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Getting Better Support By Avoiding The XY Problem

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This post is part of a series called The XY Problems.
What Is the XY Problem and Why Is It Bad?
Avoiding the XY Problem for Support Providers

One of the many things that makes being a part of the WordPress world so wonderful is how incredibly supportive everyone in it is. The answer to pretty much any issue you have is out there, if you know where to look and how to ask. The second part of that, knowing how to ask for help with an issue can be very tricky.

A key component of asking for help the right way is to avoid the XY problem. The XY problem, which I defined in greater detail in my previous article in this series, is what happens when we have problem X, and we try and solve it with solution Y, which fails, and then ask we ask for help with solution Y, instead of our actual problem X.

The XY problem can be a real impediment to getting good support because it can limit both the range of responses you get to your question, and also add more time to the process. Instead of getting a response, you're likely to get more questions, adding to the time until your issue is resolved.

More importantly, when you fall victim to the XY problem, you focus shifts from your actual goal to fixing a solution to a problem, that might have become more of a problem than the original problem.

Keeping Questions in Context

Often times new WordPress users ask questions as if they only relate to the theme or plugin they are using. For example, "How to change which posts are shown on the front page with X theme". Unless there is a specific theme option that you are concerned with and, this is a question that can probably be answered by someone who has never used the theme you are using.

When you change what theme, or plugin, or hosting provider, etc. you are using from being the focus of the question to an additional piece of context you gain two important things:

  1. First, there are more people to answer your question,
  2. Second, which is more important, is you may find out that the plugin, theme, hosting provider, etc. isn't the right solution for your problem.

Sometimes the XY problem manifests itself by being way to specific, without context. For example if you ask "How to insert post terms with WPDB class?" Someone may give you a literal answer to how to do that.

But, without knowing why you are inserting post terms this way and what your overall goals are, they can't evaluate if this was a good idea or not, which it probably wasn't. It might be the right solution, and if so you, would know why it generally isn't, and in that case you have wasted their time.

Show Your Proposed Solution

I know in the last section I said not to start with your proposed solution, but showing what you tried is important. It might be that your strategy was right, and you made some error. Without knowing the context of the problem, no one can know if this is the right solution or not.

That doesn't mean you shouldn't explain what you've tried, with code examples if possible. It may be that you are close and someone can show you your error. When you show your proposed solution as a possible solution you make troubleshooting easier, if it is accompanied by your actual goal.

Faster, Better Answers

When you don't share your goals, the only thing the person who has decided to help you, out of the kindness of their heart or because it's their job can help you with is your proposed solution. Really they only have two options: ask you for more information or give you a literal answer.

The former, asking for more information, is frustrating because you want an answer, not questions. Also it adds time to the process, each cycle of back and forth can add hours or days. While asking for more information is an important step for support providers to avoid giving bad answers due to the XY problem, when you need to solve a problem fast and the more information you provide upfront, the less likely you will need to provide information before getting an answer.

Getting a literal answer to  a question that suffers from the XY problem could be the worst outcome. Someone telling you how to execute your proposed solution may be great, unless it wasn't the right solution or even the best solution. Then you are left with advice that is technically correct, but may not actually solve your problem or may be a terribly inefficient way to solve it.

Keep Your Goals Clear and Your Mind Open

When you ask for support, the assumption is that the person answering your question knows more about what you are asking than you do. When you state clearly, what you are trying to do, why you were trying to do it, what went wrong and what you tried to fix it, and do that with an open mind, you are likely to learn something new. What you learn might be something different than what you expected to find out, but those types of lessons can be the most valuable lessons.

When you only ask about your solution, you miss an opportunity to find out from this more experienced WordPress user how they would have solved it. If you want to stop solving small problem after small problem that requires learning something and grow your skills. Yes, learning new skills just leads to newer and better problems, but at least know you'll be better at getting help with them.



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