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Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Questions Before You Ask

I need some help with appropriate way to handle a somewhat common situation.  Let me set this up a bit …

I've said many times in presentations and on this blog that I really like to get questions.  To me, that's the fun part.  It's so much fun that I spend time on posts like Social Grid Follow-up just going through and answering the questions that came up during the presentation.  I also have an open invite to engage me around Conversation Topics.  Both of these helps me learn, understand what is interesting to others, and where people find challenges.

Linked In Question Template

One of the things that I mentioned in the Social Grid Follow-up post was a particular template for asking for help via LinkedIn:

Hi <X>,
I'm hoping you'll be open to a brief conversation. From your profile you have a great background and it seems like you'll have lots of thoughts around my issues.

I'm working on XXX.

I've spent a fair bit of time researching and have been finding YYY.

I'd like to set a time to discuss this with you and get your thoughts.

The Questionable Question

Possibly because I had just written this, when I received the following inquiry:

I was wondering if you could provide me with your definition of a “Rapid Elearning Tool”.  I cant find an industry definition for this only examples of tools.

There was a bit more around the context for this question (why they were interested).  I sent the following response:

You will find varying definitions, a couple of posts:

You can also take a look through:

It's pretty rare I won't respond, but I think there's something important in the template above – show that you've done your basic homework and turn your question into something more interesting.

Question Homework

Before you ask me (or anyone) a question you should:

1. Search My Blog

Clearly this person had not searched my blog for definition rapid eLearning.

There are a couple of ways they could do this:

1a. Use site: on Google

1b. Use eLearning Learning to search my blog

The exact posts that I cite come up pretty easily.  FYI – there's a search box under the eLearning Learning logo that goes directly to search results on the eLearning Learning site which is much better than blogger's search.

2. Search Other Blogs and Web Pages

In this case, it's pretty easy to see what other people are saying via eLearning Learning:

You can also use plain old Google Search:"rapid+elearning"+definition

When you ask me a question, it's good to cite what I've already said, but it's MUCH BETTER to also mention some other sites and what they have to say on the matter.

3. Keep a List of What You've Found

4. Read through What You Find

5. Compose What You Find Into a Preliminary Answer

6. Figure Out What the Real Question Is

7. Ask the Real Question

Good Question Basis

If you go back to the template above, it's quite intentional that I'm saying:

I've spent a fair bit of time researching and have been finding YYY.

This is where I include what I've found so far and what it's been telling me.  If I was going to ask someone about the definition of Rapid eLearning I would certainly cite some definitions out there.  In fairness, they said that the definitions they found were lists of tools.  But they didn't put in links to those posts and they clearly had not searched my blog and read through my existing posts.

My Question to You

Now here's my question -

If I receive a question from a person that has clearly not done these steps, is it appropriate for me to simply send them a link to this post?

Others must run into this right?  What do you do?  Are these appropriate steps to gently providing guidance on how to ask better questions without offending and discouraging further questions?


Robert Kennedy III said...

To answer your question Tony, I think that learning itself, the field of elearning included, involves many different types of people and many different types of understanding. While it may be appropriate to direct people to a certain 'netiquette', or a list of preferences (especially when you are busy), it doesn't necessarily include everyone. While I consider myself a smart enough person and resourceful to a certain degree, I have also been the newbie and treated in a dismissive manner by others. Now, even as a newbie, I counted myself as ahead of some others who are unaware of how to search, where to search, the questions to ask, how to do it, when to do it. Even as I started in this industry a little while ago, I researched some but I asked a LOT of questions. Sometimes there was so much info that I passed over what might have seemed to be obvious information to someone who had been engrossed in it for some time. I received answers and help from some gracious people. I received sarcastic remarks from others and from some I received no response at all. I have not let any of those offend me. As a matter of fact, I've done the lemonade thing, added my own sugar and everything ;-). OK, so I've taken the long route in answering your question. Succint? I personally think it's ok to send the link as a part of a response but not just the link by itself. The link by itself presents a less personable response (but that's just my opinion).

Thanks for this blog by the way ;-).

mike said...

Yes, I think it's ok to send the link. I think if it were me I might add something to the effect of "if you still have questions or don't get what you need let me know"

I sometimes get questions that a simple google search would answer in about 30 seconds or less and have had similar questions about how to respond. I've never done it but I've wanted to direct them to "Let me Google that for you dot com"

nicolaavery said...

Hi Tony, I was wondering if you could add something into your linkedin profile like a kind of "..questions I often get asked.." with links to your posts - as a small application or widget - like the Linkedin applications such as Slideshare or wordpress etc

However your profile (amazing btw!) has a lot of info so the only place where I think you could place an additional box (doesn't have to be a box - just an area as such) is where the google ads are (don't know if we can get rid of those)

As far as I can tell there isn't a suitable Linkedin app at the moment, but maybe could write one / find someone to write one (whether it would be accepted or not is a different matter & all the other t&Cs relating to Linkedin 3rd party apps) So what I'm taking forever to say is maybe if there was something that could be added to a linkedin profile as well, then it would be sufficiently reasonable to gently send someone in that direction.

I read a really good post a couple of weeks ago (can't find anywhere now, sorry, will keep digging) about receiving queries from venture capital agencies who had not done their homework in advance of contacting the particular person / company and it explored their motives for contacting in the first place without seeming to know too much about the person.

carterfsmith said...

Hey Tony,

Yes, it is appropriate for me to simply send them a link to this post!

You have a finite amount of time (168 hours unless you have been cloned), provide a service (posting and sharing your thoughts in face-to-face venues), and are encouraging dialog in many areas. Sending a link provides a service, saves you time, and stimulates conversations. If the recipient needs help with that, send them here:



JD said...

Yes, send the link. I am one of those that you would have had to send it to before I read this post and it wouldn't have upset me. I would have felt a little silly but that is okay. Our greatest learnings are provoked by emotion. I have always heard that a great question is more valuable than 10 great answers that aren't on point. Thank you for the lesson...

dons_mind said...

i've always tried to play by the old adage that there is no such thing as a dumb question. today we could say dumb email i suppose... i consider myself pretty computer literate, although i know others that put me to shame - i always try and find my own answers before asking questions, but i've never hesitated to ask a question of someone whom i considered more familiar with a topic area than i.

long answer to say - i'd send the links and offer any other help i could be also.....

Mark Sylvester said...

Tony, I get an 'attaboy' for reading first and writing second. As a result of the #learntrends SharePoint session this morning, I wanted to understand the Collaborative SW market better. So, instead of dropping you a note, I searched your blog and in fact found exactly what I was looking for which as it turns out would have taken hours to assemble. And wasted your time.

Sue Waters said...

No I wouldn't send them a link to this post if you are trying to build a community.

However time is an issue so there is a need to reflect on how the process can be improved.

The first question you should be asking is how easy is it for new readers and existing readers to actually find the answers to their questions on your blog? Unfortunately it isn't.

Your first choice on a blogspot blog would be to use the search at the top of the blog as it is the most prominent. This gives you the full posts that make it a lengthy process. Yet you have a better search on your sidebar which is being lost (mmm if I use the word clutter will I get in trouble? Probably... didn't mention it :) ).

So if this was my blog how would I address it? Well I will bring your good search up to the top. Remove the date archive from the sidebar or change it to a drop down menu if possible. Would also look at how I could clean up the look of the tags(?) to make them more usable - tag cloud possible?

I know that we have talked about this before but a WordPress powered blog would make it easier to find information on your blog. Since you are using Feedburner you would be able to just change the feed over.

Tony Karrer said...

Fantastic feedback here. Thanks so much for this. Some thoughts -

It sounds like the link might be a good idea, but definitely add some sugar along with it. That's good advice. Template anyone? I like the
"if you still have questions or don't get what you need let me know" (Thanks Mike)
And Carter - good suggestion around - how to have conversation.

@Sue - that's fair and diplomatic of you. I've been debating doing clean up and it's mostly my lack of HTML/CSS/Design chops that have held me back. But you are right about the search box at the top. I need to get that figured out. And I should really have something like - Ask me a question but with the link right there. It would be a good replacement for the current top of the page.

And to @Nicola's point - that would be a good place to add - questions I often get asked kind of thing - but I'm not sure I get asked anything often enough. But maybe it's worth starting to collect some of those. Note: the interesting ones I try to answer in blog posts. But maybe that's a place to put less interesting ones. And @Nicola - I'm thinking that I need to look at my LinkedIn profile for linking opportunities.

@JD - You see - my intent is not to put off someone or make them feel silly - I'd like it to be - do some homework and then ask me again. That's an honest response. Ack - I need help with the language here. Someone with grace - jump in and help me.

One thing I'm getting from responses is that something I think might be lack of homework - others are saying - that's not that bad a question. That's the dance. @Don - there is a spectrum here of quality of questions.


One thing that struck me that Sue said - am I trying to build a community here? The blogosphere is such a free flowing thing that I don't think of it as a community. But maybe I don't quite get it. Sue - do you think of a blog like this as a community?

Guy W. Wallace said...

The first comment - and others - goes to the heart as to why Informal Learning/ Discovery Learning is most effective for only those with much prior knowledge - or newbies that are extremely motivated and willing to slough through much chaff to find the wheat. They kind of know what they don't know - or are willing to pay the steep price of inefficiency.

Newbies, even if motivated don't often have enough (if any) prior knowledge - or the time - to do the same, sort wheat from chaff. Some are even brave enough to ask - and acknowledge their ignorance - not to be confused with stupidity.

If the newbie or experienced pro gave you - the one being questioned - with a sort of "advanced organizer" so you knew where they were coming from - it might help both parties be more efficient. But alas, not enough have been taught to do so. They might have learn it informally.

So I very much like the intent of your post - to more formally teach us on how to better pose our questions, and how to better respond. It's a learning curve many are on. And sometimes those who know better backslide a bit - when rushed, cranky, etc.

I have tried to send both links and adequate explanations - and often felt that it "might be" viewed by the recipient as overkill, or even worse: overkill in the extreme. It is tricky - serving others.

Thank you for all of your efforts Tony to serve others and to share and help us all learn formally and informally!!! I believe I have learned a lot from you - so thank you again!


Sue Waters said...

For me the question would really be "do I see blogging as building a community". Yes. I've never considered blogging as anything other than building a community and engaging in conversations. Furthermore if one of your main aims of blogging is for your own personal learning than building your blog's community is a priority.

Readers are less likely to engage with you if they feel their input (comments) aren't valued by the blogger or if they feel that the blogger and/or other readers may respond in a threatening manner. As a blogger only a small portion of your learning comes from writing the post and much of the rest comes from engaging in conversations.

Putting all the HTML/CSS argument aside - if you did take action on the design aspects that are barriers to finding the answers - would you stay with this blog or move to a WordPress powered blog?

PS happy to discuss blog design any time - some people like doing home makeovers I like blog makeovers :) - quite happy with the latest makeover of my personal blog while working within the limitations I had.

Tony Karrer said...

@Guy - Thanks for stopping by to comment. I've enjoyed your posts but I'm not sure if we've connected much.

What you said about this really makes me think that my post is a small part of a larger bit of guidance. I need to think through what that is so that it does appropriately balance the issue.

@Sue - I definitely need to think through the perspective of the blog as community. I agree to some extent but I've always thought of this nebulous network of blogs as being more the actual community.

On redesign - I've considered several times going to WP, but I'm worried about negative impact on my traffic - as much of my traffic comes from search. I'm likely to stay with blogger, but within that, I've got a lot of freedom on my design. I'd be curious what you think about that.

The other thing I have is that with eLearning Learning, I can theoretically build a custom view of my blog's content. If you have thoughts on that, I'm all ears as well.

Sue Waters said...

In your case I wouldn't stress about whether you do/don't think of your blog in terms of a community because you are already doing what you do really well.

Design - I believe you are able to import your posts into a WordPress blog from blogger. IMHO while you stay with blogger your design will always be limited regardless. Sure you can use a template that makes it look like a WordPress blog but that is all. No ability to make pages, use tags and categories effectively, manage comments more effectively etc.

I would disagree that you have a lot of freedom on design compared to a WordPress blog. Think about it - can you name any well known problogger that uses blogger?

As a blogger I can understand reluctance of moving but sometimes long term gain is better than short term pain.

Off course I would understand if you stayed and am happy to give suggestions on changes that might make information more findable.

karen said...

The link is fine, but probably needs some context for a real newbie.

I'm currently on a team that's building a social community for our customers/members. We have a "search to see if your question has already been asked" function prominently displayed on the discussion boards, to remind people to search before they ask.

If an individual asks me for information, I give them a brief response, then tell them there's probably a lot more info to be had via some googling, etc. And then I note that it's always a good idea to do some legwork before asking a question -- generally speaking, there's an answer out there, & relatively easy to procure.

If you tell someone that there's lots of info available to him or her, and it sounds like you're sharing good news (and not that you're reprimanding them for asking a question), people almost inevitably respond well.

Latifa AlMansouri said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Latifa AlMansouri said...

Thank you Mr. Tony ,,
As long you are looking for questions that related to your career and interest others, I am looking for some useful information as well as academic articles about mobile learning and how it changes the relationship between teachers & learners in the ways of: daily communication, submitting their projects or assessments, etc.

Looking forward to read your reply

Latifa AlMansouri

Tony Karrer said...

Great example of a question. It's definitely not of the "dumb question variety" ... but possibly lacks some context (I don't really know Latifa). I'd love to get feedback from people on how they would respond (if you were me) to that question. Exact wording of your response would be good.

Latifa AlMansouri said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Latifa AlMansouri said...

We (in United Arab Emirates) have not yet use the mLearning at schools and as an IT teacher I am interested to find how the relationship between teachers & learners is going to be.
As well how it changes the traditional way or at least the way we are using meanwhile with our students.

I’d love to get feedback from your readers. Those who are experiencing it and get their advices.

Really I appreciate your respond.
Latifa AlMansouri

Dave Ferguson said...

As you know, if you try to anticipate every question (either by overthinking or requiring prework) you'll go nuts.

I agree with Sue that you would benefit by having a real search box as near the top of the page as possible.

*** tangent mode on ***

Which reminds me...there's a lot of stuff on the page when someone first comes here. Starting at the title:

-- Over a dozen internal links in the title bar
-- The big orange guide button (Does anyone ever click that?)
-- A large-font email subscription offer
-- (By the way, the subscribe-via-RSS option is much further down, and it's labeled XML)
-- Three AdSense ads (your call, I realize).

In addition, the right-hand column is wide considering it's not the main content. As a result, I'm 66% of the way down my screen before I get to the current post.

The point is that for a newcomer, there's a lot of stuff to take in, and some of it doesn't need to be on the front page. Or could be in drop-down lists.

*** tangent mode off ***

I think your regular readers would follow you gladly if you switched to another platform (like hosting your own WordPress blog). Give 'em two weeks notice, put a redirect here, and you're all set.

There's also a lot of WP talent to help you customize and tweak to a fare-thee-well.

Jen Beever said...

Great points, Tony, people should do their homework and/or provide more detail when asking questions about technology. I like the format of providing steps 1-7 for Question Homework. Steps net the info out - no one wants to read a lot.

carterfsmith said...


I would be inclined to respond like this:

Hey Latifa,

I see you are interested in what some don't even realize is on the horizon -- the addition of mobile communications to the learning environment. If you have access to ProQuest, or another academic database, or even Google Scholar, I suspect there may be a few articles that meet your needs. I found a few good links with a Google search of "teachers and learners mobile technology."

I posted something that may be helpful at (link to post here), and recall that (name of another blogger) discussed something on that topic as well. I suspect of you go to the search box on his/her blog (or mine, for that matter) and search for (keyword/phrase), you'll find what you are looking for.

If you end up blogging about what you find in your quest, please send me a message so I can assist folks with questions of this nature in the future.


(your name here).

PS - check out this YouTube video on handheld learning and gaming for education -


subquark said...

"I've spent a fair bit of time researching and have been finding YYY."

As a passionate teacher, I understand that what people say often does not match what they do. And frankly, that quote above is a compliment to you.

It's hard for people to set their egos aside and say "Tony, you are one of the most knowledgeable people on subject YYY, could you spend a moment to help me understand YYY in this context?" Or "I spent time looking and it seems you are the expert on YYY".

Not everyone can formulate their thoughts as well as they like or formulate them to fit our perspectives.

And then there are cultural differences. I tend to write a little differently because I am French Canadian. My paradigm is different than some people.

I think the bigger concern is when people stop asking you that question.

If you have had kids or taught at the secondary level, you know that someone will say "Where's the ketchup?" as they stand staring into the fridge with it right there in the door. Or "I don't understand this at all" for a student that actually does get 90% of it.

So when they ask, do what is the best for them and use it as an opportunity to reshape your answer or maybe even shift the box we are so fond of saying we think outside of. It's funny, as we become "experts", we actually thicken the walls of that proverbial box.

When answering the question becomes a chore, then our passion has faded from that topic, in my opinion.

Tony Karrer said...

@Dave - great points. I really need to work on getting my blog cleaned up.

@Sue - I'm not ready to bite the conversion bullet.

@carterfsmith - Thanks for the template. I like it. I'll probably balance it with amount of time it takes to do it, interest in the topic, and knowledge of the topic.

@subQuark - that's a great point. And the most nicely worded - "cut them some slack" I've seen.

Did anyone notice the variety of responses here from send them the link to cut them some slack?

I know the answer is "it depends" -

I wonder if it would work much better if I changed the title to something like - "Help me better answer your question ..."

The follow-up from Latifa actually does help with context and makes me much better able to point in the right direction.

Funny - I think I may be more confused now that when I started.

nicolaavery said...

Hi, I haven't found a solution so far to the linkedin one quite yet, the only place so far where I can play around with links was in the status box as per my one at the moment but I know that's not quite the point of the status box or what you are looking for - but it is near the top of the profile page.

I read through index page and first time visitors page posts. There are two interesting articles and discussion on alistapart which I found maybe relevant or linked to what you are saying, Mapping memory which suggests looking at design as information cartographer as well as architect:
"I love the idea (raised by a number of commenters) of building a website like paths on a college campus, allowing users to create the map, charting the natural flows of information the way one would chart foot traffic through the quad. At first glance, this ideas sounds a bit absurd when applied to an informational website—how, and why, would you build a site with no structure at all and then expect people to be able to find anything? I think some sort of underlying structure would be nescessary—after all, on the campuses in question, classroom buildings, dorms, and other landmarks are presumably built with some sort of relationship already implied."
Also Where am I which although written 2006 and early web2.0, suggests visually representing navigation as "Where am I? (Present)
Where can I go? (Future)
Where have I been? (Past)"
I would also add What am I doing here which I have attempted to begin to outline as a concept
So blog and search for information via your blog would try and be more of a dynamic, adaptable path but each step guided where wanted (don't want to take away joy of simply browsing) by - drop down menus populated by relevant content via eLearning Learning.
However that doesn't address the queries coming to you where they have not visited your blog or eLearning Learning - guess some of it depends where the queries are coming in from.
Re blog design - I realise I have been brief about details above but I do have web design in my background and if you are looking at your blog, I would happily after support if you would like (have some space at the end of this week onwards, before anything else jumps in). Re the comments about changing blog - I think in some ways a blog is much more of your online soul than perhaps a more commercial website so wouldn't personally start with whether you should change to a different blog provider or service - but with what you want from your blog, what you are aware of that visitors would like and what personal tastes you have that you don't want to sacrifice, although that is debatable as to whether it is as important as what your users want :-)
Bit long-winded - will come back again once spent more time with linkedin.


Michelle Lentz said...

My favorite author, Neil Gaiman, deals with this a lot. He has created a Frequently Asked Questions page that covers (through links to blog posts more often than not) as well as a search function on that page.
If people simply cannot find the answer, he does offer an Ask Neil form but cautions that if the answer is somewhere on the site (a good place to link to this post if it were you), he probably won't answer you.

Occasionally, throughout his blog, he reminds folks to just search the site or go to the FAQs and they'll find the answers.

Michelle Lentz said...

My favorite author, Neil Gaiman, deals with this a lot. He has created a Frequently Asked Questions page that covers (through links to blog posts more often than not) as well as a search function on that page.
If people simply cannot find the answer, he does offer an Ask Neil form but cautions that if the answer is somewhere on the site (a good place to link to this post if it were you), he probably won't answer you.

Occasionally, throughout his blog, he reminds folks to just search the site or go to the FAQs and they'll find the answers.

nicolaavery said...

Hi, had a couple more thoughts about possible content area that you could link to from Linkedin profile as a URL. This still might be completely way off what you were thinking about but thought I'd add, apologies that they are a bit sketchy:
Was thinking with this one like a kind of twittervision/flickrvision - a kind of Tonyvision (how everyone is connecting to you etc) with live updates from each of the different web presences / applications you are using but all fed from eLearning Learning? No idea how easy it would be to create but maybe if could output results into a google spreadsheet which is then published and set to live update (like Tony Hirst's magic on OUseful blog) and then the spreadsheet feeds the visualization?
Second one using same idea but different way of presenting information?

Tony Karrer said...

@michelle - good points. I should look to make my first time more of a FAQ page.

@nicola - I like the second approach and I need to think about how I could make something like that happen. Thanks for the input on this.