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What Is the XY Problem and Why Is It Bad?

This post is part of a series called The XY Problems.
Getting Better Support By Avoiding The XY Problem

One of the things that makes WordPress so awesome is the willingness of members of the community to help others. 

No matter where you seek out help, one of the hurdles to solving problems is asking for support about possible solutions, instead of asking about the underlying problem itself. 

This is what we call an XY problem. 

A simple example of an XY problem would be if you asked "How can I get a 1/4 inch wood screw through sheet metal with a hammer?" A answer that is technically correct would be to suggest hitting the screw really hard with a hammer repeatedly and hope for the best.

Yes, you probably should be using a longer screw, designed for metal, not wood and a screwdriver instead of a hammer. That said, since we don't know what you're trying to attach the sheet metal to and why, how can anyone know if a screw is really what you needed in the first place?

By avoiding the XY problem, we can refocus support, both as someone asking for support or someone providing support, from being about solving individual problems, to being focused on reaching goals.

This is a fundamental shift that aligns with why people are using WordPress or a particular WordPress product to begin with. The WordPress ecosystem doesn't thrive because having a website is nifty. It thrives because people believe that WordPress and WordPress products will allow them to achieve their personal, business or political goals.

Identifying XY Problems

Identifying XY problems can be tricky. So to begin, let's back away from WordPress for a second. Here's an example of a question that suffers from an XY problem: "What medication can I take to relive my stomach pain?" This question focuses on "Y" or a proposed solution. It totally ignores "X", which is the underlying problem.

This question could be rephrased as "Why do I have stomach pain?" Now it is focused identifying the cause of the pain and the goal of alleviating that pain. Yes, the answer might still be a medication, but the first way I phrased the question precluded the possibility that the pain could be resolved by a change in diet, or treating some other condition.

A good doctor, when asked "What medication can I take to relive my stomach pain?" would back up and identify the source of the pain, focusing. They would focus on the goal of not having stomach pain, which requires identifying the source of the pain, and then removing that source.

Types of XY Problems in WordPress

In the WordPress world, there two common types of XP problems. 

  1. The first involves someone asking for support is looking for help getting a specific function to solve their problem, instead of looking for the best solution to their problem. 
  2. The other is asking questions that are much too specific to a specific theme or plugin.

The first type, when you ask about how to use a specific function to do something seams like the natural way to ask. You had a problem, you tried a solution and it didn't work so you asked about how to make your solution work.

Showing the solution you tried when asking for support is a good thing and I don't want to discourage it. But if it's not coupled with an explanation of the actual goal, than it's impossible for anyone answering your question to know if it's the right solution, or even the right approach to that solution.

The second type doesn't seem like a problem. Why shouldn't you ask how to use the theme or plugin you are using to solve your problem? There are two problems here:

  1. One is that your theme or plugin might not be able to achieve your goal,
  2.  And also, unless you are asking on that theme or plugin's support forums, many people reading your question will not know about how that theme or product works.

This type of XY problem, like focusing on what medication will stop your stomach ache, precludes the possibility that you have the wrong tool all together. 

This is an especially tricky issue for support representatives to deal with, and is something I will be addressing in future posts in this series.

Goals Before Solutions

Now that you know what an XY problem is, be sure to be on the look out for them both in your own support requests and when helping others. 

This post is an introduction to the XY problem. In the future, I will be addressing separately how to avoid them as someone asking for support, and as someone providing support.

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