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How to Ask Smart Questions by Martin Owens

While I wouldn’t say that direct user support is one of my more substantial contributions to the Ubuntu community, I do contribute some in #xubuntu, #ubuntu-beginners and various not-strictly-support channels like some LoCo channels and #ubuntu-women. Doing user support on IRC is one of those things that makes me feel more connected with the community and requires essentially no commitment (you can start and stop at any time!) and I don’t mind parking my IRC client in a channel and glancing at it from time to time until I see a question I can answer and then take 5-10 minutes out of my day from to get someone on the right track.

As anyone who has done user support on IRC will tell you, there is some skill involved with asking good/smart/efficient questions (though I tend to shy away from the former two, since they imply that there are bad/stupid questions, which I’d argue don’t exist when someone is honestly asking for help). As such, I have seen dozens of guides over the years on the subject.

The community portion of help.ubuntu.com has:


Which links to the famous, if verbose and sometimes terse, How To Ask Questions The Smart Way

While these guides are helpful (especially the latter for it’s in depth analysis of the subject), neither of them are the kind of thing I want to pass along to my impatient little sister when I’m trying to give her a quick rundown of how to get help in a way that will get her the quality answers she’s looking for quickly and take some of the investigation burden off the volunteers who are working to help her.

Now, thanks to the tireless work of Martin Owens, a friendly, charming and to-the-point guide exists! He blogged about it on Friday but I figured it was worth taking a more in depth look at and to display all the images in a single blog entry in case there were folks who felt less inclined to download the fantastic PDF – maybe this will convince them it’s worth it, or inspire someone to spruce up the Ubuntu Community GettingAnswers wiki page with some of his slides?

The following are licensed under the CC-BY-SA license by Martin Owens, and these images below are taken from revision 6 of the document, released on July 24, 2010.

Check out his blog entry from Friday here: DoctorMO.org: Asking Smart Questions and for the latest version, use the Direct Download link.

So, without further ado, the images from the pdf:

Thanks again Martin for writing such a great guide that’s such a pleasure to read!


  • Martin Owens

    Thank you so much for blogging about it, we’ve got a translation system set up now for people who want to work on it.

  • jazzy

    good info

  • Simon

    This is great. i think that some of those that answer the question could do with a guide to answering questions without being rude and/or terse!

  • Martin Owens

    Simon: If you can come up with the script, then perhaps it’d be possible to have such a guide.

    Email me and we’ll talk. doctormo at ubuntu.

  • Reddog

    I don’t get it… What is this all about? Why questions need asked better?

  • pleia2

    @Reddog Pretty much every slide describes a situation in IRC where someone asks a question in a way that doesn’t get them an answer very quickly.

    Not researching first means you’re taking valuable time of volunteers (and of yourself, a google search is often faster than explaining a problem to strangers on IRC!), asking in the wrong place won’t get you an answer, not giving details or being clear from the beginning means that volunteers helping you need to dig that information out of you, asking to ask in a channel means that a volunteer needs to take the time to give you permission to ask instead of just having you ask, asking a single person who helped you in the past puts burden on that single volunteer (who may not be at their keyboard!)…