Recently, we've been doing outstanding. The traffic is stellar, the quality of questions is impressive and increasing day by day, bad posts are being marginalized, etc. There is however one place where we're doing less good: less and less questions are finding an answer.

It's not alarming - not yet anyway - as still 91% of questions have found an answer, but that number is slowly sliding. Better to takes step to address it not than to wait until it becomes a problem.

The solution is not magical: we have to get knowledgeable users to those unanswered questions and then get those users to answer the question. As such, you can help in one of three ways:

  1. Look at the Unanswered Question tab, and answer those questions. Don't think that late answers don't give reputation. Does a car with a hybrid engine and Lithium batteries pollute more than a car with conventional technology? was such a question, for example.

  2. While many questions on the unanswered tab are legitimately unanswered questions, a few are bad questions that should have been closed. If the question is bad and should be closed, please flag

  3. Look at the Unanswered Questions tab for those questions that have answers, but where the answers haven't received any votes. See if any of those answers are good; if they are, vote them up. Voila! The question now counts as answered, and all you had to do was read it and click an up arrow.

Many thanks in advance for all your help.

  • 1
    I'm leaving them unanswered for the Necro Badge! ;) – Larian LeQuella May 19 '11 at 21:01

First of all, I'm really divided about this. Few good things have ever come out of trying to chasing stats just for the sake of it. Number of questions answered, accept ratio, etc., are good measurements of different aspects of the site because they measure some aspect of how the site is being used. The assumption being that in a healthy site, the stats will develop in a certain direction. That is not the same as saying there's any benefit to having the stats as an end of its own.

If you're manufacturing furniture, there'll probably be a trend showing that the health of a business can be effectively gauged by any simple metric, such as the total weight of all produce. That's fine. Such a metric will probably yield a rather realistic assessment of how well the business is doing. Now, if by following that metric, you give yourself an incentive to consider the metric an end of its own, and you try to make the business healthier by increasing the total weight of all produce, you'll start producing cast iron furniture. That will not aid your business. Doing this will be tantamount to nothing more but subverting the metric.

This is the mechanism of the Hawthorne effect. Since a lot of people here happen to be developers, I'll throw in that this happens all the time in IT as well. Regardless of whether it is lines of code, bugs fixed, or test coverage you're measuring, it is very easy to start working towards the metric, rather than towards the product, and you'll have achieved nothing but rendering the metric useless.

I cannot imagine that the guys behind the SE sites wants us to upvote answers only to reduce the number of questions without upvoted answers. That metric is a good assessment of how well the site is doing provided that it is a reflection of how people naturally interact with the site - i.e. that people don't actively try to tinker with the metric in such a manner. In much the same way as seeding the site with questions does no good either!

Having said that, I do think this site is prospering, and I am aware that this site's progress will be evaluated on the basis of these metrics, about a week from now. I would like to think that the SE crew will look at this page and see what we're seeing, and realize that these numbers are tools for them to aid their assessment, not the actual end product of the site to be assessed.

Now, with all that in mind, I have started browsing through the questions with no upvoted answers, to see what can be done with them, and a peculiar pattern emerges, that I think is inherent to the fact that this site has a strict policy on references (which I don't think is a bad thing!). I find that a rather common pattern is that a lot of very valid points are being raised in the comments, by people who don't have the time to do the due research, or where the response is more of a line of reasoning than a cited research, and hence not a very suitable answer.

Subsequently, the question dies out without answers as nobody has anything to contribute beyond what has been commented already. A lot of the times, I bet the poster is even happy with the responses the comments have yielded, and don't mind that there's no answer. In which case the site is doing fine, but the metrics are off. The only way in which the site could be improved with regards to such questions would be for the sake of tidiness, or to make the "Unanswered" tab a more useful resource for questions to answer, without the pollution of questions that are answered in comments.

My question is, how do we approach these questions? I don't think there's much wrong with them; if the person asking the question is happy, then so should we all be. Buf if we want "closure", and if we're considering the "Unanswered" tab a big todo list and we want to remove them from there, how do we best go about doing that? Do we write a community wiki answer that is basically a writeup of the points made in comments?

  • On an healthy site, users will use the Unanswered tab to find questions they could answer. That's all I'm advocating. This post is just our way of saying "Hey guys, there's an unanswered questions tab. Use it!" We simply feared because were not making use of it enough, hence this post. The rest of the post is just stating the obvious: flag bad questions, upvote good answers, answer questions. – Borror0 May 19 '11 at 11:01

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