and viewers can sort answers by several options.
    • This format allows comments to be posted on the question and each answer, giving some room for discussion but otherwise the chronology of the answers is unimportant.

This is formatted as a Q&A (for testing purposes). One note, as of writing, it’s not possible to switch between the two post types once created, so it seems valuable to have a resource to guide posters in determining which post type to use in their situation.

It may also be useful to have a reference for Group admins looking to set up their community since it’s possible to default categories to Q&A rather than discussions if they wish.

To reword the question: When should users choose the Q&A format vs the Discourse default discussion format and when should communities consider having Q&A be their default?

For more general information about the Q&A format, see the Discourse Meta announcement post about this feature and related topics.

Q&A features on Discourse arrived in stages in an attempt to solve the problem of answers buried in a forum thread.[1] It started with the Solved plugin that lets users select a post that solved their problem. For Stack Exchange veterans, that’s similar to the “accepted answer” functionality. In my experience on Meta Discourse the post that solves the OP’s problem is only occasionally the one that solves my problem. It’s a familiar pattern to what I’ve seen on Stack Overflow: the asker tends to accept the first answer that helps get past the immediate roadblock even if a better answer comes along later. So I find myself still needing to read long threads to find what I’m looking for.

That’s where voting comes in. Letting people vote on posts/answers and causing those votes to reorder the list of answers means readers can find the best answer according to the wisdom of the crowd. Good answers are self-contained so that they can be consumed independently of other answers. Responses to answers are relegated to comments, which are (in theory) second-class objects.

Since answers literally compete with each other, Q&A is inherently confrontational. I believe this is an advantage for finding the truth of a matter. For all the problems with Twitter these days, I think their Community Notes feature does good work highlighting misleading content. To the degree the system works, it does so by allowing trusted users to rate notes and only showing the best on according to community consensus.

Discussion forums tend to be more collaborative. The discussion can end up far afield of the initial topic as one thing leads to another. Of course that’s exactly why they are less useful for finding a solution. The answer you are looking for might be a tangent that doesn’t get explored: “Oh! I figured it out. But how do I …”

Wisdom of the Ancients

All long help threads should have a sticky globally-editable post at the top saying ‘DEAR PEOPLE FROM THE FUTURE: Here’s what we’ve figured out so far …’

One problem I’ve had from the Stack Overflow beta is that askers don’t have any idea what experts consider to be a good question. To flip it around, experts struggle to understand why new users can’t grok existing resources and assume laziness. If the answer is clearly written in the manual (chapter 32, section 12, subsection 4, paragraph 2) why would anyone bother to ask? They must not have bothered to look. This still happens in a discussion format, but the culture of collaboration rather than confrontation usually softens the criticism.

So the people least equipped to decide are currently given the responsibility to Toggle Post Voting If the question is genuinely difficult to answer or if the question is so easy a quick reply will sort the OP out, the forum format does the trick. But if it’s an interesting question that benefits from self-contained answers and voting, it would be better in the Q&A format. If it’s a question asked over and over in the forum, it would be especially helpful to flip the switch and turn it into the start of an FAQ.

Probably the most promising project Stack Overflow abandoned was the mentoring experiment in which askers could connect with mentors in chat to discuss questions before they were posted. It worked!

We used a rating system where “good” questions have positive ratings (or neutral with an accepted answer), “neutral” questions have no interactions, and “bad” questions have negative ratings. Within that system, mentored questions had a much higher share of “good” questions, and way fewer “bad” ones. Good questions increased from 18% of all questions asked by that population to 25%. Bad questions decreased from 30% of questions to 25%.

All of these results are statistically significant, with p < .05.

So that leads me to an ideal flow:

  1. Topics always start as forum discussions. (Example: a proposal to make it easier to find category and group ids.)
  2. At any point in the future someone (but maybe limited to higher trust levels) can designate a post (including a reply) as a “good question”. (Example: if the initial post isn’t a good question, maybe my reply would be.)
  3. The post is automatically reposted as a question (with a link to the context) that has post voting turned on. (This isn’t currently possible in Discourse, but I can imagine a plugin doing this. Maybe add an optional edit step so that the person promoting the post can clear out the cruft.)
  4. [Optional] Direct replies to the post are copied over as answers and the authors of those posts are notified so they can edit their answers. (Maybe hide these answers until they are edited so that people won’t be sucked into a confrontational system without their consent.)

I’m getting excited about this idea. It solves the “everything must fit into the Q&A box” problem of Stack Exchange while also solving the “nobody can find their answer in this wandering discussion” problem of forums. The key would be motivating people to “promote” posts into questions. Perhaps the best part is that it means questions automatically have the context Stack Overflow questions often lack. Hmmm… maybe I’ll look at writing my first plugin.

  1. Not dissimilar to the problem Stack Overflow was designed to solve, coincidently. ↩︎

I’m still getting a hang of Discourse but I’ve been poking at it a lot over on the Discourse meta and it’s led me to a few thoughts about this… but no real answers. Regardless of how simple the question may seem, I’d predict this is going to be somewhat subjective. I will say that I’ve probably fallen into a trap that many fledgling communities get caught in - asking meta questions too soon.

The two formats we’re discussing here are similar but different archetypes and each serves a valid and needed purpose. Jon addresses this well in his answer, so I’ll gloss over it for now but will come back to it later.

On new Stack Exchange sites, no one really knows what will work and what rules should be established. When the Arts & Crafts site was getting going and I was stepping into my first role as a moderator on the network, lots of meta discussions about site scope and what questions should and shouldn’t be allowed popped up which led to lots of arguments on Meta Arts & Crafts that were largely based on experiences on other Stack Exchange sites.

At some point, one of the CMs pointed out to us that it was likely too early for us to be setting this guidance because we didn’t yet know whether guidance was even necessary! Instead of arguing about whether questions asking for help identifying something should be in scope, we should see if they were asked, whether the questions were engaging or not, and only make decisions about it once we had some examples on A&C.

If I understand the purpose of this site, there may not be one answer to this question for the same reason that the identification question policy from the Movies & TV [1] or Sci-Fi & Fantasy [2] Stack Exchange sites couldn’t be blindly reused on Arts & Crafts (and why two quite similar sounding sites have such opposing policies).

A community is made up of different people, interests, subjects, and needs so expecting those to all be met with a single solution is destined to struggle. On a platform that allows only one type of format, users are stuck having to shoehorn their participation to meet that platform’s design. What we have in Discourse is an opportunity - users can create content in two very powerful ways and that’s not something many platforms offer.

I’d recommend we lean into that flexibility and let users use the two options as they wish - at least to start. New communities have rough times ahead and getting people to actually join and weigh in is hard - throwing a bunch of rules and expectations out there can have a big negative impact on whether they stick around. We can make recommendations about which format may be more suited in various situations but, at the core of it, let’s encourage people to use the format that they feel the most comfortable with.

As I’ve been poking around and answering a few questions on Discourse meta, I came across a question asking how to get more users to mark responses as the solution. In an answer, I encouraged them to consider some questions about the makeup of their community:

  • How objective are the support requests/ questions you typically get? Are solutions generally clear and unambiguous or are they more subjective with subtle differences that benefit from deeper discussion and weighing the costs/benefits of various options?
  • How reusable are solutions in your community? Will other members find a solved support request is applicable to their situation?
  • What level of expertise does your average topic creator have? Is it likely they feel comfortable asserting that one specific answer is “correct”? Might they be concerned that the solution that worked for them may not work for others
  • What level of engagement do topic creators have in your community? Do they come by just to ask their question after being directed there from your company website or do they use the Discourse as a general reference?

Part of why I was asking these was to indicate some of the reasons a Q&A format might be better, how much to expect for the members, or why marking a response as the solution was important. These questions are also what I’d recommend someone ask themselves when trying to decide whether to use the Q&A or discussion format for a new topic.

In general I find that discussions are better when a topic is:

  • more subjective or less defined
  • more special-cased/unique
  • less expertise with the subject
  • less engagement or newer to the community

The opposite tends to be true for the Q&A format.

All of that depends heavily on the person, though - a subject matter expert who thinks the Q&A format is impersonal, may prefer the discussion format regardless of wanting to ask a clear, objective question that comes up frequently - and I think that’s OK. Pressuring them to use the Q&A format because it’s the “proper” one, may leave them looking for the exit.

It’s important to remember that “Discourse is the online home for your community”. On another Discourse meta post about removing voting on questions that use the Q&A format, I discuss this:

Asking questions on SO is stress-inducing for many people… the internet is full of references to SO that tell them their question will either be completely ignored or harshly judged by self-appointed platform and subject matter experts who have arcane and capricious expectations for what qualifies as a programming question… and a lot of people don’t want that.

What they have frequently stated they want was smaller, closer communities where they know people, can make connections and ask for help without being made to feel like an idiot. In a lot of ways, I think Discourse is that. By having a broader format that encourages open-ended and subjective topics while also supporting a more classical Q&A format, you allow communities to support each other the way they wish.

Even if SO were the best possible way to create and curate a knowledge library (it’s not), Discourse isn’t (and shouldn’t be) trying to be that kind of resource. Your homepage sells Discourse as “The online home for your community”. When I want my kids to feel at home, I encourage and nurture their questions and make room for them to join in the conversation. When I take them to a library, I frequently have to remind them to be quiet and prevent them from treating the shelves like a jungle gym.

One of the things that Jon rightfully points out is how hard asking a question can be, particularly for people who don’t already know what makes a good question. I think we are saying the same thing in a lot of ways - while he’s got a dev background and making grand plans for a plugin, I’m just a people person and want to ensure we’re clearly stating there’s no “right” answer to the question of which format to use. Use the one you feel more comfortable with and we’ll meet you there.

  1. Outright banned in all cases ↩︎

  2. Openly welcomed. ↩︎